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A Needle In A Haystack

Where does the old idiom “finding a needle in a haystack” come from?

According to my physical copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the phrase originates with Cervantes in Book III Chapter X of Don Quixote, and indeed most searches online state so with authority.

But I just checked my physical copy and the Project Gutenberg version and not only is there no  Book III, the phrase does not appear!

Some sleuthing of other phrases that do appear reveals that “Book III” refers to what is normally called “Part II”, and indeed there in Chapter X of my copy it reads:

…tracking Dulcinea up and down El Toboso will be as bad as looking for a needle in a haystack or for a scholar in Salmanca.

just as promised.  So why isn’t it in the Project Gutenberg version? There it reads:

looking for Dulcinea will be looking for Marica in Ravena, or the bachelor in Salamanca.

which is not the same thing at all. Indeed, the Spanish original seems to read:

buscar a Dulcinea por el Toboso como a Marica por Rávena, o al bachiller en Salamanca.

So the phrase is actually not in the original!  It seems to be due to Cervantes’ English translators who used the phrase as a more familiar [to English ears] version of “to find Maria in Ravena”.  Bez Thomas helped me to figure this out on the Twitters:

So where does the phrase “needle in a haystack” originate?  The OED has two attestations that predate Cervantes:

c1530   T. More Let. Impugnynge J. Fryth in Wks. (1557) 837/2   “To seke out one lyne in all hys bookes wer to go looke a nedle in a medow.”
1592   R. Greene Quip for Vpstart Courtier sig. Ev   “He…gropeth in the dark to find a needle in a bottle of hay.”

Where a “bottle” here means “bundle”.  Apparently the translators were using a 100+ year old phrase!   The “haystack” version is from later:

1779   W. Rogers in J. Sullivan Jrnls. Mil. Exped. (1887) 262   “But agreeably to the old adage it was similar to looking for needles in a hay stack.”

And there you have it.  Even an authority as solid as Bartlett’s occasionally gets things wrong, so it’s good to check!

 

[Update: Apparently Bartlett’s is full of these errors with respect to Don Quixote: see this article here which details the “haystack” mistake and many more.]

Smooth continuum stars and RNAAS

We can tell what stars are made of by the colors missing from their spectra, but that’s not really true for hot, rapidly rotating stars. These stars lack convective envelopes, so they lack magnetic dynamos, so they do not spin down as they age. As a result of their rapid rotation, the Doppler shift blurs out their lines and its hard to get a precise measurement of their abundances (except hydrogen, whose lines are so deep you can’t miss them, even blurred out).

But one astronomer’s trash is another’s treasure. These rapidly rotating stars make great sources of light for calibrating spectrographs because you can be sure that any spectral features you *do* see are due to your instrument, not the star. And these stars can be very bright, so it’s a quick test.

The problem is that not all hot stars rotate quickly enough to be “good” calibrators. For instance, here’s what a small portion of a rapid rotator looks like:
This star’s spectrum is flat (or slightly sloped) in this small region of the blue.  The overall mountain shape is the response of the spectrograph, which this star lets you model.  The “fuzz” is photon noise—by chance some channels get more photons than others.  The spike in the middle is a “cosmic ray” event—a high energy particle from somewhere in the dome struck the detector and caused a spike.  The only thing here that’s due to the star are some barely perceptible wiggles.

Here’s a “bad” calibrator star, that is not spinning fast enough to be a “good” calibrator:

Not smooth at all!  Those “bites” taken out are due to elements in the star’s atmosphere absorbing certain shades of blue light, and the bowl shape is due to the way different parts of the stellar surface are moving towards and away from us as the star rotates.

So which stars are “good” and which are “bad” for calibrating high resolution spectrographs Published values of their rotation speeds turn out to be an unreliable guide for this, so observers over the years make lists of “good” hot star calibrators.  For instance, when I need a “good” hot star, I ask Howard Isaacson at Berkeley, who has a list carefully compiled by Kelsey Clubb.  At Berkeley, Kelsey Club went through the California Planet Survey’s library of hot star spectra and separated the wheat from the chaff, which is really useful!

This sort of list isn’t usually publishable—it’s not the sort of scientific advance or discovery that usually warrants a peer-reviewed paper.  But it is the sort of thing scientists should share and that Kelsey should get credit for.

Now, thanks to the new AAS journal “Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society”, we have a good way to share the list.  This new journal is not peer reviewed, but it is free, curated, and has a science editor who accepts papers. They can only be 1,000 words, have one figure or table, and they do not have to be new or novel or anything—just interesting.

But why not just put it to the arXiv, and skip the 1,000 word limit thing?  Well, Geoff Bower asked the same thing on the Twitter, and I came up with two big reasons: RNAAS will curate machine-readable tables, which is great, and as a AAS journal, if your result is (unlike this one) newsworthy, it might get picked up by AAS Nova.  Editor Chris Lintott points out a third:

Anyway, as a journal that emphasizes utility and curates tables, it is the perfect place for Kelsey’s list, so that’s where we published it.  You can find it here.

I was actually worried this would happen.  When RNAAS came out, and then when Overleaf linked directly to it for submissions, I got worried I’d like it too much:

and (despite my misspelling of RNAAS) I was right.  I’ve now submitted or supervised five of these. Here are the others:

Tabby’s Star Explanations

‘Oumuamua Is Almost Certainly Interstellar

EPRVIII Instruments

Barycentric Corrections in Python

I may have a problem…

Planets in Clusters

As we study more and more exoplanets, one variable that we have not really gotten a great handle on is age.  There are not many planets orbiting stars with very well constrained ages. We’d like to be able to see how, for instance, young planetary systems differ from old ones to study planet-planet scattering, planetary migration, and other effects.

So there have been many studies of planets orbiting stars in star clusters.  Clusters are great laboratories for stars because the stars formed (mostly) at the same time out of the same stuff. The repurposed Kepler mission K2 was great for this because it looked for planets along the Ecliptic Plane, and by a bizarre coincidence almost every important benchmark cluster is in the ecliptic!

Jason Curtis, NSF postdoctoral fellow a Columbia University

Jason Curtis is a Penn State grad now an NSF postdoctoral fellow at Columbia working on the problem of stellar ages and activity, using the topic of his PhD thesis, the nearby open star cluster Ruprecht 147. He campaigned to get NASA to repoint K2 to make sure it would capture the stars of Ruprecht 147 so we could study its properties (and, you know, maybe find some planets).

And it worked! He has now written up the paper, and you can find it on the arXiv, in particular the new hot Neptune K2-231b.

But even more useful, to my mind, than the 231st K2 planet is that this planet has a well constrained age.  If we get a lot more, we can look for those trends we’d like to study about how systems change with age.  Jason helpfully compiled a list of all known planets in clusters, and there put them together in one big table. I imagine that with TESS we’ll end up with so many you won’t be able to fit them on one page, but for now here they are, with references.  For the full thing with working links, be sure to read the paper!

Table-1d4tdc0

SETI Jargon

SETI has a jargon problem. This is not news; I think everyone in the field appreciates that we need to be more consistent in the words we use.

One reason this matters is that the search for alien technology is really a very broad endeavor (best thought of, I have argued, as a subfield within astrobiology). It includes not just radio astronomy  but infrared astronomy, optical and NIR instrumentation, exoplanets, Earth system science, game theory, social sciences such as anthropology, galactic astrophysics, stellar astrophysics, time-domain astronomy, computer science, multi-messenger astronomy, planetary science, remote sensing, media and communications, law, and political science.

These fields all have their own jargon, and if we want them to be part of SETI we should avoid misappropriating their jargon.  For instance “civilization” has concrete and jargon meaning in anthropology and archaeology. I imagine anthropologists at our meetings wincing every time we use the term in a very different (vaguer, more generic) way than they do.

Indeed, “intelligence” itself is problematic and not an ideal term. The term is nebulous (is an ostrich intelligent? Is a bee colony?) but also presumes much about how an alien species’ psychology works.

Why shouldn’t we assume aliens will be “intelligent” or have “civilizations”? As many have noted, we should not assume that the first extraterrestrial technological species we discover is anything like us: it might not be a collective of individuals, might not be “conscious” in the way we are, might not organize itself with anything like politics, might not be animal, might not be planet-based, etc. etc. etc. Science fiction is filled with potential SETI signals of things that look nothing like “civilizations”, from Hoyle’s Black Cloud to the Borg to the Monolith.

Even more than being careful in not misusing established terms, many have noted that we use many of our own terms inconsistently (Iván Almár has been particularly persuasive on this point, and I’m certainly guilty on this score.)

So, as part of the SETI Institute’s Decoding Alien Intelligence workshop this month and in response to Nathalie Cabrol’s call for white papers an broadening our conception of SETI, I submitted something about how we think about SETI as a field and the jargon we use.

I couldn’t make it, but Penn State graduate student Sofia Sheikh went and presented the paper for me.

My recommendations:

First of all, the field needs a name. The term SETI has variously been used to refer strictly to radio searches, specific NASA programs, to any search for communication, and broader searches, and has been used both to include and to distinguish from efforts such as searches for artifacts.

I agree with Almár that SETI should be the name of the entire field. One problem is that this it includes “intelligence”, which I have just argued is not a good term, but I feel that “SETI” is such a strong “brand” at this point—such a well-known and widely used term—that I think it is best to use it in a jargon sense of “whatever distinguishes technological species from other species that makes them easier to detect because of their technology”.  A rebranding is very unlikely to be successful (I would support it if everyone agreed to start using a single better term).

Having adopted “SETI” as the name of the field because of something like stare decisis, it follows that the term “ETI” is what we are looking for, again in a jargon sense.

I also like Almár’s definition ““the collective name of a number of activities, based on science, aimed to detect messages, signals or traces” of extraterrestrial intelligence.

