loc: Seoul, Korea

Mark Zastrow is a science writer based in Seoul. He’s written for Nature, <a href="New Scientist, Sky & TelescopeNOVA Next, and other sites.

He received his bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Minnesota and his masters in astronomy from Boston University. He has a masters in science journalism from Boston University and is currently a full-time freelancer.

He is also a photographer (Photoblog | Flickr), a licensed pilot, and a devout Formula 1 fan.




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Explaining your research in six seconds is hard.

That’s one of my takeaways from the AAAS conference in Boston, where ScienceNow challenged scientists to explain their research within the time constraints of a Vine video. Here’s my attempt:

With hindsight, I can see that I was trying to give the best answer I could. I tried to come up with the most concise, succinct, yet still accurate summary of the concept of magnetic star–planet interaction within the time constraint of six seconds. But as I watched the others, I think I had it backwards: to me, the best ones came from researchers who gave the questions that they are trying to answer. In comparison, mine seems oddly specific, out of context, and a still-confusing explanation of an unmotivated problem.

Here are some of my favorites, which are far more compelling than mine:

I love how it lulls you into a state of confusion with the initial phrase, “We’re trying to make a square…” (Huh? A square?) Then there’s a tiny dramatic beat, and the punch line: “…that rolls across the ground with the same energy loss as a wheel.” (Whaaaa?!) This is one that immediately draws me in and makes me want to find out more.

Here’s another:

Not only does Luna clearly explain the scientific problem to be solved, he also slips in what keeps him going at it—it’s beautiful. A great answer.

And this one seems to have just the right amount of snark for Twitter:

A hook, a motivation, and humor—three things I’ll keep in mind the next time I only have six seconds to make an impression.

The trouble with naming #Nemo

In my last post, I said that naming winter storms made sense to me both as a convenient shorthand, and on the basis that large winter storm systems like Nemo are spawned from slow-moving mid-latitude cyclones. But as Maura Hahnenberger (@Maura_Science) pointed out to me over Twitter, it’s not as simple as I made it out to be:

One thing I didn’t mention was whether or not The Weather Channel has sensible criteria for deciding which storms would qualify for a name. Or whether TWC has any standardized criteria at all. They don’t. This is the main sticking point for meteorologists who deride TWC’s unilateral decision to name storms: their criteria remain arbitrary and, perhaps even worse, proprietary.

The issue of criteria is one that TWC recognized when it announced its plan to name winter storms…and then immediately glossed over:

In addition, the impacts from winter systems are not as simple to quantify as tropical systems where a system is named once the winds exceed a certain threshold. The process for naming a winter storm will reflect a more complete assessment of several variables that combine to produce disruptive impacts including snowfall, ice, wind and temperature. In addition, the time of day (rush hour vs. overnight) and the day of the week (weekday school and work travel vs. weekends) will be taken into consideration in the process the meteorological team will use to name storms.

In other words, there are no set criteria—it is up to a magic formula of factors that they won’t publish. Although they may have good intentions by taking these variables into account, by not standardizing them and making them known, they forfeit any accountability, claim to consistency, and risk their own credibility.

Not all is lost—this doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t set some criteria. But defining a useful set is not trivial. A common point of reference in many news stories has been the “German system of naming winter storms” at the meteorology department at the Free University of Berlin. You might wonder, “Well, if the Germans can figure out criteria on what qualifies as a named storm, then so can we!” But in fact, the German system sidesteps the issue of storm criteria entirely—not only do they give names to windstorms, they assign a name to every low and high pressure system.  Hahnenberger proposes the following compromise:

This seems quite reasonable. Despite the challenges of defining meaningful criteria, the benefits of having named storms remain evident in the wake of #Nemo. The success of The Weather Channel’s naming scheme will undoubtedly increase pressure on the National Weather Service to “get with the times” and co-opt the system next winter—and if they do, it will hopefully be with standardized criteria.

One reason this issue of naming storms fascinates me is because it highlights the unique role of using names to foster science communication. There are many analogs in space science—for example, the anthropomorphism of NASA rovers, the push by some people to begin naming exoplanets to raise awareness. In many ways, it also echoes the debate over Pluto’s planetary status, and the struggle for planetary scientists to define a strict set of criteria for what is and isn’t a planet.

