02 January 2012

Applying to Grad School

I haven't posted here in quite some time. I've been spending more time on my LJ and Twitter accounts (try this same username both places), and works' been pretty draining for the past year. But I wanted to post that I'm applying to return to graduate school for my PhD in either physics or astronomy, with research focusing on physics education research (PER) or astronomy education research (AER), respectively.

07 July 2011

FY 2012 Congressional budget axes the James Webb Space Telescope

Bad Astronomy (Phil Plait)'s post on the subject

House Committee on Appropriations post on the subject

Write your own letter to Congress (site via the National Education Association, but you'll be writing your own content and can opt out of sending a copy to the NEA or getting on their email lists)

Model letter on the subject
Please feel free to use my letter, below, to model after for a letter to Congress. Also feel free to repose elsewhere.

I am writing today to strongly urge you to reconsider cutting appropriations for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) from the FY 2012 appropriations. I am a full-time Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at XXX Community College, and I live and vote in your district in XXX.

With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, the US is already falling behind its international competitors and collaborators in the field of space exploration. Our two most important space observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST or Hubble) and the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST or Spitzer, which operates in the infrared as will the JWST) are soon going to come to an end as well. Without the JWST to replace them, we will be even further behind.

These space-based observatories are able to observe things that no other facilities in the word (or orbiting above it) are able to do. Observatories on the ground are not able to make as sharp images or images in the infrared due to the obscuring nature of the Earth's atmosphere. Other space observatories are designed to fill different roles than Hubble and Spitzer, and the work those two space observatories perform cannot be replaced by other existing space observatories. Once they are gone and without a replacement observatory, there will not be a single nation in the world able to conduct astronomy of this sort.

In addition, all the parts of the JWST have already been manufactured and are now in the process of being assembled. At the very worst, I urge you to set aside enough money for the project to be suspended and the parts stored for later assembly while investigating the management of the project, rather than axing the JWST entirely which would necessitate disposing of the parts.

Thank you for your time reading this letter. Once again, I live and vote in your district, and I will be urging my friends and colleagues to write to their representatives as well.

13 October 2009

This is why we have SI

I have a bottle of a nasal spray that I'm using for allergies, and it says on the label that each spray delivers "50 mcg" of the drug. What in the world is a "mcg"? Do you think they mean μg (microgram), which is 10-6grams, or in SI units a single spray would be delivering 5*10-8kg of drug, or do you think they mean m-c-g (milli-centi-grams), which would be 10-3*10-2grams =10-5grams, or in SI units a single spray would be delivering 5*10-7kg? These are two different values depending upon how I read the label, one of which is the actual amount of drug delivered and the other of which is either 10 times or one tenth the amount of drug delivered.

This is the whole reason we have metric prefixes in the first place, to reduce confusion and have a standard system whose meaning everyone agrees to. Good thing the actual quantity of the drug here doesn't matter to me, I just take my prescribed two sprays.

30 August 2009

Mt. Wilson Observatory threatned by fire

The Mount Wilson Observatory is home to the 100-inch (2.5m) Hooker telescope, one of the most historical telescopes in the era of modern astronomy. Following on the heels of the Harvard College Observatory Computers'1 work on classifying stars, the Henry Norris Russell used the Hooker telescope, and in conjunction with Ejnar Hertzsprung developed the diagram now known as the Hertzsprung-Russell (or HR) diagram, a diagram of as much importance to astronomy as the periodic table is to chemistry. More famously, Edwin Hubble used the Hooker when he discovered the expansion of the universe, disproving the leading steady state hypothesis (even espoused by Albert Einstein). It is probably even more important that Hubble first proved that all those fuzzy "spiral nebulae" were actually entirely separate galaxies, but we take that for granted today, while cosmologists are still working on the details of the universe's expansion.

So with this background about the Mt. Wilson Observatory under your belt, perhaps you will understand some of the fear I feel when I read that as of 5:42 PDT (8:42 EDT) the LA Times was estimating that the current wildfires outside LA would probably raze the observatory within hours. As of this writing (8:57 PDT / 11:57 EDT) the fires have not yet reached the observatory (though they are visible from the observatory webcam, link is to a screenshot of the webcam since the webcam server itself is overloaded). The director of the observatory reports that firefighters will be remaining in place on Mt. Wilson overnight, implying that it is safe enough to do so, and hopefully they will be able to keep fighting and save the historic observatory.

If you the most more up-to-date information that I have been able to find, follow Mike Brown's twitter feed @plutokiller (yes, THAT Mike Brown). If the observatory does burn down overnight, I'd appreciate it if someone txted me.

1 Also referred to as "Pickering's Harem,"2 after the fact that Harvard College Observatory Director, Edward Pickering, famously stated that his male graduate students were so inept that his maid could do a better. Following on the statement, Pickering did hire his maid (Williamina Fleming) and then a string of other women, hence the unflattering name for the group. Despite the name, these human "computers" did amazing work, revolutionizing the field of stellar classification.

2 The incidence of referring to both harems and hookers in the same post is purely coincidental.

Current music: "Cold Missouri Waters" by Dar Williams, et al.

25 August 2009

Noble Nobels

During WWII, two German Nobel Prize laureates (in physics) escaped to Denmark. When it too was taken over, their medals were chemically dissolved by Danish physicist Neils Bohr and Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy to keep them safe from the Nazis (and to keep the physicists safe as well, as taking gold out of Nazi Germany was a crime). The solution must have just looked like any other bottle of chemicals, because after the war was over, Hevesy precipitated the gold out of the solution, sent it back to the Swedish institution that grants the Nobels, and they generously recast the medals and reawarded them to the two physicists.

