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 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, 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:

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 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

The Probe and the Crater

Every now and then you come across an image that literally takes your breath away, that hits you so hard you skip a breath. This one did that for me today. (Definitely click for full-size.)

It was taken in 2008 by a camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The obvious, dominant element in the main image—that’s a crater 6 miles across, the scar of an ancient meteor impact. And that tiny speck drifting against this incredible landscape—that!—that is NASA’s Phoenix lander, a probe sent by humanity to explore that alien world. I’m still blown away by the sheer drama of this image—a tiny speck of humanity journeying across the solar system to another planet, its final, triumphant steps recorded by another such feat.

*     *     *

I saw this picture today for the first time today (I must have missed it when it was first released) in a seminar talk by Michael Hecht, who headed the design and construction of an instrument onboard Phoenix that served as the lander’s chemistry lab, analyzing soil samples for signs of life or water. He proudly showed us images of his creation in the lab, called the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer. It was an unassuming box, with four soil collection bins waiting for the little backhoe installed on Phoenix to dump in samples.

MECA in the lab

And then he showed us a picture taken from the Phoenix lander of that little, modest box on the surface of Mars, where its analysis provided humanity with our first knowledge of the chemistry of the soil of an alien world.

MECA on Mars

A murmur went through the crowd of scientists and students. “I always get a little emotional whenever I see this picture,” Hecht said (as I recall from memory). “It’s an incredible feeling to see something that you’ve built, from your own hands and sweat and tears, sitting on the surface of an alien world.”

I talked to Hecht afterwards and thanked him for including the HiRISE image. “It’s absolutely stunning, isn’t it?” he said. He went on to say that the bar had been set by the Phoenix team—and now the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is trying to 1-up them when their next Mars rover, Curiosity, arrives on Mars this August.

It was then that I started to appreciate the image on another level—how much effort went into planning it. Any photographer will tell you about the lengths they have to go to in order to do a location shoot, and how much planning it can take to turn an image in their mind into a photograph. Now imagine doing a location shoot but doing it from 230 million miles away, shooting a subject floating through the Martian atmosphere on a trajectory that can only be calculated, and shooting from a dolly rig orbiting the planet from 500 miles away from the subject. The work and forethought that went into realizing this image—ensuring that Phoenix would be suspended in front of the dramatic backdrop of the crater and that the orbiting MRO would be just in the right position to capture the intended composition—is amazing.

*     *     *

I looked at Mars through a telescope tonight. I could see a red, circular disk, the image shimmering like a car on the horizon on a hot summer day. If I squinted hard enough and watched it shiver in and out of focus, I could almost convince myself I could see some surface detail, black patches here and there. I tried to imagine the plucky Phoenix probe, hurtling through Mars’ atmosphere of carbon dioxide in a fiery streak of plasma, and then parachuting gently over an utterly alien landscape—a machine wrought by human hands in a strange world.

Mars through telescope

I stepped back from the telescope, blinked, and looked back at Mars with my naked eye. Just a reddish point, suspended in the night sky over the Boston skyline.

It’s moments like these when I can hardly believe that we humans send things out there.

But we do. We are a spacefaring species. Pat yourself on the back.

In praise of Michael Bay

I never got into Transformers, the toy line, as a kid. It’s not that I wasn’t into fast cars or giant robots; I just wasn’t allowed to have them. As a result, I had no interest in seeing the first movie; I didn’t see it until a summer Movies in the Park outdoor screening, and even then, I didn’t pay it much attention.

I thought the second one was godawful. I saw it a week or two after I arrived in Korea. I had been traveling in China and Cambodia the month before and was dying to sit in an air conditioned theater and veg out, and with nothing else in Korean theaters in English or with English subtitles, I went to it somewhat enthusiastically.

I hated it, as did everyone else.

But I just saw Dark of the Moon, and I have belatedly realized one thing about Michael Bay:

He is a terribly inventive visual artist.

The first Transformers film was an exercise in boyhood fantasy fulfilment. Tasked with creating a universe out of a line of action figures, Michael Bay’s approach was to bring to life the stories a boy might create as he plays with his toys. The sense of visual wonder that accompanied the transformations of mundane vehicles into anthropomorphized figures was palpable, each one a wonder of graphic and imaginative mechanical design, photographed with swooping cinematography and over-the-top score.