More on this later. In the meantime, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of, if not the largest interdisciplinary scientific conferences in the world, is underway this week in Boston. I’m attending for the first time, and it’s also my first time at any conference as a registered member of the press. Look for my tweets at @markzastrow and watch this space for blog updates!

The naming of #Nemo

As I currently write this, about 8 inches of snow have accumulated on my back porch in Boston, thanks to the winter storm system known commonly as Nemo. That this storm even has a name is a new phenomenon. It comes not from the National Weather Service, which is the authority that names hurricanes. Rather, “Nemo” (and #Nemo) comes to us courtesy of The Weather Channel, which decided this year to assign names to winter storms that it deemed “significant” in order to “increase awareness and enhance communication of disruptive, impactful winter storms.”

Another reason might be to enhance their bottom line. Some people aren’t too happy about this, and one of them is Max Read at Gawker. He argues that the naming scheme, which is not authorized by the National Weather Service, is a “money grab” by TWC designed to heighten the sense of importance and hysteria that fuels high ratings. He also argues that winter weather systems are not as clearly-defined as their cyclonic summer counterparts, and that accordingly, their effects are too geographically inconsistent to be assigned one, all-encompassing name. In contrast,

“[C]yclones, which are the kind of storm that gives rise to hurricanes, are meteorologically-specific events that are easily identifiable; last for a long time; and arise simultaneously with other, similar storms, necessitating individual identification.”

He seems to have an airtight case on the first point, but I’m not convinced about the latter. Large-scale winter weather storms like Nemo are also the result of cyclones—mid-latitude cyclones. They’re slow-moving, large-scale systems resulting from air rushing in to fill large low pressure centers, similar to their tropical counterparts. They can cross the Atlantic and move to Europe, where they do get a name—the weather community there has been doing it for decades. They also are not always officially authorized by a government agency (while the Norwegian weather service does, the names used throughout most of Europe are assigned by the meteorology department at the Free University of Berlin), but are commonly used.

As an astrophysicist, to me, air is air, and when it swirls, it swirls. The same physical effects are at work in a tropical fall cyclone as in a mid-latitude winter cyclone: the Coriolis force, and pressure and temperature gradients. Although they are distinguishable by the region and the season in which they tend to form, I don’t see that as a reason to not name one while naming the other. But, dammit, Jim, I’m an astronomer, not a meteorologist, so perhaps my more earthly-minded friends can chime in on this point.

Regardless, whether The Weather Channel makes money off of naming them seems rather beside the point. Clearly, many weather agencies around the world do feel it is a good idea, on awareness and meteorological grounds. And, I admit that as a Twitter user, having a hashtag is convenient (and fewer characters than the #snowpocalypse that hit the eastern seaboard a few years back).

It does give me pause for a commercial news agency, rather than a scientific one (as in Europe), to take it upon themselves to delegate names. A legitimate concern is that the process will require genuine restraint that could conflict with TWC’s interests. For example, the 1991 “Perfect Storm” eventually evolved into a hurricane after it blew out to sea and was no longer a threat, but remained unnamed by the National Weather Service precisely in order to avoid unwanted confusion. I like the idea of naming winter storms. It would be nice if the National Weather Service would save us all the trouble and simply issue them themselves.

The memetization of NASA (or, why the most important space writer working now is Juli Weiner)


Who is Juli Weiner?

A former Wonkette editor, she currently blogs at VF Daily, Vanity Fair’s all-purpose culture and politics blog. Her bio says she looks for “irreverent and unexpected ways to dissect the news.” So she’s a New York blogger, with that trademark signature of pithy snark, whose recent posts include “Hot, Formerly Naked Guy Scott Brown Declines a Run for Senate Seat of Clothed, O.K.-Looking Guy John Kerry” (February 1) and “Whoever Signs Up to Birth a Neanderthal Clone Must Contribute to The New York Times’ Parenting Blog” (January 22). And recently, she’s been applying that New York blogger voice to science—with fantastic, hilarious results. Since Curiosity’s landing on Mars last summer, she has written a string of posts starring anthropomorphic versions of NASA spacecraft, including:

