Ep. 148: Astronomy and New Media

Spiral galaxy M74. Image credit: Hubble

Spiral galaxy M74. Image credit: Hubble

Astronomy is one of the scientific fields that have been completely shaken up by new media. The Internet has enabled communication between researchers in a dramatic new way, creating new collaborations, removing obstacles, and drawing in an army of enthusiastic volunteers to help with research. Let’s take a look at how new media is helping change astronomy, and how you can get involved.

  • Ep. 148: Astronomy and New Media
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      Bloggers ahead of their time:

    New Media Space and Astronomy Podcasts:

    Twitter stuff:


    Portal to the Universe
    Second Life

    Galaxy Zoo

    Transcript: Astronomy and New Media

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    Fraser Cain: Hey Pamela, episode three of our ‘recordathon’. [Laughter] This episode we are going to shamelessly take advantage of presentations that you’ve been giving non-stop for the last couple years of your life. If you can’t do this right off the top of your head, then I don’t know what else to say.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly.

    Fraser: Astronomy is one of the scientific fields that have been completely shaken up by new media. The Internet has enabled communication between researchers in a dramatic new way creating new collaborations, removing obstacles and drawing in an army of enthusiastic volunteers to help with the research. Let’s take a look at how new media is helping to change astronomy and how you can get involved. When you’re giving this talk, where do you start Pamela?

    Pamela: Usually I start with blogs and pod casts because they’ve been around the longest.

    Fraser: Sure so astronomy, meet blog. Blog meet astronomy.

    Pamela: Exactly and as near as we can tell either you or Phil was the very first astronomy blogger out there. It’s just a matter of how you count the pieces starting because both of you started before standard blogging software existed.

    Fraser: Yeah, I think Phil was a little before me. I started in March 1999 and Phil was about three to four months before me that he was doing articles.

    Pamela: He started in January.

    Fraser: Okay so he was two months ahead of me. There were other news pieces out there but I think we put more of a personal spin on our blogs. They weren’t blogs back there obviously, it was done with duct tape and steam engines and you had to carve your posts out of solid granite in HTML.

    Pamela: Back in the days of HTML 2 and writing everything by hand.

    Fraser: Exactly we coded our HTML by hand and we liked it. [Laughter] Absolutely blogs have grown up since then.

    Pamela: One of the great things about blogs is if you look at a global map the distribution of light pollution and the distribution of blog readerships for blogs like mine and Planetary Societies blogged by Emily Lakdawalla and Universe Today and AstronomyCast are the same map. So anywhere that you have electrical lights polluting the universe you have people reading blogs.

    That doesn’t mean those are places that have a lot of Internet access because people are reading blogs on their cell phones. This is the great thing about internet enabled cell phones. There are places where people can’t have laptops or desktops and you would have to wait at the library to get access to get public internet. Not everyone wants to hang out at the library all the time. Thanks to cell phones you can start reading text based content anywhere around the world.

    Fraser: Would you say now that a good portion of scientists have some kind of blog or not?

    Pamela: I think it depends on the age. The fraction of people who are blogging definitely goes up as you look younger and younger. Some of the best blogs out there are actually being done by grad students and post docs.

    My favorite in terms of just really shiny pretty astronomy blog right now is Orbiting Frog by Robert Simpson. He is a graduate student. He is very good and communicating, software, and knows how to put together a beautiful looking website that communicates effectively.

    The thing is you have time to be creative, to learn new things and think outside of the box while you are a graduate student. The further through your career you get, the more paperwork you are responsible for.

    I think the amount of time you have to be creative and the amount of paperwork you have to do are both carved out of the same chunk of time. Slightly older people don’t necessarily have the time to figure out all the new technologies.

    Fraser: What role would you say that blogging would play in through the life of a scientist?

    Pamela: It can do a few different things. On one hand it can tell the story of your discovery. Lots of people don’t understand the process of science. By explaining you are at a scientific conference trying to get a grant published and learn new things and telling about the life of the scientist we can actually communicate what and how things are going on and we can also tell our side of the story.

    There is a lot of gossip that goes around. You hear gossip about a person having their discovery scooped because someone looked up what the telescope was being pointed at and then went and pointed their telescope at the same place and beat them to publication even though this other group did all the primary research.

    You hear these rumors and they are great rumors and make for great bar stories, but you don’t know if they are true. Now a lot of people are using blogs to tell their side of the scientific history, to record how things are evolving over time within Galaxy Zoo.

    We are using the blog to basically say, all you people are doing amazing stuff; clicking, research, and data mining to help us understand the universe using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Here’s how we’re using that data. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what’s happening when we go to the telescopes.