I also really like the term technosignatures (whose origin I’ve been trying to track down, see this tweet:)

But again, we use it inconsistently.  I prefer the term to include any technological signature, including communication, both because that is the term’s natural meaning and because the contrast with biosignatures helps identify SETI’s place within astrobiology

I like to divide SETI into several classes, including communication SETI and artifact SETI, being the searches for deliberately transmitted information carriers and the effect of technology on the environment.  Other terms for the latter abound (technomarkers, Dysonian SETI, SETA…) and we should settle on one.

Within artifact SETI then there are lots of ways of searching: waste-heat SETI, probe SETI, Solar System SETI, and so on.

METI or active-SETI would also then constitute a subclass of SETI.

Paul Davies coined the term “nature-plus” which is the best term I’ve seen to describe the idea that alien technology could be so advanced that it will look like a force of nature; this could include contamination of stellar abundances, artificially modulated Cepheid variable stars, or even something like Hoyle’s Black Cloud.  It’s not exactly what Davies intended, but its the best label I could find for this kind of search.

Finally, I think it’s important to define a beacon as a signal or artifact meant to be discovered by strangers. The term has been used in other ways, but this is the term’s most natural meaning, and helps us identify which sorts of signal searches can be informed by the concept of a Schelling point. The latter term has many many names in the filed (“strategy of mutual search”, “convergent search strategies,” “attractor for SETI”, “synchrosignals”) generated as people rediscover Schelling’s insight, but we should honor game theory’s prior art here and recognize the value of needing to think about assumptions of common knowledge that we make when looking for “magic frequencies” and such.

Finally, we should avoid terms like “colonize” and “alien race” because of the social baggage they bring along. (This is not because I think we should be PC, but because we should be precise: if you really do mean to project our notions of colonization and race onto alien species with whom we share no evolutionary descent, much less culture, then by all means use those terms).

So that’s my reasoning and set of preferences for jargon, but I recognize this needs to be a collective decision in the community, and I suspect that the final answer will arise collectively and organically, and not by fiat.  Already we’ve received good feedback (CETI is probably its own category, distinct from METI, as Jill Tarter pointed out; “artificial” is a difficult and probably problematic term we should define better, as Frank Drake has pointed out).

Anyway, I think Sofia’s presentation will be public at some point, and the paper is available here at the conference website, and an updated version with the figure below is on the arXiv here.

SETI as Astrobiology-t593u0

Milton’s Cosmology Leaned Heliocentric

It’s a home day for me with the flu, so to recover from a long day of videoconferencing meetings, and because a headache won’t let me concentrate on important stuff, I played around with an idea I wrote up as a high school English project.

Milton wrote the epic Paradise Lost, in which he presents his own cosmology of Heaven, Hell, and Earth. This was an ambitious task, since Dante’s Divine Comedy had set a pretty high standard here.

The geometry of Creation in the Divine Comedy (not to scale) with Hell inside the Earth and heaven outside the final sphere in a Ptolemaic universe.

Milton actually met Galileo in person—he visited Galileo’s estate as a boy when the astronomer was there in his later years under house arrest.

The visit may have left an impression. Milton avoids any reference to where the center of the Solar System is in his cosmology—it’s pretty nebulous exactly how everything is arranged—but in Book 4 the angel Uriel needs to get back to his station in the Sun from Earth. He slid down to Earth on a sunbeam, but fortunately for him the Sun has now set, so the tip of his sunbeam is now up in the air. He just jumps on and slides down:

 …and Uriel to his charge
Returnd on that bright beam, whose point now rais’d 
Bore him slope downward to the Sun now fall’n
Beneath th’ Azores

but how did the Sun get so low? It is “beneath th’ Azores” far to the West:

whither the prime Orb,
Incredible how swift, had thither rowl’d
Diurnal, or this less volubil Earth
By shorter flight to th’ East, had left him there

The “prime Orb” is Ptolemy’s name for the Sun, which had (“incredible how swift”) there “rowl’d Dirunal”—rolled down there over the course of the day.  But Milton did not choose his words lightly.  “Incredible” literally means “beyond credibility”.  He doesn’t buy that it really goes so fast.

Is there an alternative?  Milton dithers.  “Or” he writes “this less volubil Earth” (meaning “less apt to roll” according to the OED) went a much shorter distance the other way and the Sun just stayed where “he” was.  That’s Copernicus’s model for the days!

So he clearly prefers Copernicus’s model, and offers it as an alternative, but opens with the more familiar and established terminology and cosmology of Ptolemy (and Dante).

It’s interesting he didn’t commit.  Perhaps he didn’t want to tie his work to a model that might be wrong, or perhaps he didn’t want to alienate his Ptolemist readership.

I wonder, though, if heliocentrism had been widely accepted a century before, if Paradise Lost would have had a well defined geometry of the universe, like the Divine Comedy famously does, but with Heaven and Hell having distinct places in a heliocentric Solar System?

 

Maunder Minimum Analogs

For a long time after sunspots were discovered telescopically by Galileo, there weren’t any to see. John Eddy has a nice paper on the history of sunspot measurements, showing conclusively that there was an 80-year period, now called the “Maunder Minumum”, in which the Sun just didn’t have any sunspots.

Why not? We’d love to know.  The Solar dynamo is a bit of a mystery, and it just apparently turning off for 80 years is kind of important—it may have even had an effect on climate on Earth, although that case is often overstated (it’s not glaringly obvious from the global temperature anomaly record).

Shivani Shah, Penn State undergrad now applying to a graduate program near you!

Finding another star undergoing such a period would be great. We could study its corona and chromosphere it answer questions like: Is it still undergoing its magnetic cycle, just without sunspots? Is it just an extended minimum that lasts many cycle periods? Or did the dynamo turn off entirely? If we had a sample of them we could ask: is this typical behavior of Sun-like stars? All cycling stars? Just stars of the Sun’s age?

For a while, people looked for extremely inactive “sun-like” stars to find “Maunder minimum stars”, but I showed in my thesis that these stars are in fact not Sun-like (they’re subgiants).

People looked in M67, a cluster filled with Sun-like stars, to find extremely inactive stars there, but Jason Curtis showed that these stars were not actually all that inactive (the ISM got in the way).

For a long time Steve Saar has advocated using time series to see a star do what the Sun apparently did: go from a cycling state to a quiet state (or the reverse).  This means using the 50+ year baseline of activity measurements we have of stars to find a cycling star that transitions into or out of a cycling state to a “flat activity state”.  That would make for a pretty convincing candidate, I think.

Well, now we have one! Shivani Shah has written up the strange case of HD 4915, a Sun-like star that seems to have had its cycle peter out to almost nothing.  Here’s the killer plot:

Activity history of HD 4915. Larger “S-Value”s mean (presumably) more starspots. Note that the star came down from a (presumed) maximum, came up to a second, weaker maximum, then had a very slow rise to what seems to be a very weak maximum. Is the magnetic cycle of this star dying out?

It’s cool to see something that looks a lot like what we’ve been expecting to see for a while.  For comparison, here are the “grand magnetic minima” the Sun has experienced, measured with sunspots:

Sunspot number vs. time for three magnetic state transitions on the Sun, from the Hoyt & Schatten 1998 historical reconstructions. Note that we have reversed the x-axis on the bottom panel.

 

Black dots above are the parts of the Solar record we are suggesting to be analogous to the HD 4915 time series.  The red points are our projections of its future behavior if the analogy is perfect.  So, if this is analogous to the “Dalton Minimum” (no, not that Dalton Minimum) then the next cycle should be rather strong; if it’s truly going into a Maunder Minimum-like state we may not see any activity for another 80 years! So only time will tell if this is right, but I think it’s the best candidate I’ve seen so far.  I hope that by studying this star we can finally crack the nut of what the Sun was doing without sunspots for all those decades!

The paper is on the arXiv here.  Comments welcome!

SETI is Not About Getting Attention

No, this isn’t a post about METI.  This is about an interesting sociological phenomenon about one of the ways in which SETI is marginalized in astronomy.

SETI tends to get media attention, at an amount disproportionate to the amount of SETI work actually done. There are many reasons for this. One is that it is a topic of genuine interest to much of the lay public.  Another is that it is easily sensationalized and conflated with UFOlogy and science fiction by the yellow press.

I’ve had my share of both sides. Take Ross Andersen’s excellent article on Tabby’s Star (which was a scoop; we did not put out a press release or publish anything that triggered it). This story got huge amounts of global media attention, to the point that it appeared on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show. This second wave of stories led to the perception that Tabby herself “jumped to aliens” as an explanation, when in fact her paper and press release made no mention of aliens, and the press release announced “comets” as the cause.

The Daily Mail is a sensationalist rag in the UK that seems to have decided I’m their go-to name for all things alien. Sort of like the way that they find a way to shoehorn Stephen Hawking into the headlines of any article they write about space, but to a much smaller degree, they seem to love to claim I’ve found aliens (or that I think I have) when I write the opposite in a public space.  For instance:

  1. I had a press release titled “Search for Advanced Civilizations Beyond Earth Finds Nothing Obvious“.  The Mail Online’s lede was that I had “found 50 galaxies that may contain intelligent alien races.”
  2. I wrote a paper whose premise was that the question of extraterrestrial life (of any kind) in the Solar System is an “open question”, and in particular that the Solar System apparently lacks any alien artifacts.  The Mail Online article’s subheads claimed that I believe that intelligent “aliens either lived on Earth, Venus or Mars billions of years ago.”
  3. And when I wrote a couple of blog posts about how I didn’t think ‘Oumuamua was a great SETI target (but that it should get us thinking about Solar System SETI), they again reversed my meaning and wrote that I claimed ‘Oumuamua “could be an alien spacecraft with broken engines.”

It’s pretty embarrassing to see your work so brazenly sensationalized in the media, but given the Daily Mail’s reputation I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done to prevent it except not talk about SETI at all where it might be overheard. I’ve developed a thick skin about it, but it still smarts to see my name next to pictures of bug-eyed aliens.  I know that colleagues of mine that don’t know the whole story will think less of me because of these false portrayals of me working on “fringe” science or shouting “aliens” at every astronomical anomaly.

Actual image the Daily Mail used in an article quoting me about an asteroid.