02 August 2009

Order of Magnitude

This image is truncated on the right, please click on it to see the full version!

With the power of science we can now calculate this! At least a rough number.

Let's say that teach morning you create a small bit of crud 1mm to a side, so 1mm by 1mm by 1mm, so the volume of this one bit of crud is 1e-9m^3 (or if you like to write things fancy, 10-9m3). Yeah you have two eyes, but this is a rough calculation, so I'm going to ignore that. I'm also going to ignore that you don't wake up with crud every day of your life. We do however need your lifespan, let's say 80 years approximately, 365.25 days per year, so you live 2.922e4 days, or let's round that off and say 3e4 days. Multiply the number of days you wake up, by how much crud you get each day, and voila, 3e-5m^3.

According to my favorite conversion website, a teaspoon has a volume of around 5e-6m^3, with the result that you actually produce around 6 teaspoons of eye crud in your lifetime.

12 July 2009

Professional Ethics in Astronomy

Reposted in its entirety from an AAS email.

The AAS has drafted a statement on professional ethics on June 7, 2009 (see below). AAS members are asked to login to the AAS Forum at


and provide comments. The comments will appear online after a moderator has approved them.

AAS Statement on Professional Ethics:
The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the Universe. We believe the advancement of astronomy requires that we provide ethical guidelines for AAS members and, for that matter, anyone involved in professional astronomical activities.

Every astronomer is a citizen of the community of science. Each shares responsibility for the welfare of this community. We endorse the statement of the American Physical Society that "Science is best advanced when there is mutual trust, based upon honest behavior, throughout the community." All scientists should act ethically in the conduct of their research, in teaching and education, and in relations with both members of the public and other members of the scientific community. We have a special responsibility to students and postdocs to train them in ethical conduct.

The American Astronomical Society believes that the following are the minimal standards of ethical behavior relating to the profession.


All people encountered in one's professional life should be treated with respect. Discourse should be civil. Scientists should work to provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. They should promote equality of opportunity and treatment for all their colleagues, regardless of gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or any other reason not related to scientific merit. This principle is clearly stated in our By-Laws.

More senior members of the society, especially research supervisors, have a special responsibility to facilitate the research, educational, and professional development of students and subordinates. This includes providing safe, supportive working environments, fair compensation and appropriate acknowledgment of their contribution to any research results. In addition, supervisors should encourage the timely advance of graduate students and young professionals in their career aspirations.

It is also incumbent on senior members of our society to inform more junior members of these ethical issues and of institutional and government guidelines, policies and precedures related to the oversight and maintenance of ethical standards for research and conduct. It is the responsibility of all members of our society to familiarize themselves with such guidelines, policies and procedures.


It is an ethical responsiblity that research results be recorded and maintained in a form that allows review, analysis, and reproduction by others. It is incumbent on researchers involved in large, publicly-supported studies to make results available in a timely manner.

Fabrication of data or selective reporting of data with the intent to mislead or deceive is unethical and unacceptable, as is the appropriation of data or research results from others without permission and attribution.

It should be recognized that honest error is an integral part of the scientific enterprise. It is not unethical to be wrong, provided that errors are promptly acknowledged and corrected when they are detected.


All persons who have made significant contributions to a work intended for publication should be offered the opportunity to be listed as authors. This includes all those who have contributed intellectually to the inception, design, execution, or interpretation of the research. Other individuals who have contributed to a study should be appropriately acknowledged. The sources of financial support for any project should be acknowledged/disclosed. All collaborators share responsibility for any paper they coauthor, and every coauthor should have the opportunity to review a manuscript before its submission.

Proper acknowledgement of the work of others must always be given, and complete referencing is an essential part of any astronomical research publication. Authors have an obligation to their colleagues and the scientific community to include a set of references that communicates the precedents, sources, and context of the reported work. Deliberate omission of a pertinent author or reference is unacceptable. Data provided by others must be cited appropriately, even if obtained from a public database.

All authors are responsible for providing prompt corrections or retractions if errors are found in published works.

Plagiarism is the presentation of others' words, ideas or scientific results as if they were one's own. Citations to others' work must be clear, complete, and correct. Plagiarism is unethical behavior and is never acceptable.

Authors, editors and referees should also be aware of the professional and ethical standards that have been adopted for the AAS journals ( http://aas.org/ethicsPolicy ).


Peer review is an essential component of many aspects of the scientific process such as evaluating research proposals, publishing research results, and evaluating colleagues for career advancement.

Peer review can serve its intended function only if the members of the scientific community are prepared to provide thorough, fair, and objective evaluations based on requisite expertise. Although peer review can be difficult and time-consuming, scientists have an obligation to participate in the process.

Reviewers should disclose conflicts of interest resulting from direct competitive, collaborative, or other relationships with those they are reviewing and recuse themselves from cases where such conflicts preclude an objective evaluation. It is unethical to seek to gain an advantage by means of reviewing the work of others.

Privileged information or ideas that are obtained through peer review must be kept confidential and not used for competitive gain.


Many activities of scientists and educators have the potential for a conflict of interest. Any professional relationship or action that may either be or be perceived as a conflict of interest should be fully disclosed. Most organizations or activities have mechanisms for managing conflicts, for example, through recusal. If a conflict of interest cannot be properly managed, the activity should be avoided or discontinued.