    Sometimes we get bored and we just throw up stupid pictures and ask for captions. It’s a way of also building community through stupid captions, one caption at a time.

    Fraser: Is it being used for science in the same way it is being used in other media? I find that blogs are really great for opening up a dialogue and communicating with other people in your field of interest.

    I may reference Phil on my blog and he’ll reference me and we’ll talk about what you’re doing. But I think that you can take things to the next level and have more of an open collaboration like here is the project I am currently working on.

    These are the problems that I am facing. This is what I need data for; does anybody know where this is? Do you see much of that?

    Pamela: You do. The places I am really seeing it is with the International Year of Astronomy. A whole bunch of us is working on basically trying to provide every single person in the world with an astronomy experience during 2009.

    Via blogs we are able to help promote each other’s work. I am able to say go check out Portal to the Universe, if you are another blogger go index your content there so that other people can find it and we can provide a one stop shop for finding new blogs to read.

    Fraser: That’s more of a marketing, public relations side of the puzzle. I think it is really important for astronomers to get the word out about their research.

    Pamela: You do see the research side of it as well. There’s meteor watch going on right now with the Pleiades. There have been various projects.

    For instance something new careened into Jupiter recently for whatever reason things careen into Jupiter, gravity probably.

    Fraser: Keep in mind we are recording this in mid-August and not back in July when the date of this thing is so we’re not actually talking about the future.

    Pamela: We’re lying slightly on the dates right now as we desperately struggle to catch up. Blame my travel schedule.

    Fraser: It’s not that we knew that something was going to slam into Jupiter about now; [laughter] it’s that we are recording this later.

    Pamela: So that went out and it was an amateur discovery. About two hours after the discovery was mentioned online, Caroline Collins-Peterson (a space writer) had written about it on her blog.

    Soon it was spreading across the blogasphere and more people are going and taking more images and through all of this we are able to get a better understanding of the evolution of the spot.

    We see the same thing happening with meteors and asteroids. You put out a call for anyone who got an image of this as it happened. You can also get people involved in projects.

    When stars go nova or fade out in the case of some stars, you can say there is weird behavior going on let me tell you something about this really cool object that is behaving badly. Can you please go take some images and share links to them in my comments? You do see stuff like this.

    Fraser: There are some what seem like very dry blogs for a lot of people. They are almost gobblety-gook. You see a blog and it says here is the data that I captured on these various dates and that is what is happening. I would love to see more of that.

    I don’t know that I would want to read more of that, but I think it’s great that people will do that. [Laughter] They will go out and spend a night recording their data and will come back and post it to their blog and then that’s it, the data is available.

    Pamela: People are essentially doing science out loud. It used to be that science was something that was done in secrecy in the ivory tower and you didn’t share the dirty bits.

    You simply when you were done and had glorious shiny results and you shared them through journal articles and the press conference and the media.

    Now we find something weird and try to reduce the data in case something was done wrong and then three days later take more images and it’s still there. Then we realize we need to get more data and ask for a spectroscope.

    Fraser: There is a great example of that with the Hanny’s Vorverp

    Pamela: Hanny’s Vorverp and we also it with the Peas on Galaxy Zoo. We now have two different instances on Galaxy Zoo where people have discovered something entirely new and mentioned it on the forums. The forums are kind of old media.

    As long as the Internet has been around there have been people going to individual sites and talking to one another. It used to be the old bulletin boards and now bulletin boards have evolved into things like simple machine forums and PHP forums. There are all sorts of stuff out there.

    There are places where people go to talk and then as a result of the discussion blogs are getting written and we’re building a community that is collaborating one stranger to another to build new science.

    Fraser: So you talk about blogs and podcasts. What is this podcast of which you speak?

    Pamela: I don’t know. For some reason there are some really strange people out there that dedicate their free time to just talking. Then they post these files in iTunes and you can download them for free.

    You can listen to them on your phone and you can copy them to CD’s and give them to people. It’s really strange; I don’t understand it at all.

    Fraser: Yeah it sounds like a waste of time. [Laughter] What’s the gist of your presentation as it relates to podcasts?

    Pamela: Other than us, in the top one hundred sciences and medicine podcasts there is a ton of really good visual podcasts (VOD casts). We do this audio only craziness, but there are people out there, (i.e. the irreverent podcast put on by the folks at Spitzers, one of my favorites Michelle is just insane and brilliant.) There is a bunch of other video podcasts out there as well where people take you through, show you space imagery, talk about what’s happening.