2012 Dec 14: Emo NASA Is Taking Its Feelings Out on the Moon

2013 Jan 3: Curiosity Rover’s Nerdy Cousin Kepler Telescope Discovers 100 Billion Planets, Is Still Single

2013 Jan 17: Separated at Birth: The Inflatable Space Station and the John Belushi “I’m a Zit” Scene in Animal House

2013 Jan 18: Moon-Orbiting Satellite Thinks the Mona Lisa Beamed by NASA Lasers Is Trite, Vacuous

Here’s an excerpt from a January 11 post titled “Asteroid and Earth Are Going to Be Close—But Nowhere Near as Close As Asteroid and Brian”:

The closest Apophis will come to Earth will be, at maximum, 19,400 miles. By way of comparison, the closest Apophis has come to Brian, another asteroid, was the kind of friendship wherein Apophis felt comfortable giving his Citibank pin number to Brian if they were at a cash-only restaurant without cash and Brian was going to run out to the ATM anyway. [. . .] And how close are Apophis and Brian now? At minimum, 19,400 miles or so, emotionally speaking.

Which prompted one commenter to post, “Good god this is a vapid article.”

Why are her pithy, irreverent, and perhaps even vapid posts so important? Because they epitomize the most important shift for NASA’s media relations since the end of the shuttle era: NASA has gone from being a content provider to memetic material.

Let me explain a bit what I mean. NASA has long had an online presence at NASA.gov since the early days of the internet. But it never quite evolved beyond simply being a place for content—an archive of press releases, images, and low-production videos. Even when NASA, as an institution, waded into social media, its efforts have focused more on generating fresh content than page views. This isn’t an inherently bad thing—NASA pioneered its concept of Tweetups, in which journalists, bloggers, and enthusiasts were recruited via Twitter to meetup in person at NASA centers around the country to get limited-access tours. This generated new streams of content and community, but not necessarily vast new numbers of eyeballs. The longest arms of NASA’s reach remained the mainstream media—newspapers, magazines, TV evening news reports.

And as the number of science reporters working at mainstream media outlets plummeted, NASA.gov soldiered on, continuing to be a reliable home for NASA’s content, waiting to be picked up by the next Google searches.

There’s just one problem now: People don’t search for content anymore.

They used to. Here’s the volume for the search term “NASA” on Google, dating back to 2004.


The peak search volume happens to occur at the very beginning of the time series, Jan 2004, when the rovers Spirit and Opportunity successfully landed on Mars. Now compare that to the search volume for August 2012’s landing of the Curiosity rover—the spike marked “B”—which clocks in at only 23% of the search volume of the 2004 rovers.

This is—well, curious. After all, Curiosity’s landing was the very epitome of a netizen Big Internet Event. It was dramatic, featuring a Rube Goldbergian sequence of rockets and winches that seemed increasingly inconceivable the more you learned about it. It was heart-warming— filled with scenes of overjoyed people cheering, crying, and provoking the kind of feel-good pathos usually reserved on the internet for pictures of cats looking at ceilings.

And it was live. Not only was it live-streamed, it was live-tweeted and live-memed. Like all Big Internet Events, it came complete with a viral video campaign (the famous “Seven Minutes of Terror” YouTube video that played like a trailer to a Hollywood action pic) and the requisite Unexpected Internet Celebrity (dreamy Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as “NASA Mohawk Guy”).

bobak guides a robot through space

And yet, this Big Internet Event generated less than a quarter of the “NASA” search volume of the relatively pedestrian landings of Spirit and Opportunity eight years earlier, consistent with the overall downward trend in between. What gives?

There are many plausible reasons that may have been contributing factors, but I think this plot shows, quite dramatically, how in the eight years between Opportunity and Curiosity sinking their wheels into Martian soil, people stopped consuming their news and content via Google and started getting it from Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs we already read. The health of NASA’s public image, its visibility, and, by extension, the sustainability of the agency itself is tied, in part, to how well they deal with this shift. NASA’s web site can be filled with the most wonderfully informative and timely press releases (and it usually is), but none of it will make a whit of difference in convincing citizens that they are getting a return on their tax dollars if no one ever shares it over social media.