So it’s especially galling when my colleagues accuse me of sensationalizing my work or, worse, only working in SETI at all because I’m after media attention. This attitude is probably widespread, because a few fed-up people have lost their cool and announced it several times in rants online; I can only imagine how many more have kept their cool or only said it where I haven’t noticed.  Some examples (names and links omitted to protect the guilty):

  1. About a short ETI discussion in a longer paper (that did not seek or garner any headlines)
    What does the mention of alien civilizations really add to these topics other than an attempt to grab headlines?
    and
    What’s to be gained by a casual mention in the abstract and end of the paper? … this (along with a growing list of other examples in the literature) is an attempt to grab headlines.
  2. Rebutting an argument that there is nothing wrong with seriously discussing SETI angles of astronomical anomalies on social media:
    All fine, but there is another component of this, which is cynical citation of ETI as a simple way of gaining attention. Your discussion assumes earnest and honest motivations. I’m not sure that that is always true.
  3. Starting a discussion about how SETI astronomers need to stop sensationalizing their work:
    most SETI-related news seems to be interfering with conventional scientific discoveries, stealing the limelight – without following basic rules of science
  4. Piling on to that discussion:
    It’s not just SETI you should be dumping on here, if your overall argument is to stop selling bullshit to the media because it’s fun.

At the risk of making an analogy to an infinitely more serious problem, they’re blaming the victims. Here we are getting misquoted and caricatured in the yellow press, and they’re the ones that are offended and embarrassed at what we have put them through. To them, somehow it’s our fault that the Mail misquotes us, and their attitude is that if we didn’t want to be misquoted, then why were we doing that kind of science in the first place? 

The real bad actors here are the yellow journalists, and that is a problem all of us in science and science communication have to deal with all the time; SETI is just a particularly soft target for them.

So, for the record: this kind of media attention is not “fun,” it’s mortifying, and we are not asking for it when we discuss our work in public. Many of the above accusations were surrounded by claims that the writers respect SETI as science, but you don’t really respect scientists’ work if you think it’s irresponsible of them to talk about it out loud, or if you think the only reason they do it is so that they can get their names in the papers.

SETI astronomers have had to deal with conflation with UFOlogy and fringe psuedoscience for decades; I hope that more of our colleagues will recognize that we share their disdain for sensationalism and are pulling in the same direction on the issue of sober science communication about good science.

And I hope that they won’t cast scorn at every SETI paper or reference to ETIs in the literature (“astro-crap” one astronomer called it on Facebook), and not cast aspersions on the authors for working on an important problem (especially junior researchers, who are both the future lifeblood of the field and the most sensitive to these accusations).

SETI gets enough unjustified grief from Congress, the last thing we need is to have to worry about our colleagues in our flanks piling on.

SETI is Part of Astrobiology

What follows is my submission to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ad hoc Committee on Astrobiology Science Strategy for Life in the Universe, 2018. It is available as a PDF here.

Please also see Jill Tarter’s companion white paper here.

I. SETI is Part of Astrobiology

“Traditional SETI is not part of astrobiology” declares the NASA Astrobiology Strategy 2015 document (p. 150). This is incorrect.1

Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe, in particular its “origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” [emphasis mine] Searches for biosignatures are searches for the results of interactions between life and its environment, and could be sensitive to even primitive life on other worlds.  As such, these searches focus on the origin and evolution of life, using past life on Earth as a guide.

But some of the most obvious ways in which Earth is inhabited today are its technosignatures such as radio transmissions, alterations of its atmosphere by industrial pollutants, and probes throughout the Solar System. It seems clear that the future of life on Earth includes the development of ever more obvious technosignatures. Indeed, the NASA Astrobiology Strategy 2015 document acknowledges “the possibility” that such technosignatures exist, but erroneously declares them to be “not part of contemporary SETI,” and mentions them only to declare that we should “be aware of the possibility” and to “be sure to include [technosignatures] as a possible kind of interpretation we should consider as we begin to get data on the exoplanets.”

In other words, while speculation on the nature of biosignatures and the design of multi-billion dollar missions to find those signatures is consistent with NASA’s vision for astrobiology, speculation on the nature of technosignatures and the design of observations to find them is not. The language of the strategy document implies NASA will, at best, tolerate its astrobiologists considering the possibility that anomalies discovered in the hunt for biosignatures might be of technological origin.

But there is no a priori reason to believe that biosignatures should be easier to detect than technosignatures—indeed, we have had the technology to detect strong extraterrestrial radio signals since the first radio SETI searchers were conducted in 1959, and today the scope of possibly detectable technosignatures is much larger than this. Furthermore, intelligent spacefaring life might spread throughout the Galaxy, and so be far more ubiquitous than new sites of abiogenesis. Life might be much easier to find than the NASA strategy assumes.   

Indeed it has been cynically, but not untruthfully, noted that NASA eagerly spends billions of dollars to search for “stupid” life passively waiting to be found, but will spend almost nothing to look for the intelligent life that might, after all, be trying to get our attention. This is especially strange since the discovery of intelligent life would be a much more profound and important scientific discovery than even, say, signs of photosynthesis on Ross 128b.

Further, since technosignatures might be both obvious and obviously artificial SETI also provides a shortcut to establishing that a purported sign of life is not a false positive, a major and pernicious problem in the hunt for biosignatures. SETI thus provides an alternative and possibly more viable path to the discovery of alien life than is reflected in NASA’s astrobiology roadmap. Indeed, this was recognized explicitly in the panel reports of the Astro2010 decadal survey:

Of course, the most certain sign of extraterrestrial life would be a signal indicative of intelligence. [A radio] facility that devoted some time to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would provide a valuable complement to the efforts suggested by the PSF report on this question. Detecting such a signal is certainly a long shot, but it may prove to be the only definitive evidence for extraterrestrial life. (p.454, Panel Reports—New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy & Astrophysics)

II. Why is SETI Neglected in NASA’s Astrobiology Portfolio?

While it is not completely clear why NASA does not include SETI in its astrobiology portfolio, there are several factors that seem likely to be at play.

The first is the risk of public censure: SETI sometimes suffers from a “giggle factor” that leads some to conflate it with “ufology” or campy science fiction. Indeed, such an attitude likely led to the cancelation of the last NASA SETI efforts in the early 1990’s, after grandstanding by US senators denouncing “Martian hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense” (Garber 1999). Such attitudes harm all of science, and the National Academies should be clear that such a “giggle factor” must not be allowed to influence US science priorities.

The second is the erroneous perception that SETI is an all-or-nothing proposition that yields no scientific progress unless and until it succeeds in detecting unambiguous signs of interstellar communication. On the contrary, even with scant funding, SETI has historically been involved in some of the most important discoveries in astrophysics. Not only have the demands of radio SETI led to breakthroughs in radio instrumentation (see, for instance, the new Breakthrough Listen backend at the Green Bank 100-meter telescope, with bandwidth of up to 10 GHz, an ideal Fast Radio Burst detection device; Gajjar et al. 2017), but some of the most famous SETI false positives have proven to be new classes of astrophysical phenomena, including active galactic nuclei (CTA-21 and CTA-102, Kardashev 1964), pulsars (originally, if somewhat facetiously, dubbed “LGM” for “Little Green Men”), and perhaps the still-not-fully-understood “Tabby’s Star” (KIC 8462852, Boyajian et al. 2016, Wright et al. 2016, Wright & Sigurdsson 2017).

Indeed, exactly because SETI seeks signals of obviously artificial origin, it must deal with and examine the rare and poorly understood astrophysical phenomena that dominate its false positives. Anomalies discovered during searches for pulsed and continuous laser emission (Howard et al. 2007, Wright et al. 2014, Tellis & Marcy 2015, 2017) broadband radio signals, large artificial structures (Dyson 1960, Griffith et al. 2015, Wright et al. 2016), and other astrophysical exotica push astrophysics in new and unexpected directions. If there is a perception that SETI little more than the narrow search for strong radio carrier waves producing a long string of null results it is because historically there has been essentially no funding available for anything else.

Third, there is the erroneous perception that, since radio SETI has been active for decades, its failure to date means there is nothing to find. On the contrary, the lack of SETI funding means that only a tiny fraction of the search space open to radio SETI has been explored (Tarter et al. 2010). Indeed, Robert Gray has estimated that the total integration time on the location of the Wow! Signal (the most famous and credible SETI candidate signal to date) is less than 24 hours (see, for instance, Gray et al. 2002). That is, if there is a powerful, unambiguous beacon in that direction with a duty cycle of around one pulse per day, we would not have detected a second pulse yet. Other parts of the sky have even less coverage. The truth is, we only begun to seriously survey the sky even for radio beacons, and other search methods have even less completeness.

Fourth, there is the erroneous perception that SETI will proceed on its own without NASA support. Indeed, the 2015 NASA Astrobiology Roadmap claims that “traditional SETI is…currently well-funded by private sources.”  Even setting aside the non sequitur of considering the amount of private philanthropic funding when assessing the merits of the components of astrobiology, this is not a fair description of the state of the field. While it is true that the Breakthrough Listen Initiative has pledged to spend up to $100 million over 10 years, in truth its spending has been far below that level, and it is focused on a small number of mature search technologies. Beyond this initiative, private benefactors have supported the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, but not at the level necessary to complete the array or fund its operations.

Fifth, there is the erroneous perception that the search for technosignatures is somehow a more speculative or risky endeavor than the search for biosignatures. We note that the entire field of astrobiology once faced a similar stigma. Chyba & Hand rebutted that perception in 2005:

Astro-physicists…spent decades studying and searching for black holes before accumulating today’s compelling evidence that they exist. The same can be said for the search for room-temperature superconductors, proton decay, violations of special relativity, or for that matter the Higgs boson. Indeed, much of the most important and exciting research in astronomy and physics is concerned exactly with the study of objects or phenomena whose existence has not been demonstrated—and that may, in fact, turn out not to exist. In this sense astrobiology merely confronts what is a familiar, even commonplace situation in many of its sister sciences.