    It’s a way of seeing all of today’s dis

    coveries explained to you often by people with PhDs in science. This is a way of turning off your TV and turning on free content without having the middleman who often screws things up. There is nothing scarier for a scientist than to talk to a network or main stream media journalist because they get it wrong a lot.

    Fraser: The stuff coming out from NASA is unbelievable. Most of it is so good. Think about what it would be like to work with. If we had a space telescope [laughter] I think we’d be able to pull off some pretty pictures.

    They are just beautiful and high definition and they show different fields of study in each episode and there is some really amazing stuff coming out. It’s about time NASA! It’s so great that NASA is having a chance to speak directly to people and just talk directly to people who love their material.

    Phil and I have this conversation all the time. If NASA ever wants to come and pick our brains on what to do we’d be more than happy to help. In my experience in interacting with NASA there is a press officer in the room and there are certain things you don’t talk about. Many times the scientists can answer all your questions but then someone is looking over their shoulder.

    It’s still a very controlled sort of thing where NASA is trying to control the message which is insane because people are so excited to see what they have to say and the things that are being worked on. The astronauts can very well be super stars. But now I’m on a ramble tangent. [Laughter]

    The point is that there are really cool NASA vod casts. Keep them up and bring more. We want to see engines being tested, spacecraft being tested, astronauts sitting at their desks doing astronaut things.

    Pamela: The rovers are so cool. We want to see more robots in the desert being tested by college students because that’s what NASA does and it’s cool.

    Fraser: So what else then do you go on your tour of media?

    Pamela: There is a whole suite of different technologies and my favorite little time waster is Twitter. The thing is that while I am out there randomly sharing links and live twittering science conferences when I am attending them, there are other people out there that are using Twitter in really creative ways to communicate information in a timely fashion.

    There’s this really cool website called ‘Heaven’s Above’ that you can go to and plug in your location and it tells you what satellites are overhead. Stewart Lowe at Johnville Banks is a post doc working with the plane commission has coded up an interface that uses Twitter to tell you what satellites are visible to the eye and passing over your city.

    It doesn’t exist for all cities, but right now there’s Cardiff, Paris, London, New York. All these different Twitter feeds when you subscribe to them will give you a little tweet to tell you there is going to be a satellite over head and go look at it. This is just a very passive way to get a ‘hey, you want a break, go look at a satellite popping up on your screen throughout the evening’.

    Fraser: All of the rovers and a lot of the science missions now have Twitter feeds so they will post ‘I’m looking at this rock right now’. I’m a good friend actually through Facebook with a lot of rovers and orbital missions, it’s the best friends you can have.

    Pamela: The literally observers like ‘orbit 496, everything is going great, sending stuff back to my scientists’.

    Fraser: A little too anthropomorphized but yea. [Laughter]

    Pamela: It’s really endearing.

    Fraser: I’m good friends actually through Facebook with a lot of rovers and orbital missions [laughter] it’s the best friends you could have.

    Pamela: That’s the neat thing about Twitter is you can link it to your Facebook. One last Twitter thing I want to bring in. There is another project that is going on and I think I just mixed people up. Robert Simpson, who does Orbiting Frog, is doing the older twitter and Stewart Lowe who is at Johnville Banks is doing the telescopes.

    Stewart has set it up so that there is a bunch of different telescopes and other people have taken this idea and run with it. Every time they take an image when they wake up in the morning when they go to sleep at night or just when they wake up and go to sleep if they are a radio telescope, they twitter about it.

    You can actually follow what the telescope is looking at right now. You can keep track of just for fun what the professional scopes are viewing around the globe. Now you can send all of this information to Facebook and have your Facebook updates owned by Twitter or vice versa.

    Fraser: Facebook – I don’t know for someone – who would be listening to podcasts that doesn’t know what Facebook is? Anyway if you’re that person…

    Pamela: Well, in China you can get our podcast in China and you can’t access Facebook in China.

    Fraser: Really?

    Pamela: Yeah.

    Fraser: Well there you go, Facebook a way to keep track of all your friends and family and spacecraft [laughter] and rovers.

    Pamela: You can share pictures. You can leave comments for each other.

    Fraser: Yeah, it’s a way to know what everybody you know is doing right now. You can see all the pictures and that way you don’t have to call them. You can just watch their Facebook status update.

    Pamela: The thing I like about it is that once upon a time you used to get the e-mail bomb. The e-mail that was sent out to a distribution list of 600 people of whom you know three and then everyone is hitting Reply All and this is invading your work account throughout the day.

    Through Facebook if I want to I can post on my wall, “Hey I just got back from Rio here are some really cool pictures I took”, and people can choose to listen or not listen because you can turn off who you listen to.

