When I wrote that Justin Crepp had more “trendy” companions to use as benchmarks, in the pipeline, I wasn’t kidding.
My student Sharon Wang (王雪凇) has recently finished a big paper with lots of goodies in it.
One of my interests is how binary stars and clusters help us set standards for steller astrophysics. One of the difficulties for the lowest-mass stars (“M dwarfs”) is that their metallicity is very difficult to measure. We normally measure the composition of stars (really, the relative abundance of “metals” meaning everything heavier than helium) compared to the Sun, or “metallicity”) by studying their spectra and asking how many metals it would required in what proportion to reproduce what we see.
When I was applying for postdoctoral fellowships, I had two major research plans I wanted to follow. One involved stellar magnetic activity, and the other involved following up our “trend stars” at the California Planet Survey. The idea is that we have been following hundreds of nearby stars at Lick and Keck with precise Doppler measurements for decades now, and some of them show constant accelerations. In most cases, this is due to the presence of a very distant, high mass companion tugging on the star.
There is an important conversation going on on astrobetter here about how faculty communicate work expectations to their students. I recommend John Johnson’s post and Julianne Dalcanton’s post on Cosmic Variance as follow-up reading.
I’m glad we’re having this discussion, because I think a lot of faculty read that letter and think, for the most part “geez, I wish we could say those truths to OUR students!” Let me share why I think that is, and what’s wrong with that approach.
I think that the whole 80-100 hours per week number comes with a substantial dollop of “in my day we walked to school in 10 feet of snow uphill both ways.” I’m sure that I put in 80-100 hours occasionally, if you count mealtime; and if you count travel time and observing time then observing runs can certainly put you up to that number. But few students put in 100 hours of actual work in a week, and even then only rarely. I mentally shifted that number to “50-70 hours per week” of actual research work when reading the letter.
I look through the tone and details of this letter and see misguided faculty actually trying to help (is it a sign of assimilation by the tenure-track Borg that I sympathize at all?!) They ask the students to come to them with their problems, they explain that however tough the audiences are internally they’re tougher outside, they want the students to be realistic about what it takes to be like them. These are laudable goals, in principle.
But the last one is the problem: the underlying assumption of the letter is that students should be more like them, striving to maximize their chances at prize fellowships and tenure-line positions at Prestigious U at arbitrary personal cost.
Yes, it’s It’s incontrovertibly true that of otherwise identical students putting in 40 and 80 productive hours per week, respectively, the 80 hr/wk student will have a better cv and be more employable. Pointing out that the 60-80 hr/wk students are your primary competition for the “best” jobs is perfectly true. But that depends on what you think the “best” jobs are, and whether you actually want to do what’s necessary to get them.
If a student is productive at 40 hr/wk and happy with that, then they should be encouraged to maintain that pace with their eyes wide open regarding the likely jobs that will be available to them on the other side, according to their personal productivity. After all, 40 hours per week of actual, hard, no-goofing-off work can be a lot more productive than 80 hours of stressed-out, tired, procrastination-filled drudgery.
I think this is at the heart of Kelle’s excellent follow-up thread: what DO we want? I think we want professors to acknowledge and celebrate that some students are happy NOT to sacrifice their mental, social, and even physical health for the best shot at the most “prestigious” academic positions. We should be supporting them in helping them follow the path they DO want.
This goes hand-in-hand with the false problem of the “overproduction” of PhD astronomers. PhD astronomers have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country; there are not too many of us for the economy, there are just too many of us for the Academy. By refusing to denigrate, and in fact celebrating those who seek to apply their skills to job tracks unlike their PhD advisers, we solve this “problem” and improve the job prospects of astronomers everywhere.
A quick entry: Scott Gaudi and I have been writing up a chapter on exoplanet detection methods for quite a while now, and it has finally been finished. Paul Kalas is helping us edit this chapter for “Planets, Stars, and Stellar Systems” (editor in chief is Terry Oswald, Springer is publishing).
It’s been an interesting few weeks.
Michael Cushing was here at Penn State giving a talk on the discoveries of Y dwarfs with WISE (not to be confused with Penn State’s own Kevin Luhman’s discovery of a Y-dwarf-white-dwarf binary. Say “The WISE Y dwarf, not the white-dwarf Y dwarf” 10 times faster).
After his talk, I asked him if all of them had measured parallaxes. Mike said that they weren’t done with the analysis, and I clarified that I wanted to know not if any hadn’t had their parallax measured yet, but if any had measured parallaxes consistent with zero (that is, a dispositive null detection of a large parallax). He said, “no”, and I told him that if he came across one, to call me. A 300K object bright enough to be seen beyond several parsecs must be something else.
