Science at the Speed of Twits

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:

  1. (237 visits; bounce rate 84%)
  2. The Atlantic (76 visits, bounce rate 51%)
  3. Steinn’s blog (66 visits, bounce rate 45%)
  4. the FaceBook (39 visits, bounce rate 76%)
  5. 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’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.


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