    You can also do it on your own time. I can choose when I want to go to Facebook versus the e-mail bomb which invades me at any point it feels like during the day.

    Fraser: But the astronomy focus which is great is that as with Twitter each of these spacecraft, robots and missions have a Facebook account. You can subscribe to their Facebook account and then you can see pictures coming out of the rover, updates of the missions, and interviews from the scientists. It’s just another way to keep track of some mission that you are really interested in.

    Pamela: The neat thing about Facebook is that you can get involved with groups and causes and there are calendars of events so that with the Perseids that come up in August I got a bunch of Facebook notifications saying to go out and take a look.

    In the next couple of months, LCROSS a lunar mission that is going to plunge itself into the surface behind the rocket engine and image everything that is coming up from surface as the impacts are happening. That’s going to have Facebook groups where people are going to be discussing and inviting and sharing all of these events with one another.

    Fraser: What else, what other new technologies are you enamored with?

    Pamela: So far everything that I have talked about you can do on your cell phone. But there are things that are really best done using a computer. The one total computer hog that you have close every application on your computer before you open it is Second Life.

    Second Life is working towards the snow crash future. It is working towards being a fully rendered environment that you can go and explore and you have your avatar and it is capable of gestures and facial expressions and all of these different things.

    I see a future where you actually wear goggles that allow you to see everything in 3D. We’re not there yet. Right now it is going to over tax your video processor, eat your entire bandwidth on your Internet and occasionally you are going to get stuck with your body in a wall. But, it’s new and there is a ton of astronomy content there.

    With the National Year of Astronomy we have our own astronomy island. How cool is it to be able to say “we own an island”? On the Second Life Island we have a bunch of images from Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble that people can download and turn into their own clothing, upholstery for furniture and even curtains if they are a really good coder.

    All of this is available for free. The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast can be listened to within Second Life. All of this is really real world content that you could get and to really make Second Life worth it, you have to interact with other people.

    The cool thing about Second Life is that it is possible to take real world events, for instance the Far Out Fridays at Adler Planetarium are piped into Second Life.

    You can sit in a virtual room with a bunch of other people from all around the globe listening with head phones to a speaker, see their power point presentation, see a video of them and then chat with text with the other people who are watching this presentation with you.

    Only so many people live in Chicago and it’s a lot of people being on of the largest cities in the world but not all of them are going to make it to Adler Planetarium for Far Out Fridays.

    With Second Life we are able to make it possible for anyone with an Internet connection and sufficient processing on their computer to participate in this real world event even to the point that people in Second Life are asking questions of the real life presenters and they are getting relayed into the real world audience.

    There is also the ability to experience the scale of rockets. There is a rocket park that has pretty much every rocket that has ever been built to scale. You can explore within the rockets.

    You can fly up and down and see their tops and bottoms. There are virtual surfaces. You can actually go to Victoria Crater in the virtual environment and see what it’s like to be on Mars; tornadoes and everything.

    Within Second Life there are tons of real world places that have been virtually created from rocket parts to space flight centers to just bringing all of the imagery of International Year of Astronomy events like from Earth to the universe into Second Life.

    Then there are also experiments. We have the dark sky simulator that allows you to switch from light pollution causing lights to good for the environment lighting and see the effect that it has on how many stars you can see in the sky.

    Fraser: All right, moving on.

    Pamela: From there other new media we have things like Galaxy Zoo because that actually counts as new media. You can go and participate in cutting edge science that’s leading to paper after paper in peer review journals from the comfort of your own sofa if you have a wireless connection to your living room.

    We ask people to spend a few minutes of their time instead of playing Soduku or Minesweeper or whatever your time waster of choice is and instead go to galaxyzoo.org and classify a few galaxies and help us do some science.

    Fraser: This is legitimate. With Galaxy Zoo you are doing something that a computer is terrible at which is to look at a galaxy and know which way it is rotating and what kind of a galaxy it might be. That data is being gathered together and almost tore apart our understanding of cosmology but didn’t.

    Pamela: It’s working on it. But it’s discovered new classes of galaxies, a truly unique object. There are thirteen different publications so far and I know of a whole list of other publications being worked on.

    Fraser: You guys put in the names of some of the contributors, right?

    Pamela: We actually have a policy that in every public presentation that’s given we list a few names of our contributors. There is a website that desperately needs to be updated; it is the original Galaxy Zoo.

    One contributor’s list is where we made a poster out of all of their names. We need to redo this with Galaxy Zoo 2 when it is complete. We’re basically finding ways for people who always wanted to be astronomers to actually change our understanding of the universe in positive ways that couldn’t be done without their help.