The third film of the franchise, Dark of the Moon, is no longer about the joy of the creation of worlds; it is its own firmly established sci-fi action franchise, and so far removed from the line of toys that spawned it that I found the “Presented in association with Hasbro” title in the opening credits momentarily puzzling. Having created this world, Michael Bay treats it as his own visual playground, and instead of filling it with an affecting plot or character drama he fills it with his own action-movie fantasies. Luckily, they are visually astounding.

With “Dark of the Moon,” he pushes the dumbass summer popcorn-movie formula to the max, and then pushes beyond that into an incoherent, purely symbolic realm that’s closer to experimental cinema than to Hollywood: sunsets and helicopters and vertical plunges through space and aircraft crashing to the ground and images of apocalyptic destruction and male bodies in motion and female bodies at rest […]
Andrew O’Hehir, Salon film critic

That [film musicals] class was important to him, because he realized that you’re not bound by reality in film if you don’t want to be. And his work is about color and movement and a kind of abstraction and unreality that is found in musicals.
Janine Basinger, Wesleyan University Film Studies Department, Chair

“[T]here is almost a level of near-operatic abstraction to Michael Bay’s images when he is directing a really slam-bang, in-your-face action sequence. It almost becomes divorced from narrative, even.”
Justin Chang, Variety film critic

[T]he marriage of your technical filmmaking and action, and the lucidity of the shot design that you create—these long, evolving shots that just go and go until your jaw’s dropping—I thought, “I’ve got to see that in 3D.”
James Cameron to Michael Bay

He is so adroit at composition, blocking, camera movement, color and tone […] [Y]ou can either look at his imagery as assaultive, transformative, or deliriously entertaining.
Steven Spielberg

I guess I ought to give Michael Bay his due. He does more with the 3D format than anyone since James Cameron. I thought Avatar’s use of 3D was at times awkward, with a self-defeating overuse of shallow depth of field that prevented the eye from roaming the third dimension. Bay, having learned from the missteps of others, has a better sense of 3D composition. Filming (and animating the robots) in deep focus, he creates scenes of real depth—stages for his characters to act out their duels.

He’s admitted that 3D has forced him to change his shooting style to avoid disorienting the audience with quick cuts or pans, and I think that works very much to his advantage. In DotM, his camera typically moves slowly and always deliberately, with plenty of wide shots regarding the scenes of mayhem almost dispassionately. Movement in the scene is often accomplished by the blocking of the characters themselves, rather than relying on an overactive camera. This is smart, as it emphasizes the scale of the robots—it would be an unnaturally fast camera that could swoop around them quickly.

But even the robots need a big enough playground to play in, and here Bay makes another good choice in his setting of the film’s final act and climactic battle. In the brick and steel canyons of Chicago, he has finally found an environment big enough for his robots to inhabit, rather than tower over.

There is a virtuoso 3D shot early in the film that lasts only for a moment. A guard stands at a checkpoint in an unnamed Middle East desert. In a medium-close semi-profile shot, we see the road that he is staring down into the distance reflected in his sunglasses. A clichéd shot, not particularly imaginative composition as an image. But in a 3D space, the scene reflected in the guard’s glasses has real depth. It appears as a gaping wormhole: the road disappears into the recesses of a space that exists only in his eye, a literal portal to another dimension. It’s a masterstroke of an image that I’m guessing will be copied ad nausem. It’s a shame that the imagery doesn’t serve a better constructed, more thoughtful story, but so it goes.

The last hour of the film is a self-contained war movie exclusively following the action of the main characters on the ground in the desolate ruins of Chicago, as they are mostly cut off from the A-list supporting cast (John Tuturro, Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich among them). Bay’s accomplishment is to create a visual landscape that portrays an American city not under attack but occupied. Decepticons cling silently to the sides of skyscrapers, curled up like bats, constant reminders of the overwhelming force of the aggressor and falling away at a moment’s notice to investigate any disturbance.

Bay cares little for buildup, for tension, or for evoking what he can simply show you—and he can show you a lot. If nothing else, this is honest filmmaking—rather than cheaply constructing a sense of false mystery by concealing spooky beings with conveniently placed obstacles as if crudely censoring the human body (JJ Abrams and Super 8, I’m looking at you), Bay never hides from you what is visible to his characters.