Weiner’s posts ought to warm the heart and soul of every NASA PR person, because this kind of memetic trivialization is exactly what NASA needs. Blogs like BoingBoing, Gizmodo, and io9 do a great job of serving up daily heaps of news for a self-selected audience that is already interested, but spillover from geeky sci/tech blogs into the arts and culture rags is a huge PR opportunity for NASA to embed itself into today’s cultural narrative. Here’s Weiner’s rationale for her recent spate of NASA posts, outlined in this December 2012 entry:

Taking a step back for a moment, we would like to admit that before the launch, temper tantrum, depressive spiral, and nascent online-shopping addiction of the Curiosity rover, we did not really pay attention to NASA. Like most journalists, we are essentially unable to perform even basic arithmetic, and like most recent ex-high-schoolers, any discussion of astronomy usually leads to remembrances of planetarium trips past, which inevitably generates an intense urge to smoke pot and nap. We will admit that. However, we will also admit that since beginning to keep up with NASA and its troupe of inexplicably yet sweetly personified space craft, we are completely unable to stop.

NASA. NASA. How are you doing?

This is NASA PR gold. Now, it’s true that Weiner is only one anecdote, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. But Weiner’s posts, coming off the wildly successful memefest that was Curiosity’s landing, are at least anecdotal evidence that the ground is shifting, and that for the first time since the dawn of social media, NASA is becoming part of the online ebb and flow—not just a player, but part of the currency of the social web itself.

"Time to see where our Curiosity will take us."

Imagine the view from the summit of Mt. Sharp on Mars early Monday morning. Atop a mountain taller than any in the continental United States, you look out in all directions at a vast, barren, red landscape, bathed in what seems like a perpetual twilight glow from an oddly distant sun. To the north, a dune field, crawling indeterminably across the surface in a wind 1/100th the density of Earth’s. Beyond it, the rim of Gale Crater, some 20 km away, surrounding you on all sides. Beyond that, the Martian horizon—strangely and unsettlingly near, a consequence of standing on a world barely half the size of Earth.

A desolate landscape, completely devoid of visible life.

And then, out of the corner of your eye, to the northwest, a small grey blob appears streaking over the horizon through the atmosphere. It erupts into a much larger white blob—a parachute. Dangling from it is what appears to be an enormous dinner plate with a cover. The plate falls away, crashing to the surface in a plume of red dust. The plate cover remains suspended from the chute. And then falling out from under it emerges a giant spindly robot—the size of a cargo van—free falling towards the Martian surface.

You hold your breath.

Then, with a weak roar (that reaches you far later than you expect, the sound carrying weakly in the thin atmosphere), retrorockets on the robot burst into action, arresting its fall. It maneuvers like a falling spider on a jetpack, veering off towards the northern side of the crater. As it flies toward your vantage point, you make out what seems to be a second, spidery, six-legged robot the size of a compact car attached to the bottom, like a baby carried by a stork.

powered flight
The entire apparatus makes a beeline for a spot just north of the dune field, well within the crater rim, some 30 miles away. It comes to a stop, a tiny dot against the horizon, halting its descent in a perfect hover 130 feet above the ground, its retrorockets kicking up a huge cloud of dust.

You squint. Through the dust, you think you can make out something incredible.

The second spidery robot is being lowered on a rope from the hovering mothership onto the surface of Mars.

It disappears into the dust cloud. A few seconds later, the skycrane mothership suddenly launches itself towards the sky and off to the east. Its rockets are spent; its mission is complete. It carries itself on a ballistic trajectory across the crater plain, crashing into the surface over a kilometer away, dying in a giant, sideways cloud of ejected Martian dirt.

Gale Crater is silent again. But now, it’s a little less desolate.

It has a visitor—an interplanetary sojourner from another world sharing the same sun, spinning silently some 150 million miles away. After trekking across the system from one planet to the next, it sits on an alien plain, awaiting commands from the species that created it, a species seeking to know where it lives, ready to search for life, for signals that it is not alone.

Its name is Curiosity.

And we sent it there.

Mt. Sharp

Watch the entire landing sequence in NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System simulator: http://bit.ly/NCuFdi

You should click that link. Seriously, it’s super cool.