Their rebuttal holds just as well as SETI today. Indeed, Wright & Oman-Reagan (2017) have articulated a detailed analogy between SETI and the relatively uncontroversial search for dark matter particles via direct detection. They argue that unlike with dark matter searches, with SETI, at least, we have the advantage that we know that the targets of our search (spacefaring technological species) arise naturally (because we are one).

Finally, there is an erroneous perception that SETI is exclusively a ground-based radio telescope project with little for NASA to offer. On the contrary, SETI is an interdisciplinary field (Cabrol 2016) and even beyond the potential for NASA’s Deep Space Network to play an important role in the radio component of SETI, archival data from NASA assets have played an important role in SETI for decades: from Solar System SETI using interplanetary cameras, to waste heat searches using IRAS (Carrigan 2009) WISE, Spitzer, and GALEX (Griffith et al. 2015), to searches for artifacts with Kepler (Wright et al. 2016) and Swift (Meng et al. 2017). Future ground-based projects like LSST and space-borne projects like JWST and WFIRST will undoubtably provide additional opportunities SETI research both as ancillary output of legacy and archival programs and through independent SETI projects in their own right.

III. Reinvigorating SETI as a Subfield of Astrobiology

One difficulty SETI faces is a negative feedback between funding and advocacy.

As it stands, SETI is essentially shut out of NASA funding. SETI is not mentioned at all in most NASA proposal solicitations, making any SETI proposal submitted to such a call unlikely to satisfy the merit review criteria. Worse, the only mentions of SETI in the entire 2015, 2016, and 2017 ROSES announcements are under “exclusions,” in the Exobiology section (“Proposals aimed at identification and characterization of signals and/or properties of extrasolar planets that may harbor intelligent life are not solicited at this time”) and the Exoplanets section (as “not within the scope of this program.”) In other words, SETI is ignored entirely in NASA proposal solicitations, except for those most relevant to it, in which cases it is explicitly excluded.

Meanwhile, other parts of astrobiology have flourished under NASA’s aegis, which has incubated strategies for the detection of life elsewhere in the universe, and produced scientists who can advocate for mature roadmaps to the detection of life in the universe as part of NASA’s astrobiology program. But now, twenty years after the last major NASA SETI program was cancelled, there are only a handful of SETI practitioners and virtually no pipeline to train more.

Thus there are only a few well-developed strategies to advocate for, and only a few scientists to advocate for them. This will doubtless be reflected in the number of white papers advocating SETI (like this one) versus those advocating other kinds of astrobiology responsive to the current call. This disparity should not be seen as indicating a lack of intrinsic merit of the endeavor of SETI, but as a sign of neglect of SETI by national funding agencies.

Since SETI is, quite obviously, part of astrobiology, SETI practitioners should at the very least be expressly encouraged to compete on a level playing field with practitioners of other subfields for NASA astrobiology resources.

Doing so will uncork pent-up SETI efforts that will result in significant progress over the next 10 years and beyond. As a fully recognized and funded component of astrobiology, SETI practitioners will be able to develop new search strategies, discover new astrophysical phenomena and, critically, train a new generation of SETI researchers to guide NASA’s astrobiology portfolio to vigorously pursue the discovery of all kinds of life in the universe—both “stupid” and intelligent.

And if, as many suspect, technosignatures prove to be closer to our grasp than biosignatures, then including of SETI in NASA’s astrobiology portfolio will ultimately lead to one of the most profound discoveries in human history, and a reinvigoration of and relevance for NASA not seen since the Apollo era. In retrospect, we will wonder why we were so reluctant to succeed.

IV. Bibliography

  • Boyajian, T. S. et al. 2016, MNRAS 457, 3988
  • Carrigan, R. A, Jr., 2009, The Astrophysical Journal 698, 2075
  • Cabrol, N. A. 2016, Astrobiology, 16, 9
  • Chyba, C. F. & Hand, K. P. 2005 Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 43, 31–74.
  • Domagal-Goldman S. D. & Wright K. E. Astrobiology. August 2016, 16(8): 561-653. 
  • Dyson, F. 1960 Science 131, 1667
  • Gajjar, V., et al. 2017, The Astronomer’s Telegram, 10675
  • Garber, S.J. 1999. J. Br. Interplanet. Soc. 52, 3–12.
  • Gray, R., et al. 2002, The Astrophysical Journal 578, 967
  • Griffith, R. et al. 2015, The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 217, 25
  • Howard, A., et al. 2007, Acta Astronautica 61, 78H
  • Kardashev, N. S. 1964, Soviet Astronomy, 8, 217
  • Meng, H., et al., 2017 The Astrophysical Journal 847, 131
  • Reines, A. E., 2002 Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 114, 416R
  • Tellis, N. K, & Marcy, G. W., 2015 PASP 127, 540T
  • Tarter, J., et al., 2010 SPIE 781902 http://dx.doi.org/10.1117/12.863128
  • Tellis, N. K, & Marcy, G. W., 2017 The Astronomical Journal 153, 251
  • Wright, S., et al, 2014 SPIE 9147E, 0JW
  • Wright, J. T., et al. 2016, The Astrophysical Journal 816, 17
  • Wright, J. T. & Sigurdsson, S. 2016, The Astrophysical Journal, 829, 3
  • Wright, J. T. & Oman-Reagan, M. P. 2017, Int. Jour. of Astrobiology, arXiv:1708.05318

1 Indeed, broad swaths of the astrobiology community disagree with NASA’s assertion. For instance, SETI was included as a component of astrobiology in The Astrobiology Primer v.2.0 (Domagal-Goldman & Wright 2016), and SETI activities fall under the Carl Sagan Center for astrobiology at the SETI Institute (which, despite the name, conducts a broad range of science, including many sub-fields of astrobiology).

AstroWright Group Science at the 231st AAS Meeting: Thursday

Today it’s stars stars stars! Including a couple of really nifty you-heard-it-here-first results.

10:20 am #303.03 Maryland Ballroom A don’t miss Jacob Luhn talk about jitter in dwarf and subgiant stars. Where does jitter come from in inactive stars? Which stars are least jittery? Jacob has the answers in what we are calling the “amazing jitter plot”.  Don’t miss it!

Poster #349.11: Penn State undergraduate Shivani Shah shows off her thesis work studying magnetic cycles in Sun-like stars.  We were going to look at activity-RV correlations but when we found this star we changed our focus: it appears to be entering a Grand Magnetic Minimum state, similar to the Sun’s Maunder Minimum.  Finding such a star has been a goal of stellar astronomers for decades, and now we think we’ve got a good candidate.  Ask her about it during the 9am and 5:30 poster sessions!  (Oh, and Shivani is applying to graduate school this year, so if you’re on an admissions committee, make sure you talk to her!)

Poster #349.24: AstroWright collaborater Brendan Miller presents his work on Swift X-ray monitoring of the coronae of nearby planet-hosting stars.  X rays are an important consideration in the habitability of planets, and this work helps put things into perspective.

Precise RVs at the 231st AAS Meeting: Tuesday

Good morning!  Here are some abstracts not to miss today:

Oral Presentations

10am, National Harbor 11: #111.01  Jason Eastman will talk about the first year of operations at MINERVA.  Jason and I have collaborated many times on EPRV projects, most notably our barycentric correction routine.  Jason is the project manager for MINERVA, our array of 4 small telescopes at Mt. Hopkins observing nearby bright stars at very high RV precision and with nightly cadence. Jason will talk about how we have addressed the challenges of fully automated robotic operations and what we will be able to accomplish in the coming years with MINERVA.

2pm, National Harbor 11: #128.01 Rob Wittenmyer will talk about MINERVA-Australis at USQ’s Mount Kent Observatory.  Rob is building a sister project in the south to MINERVA, which is now funded and coming along nicely. Together the two MINEVRA projects will monitor the entire sky for rocky planets orbiting our nearest neighbors. (graduating PhDs take note: Rob will be looking for a postdoc to join the team!)

 

Posters

#152.08 Sarah Logsdon will present the NEID Port Adapter. NEID (pronounced noo-id) is the new facility instrument for the WYIN 3.5m at Kitt Peak. It will be an extremely precise RV machine with < 30 cm/s instrumental precision. We are building it at Penn State now, but Sarah is working at NASA Goddard SFC with Michael McElwain on the interface between the telescope and the instrument. This is a crucial component that has to handle all of the guiding, tracking, focusing, and other components of injecting light into the NEID optical fiber to the extremely high precision and stability we required for our RV precision goals.

#152.18 Speaking of Penn State spectrographs, Joe Ninan will present the commissioning results for HPF, our near-infrared precise RV machine on HET. This is, as I like to say “HARPS in the NIR on a 10m”, although all 3 of those are slight exaggerations (1-3 m/s, ZYJ bands, 9m). HPF is commissioning now and Joe has been a crucial member of the commissioning team and will discuss the challenges of EPRV work with NIR detectors, and our solutions to these challenges.

What We’ve Learned About Boyajian’s Star II: Data and Interpretation

Part I here.

It’s been a huge amount of work, but we finally have some conclusions.

First and foremost, the dips have now been observed by an instrument other than Kepler.  So we can firmly rule out instrumental effects! (This was already clear, but it’s now true beyond all doubt for the dips).

Secondly, the dips are clearly chromatic:

Analysis of LCO data by Eva Bodman.

Eva Bodman has done a lot of work to characterize how much deeper the dips are at blue wavelengths than red ones.  If there were opaque objects blocking our view of the light, the star should get equally dim at all wavelengths. Instead, Eva finds that the blue (B) dips are much deeper—about twice as deep—as they are when we look at infrared wavelengths (i’ band, just beyond human vision).

This is consistent with ordinary astrophysical dust, and a major conclusion of our paper: the dips are not caused by opaque macroscopic objects (like megastructures or planets or stars) but by clouds of very small particles of dust (less than 1 micron in typical size). We can also say that these clouds are mostly transparent (“optically thin” in astrophysics parlance).

