Friday, January 31, 2014

Why not treat scientists like footballers? Because they're not footballers!

I saw this from @sciengage in my twitter feed today and couldn't help myself but to add my opinion.
"Why not treat scientists like the highest paid footballers? They're doing a bit more than kicking balls around..."

A nice article with some pretty good comments and discussion...But,

I don't think the argument is as simple as that. Should we should pay scientists more? or should we should treat scientists like celebrities? This is about equality, respect, trust, celebrity and effectiveness. In this post, i'll address each of those.

Of course I agree with paying scientists more. First up though, I'd extend this to all academics and researchers from any field. Academics certainly do contribute to society and should be rewarded for doing so. Then, if it's contribution to society, then we should also include teachers, garbo's, police to list only three. A call for more money for scientists will not make the problem go away. Either footballers would still get paid too much and the issue will get passed onto other fields, or scientists get paid too much, and the situatino is switched.

Granted, footballers are well respected amongst their fan base, but I certainly don't respect them when they abuse referees, hit their partners, drink too much an punch on... etc, no matter how much they get paid.

If it is a questions of "Should we trust scientists more than footballers?" We already do! Here is a small piece of analysis of Australia's most trusted people from last year. For the full list, go to

Here's the top 11 for you
1. Charlie Teo, neurosurgeon
2. Fiona Wood, burns specialist
3. Ian Frazer, immunologist and cancer vaccine researcher
4. Chris Riley, founder of Youth  Off The Streets
5. Ian Kiernan, Clean Up  Australia founder
6. Mary, Crown Princess  of Denmark
7. Dick Smith, entrepreneur
8. Catherine Hamlin,  obstetrician and gynaecologist
9. Harry Cooper, TV vet
10. Hugh Jackman, actor
11. Karl Kruszelnicki, science journalist

The first three at the on the list I would consider as academics. I'd also ad din #8, #9 and of course #11. No Sports people! The first appearance of a sports person in the list is Libby Tricket (Swimmer) at #18, the first footballer of any kind is Lucas Neill at #49 (The only other footballers in the list are Essendon coach James Hird and Union player Quade Cooper #59 & #71)

There are indeed some super celebrity scientists out there. Some of them I can think of off the top of my dome are Dr Karl, Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Adam Spencer. Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, Brian Schmidt. And that's enough for a football team!

Do we really want to treat scientists like sportspeople anyway? I really don't think so. Spreading their image all over tabloids, fabricating stories about their personal lives, constantly hassling them for their opinions that have nothing to do with their field of research (and focussing only on that, not their amazing skill and work). I imagine that most scientists would probably prefer to be left alone to do their research, rather than be the focus of talkback radio shock jocks or papparazzi for example.

Scientists probably don't want that celebrity status, sure a bit of extra coin would be nice, but we could all use that!

We should certainly not take away the skill, hard work, training, commitment and sacrifice that sportspeople make as well. Could a scientist kick a football around with absolute precision? Probably not (watch Nerds FC!!)

Science is not exactly a spectator event. A thrilling computer simulation just wouldn't get as many ratings as a down to the wire sport contest. We are entertained by sports, a major part of it's popularity is entertainment. That is not the case for science. We do not do science for entertainment, we do it to advance knowledge and make sense of the natural world. They are different, just different, so I think it would be ineffective to simply expect to make scientists into celebrities.

In principle I think the idea is good. Let's pay scientists more. Perhaps sportspeople do get paid too much, but the point is a little bit more complicated than that. In addition, I think the question should really be about if it's really a good move.

Now That'll do from me, the cricket's on!

I'm happy to discuss this further. There's heaps more in it!

Friday, January 24, 2014

SN 2014J

What a week for astronomy! Another example of why we should look up...even in London...on a cloudy night.

I tell students I talk to all the time that science can be done by anyone, even them. Next time you're in a classroom and something is odd, or not expected, have a look at what could be happening, because in some cases, like the discovery of a new supernova, it could be new science.

Supernova 2014J. It'll get brighter over the next couple 
of weeks.

Steve Fossey, an astronomer at the University College London was giving a quick 10 minute lesson to his students on the use of CCD cameras in astronomy, before the clouds in London rolled over. They pointed theirtelescope at the object M82, otherwise known as the cigar galaxy and saw something that "...didn't quite look right"
"One minute we're eating pizza then five minutes later we've helped to discover a supernova. I couldn't believe it," said student Tom Wright "It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place"
The more you look into this story the better it gets. I don't really want to report on all the things that have already been reported, but comment on the situation of students finding the Supernova, the unexpected circumstances and what to can mean for science, science education and awareness.

There is that old adage that scientific discoveries or less commonly followed by the phrase "I knew it" and more by "That's odd." That is almost certainly not exactly true, we scientists know what we are doing (especially if you read grant proposals!!) but we do see some strange results from time to time. Some people call it the Eureka moment, some call it frustrating, some call it their lifes work.

Hans Christian Oersted  immediately came to mind when I heard about the teacher discovering a Supernova this week. Oersted, in 1820, was lecturing on electric current through a wire, noticed that a nearby compass deflected when the current was switched on and restored to its original position when the current was switched off, making a link between electricity and magnetism. We take it for granted now almost.

I love the line "It reminded me why I got into astronomy in the first place. YES! Me too! It makes me want to go out right now and look up at the stars, but I can't because it's raining.  Although that just makes me want to get a radio telescope!