Nor does he waste time showing what others have already shown you. When Sam Witwicky informs NSA Director Frances McDormand of the impending, climactic attack that the Decepticons will unleash upon Chicago within hours, a different filmmaker might play with the big reveal, showing you Chicagoans gazing upwards in wonder and fear at machines materializing out of thin air, or crowds of unsuspecting citizens at play on Navy Pier as robotic spacecraft approach across Lake Michigan, the way crowds tend to do in alien invasion sci-fi flicks. But with a dash of showmanship and the vigor of an auteur, Bay economically cuts from phone conversation to black for a long beat, then deploys a smash cut to destruction in media res, a single, static wide shot of explosions, laser fire, and smoking skyscrapers along the Chicago River.

And let’s not mince words: the Autobots are triumphs of imagination, animation, and character design—human, organic to their environments, and even, at times, soulful. Bumblebee is the most human, and no wonder, for he speaks to us in our own language, our own words. The pathos he evokes by speaking in clips of the pop culture that he has absorbed as a character (and in the real world represents) is astonishing. He reflects us back at ourselves. In its way, he represents an accomplishment equal with Ben Burtt’s work on Wall•E or R2-D2. And in his relationship with Sam, he succeeds in making us believe that he cares for Shia LeBeouf more than we care for Shia LeBeouf.

Transformers is not about very much most of the time, but it is also—at times—about America’s love affair with space. The film’s main narrative conceit, as the trailer told us, offers an alternate historical timeline of the Space Race that explains why “we haven’t been back since 1972” (as its characters frequently reminds us). It involves a combination of Decepticon infiltration, human weakness, and bureaucracy—and it is two-thirds correct.

While its tribute to NASA may not exactly rise to the level of high art, it is nevertheless a timely and fitting one, opening one week before the final scheduled space shuttle launch. Bay’s reverent photography of the Kennedy Space Center scenes is both a love letter to the space program and a eulogy. When the Decepticons destroy the shuttle Discovery a minute after liftoff, the visual evocation of the Challenger disaster is undeniably unsettling.

Bay has already put his NASA-worship to celluloid explicitly:

“For 30 years they questioned the need for NASA,” Billy Bob Thornton crows in Armageddon. “Today we’re gonna give ‘em the answer!

In GC’s oral history, he reiterates it with a story from the KSC shoot and an argument with Shia LeBeouf on the shot order (emphasis added):

So Shia’s gonna do his emotional scene. He gets out of his car and says, “Michael, you’re gonna start with me first.” And I said, “No, we’re gonna start this way. This is a space shuttle! The United States of America! The last one to be launched!”

That’s right; instead of explaining to his actor that he needs the shot while they have the light, or that the crew is already in place, or for any myriad of technical or artistic reasons, Bay instead shuts him down by essentially screaming “SPACE SHUTTLE! U-S-A!”

For all its primitivity, I find that sentiment quite endearing.

Just three words: "Transit timing variations"

“How many of you read the main Nature article?” Dan Fabrycky asked this morning. He’s a charismatic speaker and one of the lead authors on the scientific paper that announced the discovery of Kepler-11, a six-planet star system, splashed on the cover of Nature the first week of this past February. Hands went up all around the dim lecture hall, many of them belonging to scientists who study astronomy and exoplanets for a living.

“And how many of you read and understood all of the supplemental materials?” he continued, referring to the paper’s appendices in which the nitty-gritty, mathematical details of the techniques used to discover and analyze them were outlined.

Only a handful of…well, hands, stood above a sea of silent scientists. “A few of the co-authors,” Fabrycky dryly noted, and the audience roared with laughter.

These are strange and exciting times for astronomers studying exoplanets. As an outside observer, it’s thrilling to watch, for the tools they’re bringing to bear on Kepler’s data are not tried-and-true algorithms that can be dug up out of textbooks like numerical recipes. Nor are they techniques that scientists have learned to do as students and perfected and polished throughout their careers until they’re like second nature. Instead, we have the pleasure of watching scientists in the prime of their careers doing brilliant work and writing the textbook on these techniques as they invent them—literally. No, really, I mean, literally. Here it is:

Published only last December, it’s a collaborative effort from the elite group of planet hunters to bring their techniques to the scientific masses. Remarkably, it sells for a mere $26 at Amazon, a price point subsidized by NASA in an attempt to get the book into the hands of as many students—and scientists—as possible.