I mentioned to Steinn Sigurdsson in the stairwell that WISE had just completed humanity’s first sensitive search for Dyson spheres. He, being in the midst of multiple proposals to the New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology Research Grant Program, due within hours, suggested that I put in a pre-proposal. I told him I would if he did the paperwork, and we wrote up a one-page pre-proposal and the names of a few potential referees we thought were crazy enough to like the idea but not crazy enough to steal it (note to our referees: that’s intended as a sincere complement).
We were invited to do a full 10-page writeup plus 4-page executive summary, and we leaned on Matt Povich to help us with the actual numbers and practicality of how such a search would work. I was as shocked as anyone when we learned a few weeks ago that we had won. Another winner is my PhD adviser, Geoff Marcy: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! In fact, it was a conversation with Geoff when I was a graduate student that first got me thinking about actually using all-sky infrared surveys to search for Dyson spheres. That and assigning Kardashev’s 1964 paper in a seminar I taught is what primed me for this project.
The John Templeton Foundation has been slowly working up a press release in front of the formal awards ceremony this Friday and Saturday, and we thought about but were to busy to have Penn State put out a simultaneous release (other institutions were prompter).
Anyway, I presented our research project here at Penn State the Friday before last, in a well-attended internal talk entitled “Keeping Up With the Kardashevs” (blame Steinn for the title).
During my talk Derek Fox and Steinn Sigursson tweeted many of the contents, as they are wont to do (@steinly0 and @partialobs, for the other twits amongst you; I’m @Astro_Wright). In the ensuing twitstorm, a follower of a follower of Derek’s, that happens to write for the Atlantic, picked up on this, and within 3 hours of my talk I had an interview request.
The Atlantic article went live shortly after the Templeton press release on Thursday, coincidentally while I was being hosted by none other than Mike Cushing at the University of Toledo to give the colloquium (small world! He was also my lab-mate at Boston University when we were undergrads). Before other institutions could say “press release” I had, despite having no release of my own:
- The Atlantic article
- a bunch of retweets and blog posts about the Atlantic article (favorite title: “Astronomers assume aliens are more open to solar power than Mitt Romney“),
- an interview on Canadian Sports Radio (I was a bit worried about a Sandusky-scandal ambush, but it was all business. I did, however, understate the distance to galaxies by a factor of 1000. *sigh*)
- a fresh article at The Register (apparently I’m an “astroboffin”)
- lots of Facebook entries and Tweets by me, Steinn, and Derek
- another interview request with Newstalk, Ireland’s national talk station
- and, most importantly, I made the front page of Slashdot.
So, which do you think drove the most traffic to this blog? According to Google Analytics, the winners are:
- slashdot.org (237 visits; bounce rate 84%)
- The Atlantic (76 visits, bounce rate 51%)
- Steinn’s blog (66 visits, bounce rate 45%)
- the FaceBook (39 visits, bounce rate 76%)
- The Register (14 visits, bounce rate 79%)
Note that in these numbers, Twitter links do not get labeled as such, so I can’t quantify which of the below originally came from our tweets. Also, much of the Slashdot and Atlantic traffic may have originated by way of Steinn’s blog and Facebook, so those numbers are probably underestimates of the importance of those sources, as well.
My bottom line: the whole “new media” thing is important. The old press release model is not enough. I recommend “Marketing for Scientists” (I got a synopsis long after starting this blog, but before I started Tweeting; Kuchner’s analysis is consistent with my experience. Another small-worldism: Kuchner is talking about his book both at Toledo and here at PSU soon).
The other important takeaway: Slashdot, as ever, has a lot of users but a very low signal to noise ratio, both in terms of content, and in terms of the quality of the links it engenders. Steinn’s blog is apparently just as effective at driving real traffic (note: N=1), so make sure to be nice to him and get on his radar! :)
Finally, I get to present our research proposal to the John Templeton Foundation on Saturday. I think Freeman Dyson may be in the audience; I hope it doesn’t feel like my qual all over again, to present this stuff with him right there.
Also, I think that I’m going to change my title slide for that talk. :)
Update: Eric Jensen points out that I didn’t finish my thought about visits and bounce rates. Steinn’s blog generated just as many “quality” visits, meaning people that not only clicked the link but stuck around to visit at least one other page on the blog. The “bounce rate” is the rate of clicks that do not result in such a visit. So Steinn’s 66 visits at a 45% bounce rate implies 36 “quality” visits, while slashdot.org’s pathetic 84% bounce rate meant that only 38 of their 237 visits were worthwhile. Since Steinn undoubtedly generated additional visits through Facebook (and also by linking to the Atlantic and slashdot on Twitter), he was probably the single most important driver of traffic to my blog.
In my last entry I discussed Kardashev’s scale of civilizations and Dyson’s insight into a completely general method of detecting distant alien civilizations. I gave a talk on all of this last Friday and before the talk Eric Feigelson mentioned to me that Nikolai Kardashev is alive and active: in fact he is currently the deputy director of the Russian Space Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences at age 80.