Secondly, we have spectra from Keck/HIRES both before and during the dips (in-dip spectra kindly contributed by John O’Meara, Jay Farihi, and Seth Redfield; see the black lines in the above figure for when they were taken.  Pre-dip data taken by Andrew Howard and Howard Isaacson.)  The difference between these spectra should bear the spectral fingerprints of whatever is causing the dips!  So, is there atomic gas?  Let’s check the neutral sodium lines (analysis courtesy of Jason Curtis):

The broad sodium line from the star forms a shallow bowl, the sharp features are due to interstellar clouds containing sodium between us and the star.

The black points and red line in the figure above are from before and during the dips, respectively, and the black line at the bottom is the difference.  As you can see, there is no obvious change in the spectrum at all. This strongly suggests that the dust causing the dips is not accompanied by much neutral sodium.

What about hot gas? If it’s really hot there shouldn’t be much in the way of dust, but if it’s warm there should be ionized calcium.  How do the calcium lines look?

The broad calcium line from the star forms a shallow bowl, the sharp features are due to clouds containing calcium between us and the star.

Again, no change, so it looks like there is no additional ionized gas accompanying the dust. So the dust—if that’s what it is—seems to be by itself with no accompanying gas.

In fact Jason Curtis has gone further, and shown that there does not appear to be any change in the stellar lines, either, during a dip, meaning the star is not moving, so does not have a nearby companion orbiting it.

So where are our 10 possibilities?

As I wrote, instrumental effects (#1) are now firmly ruled out.

The hypotheses I found most plausible involving an interstellar gas and dust cloud (#3 and #4), are not looking great. There should have been atomic gas in that case, and we see none.

My favorite (but “less-plausible”) hypothesis #5, a black hole disk, has not been similarly developed, so I think is still in play because we’re not sure what we would have expected to see for that one yet. A cold disk of dust could easily have had all of its gas frozen out onto grain surfaces, I suspect.

The unlikely hypotheses of an orbiting black hole disk (#6), spherical swarm of megastructures (#9) and pulsations (#12) continue to be unlikely.

But now even the more generic “alien megastructures” hypothesis (of any geometry) takes a severe blow from the chromatic nature of the dips: no opaque objects seem to be causing this.  I suspect this will be the big headline here, so let me reemphasize: if the dips had been the same color at all wavelengths, we would have been scratching our heads and this hypothesis would be looking better than before (though still of unclear likelihood).  The fact that the data came in the other way means that we now have no reason to think alien megastructures have anything to do with the dips of Tabby’s Star (Recall that Meng et al. had already come to a similar conclusion with respect to the long-term dimming, but it was the dips that got us thinking along these lines in the first place).

I still like the Solar System cloud idea (#2) but until it is developed to the point where we know what colors of dimming we would expect for a Solar System cloud, it remains of “unclear” plausibility.

The fact that the stellar lines did not change velocity during a dip helps us rule out pulsations (#12, if the star changed size then its atmosphere would be moving and would have a changing radial velocity) as well as close companions. Tabby had already ruled out the nearby companion hypothesis (which is why it wasn’t even on my list) but we now have independent confirmation.

Hypotheses invoking circumstellar material seem to be doing well. Steinn and I were originally pretty down on this class of solutions because of the lack of infrared excess and their inability to explain the long-term dimming, but Metzger et al. and Wyatt et al. (2017) ‘s models have shown how this could be explained, bringing this class of hypothesis up the plausibility scale to near the top (in my mind). To remind you, Wyatt et al. explain both the long- and short-term dimming with circumstellar material, while Metzger et al. have the long-term dimming being intrinsic and the dips due to exocomet-like debris).

We were also down on the family of solutions involving intrinsic variations, and we still don’t think the polar spots model (#11) and stellar cycle model (#10) have high likelihood. But in addition to the Metzger et al. hypothesis, Peter Foukal has developed a model where the entire star gets cooler, and this model is also consistent with the data (I think the dips seem to be too deep in the blue, but formally it’s consistent at the “2-sigma” level). Indeed, Peter himself finds the dips to be less chromatic than we do and very consistent with his model. So I’m ready to promote this class of solution up, in particular because it predicts no absorption features accompanying dimmings, which is indeed exactly what we see.

As for the circumstellar material solutions (“exocomets”), I’m not personally sure why that model does not predict neutral and ionized gas to accompany the dips, but I don’t think anyone has worked it out in detail yet, so it could be easy to explain.

So to recap:

Wyatt et al. and Metzger at al. have developed models involving circumstellar material like exocomets that seem to be consistent with the data we have. Wyatt et al. and Foukal have developed models where the star itself is getting dimmer that also seem supported.  Both classes of model are now at the top of my list, though I still see major problems with both.

Hypotheses invoking intervening material like an interstellar cloud, seem to have taken a blow, though I still want to understand better if they are really ruled out by the lack of gas in the spectra, and whether circumstellar material like exocomets is similarly ruled out. I’m still fond of this solution, but it has gone down a notch in light of the new data.

I think my black hole disk hypothesis is still a dark horse in this race.

And the instrumental effects and alien megastructures hypotheses have been put to bed.

So that’s where we are.  The next highest priorities (in my mind) are to scrutinize the in-dip spectra for any signature of the occulting material (I’m especially curious if the diffuse interstellar bands change depth), and modelers need to make detailed predictions of the atomic and ionized gas that should accompany dust in the exocomet, interstellar cloud, and black hole disk models to see if they can be made consistent with our in-dip spectra.

Onward!

What We’ve Learned About Boyajian’s Star I: Background

For those just catching up on Tabby’s Star, read Kimberly Cartier’s article in Scientific American and my series of blog posts here. And don’t read or trust anything the Daily Mail writes on this (or any other topic involving me).

The star exhibits two unique and very difficult to understand behaviors: the short-term”dips” in brightness (of up to 22%) and long-term brightness variations on years-to-centuries timescales.

Since the Kepler mission stopped observing it, it seems to have continued it slow decline in brightness over the past few years, and that dimming does not seem to be due to solid objects.  But we still don’t have any information about what’s responsible for the dips because we hadn’t been able to see one happening in real time.

But now, thanks to the generous support of our Kickstarter backers, Tabby’s team has been able to pay for year-long monitoring of the star with the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network to “catch it in the act” of dipping again so we can study what’s going on.

And in May, it finally happened (when by amazing coincidence I just happened to be at the Breakthrough Listen Lab at UC Berkeley during my sabbatical):

Since then, Tabby’s team has been able to collect a huge amount of data not only from our own organized follow-up efforts, but thanks to he amazing generosity and interest of astronomers around the world who volunteered to observe the star during the dips.  We sincerely appreciate their contributions, and they are all authors of our latest paper.

You can follow every twist and turn of this summer’s activity on the Kickstarter project blog here and follow along with the fans of the project on the Reddit page.  Here’s what’s been going on all summer and fall:

In this plot, the different colors represent different LCO sites where data were taken.  The brightness of the star is on the y-axis, and the date (measured in days with an arbitrary offset astronomers like to use ) is on the x-axis.

One of the rewards for our Kickstarter backers was to name the various dips (they need names!).  After the first (“Elsie”, a nod to Las Cumbres Observatory (“LC”) who was one of our most generous backers), the star continued to oblige with a series of dips. The next dip, “Celeste,” was named as a near reversal of “Elsie” when it looked like the two events might be exhibiting time symmetry (it’s also a nod to team member Angelle Tanner’s mother, who sadly died around the time of the event). The subsequent events have started a theme of “lost cities” which it seems the backers would like to maintain going forward.

After all of that, the star exhibited a strange brightening for a couple of months.

To recap, we were hoping that once we finally caught a dip happening in real time we could see if the dips were the same depth at all wavelengths.  If they were nearly the same, this would suggest that the cause was something opaque, like a disk or (whispering) alien megastructures.

The long-term dimming doesn’t seem to be the same at all wavelengths, which suggests it’s being caused by something like ordinary astronomical dust, but that doesn’t tell us what’s causing the dips (which are what got everyone excited in the first place).

So, what have we found!?!  Well, our paper with a huge author list has been accepted by Astrophysical Journal Letters (thanks to a quick and conscientious referee) and we’re ready to reveal what happened in part II.

 

1I/’Oumuamua updates!

[note: As I wrote in November, I don’t think ‘Oumuamua is an alien spacecraft. While other astronomers have made that suggestion, and while I’m happy to engage in such speculation in a SETI context, I think ‘Oumuamua is interesting in its own right as an asteroid and because of how it is getting us thinking about how to find alien probes in the Solar System.]

Three updates to the ‘Oumuamua story!

First, it appears to be tumbling:

This explains a lot about the confusion over its shape and color. The data keep giving different answers because the object is spinning in a complicated way. To understand deeply, you need a quick primer on principal axes (skip to the slo-mo parts, especially the “unstable” axis around 2:00):

The key is that in space, things generally rotate in a very simple way, about the “principal axis” with the largest moment of inertia (smallest radius).  This is because this is the axis for which a given angular momentum has the least energy, and over time objects will lose energy but not angular momentum.  The Earth, for instance, is oblate, and rotates along the shortest axis it has.

But if you just start something spinning arbitrarily (or, say, you knock it around) or if you start it spinning with some motion along its intermediate axis, it will execute a much more complex motion (around 2:00 in the video above) called tumbling.  It will do this in space until the changing distortions of the body from the changing centrifugal forces eventually cause the rotational energy to dissipate away as waste heat and it ends up a principal axis rotator again (that’s why the Discovery One in 2010:Odyssey Two is spinning that way, along its shortest axis).

The Discovery One is spinning when he Alexei Leonov comes to find it because it had angular momentum but no attitude control, so eventually found the lowest energy state, which was a spin about its shortest axis.

So why is ‘Oumuamua tumbling? It’s unclear, but it may be related to its elongated shape: unlike typical Solar System “rubble pile” asteroids and icy comets, it seems to have more rigidity (apparently not uncommon in smaller Solar System objects), and so it dissipates its rotational energy more slowly—so slowly that it can tumble for a long time.