A film by NASA

About a year and a half ago, a video went viral called “NASA—The Frontier is Everywhere”. It was a promotional ad for the beleaguered space agency—but not one like it had ever produced.

A meditative piano underscores silent, haunting images of society in chaos—riots, hunger, brutality. There is no heroism in sight, no slow-motion, Right Stuff walks down the gantry towards the camera to the solemn call of trumpet solos and snare drums. Instead, the inimitable baritone of Carl Sagan, in a segment of his original narration from Cosmos, asks the listener: We who cannot even put our planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds—are we to venture out into space?

The answer comes quietly. We’re an…adaptable species, Sagan reassures us. It will not be we…it will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent. For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.

The piano strikes its final chords. A space shuttle lifts off in silence. We drift over the blue marble of Earth.

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond…will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings…how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

The final image: NASA’s “meatball” logo, the familiar blue orb.

The video received over 1.7 million views. The credits read: “Social media created for NASA by Reid Gower.”

Reid Gower is not employed by NASA. He received no payment from NASA for the social media exposure (over a million views). He isn’t even an American citizen. The video was born out of frustration. “NASA is the most fascinating, adventurous, epic institution ever devised by human beings, and their media sucks,” he wrote in the video description. “Seriously. None of their brilliant scientists appear to know how to connect with the social media crowd, which is now more important than ever. In fact, NASA is an institution whose funding directly depends on how the public views them.”

It looks like a few people at NASA heard him loud and clear, and are finally doing something about it.

That would be the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

To date, most of its visualizations have been created with the relatively modest goal of finding unique ways to visualize data sets. “The mission of the Scientific Visualization Studio is to facilitate scientific inquiry and outreach within NASA programs through visualization,” its web site dryly states. “To that end, the SVS works closely with scientists in the creation of visualization products, systems, and processes in order to promote a greater understanding of Earth and Space Science research activities at Goddard Space Flight Center and within the NASA research community.” Not exactly the most exciting way to put it.

The visualizations are something else.

In one, ocean currents trace out mesmerizing patterns, the sinks and eddies of ocean currents rendered as pulsing streamlines that prompted comparison to Van Gogh’s Starry Night from io9, the popular commercial design blog of Fast Company, and the UK Daily Mail. It’s as beautiful and elegant a rendering of a scientific dataset as you can find.

But its latest one, titled Pursuit of Light, tries for something more—to tug on your heartstrings, to make you love NASA. In the Reid Gower mold, it juxtaposes spectacular images from NASA planetary missions with a large dose of humanity. Spectacular cratered landscapes of alien moons raked by stark shadows and vistas of UV aurora dancing around the poles of Saturn share screen time with stock footage of urban time-lapses and children painting on a golden sun-drenched patio. Titles dissolve in: Are we alone? Will we endure? What makes us who we are? How far to the farthest star? What then? We’re heading out. Come with us. Even more than Gower’s original video, it is an explicit cry for support.

It’s not perfect. It is, perhaps, a bit overwrought compared to Gower’s quiet editing. And at over six and a half minutes, it is probably too long to go truly viral. But it seems to represent a growing and much-needed evolution in NASA’s thinking about how it promotes its online brand—and yes, NASA is a brand, and ought to think like one.

It also seems clear that SVS hasn’t maxed out its exposure yet. The Perpetual Ocean video was created as a submission to an academic research conference on digital animation and rendering research conference with attendance of 15,000, but was not accepted. SVS posted the failed entry to their site on the NASA.gov domain almost as an afterthought, letting it languish only as a download. It wasn’t until April 2012, when a truncated three-minute clip was loaded to Flickr, that the clip went viral and was viewed by millions.

But viral it went, and SVS is starting to build a following. Although NASA has had success in getting its astronauts and missions to engage in social media, education and outreach isn’t the same thing as building brand awareness. SVS is clearly trying to bridge this gap, and seems to understands the importance of connecting the warm fuzzies and awe inspired by the images with the organization—the brand—that brought them to you.

They certainly have adopted one cinematic gesture from Gower. The final image of Pursuit of Light: the NASA logo.

NASA meatball logo