I hope this inspires a few people to one of a whole range of different things. 
  1. To consider science as a real living breathing thing that we are witnessing changing right now.
  2. That Astronomy is really exciting. Seriously, if it wasn't Steve Fossey and his students, it could've been anyone who discovered it
  3. Get involved in amateur astronomy, get a telescope, join a club even just look up and try and familiarise yourself with the night sky.
  4. Find out more and talk to others about Supernovae, or this event
This supernova is going to tell us a lot more than we already know about our universe and it is exciting to se it happen and see it talked about. I'm certainly going to keep my eyes open.

Unfortunately for us in the southern hemisphere, we wont be able to see it, but keep your eyes out in the blogosphere and news for some spectacular pictures. We have already asked those in the north to take some snaps for us, they said they'll do their best! And if you get inspired enough and you want to know more (formally), contact your local astronomer. I know a few, I can put you in touch!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Engagement vs education

I recently sent out an email alert to my colleagues at the University of Sydney School of Physics as an update of what's happening outreach-wise over the holidays and coming up. Among the events and news, were these two items: 

Astronomers collaborate with Artists to create a dance piece called AM I that is being premiered at the Sydney Festival. From all accounts, the show is extremely good! 
Academics from the School of Physics made some comments about the HSC physics syllabus that is being criticised as 'too arty' and the Board of Studies published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 4. It's an interesting and thought provoking read. 

So, am I allowed to smile at a physics bulletin which starts by advertising a dance piece generated in consultation with the physics department and then highlights an article which criticises the change of HSC physics from a mathematics to an 'arts' subject:)? 

I was a little bit surprised when a response was sent back to me about the update that read: 

I took the comment as a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun, but I also saw an opportunity to start a conversation. This is a conversation I've been thinking about a while and would like to begin writing more about. For me, this was a great way to start! 

My response:   

You are of course allowed to smile, and after you mentioned it, I smiled too! And thanks for the different perspective!  

Physics will never be an arts subject, Science and arts work in very different ways and there are of course interesting overlaps. I see a distinction however, in collaboration and education. the news of Astronomers working with artists is all about awareness and the article about HSC is about education. 
Collaboration with the arts is in order to make people aware of the science, not understand the science. I see it as the ‘warm fuzzies.’ People who see that dance piece will walk away from it with a warm fuzzy feeling about astronomy and black holes to some degree, rather than being scared by the term. 

Whereas the HSC is more than awareness, it’s about education and understanding. The audience and objectives are different. I would hope that a student in the HSC can describe with some depth, use some equations, interpret graphs, make observations around the concept of black holes etc, that is, use the scientific method learnt from the HSC. I would not expect them to be able to dance a black hole, nor would I expect someone who has seen the dance piece top describe a black hole in any depth from only seeing that presentation.

Have you seen a program called dance your PhD? This is similar concept. Apart from being a bit of fun, it is a communication exercise, not designed to educate, but for awareness. In a way, any media article for example are similar. They are designed for awareness have a similar point, even some radio and tv shows, science centres for example. There are also many examples that blur the lines between engagement and education (Like the program I run, Kickstart)

To go for an extreme comparison...I’m sure you’d be able to tell the difference between playing the game Operation, and a medical degree!  

Now get involved  

What are your thoughts about public awareness of science vs public understanding if science. the next step is figuring out how to tackle public involvement in science, that is, getting people enrolled at uni, or TAFE, orin online courses, or reading science books or blogs etc. getting people to learn science themselves. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Problem solving

Kepler, and what it's looking at. Credit: NASA
I recently learnt that sometime late last year, the Kepler telescope suffered a pretty huge failure. Two of its four gyroscope reaction wheels, the things that keep it pointing so precisely at that dark part of the sky, have stopped working. A spacecraft needs at least 3 gyroscopes (one in each dimension of x, y and z) for stability and in Keplers case, these needed to be very sensitive in order to collect data from a long way of tiny measurements of light intensity, stellar conditions and asteroseismology.

Apparently on the telescope, there were two good gryos and two not so good ones. It was the not so good ones that failed, and we are left with two gyros left. But that still leaves the problem of on gyro down. The solution is to me a pure act of problem solving, and some great science and Physics to get to the solution.

I love the fact that a seemingly mission terminating failure occurs, but instead of accepting the failure, the mission scientists etc have simple changed the mission lightly to continue observing with only two gryos and possibly even making to experiment better. This is pure brilliance nd I am very lucky that I get to work with some of the people that make this project a reality

The pressure that the photons from the Sun exert on Keplers solar panels in fact give it a small push (very small), but over time, this will put strain on what was determined to be two not so good gryos, and once that have stopped working (friction etc) the solar pressure on the solar panels will push the telescope out of alignment, No mater what you do, you can not keep Kepler pointing at that one spot with only two gyros.

Credit: NASA
This solar pressure is a push, and if you break it down, a Gyroscope can be looked at as a push or a force too. So the idea is to use the solar pressure as a sort of third gyroscope on board the telescope. A brilliant idea, that makes me think that sort of backup plan has been though of all along. It also fills me with confidence that if another gyro goes, they've probably got a solution worked out for that too, if not, they'll certainly be tying to think of one now!

The exciting thing for me is that we'll now be able to look at 2 regions of space to find planets, potentially doubling the amount of planets to be found and gifting us with a comparison of two areas of space. In science we look for comparisons.

I love the fact that seemingly catastrophic failure has not only not been a failure, but cold keep on imaging and providing us with fantastic and meaningful results as well as potentially make the project better.

Scientists are problem solvers, this is what we're good at, it's why scientists are being employed all over the place ow and in some places that you wouldn't expect to see scientists. Financial institutions and the stock market for example. We have analytical brains and approach problems differently than lawyers for example. I'm not saying better, just different. This is a wonderful example of problem solving at it's best.