Second, I wrote a AAS Research Note correcting a small point made by Jean Schneider, who showed that ‘Oumuamua could not have been sent into it’s current orbit via gravitational slingshot with any known planet, or the hypothetical Planet Nine.  I pointed out that in fact there is no way any Solar System object could have done it, hypothetical or not (I supect that this point is trivial to people that think about this for a living, but it is nontheless surprising to those of us who don’t).  I think Alt Mars Crater put it best:

Update:

 


Third, Breakthrough Listen is taking a look (listen?) to see if it is emitting radio waves as one might expect (?) if it is an alien probe:

This is neat! We should be thinking about what we will do if something that looks (more) like an alien craft comes through the Solar System. Now the Breakthrough Listen team has a protocol for tracking Solar System objects with Green Bank and analyzing the data they collect.

Such a discovery would imply that there are lots of these things in the Solar System at any given moment (even if they are deliberately targeting the Sun, they are hard to spot and we’ll miss most of them), and so lots of opportunities to study them.

Why would there be so many of them? Part of the argument that it is possible to settle the entire Galaxy is that exponential growth is possible, because the only limiting resource is the stars (and the material around them) themselves.  Exponential growth can be achieved via Von Neumann probes: self-replicating spacecraft that go to a system, make lots more of themselves, and then go to more systems.

Now even if these have purposes that don’t involve coming near the Sun, you might expect some fraction to eventually go derelict (space is a harsh environment, and an optimal design will likely have a nonzero failure rate). Such derelict craft would, if they are not traveling so fast that they escape the Galaxy, eventually “thermalize” with the stars and end up drifting around like any other interstellar comet or asteroid.

In fact, since they (presumably) no longer have attitude control, one would expect that they would eventually begin to tumble, and if they are very rigid that tumbling might distinguish them from ordinary interstellar asteroids… and in fact, just because their propulsion is broken doesn’t mean that their radio transmitters would be broken…

Is 1I/’Oumuamua an Alien Spacecraft?

No, I don’t think there’s any reason to think it is, but there’s lots of chatter on Twitter that suggest astronomers think it could be:

So what’s going on?

For the first time, astronomers think they have found an interstellar asteroid.  It is clearly on an escape trajectory, and everything about its path is consistent with a free-floating asteroid that was ejected from another star system and is now happening to buzz by the Sun:

There are several things that have astronomers talking “spaceship”:

  • Its discovery closely tracks the opening chapter of the book Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke, about the discovery of an interstellar spaceship on a similar trajectory to ‘Oumuamua.
  • We were expecting the first discovered interstellar rocks (we know they must be out there) to be comets, since our own Solar System’s Oort cloud (populated by nearly-ejected Solar System detritus) is mostly comets. The fact that it is not a comet has people scratching their heads.
  • One of the recent measurements of its shape finds it to have a 10:1 axis ratio: this is not typical of asteroids, but is not uncommon for ships in science fiction (the 2001 monolith was 1:4:9)
  • One of the recent measurements of its color has it very red, similar to metallic asteroids

In many ways, this discovery tracks the excitement around Tabby’s Star: a prediction of how we might discover alien life was made (Clarke for ‘Oumuamua, Luc Arnold for Tabby’s Star); and later an anomalous object was found roughly tracking that prediction but confounding natural explanation.

I’m glad that astronomers are talking about this in a SETI context (and this is SETI), but my personal prior on this is that there is not much reason to get excited about the SETI angle.

That’s because there are several important differences between ‘Oumuamua and Tabby’s Star:

  • The data on Tabby’s Star from Kepler are exquisite.  What’s more, only after being convinced that there was no chance of instrumental error did it really get interesting.  The data on ‘Oumuamua is thin: different groups are getting different sizes, rotation periods, axial ratios, and colors for the object, meaning that it hasn’t been well measured yet.  For instance:

  • The various values people get for the axial ratio vary from the hard-to-understand 10:1 to the more ordinary 3:1.  In other words, it’s not at all clear that this characteristic of ‘Oumuamua is actually all that anomalous—the 10:1 measurement could be in error.
  • Tabby and her team put 2 years of hard work into understanding that star.  Only after all of that work was the “hypothesis of last resort” something worth publishing. ‘Oumuamua was discovered a month ago.
  • Tabby’s team’s ruling out of most natural explanations built on decades of stellar astrophysics and understanding of stars and their environments.  ‘Oumuamua is the first interstellar asteroid we’ve seen, so we have very little to go on.

So I’ll need to see a lot more data and hard, critical analysis of the anomalies in ‘Oumuamua before I get interested in the SETI angle at the level I am for Tabby’s Star.

That said, I’m glad that astronomers are, on the informal forum of Twitter anyway, having a SETI discussion about the prospect of discovering interstellar probes passing through the Solar System.  It’s a neat topic, and once worth thinking about.  I hope ‘Oumuamua inspires more real work on it in the peer-reviewed literature, including concrete suggestions of what to look for when future interstellar objects are discovered passing through.

[Update: please see this Twitter thread by Michele Bannister:

This article (in German, but Google Translate) by Daniel Fischer:

Interstellarer Gast ʻOumuamua erstaunlich länglich

and the comment by Darin Ragazzine below for more-informed takes on this whole issue. Where they contradict me, you should trust them, because they are actual planetary scientists that work in this field.

Primer on Precise Radial Velocities

Objects in space are specified by their Right Ascension, Declination, and distance.  The first two are easily measured, usually to better than a part in a million; the last is notoriously tricky to measure, sometimes uncertain to an order of magnitude.

The time derivatives of these quantities are the reverse: proper motions are unmeasured for most objects in the universe, but velocities can usually be measured to a part in a million rather easily.

I noticed this (I’m sure I’m not the first) when writing a review chapter on precise radial velocities as an exoplanet discovery method. I think it’s a good primer on the subject for students just getting started.  In it I briefly trace the origins of the method to the fundamental importance of radial velocities to astronomy in general and spectroscopic binary star work, then work through the high-mass-ratio limit of SB1s, the first exoplanet discoveries, and the future of the method.

There is also a quick section giving what I think is a fair overview of the problem of stellar RV jitter, including the roles of surface gravity, granulation, oscillations, and magnetic cycles.

You can find it here.  Enjoy!

Good Advising

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein wrote a valuable article for students on the warning signs of being psychologically abused by your professor.

Sadly, some advisers abuse their advisees in various ways: emotionally, physically, and sexually. This exists on a spectrum, of course: a few are serial predators, but there is a long tail up towards people who are just jerks, to people who are generally good but have some blind spots, and so on. I thought her list was a good way to help not only identify abusive professors, but to “score” professors on something like such a scale.

Reading this, I thought about which of my uncodified advising strategies encourage or discourage each of the warning signs. I then used Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s article’s framework to try to write down what advisers should do instead—these rules both help avoid abuse of advisees, and also (I think) lend to good advising.

This list represents my own, aspirational opinion on good advising having now graduated my first “round” of students and postdocs. Some of these items are just “do the opposite of that item of Chanda’s list,” and others are inspired by my own experiences with advisees and their advice to me. I know I fail at many of these (some of those failures inspired some of these points, actually) and some I only really thought of while compiling this list, so they are new aspirations for me.

This list is meant as a complement to Chanda’s: a resource more for advisers who want to improve their advising (or, at least, strive for a style similar to the one I strive for) than for advisees to understand when they are being abused. 

Please leave your own ideas and thoughts on these ideas in the comments.

1) Praise your advisees

Say “good job” when they do a good job. Say “I like that” when they do some work you like. Say “good idea” when they have a good idea. Tell other people, in your advisees’ presence, what your advisees are doing and why you like it.

It can be hard to remember just how hard graduate school is. It is a huge amount of very slow work at a the highest intellectual level sustained for a long period of time. Encouragement is essential, and it’s easy as an adviser to forget that it needs to be explicit or it’s not there at all.

This comic resonates because this is how it feels to get any criticism about your work on a paper. Think about how you feel when you read an anonymous referee’s report: recall how it was way worse than that to get that sort of feedback from your adviser. Don’t make your advisees ask for the parts you liked; lead with that!

Note: I meant it when I wrote “good”; I did not mean to write “great”, ”outstanding”, or “genius”. Even ordinary, pedestrian steps in research are “good” because graduate students and postdocs are pre-selected to be good at research. Give your advisees a sense for what constitutes good work by telling them it’s good work. If you keep the carrot dangling in front of them in a vain effort to keep them striving for better, you’ll give them a twisted sense of what good research looks like. Give them the carrot.  

2) By default, set a positive tone with your advisees

Set a positive tone in personal and group meetings. Make smalltalk (real smalltalk; see points #10 #12 and #13). Don’t frown, scowl, or shake your head as a matter of course. Give criticism constructively and only after saying what you like about something (see point #1.)

3) Take real interest in your advisees’ projects and let them know their projects can succeed

Fist of all, remember what the project is, and where they are with it! Especially for very independent students or when things get very busy, it is surprisingly easy to lose track of what an advisee is working on. 

Even if you don’t know how their project will turn out, find the value in the results they have and state it. See point #1.

Tell others about your advisees’ work and how you’re excited about it. See point #2. If you are not excited about a student’s project, either they need a new project or they need a new adviser.

Show your interest by staying involved with the project. Meet with your advisees regularly (something like weekly, according to their level of independence and need) and monitor their progress. When they send you an email about their work, prioritize that email along with emails critical to your most important projects.

Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics can be a good way for students to commiserate and laugh about the difficulties of graduate school, but don’t let them normalize poor advising. Yes, we are supposed to recognize our advisers’ foibles in Prof. Smith (my PhD adviser once suggested a qual topic for me—months after I had passed my qual and was working on my thesis!) But remember his behavior is not supposed to be a normal part of graduate school.

4) Value your advisees’ opinions

Your advisees will disagree with you. Unless you’re sure they’re wrong for a simple reason (in which case be friendly and didactic about it) take these disagreements well and respect their opinions.

Think of it this way: either they are wrong or right. If they turn out to be right and you valued their opinion, then they will gain insight and confidence from the experience. If they turn out to be wrong and you valued their opinion, then they will gain insight and humility from the experience. Either way, you were a good adviser.