    Fraser: I think this is the exact opposite of the scientists toiling away in the ivory tower which is that you’ve got science being done that depends on the enthusiasm of volunteers.

    It’s real legitimate science that is being done and published. It’s allowing people to learn more about the field and being able to make new discoveries. That is the part that I am really excited about. That is the future in my opinion.

    Pamela: The thing with Galaxy Zoo is it is not just galaxies any more. Currently we’re running a supernova zoo to have people help us discover supernovas that are getting followed up on the William Herschel telescope and I believe on Palamar telescope.

    We’re also going to be launching a bunch of new projects and as soon as they are public knowledge I will be talking about them on AstronomyCast, but let’s just say other planetary bodies are in the future of Galaxy Zoo as we look to find new ways to do things that as you said computers can’t do.

    A five year old can look at an image and better understand what they’re looking at than a piece of software that has taken five years to develop.

    Fraser: I think that’s going to really close the gap because I think that there are so many people out there that want to get involved but they think you have to go out and get a PhD and you don’t.

    With a certain amount of training as you said, there are certain tasks that a five year old with a really good eye for this kind of thing could do. But there are other tasks that are a lot more complicated and they do require a certain amount of work, study, savvy and practice, but are very specialized that people will be able to do.

    I think that it’s a way that people are going to be able to contribute as opposed to going in and putting in the twelve years of your life to get your PhD. They can sit down and study for a couple of weeks and contribute in a meaningful way to science.

    That is completely new. I know that you and Chris Lintott are really dedicated to that concept and it is really exciting. I see that definitely as the future too.

    What else do we have in your tour of the media? [Laughter]

    Pamela: From there we start looking at what the things are that the community is doing to try and promote the sharing of dialogue. Then we start looking at things like Portal to the Universe, which is a gateway to basically seeing the entire dialogue in one violent stream.

    Fraser: Yeah, that’s a fantastic resource, it’s a great website.

    Pamela: It has everything streaming in at once, all the press releases from across the community, all the blog posts from across the community. There’s a band of merry editors working in the background to moderate out anything that is not astronomy that might be trying to sneak its way in.

    It’s a great place to go when you don’t necessarily know who is out there talking and you want to find new voices to listen to. You can also see all the press releases from around the globe in one place as soon as their embargo is lifted.

    You don’t even have to wait for the coverage to come out on BBC or Universe Today or any of the other big news outlets. The moment the press is out its on Portal to the Universe.

    Fraser: They link to us and it is great. They run all of the stories that come out on Universe Today on Portal to the Universe so it’s a really good place to see everything at a glance and really get a sense for everything that is happening all at the same time. It’s a great site.

    Pamela: That’s pretty much where we are today. So right now we’re just trying to figure out how to keep everything that was put together for the International Year of Astronomy going and we’re continuing to build new ideas.

    The next cool thing that I am looking forward to is in December there’s a meeting in Leyden called DOD Astronomy. It’s being organized pretty much by people under the age of forty who are completely into technology.

    We’re going to have a hack day where we are basically going to come up with ideas for applications and just build them right then and there. Just get it over with and create new and great things.

    We have created for the International Year of Astronomy things like the 365 Days of Astronomy Pod Cast the Second Life Island. We did this off volunteers who have said they can’t do it in 2010 unless you at least pay me a little bit or we just don’t have the money to cover our bills.

    Right now we’re looking for ways to keep our Second Life Island going and we’re trying to figure out a new budget for 365 Days of Astronomy that will allow us to keep the website going and maintained without taxing our poor innocent wonderful volunteers any more than they are already being taxed.

    We’re just trying to keep everything going. That’s the thing. New media is a bunch of people pouring their heart out because they are passionate about it, but occasionally you have to pay bills. If it weren’t for those bills, new media would be easy.

    Fraser: We’re always looking for new stuff so if you have found websites that you like or podcasts that you love or video casts that you like, send it to us and let us know. We like it too.

    Pamela: Don’t forget the old media. Don’t forget things like Planetarium Software, Stalarium . Worldwide Telescope counts as Planetarium Software but it runs telescopes really well. Don’t forget to check out the old media forums as well.

    Fraser: Forums are old media now? Google Sky is old media?

    Pamela: Forums are old media. It gets lumped in but Google Sky, Worldwide Telescope; you can use it for research nowadays.

    Fraser: Yeah we’re working with trying to get some our material into some of those tools so hopefully you’ll be able to listen along and look at the sky as you go.

    This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity. Transcription and editing by Cindy Leonard.

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