The point is that this is a fast-moving field, and even professional astronomers are unfamiliar with many of its newly-minted tools. Fabrycky sensed this and told the crowd that his goal in his talk was to “get you feeling comfortable with these techniques”.

The specific technique Fabrycky was referring to in this morning’s session on the architecture of exoplanetary systems at AAS—and one of the buzzphrases for the entire conference—was “transit timing variations“, or TTVs, a phenomenon that arises in multiplanet systems.
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Kepler hailed on opening day of AAS Boston

The talks are over and the posters packed up—Day 1 of the summer meeting of the American Astronomical Society is officially over (minus the drinking and late-night carousing)—and from one perspective, NASA’s Kepler Mission, its supremely successful planet-hunting satellite, was the star of the show. But advances were everywhere you looked, from Noreen Grice’s talk on making astronomy accessible to the blind by emphasizing a tactile approach, to a presentation on the upcoming Pan-STARRS wide field imaging survey, to Alan Marscher’s vocal and guitar performance of his astronomy-themed songs.

Nevertheless, if AAS Seattle last January was Kepler’s coming out party, where it floored the astronomical community by announcing an abundance of earth-sized, potentially habitable planets in distant star systems, then today was a performance review bordering on the ecstatic, emphasizing its emerging roles in a diversity of fields, and the progress its scientists have made in analyzing its data.

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AAS Boston! #aas218

The empty press office at #aas218.

Blogging at you live from the American Astronomical Society’s summer meeting in Boston!

AAS is the main scientific body for astronomers in the US, and as such, it’s one of the biggest in the world. It hosts conferences twice a year, a summer and a winter meeting. The winter meeting is by far the larger of the two—about 3000 astronomers show up; considering that there are only about 10,000 professional astronomers in the worldwide community, the winter meeting is one of—if not the—biggest news cycles for astronomy of the entire year. Some of the highest profile science results are announced there—such as the Kepler Mission’s finding of 54 habitable zone exoplanet candidates this past winter in Seattle.

The summer meeting is a bit smaller; I heard someone mention that registration numbered about 1300. Still, it’s a major event, a flat-out, balls to the wall extravaganza of science, talks, posters, and schmoozing. I’ve never been to one before, but it’s exhilarating (and already a bit exhausting). And conveniently for me, this year the meeting is in Boston, at the Westin hotel in Copley Square, just a 20 minute T ride from my apartment in Brookline.

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Scrap paper

What can a single piece of scrap paper hold?

Imagine going down to your local university library and coming across a piece of paper in the archives, long-forgotten, covered in the dusts of time. You pull it out and gaze upon the scribbles from the hand of a man from 400 years ago…

…who is drafting a letter to the prince of Venice. He’s trying to sell him something—a new military instrument. It’s called the “telescope”, and its seller, a man named Galileo, says it enables a commander to “discover the ships of the enemy two hours before they can be seen with the natural vision…and to judge their strength and be ready to chase them, to fight them, or to flee from them.” The pitch has the easy charm of a used car salesman and the bravado of a man who is attempting to profit off of an invention he did not, in truth, invent (he got the idea from lens makers in Holland).

But in the bottom margin, something else—something completely different—is recorded: scribbles, sketches, and figures. Observations from the same instrument—but of what? Stars, of some sort, evidently. Some are repeated with minor variations, as if the man who sketched them was driving himself mad attempting to tease out the secrets of what he’s seeing. And some are indecipherable—in particular, two figures mysteriously marked “10” and “11”…

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The wrong time to be alive

“Is it true that the starlight we see is millions of years old?” one of my students asked me this semester. “So that when we look at the sky we’re actually looking back into the past?”

It was a cold, clear night in Boston, and I was teaching a night lab session on the roof the department building, observing with a few 8-inch telescopes.

“Exactly,” I said, with a big grin on my face. He’d hit upon one of the most poetic truths of astronomy. I spoke loudly enough for the rest of the students on the roof to hear, switching into lecture mode. “Light can’t travel infinitely fast, so it takes some time to reach us. We’re not seeing the stars as they are now, we’re seeing them as they once were—years, centuries, maybe tens of thousands of years ago. The light from the galaxies you can see through the telescopes is millions of years old, or older.”

His response genuinely surprised me. “That’s so depressing!”

“Really?” I asked. “Why?”

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