But if you belittle or ignore their opinions, then if they turn out to be right, they’ll be bitter, and if they turn out to be wrong, they’ll be demoralized. Either way, you could have handled it better.

5) Admit when you’re wrong.

“If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not doing anything” Show your advisees by example how scientists make productive mistakes (and yes, even unproductive ones). This helps bust the “cult of smart” and teaches what science looks like.

This is especially important if an advisee was involved in the mistake. Make sure your advisees don’t feel blamed for your errors. Take responsibility for your share of being wrong, especially since you are responsible for your advisees’ research. If you screw up with something that makes their life harder, bite the bullet and make it right at your own expense—don’t make them deal with your mess. 

6) Tell your advisees to talk with other professors

Especially your undergraduates. One of the biggest confidence builders is to go to an expert and have a conversation with them about your research where you know more than them, they are interested in your work, and you have interacted as experts do. This also helps break down “cult of smart” myths by humanizing our heroes.

7) Encourage your advisees to start collaborations with other people

Science is a social endeavor. If you’re not sure where to start, start with collaborations within your group, then with other groups in the department, then beyond. Networking is an essential part of professional development. Introduce them to other groups and expect them to collaborate. Send them to meetings with a list of people to meet, and let those people know that your advisee will be there.

Also, many projects require expertise far beyond what you have—astronomy is very collaborative.  When such an item comes up, use it as an opportunity to get your advisee working with an expert on that topic. Introduce your advisee by email, make sure that expert has your advisee on their colloquium-day schedule, send your advisee to their institution for a day to learn that software, schedule a telecon to discuss the issue with your advisee sitting next to you.  Make your network their network.

8) Encourage your advisees to try things independently

Allow them to carve out a fraction of their work time to experiment without your close supervision. This is how they grow as advisees—they won’t be your advisees forever, and independence is something that should be taught and nurtured, not expected to magically appear once they graduate.

An important part of growth as a scientist is having ideas for new projects, so it’s important to encourage your advisees to identify new paths forward. Since most ideas are bad ideas, this means hearing ideas you know won’t work but encouraging the brainstorming exercise anyway. See point #5.

If their idea is too ambitious, keep it real without shooting it down. Aspirational projects are good projects, and students will often surprise you with how far they can take a project. Give them what you think they need to succeed, a realistic timescale for how long it will take, and let them shoot for the moon.

9) Let your advisees have lives outside of work/school, and let them know you don’t disapprove

Take a positive interest in your advisees’ extracurricular activities when they bring it up, but don’t pry. Mention your own extracurriculars to show your advisees that scientists can have outside interests. Be supportive of them having interests outside of work (even if you personally think they are making a mistake). This includes family matters— your job is to support their goals against the background of their family situation, not pass judgement on how to change their family situation in support of their goals.

Also, culture of science activities (communication, governance, inclusion efforts etc.) are not extracurricular. They are service to the profession (which, by the way, are part of the criteria on which faculty are judged for tenure). Support that as part of their professional development, even if it’s not the sort of service you would do yourself.

It is, of course, important to make sure advisees understand time management, have realistic timelines for completion of projects, and know what is needed from them for them to achieve their goals. But this does not mean you should disapprove that their timeline is longer than you would like it to be, and it certainly does not translate to micromanaging their personal time.

This means that except for coodinating while on observing runs or rapid follow up of transients or the like, it’s usually not even necessary to know your advisee’s cell phone number. Email, internet instant messaging, and group chats like Slack are perfectly fine ways for most advisers to stay in touch. A call on a cell phone carries an implication that they need to respond immediatey; especially outside of normal business hours, a student needs to be able to decide privately if and on what schedule they will respond to you.

10) Respect your advisee’s privacy

Unless they go missing for several days without notice or you are otherwise genuinely concerned for their personal well being, don’t snoop. Don’t cyberstalk, don’t contact their friends and ask where they are, don’t try to learn about or participate in their extracurriculars, don’t monitor when their “online” light turns green on social media, and don’t keep track of how often they email you at odd hours.  Your advisees are not your young children and you are not their guardian; they are adult colleagues in charge of managing their own time and personal lives.

That said, you are one of the first people in your advisees’ lives that will notice if something is wrong (and grad school is hard—things often go wrong). When this happens, you need to notice, you need to be there to support them in a professional way, and you need to ask how you can help. But don’t confuse that with snooping.

I used to think social media muddled this issue, but most platforms have privacy controls that let your advisees prevent you from seeing anything they’d like to keep from you. If you connect on social media (“friending”, “following”, etc.) make it clear that you expect that they will use those controls to maintain the level of privacy they want (i.e., you won’t snoop, and they shouldn’t feel bad having lives you don’t know about).

11) Accept your advisees’ judgements about what they need and how they feel

Make sure your goals for your advisee are consistent with their goals for themselves. Your advisees aren’t you. You are not printing out copies of yourself. Your advisees have their own priorities, values, and goals. Help them realize those, or else get out of the way.

This means that if your advisee tells you that they want you to change your advising style or stop behaving a certain way, don’t take it personally and don’t chastise them for it. If you really don’t want to accommodate them, think about why and whether they need a new adviser. Don’t tell them they’re wrong about how they feel and definitely don’t blame them for hurting your feelings.

This also means if an advisee is not working well with someone or has some personal reason for not pursing an opportunity you think is great, trust them. If they tell you they’ve been treated poorly by someone else, believe them.

This is especially true if they tell you they’ve been harassed or discriminated against in a way you haven’t been. They know better than you, and it is your job as their adviser to support them. If as soon as an advisee tells you they have been mistreated, you suddenly become an independent, objective trier of fact protecting the rights of the accused, you are not being a good adviser. Don’t interrogate them about whether they are sure or how they must have misinterpreted—guide your reactions by the premise that what they are saying is true. This can be especially hard if they have been mistreated by a colleague with whom you are on good personal terms. Do it anyway.

12) Keep the advisee-adviser relationship professional

Some advisers and advisees become lifelong friends. Others don’t (quite the opposite sometimes). That’s fine—it’s the same with any colleague. But no matter what, you have a professional obligation to support your advisees careers consistent with their goals.

This means keeping the relationship professional while they’re your advisee. Even if you’re becoming good friends (or the opposite) your advisee needs your objectivity, and the profession needs your professionalism as long as an advisee-adviser relationship exits.

Note that “professional” doesn’t mean “distant and unemotional.” It’s fine and good to have fun when with your advisees—group celebrations at your house or downtown etc.—and I consider it good practice to acknowledge the joy, pain, frustration, nervousness, and other emotions scientists feel as part of their jobs.

This all means different things to different people. Different advisers have different styles, and that’s fine. Rules on things like hugging, one-on-one lunch (or dinner) discussions, drinking together, leaving the office door open during meetings, and so on will vary from adviser to adviser and advisee to advisee, and will depend on factors like each person’s cultural background, comfort zones and personal space, familiarity with the other person, environment, and a lot more. It’s complicated because science is a social endeavor and social interactions among people are complicated, and hard or impossible to codify.

But no matter who you are, you should not lean on your advisees for emotional support (they may need yours, though), and certainly you should not discuss sexual topics. If you find that your advisees are the only place you have to go for such interactions, you need to remedy that situation or stop being an adviser.

Finally, some advisees will come to you with personal issues, from minor home-life matters to major life crises.  This rule should not be construed as saying that you should avoid helping them. The personal often becomes professional, and it is your professional obligation to help the students through it by supporting them, encouraging them, and giving them the tools they need to succeed (see #15). It is often a “last-chance encounter with a faculty member who [takes] the time to listen and give support [and] encourage[] them to hang in just long enough to surmount their immediate problems, and to persist” that keeps a student in the field.

But while it can help to open up here about your own experiences, this is not an opportunity to stop being professional. Indeed, it’s the time when your advisee needs your professionalism the most.

13) Respect your advisee’s personal characteristics

Unless you are very sure that you are on sufficiently familiar terms with the advisee that you will not give offense, avoid any comments about any personal characteristics, except perhaps for obvious platitudes (acknowledging a new haircut or injury, for instance). Especially avoid comments about uncontrollable aspects of their physical appearance, body parts, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, pronouns, disability, mental health, religion, or family. Obviously negative comments are bad, but even positive comments can be gauche or misinterpreted.

It might be tempting to frame such advice as guidelines for professional behavior (“I don’t think you should give your dissertation talk with your hair dyed that color”; “people will find that tongue stud distracting”), but strongly resist such “advice” except when you really think it’s essential and the advisee genuinely does not appreciate the concern you have (“profane T-shirts are not appropriate at group meeting”).

This does not mean that you should not “see” race, gender, and other personal characteristics. You and your advisee need to be aware of how society’s perceptions of these identities will affect your advisee professionally, and this can and should be a topic of discussion. As an adviser you also need to be aware of and respect how your advisees are affected personally by these identities, especially those you do not share. But have these important conversations in a general way and let the advisee insert themselves into the topic, instead of presuming to know how they relate to their own identities.

14) Model professional behavior, even when it isn’t strictly necessary

Imagine that among your advisees are potential future bad advisers, and teach them by example every day not to be that way.

I had some downtime after the birth of one of my children in the hospital while the baby was asleep, so I opened up my laptop and started working. My wife very wisely suggested that I not send any emails to any of my group members lest I imply that I expected people to work even the day their kids are born.

So even if you’re buddies with a colleague, use a professional register when emailing them and your advisees are cc’d, give a proper not-embarrassing introduction before their colloquium, and save the not-for-the-office banter for when you’re not in the office.

Set a good example for all of your advisees in group meetings by being maximally professional. For instance, ask questions respectfully, disagree gently, don’t interrupt (especially don’t interrupt quiet people, women, or others that are often inappropriately interrupted), and don’t let others interrupt, even if you might have a more free-wheeling conversation with that person in a one-on-one setting. Don’t let your advisees behave rudely—model how you hope they will act when they see inappropriate behavior at, say, a conference.

Candid shot of a typical weekly meeting with one of my students as we deal with a referee’s report.

15) Be your advisees’ advocate…

Fight for your advisees’ future. Find out what they want, what (other than themselves) is stopping them from getting there, and how you can remove those obstacles. Ask what you can do, listen to what you’re told, and do it. Bring up their work with your colleagues. Introduce them to important contacts at meetings. Use your weight to help them win bureaucratic battles.

16) …and do it transparently (i.e. don’t be a puppetmaster).

Strive to only have conversations about your advisees you would be comfortable having them overhear. Make sure they know about and approve of any plans you have for them. If you are working behind the scenes, greasing wheels, or machinating for their benefit, keep your advisees fully apprised of your actions (except where you are bound by some sort of confidentiality). This includes mentioning them as job candidates, suggesting they work with a collaboration on a project, and getting funding to support them. Pulling back the curtain shows your advisees how science works and lets them know that you are working in their interest, and lets them give you feedback on your efforts.


16 points is a lot to remember, but Sharon Wang boiled them down to specific examples of the two indispensable, orthogonal qualities of a good adviser: respect and responsibility. If you are embodying these qualities in all of your interactions, you’re probably doing all right.

This list has benefitted from input from Fabienne Bastien, Sharon Wang, Angie Wolfgang, and Jason Curtis.

Star-Planet Interactions, and Jupiter Analogs

Waaaaay back in 2015 the International Astronomical Union held its General Assembly in Honolulu. I went and gave a review talk on star-planet interactions at a Focus Meeting.

One nice thing (in the long run) about these Focus Meetings is that they generate proceedings that get published. It’s sort of old-fashioned now, but it’s still nice to see these proceedings because they often contain things not in refereed papers: preliminary, unrefereed results that turn out to be important later, and overarching but concise syntheses of lots of work in a way that is useful for understanding but not really appropriate for a refereed article on novel research.

(I write “in the long run” above because having to actually write the proceedings can be a pain, and because they seem to take fooorrrreeevvvveeeerrrr to finally get published.)

Brendan Miller

Well, I was going through my CV for my end-of-sabbatical report (7 more days!) when I remembered that Brendan Miller and I put in a proceedings for the 2015 summer meeting!  Whatever happened to it?  Turns out it was published a while ago and somehow I missed it (which is weird because I have a copy of that book on my shelf…)

Anyway, our contribution is now belatedly on the arXiv.  Here’s what’s in it:

We really want to study the magnetic fields of exoplanets. It seems sort of hopeless—magnetic fields don’t have that much energy and it’s hard enough to figure out a planet’s mass, much less this little detail—but there is hope.

One hope is that close-in exoplanets will have their magnetic fields interact with their host star’s magnetic fields, causing magnetic activity on the star that we can detect in the calcium H&K lines. There had been suggestions in the literature that this was happening, as magnetic “hot-spots” beneath close-in planets rotated in and out of view, but follow up of those systems found the effect to be difficult to reproduce.  I think it was noise.

Another hope was that there was an overall increase in the level of activity in stars with close-in exoplanets.  If you took a sample of stars with and without close-in planets, were the ones with close-in planets more active?  Turns out that’s hard, because there are lots of biases in the way we detect close-in planets (via transit) that might make it more or less likely to find them around active stars in the first place.  Brendan and I wrote a paper where we looked at the evidence (and gathered some ourselves) and concluded there’s no signal to we can dig out of all of the noise.

But there are clear cases where there is star-planet interaction, just by another route: close-in, very massive planets seem to be able to spin up their stars, which makes them more magnetically active.  That probably drives the small amount of correlation we do see.

Then Brendan took a look at WASP-18, which should have one of the strongest planet-induced activity levels around if that’s a thing, and found it’s not elevated in X rays.  Bust there, too.

One thing we did not have time or space to touch on in the article was the one way that magnetic fields do seem to have been detected, via bow shocks., which is a shame but was fortunately covered later in the session.

There is one more bit in the paper that has been dribbling out slowly over the past few years, too. One of my earliest interesting papers was announcing the discovery of the first really good Jupiter analog HD 154345 b.  It’s around a G star, has about an 8 year circular orbit, and is around one Jupiter mass.

One gotcha is that the planet has the same orbital period (and phase!) as the star’s magnetic activity cycle. That’s not too surprising: stars’ cycles tend to be around 10 years, and so some will inevitably have planets at similar periods. The phase matchup is a further inevitable coincidence. After all, our stablest stars, like σ Draconis, have big strong magnetic activity cycles and those don’t create phantom planets in our radial velocity measurements.

Or so we argued in the paper. Well, since then, the coincidence between activity and RV has been getting better and better, and as early as seven years ago I had been conceding that this might be a rare, strong activity-RV coincidence.  I mentioned it in at the first EPRV Workshop (you can see it in the slides here) and again at the 20th anniversary of 51 Peg conference in Haute Provence.

Well, here it is again, in our review:

This is one of those cases where I really should get this into a refereed paper, but I’m busy, and more data will make the case stronger, and retractions are hard to get motivated to write.  Anyway, this has been out there for a while in unrefereed form (and actually disputed! though I still think the planet is probably wrong) but I hope to get it properly written up this fall.

Anyway, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the planets are Earth-like, all the objects are Rosetta Stones, and all the signals are significant.

 

Clickbait and Sensationalism

Journalism has been in trouble since… well maybe since forever but it certainly feels more precarious since the World Wide Web destroyed most print journalism as a viable stand-alone business. The New York Times and Washington Post have hung on with quality journalism, but not without moving to a heavy online presence and worrying a lot about generating “clicks” (at least on the business side).

One way to survive is to generate lots of those clicks, and that means “clickbait”—provocative headlines that dare you to ignore them. Whether you find this to be outrageous or just a fact of business probably depends on how exposed you have been to it.  I imagine most journalists take it as a given that headlines and ledes must generate clicks and scrolls in order for them to have jobs, but that what really matters is the meat of the article.

It would be nice if it weren’t so, especially when it’s your science being hyped. Yesterday I wrote about Sabine Hossenfelder’s Forbes article and along the way defended it against accusations that it was “sloppy journalism” and representative “the frenzied sensation-driven nature of mainstream publishing” mostly by linking to it, quoting it, and being incredulous at those descriptions. Some have disagreed with that assessment:

First of all let me sympathize: it is mortifying to see your research in print in a way that sensationalizes it.

Next, let me point out that this is not even close to yellow journalism. I know yellow journalism, and Forbes, senator, is no yellow journalism.1

So maybe it’s because I’ve seen a lot worse and I’ve written for popular outlets and my student Kimberly Cartier wrote a thesis about science communication that I’ve become inured to the way that headlines beg for clicks, even if they don’t represent the meat of the article well.

But I think in this case the Forbes article is actually not in that camp. With the benefit of hindsight or insider knowledge, it might look overblown, but consider:

  1. At the time it was written, there was no LIGO response to go on.
  2. Hossenfelder contacted LIGO and they had no formal response—and said they planned none!
  3. Hossenfelder then got a third party to comment, and they found “the results “quite disturbing” and hope[d] that the collaboration will take the criticism of the Danes to heart. ‘Until LIGO will provide clear scientific (!) explanation why these findings are wrong, I would say the result of the paper to some extent invalidates the reliability of the LIGO discovery.’”
  4. We all know that the scientific literature is often understated, especially when suggesting someone is wrong. An abstract that concludes “A clear distinction between signal and noise therefore remains to be established in order to determine the contribution of gravitational waves to the detected signals.” has a pretty clear meaning: the GW detections are in jeopardy.
  5. After all, the strongest signal was 5.1-sigma.  If there is any reason to think the noise is underestimated then the signal drops below the 5-sigma level.  Now I appreciate that the difference between “significant” and “not significant” is not Itself statistically significant,” but the “New York Times threshold” is actually the one place where which side of 5-sigma you are on absolutely matters!

Given all these items, I think the headline and fInal introductory sentence of the Forbes article is fine:

Was It All Just Noise? Independent Analysis Casts Doubt On LIGO’s Detections

…But what if there wasn’t a signal at all, but rather patterns and correlations in the noise that fooled us into believing we were seeing something that wasn’t real? A group of Danish researchers just submitted a paper arguing that the celebration might have been premature.

Especially given the 5.1 sigma issue, I think that’s totally fair. The paper did cast doubt, none of Hossenfelder’s followup investigations dispelled that doubt, and “celebration might have been premature” is an accurate description of the implications if the detection was actually only, say 2.5-sigma (and Creswell et al. implied it could be much lower than that, IMO).

Anyway, YMMV on this. We can agree that it would be nice if popular journalism were as sober as The New Yorker and as popular as cat memes, but I think we can also agree that that will not happen.

The only practical solutions I see to the larger problem are:

  • Get scientists better at science communication.
  • Appreciate those that are good at it and see them and the work they do as an important part of our profession (the aforementioned Kimberly Cartier included a chapter on this as part of her PhD thesis in Astronomy & Astrophysics—I hope in the future this will not seem novel).
  • Make sure that when our work pops up in the media we know how to manage it. Especially a large, high-profile project like LIGO should have1 team members (or access to professionals) that know how to quickly manage stories.

After all, if LIGO had told Hossenfelder that it was planning a response that completely addressed the Creswell et al. paper and showed it was based entirely on poor analysis, her article would have had a different conclusion and different tone (if it had been written at all!). They had an opportunity to get in front of it and shape the Forbes article, but they did not.

But it all turned out OK: their eventual (though unofficial) response is solid and succeeded because they put it on Sean Carrol’s popular and respected blog instead of waiting for the peer review process. Now the story can be “nothing to see here, move along” and, as a bonus, the referee of the Creswell et al. paper has a great template for their review. Double bonus: now the world understands LIGO better!

1For the kids: Bentsen-Quayle.

[Edit: Hannam responds (click to expand):

]

1I don’t mean to imply LIGO doesn’t have such people—on the contrary I mean that the (by all accounts very good) people it has are essential.