Friday, June 5, 2015
Thursday, September 18, 2014
|A spectacular picture of auroras by photographer Mike Taylor taken over Unity Pond in Waldo County, Maine on September 12, 2014. Credit: Mike Taylor photography.|Shown in the main part of this graphic is an artist's impression of the star WASP-18 and, in the foreground, its hot Jupiter WASP-18b. The insets show the star in the optical image and its non-detection in X-rays with Chandra. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/I.Pillitteri et al; Optical: DSS; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss An artist's impression of the star CoRoT-2a and its hot Jupiter exoplanet, CoRoT-2b. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Inspired by the people I know with neurological challenges, I volunteered to help and was assigned to lead one of the four subgroups the students were divided into, along with their parents. My main job was to make sure the group made it to the different talks and sessions scattered throughout the maze-like building that is CfA.
Also included in the program were a couple of short talks by graduate students in the Harvard astronomy department. Sarah Willis and Wen-fai Fong both gave interesting and enthusiastic presentations about their lives as students, including details about their background and what they enjoyed about doing research.
In the afternoon, Bruce Ward gave a very good talk about the Great Refractor Telescope at CfA, located just a few feet down the hall from my office. After being installed in 1847, the Great Refractor was the largest telescope in the United States for 20 years and was “the most significant American astronomical instrument and equal to the finest in the world”, according to the Harvard College Observatory.
|The Great Refractor Telescope at CfA. Credit: Harvard College Observatory.|
Afterwards, Smadar and another astronomer gave presentations about their own personal stories. These were private discussions and I didn't attend, but I'm sure that they provided valuable insight into the challenges that neurodiversed astronomers can face, and the successes that they can achieve.
Later in the afternoon, Matt Schneps gave an excellent presentation about how technology can be used to help overcome neurological challenges. Examples he gave included the use of voice recognition software to compose text, and use of the "reader" option in the Safari web browser to simplify the information presented in a webpage.
What does the future hold for the Astronomy for Everyone program? Smadar Naoz has moved to the University of California, Los Angeles and plans to run the program there. Her long-term plans are bigger than that, as she wants to influence as many people as possible. She would like to expand the program in scope so it is run at multiple institutions in different parts of the country. Her really long-term goal is to do an integration day across the country and even across continents.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
|Gravitational waves from inflation are expected to generate a faint but distinctive twisting pattern in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the left over radiation from the Big Bang. This twisting pattern is known as a "curl" or B-mode pattern. For the density fluctuations that generate most of the polarization of the CMB, this part of the primordial pattern is exactly zero. Shown here is the actual B-mode pattern observed with the BICEP2 telescope, which is consistent with the pattern predicted for primordial gravitational waves. The line segments show the polarization strength and orientation at different spots on the sky. The red and blue shading shows the degree of clockwise and anti-clockwise twisting of this B-mode pattern. (Caption has been slightly modified from the CfA version.) Credit: BICEP2 collaboration|
− Peer review is not a flawless process and this is a public way to acknowledge that. As biologist and blogger Jonathan Eisen has pointed out, we should not deify peer review. There are many examples where peer review has failed to detect serious problems published in science papers, including the well-known "arsenic life" paper in Science. This article by Carl Zimmer gave a devastating response to that paper by independent experts, not long after it was published, contrasting strongly with the very positive reviews by referees, as reported by Dan Vergano.
One of the problems caused by the arsenic paper was that multiple scientific disciplines were covered, making the paper difficult to referee, even using three reviewers. In astrophysics, most of the commonly-used journals like The Astrophysical Journal usually use only one referee, so if the journal makes a poor choice of referee, the review can have very limited benefits. However, with BICEP2 a much more narrow range of expertise was required than for the arsenic paper, and there was an obvious choice for a referee: one of the leading researchers for WMAP or Planck would have been very appropriate. In their published paper, the authors acknowledge “detailed and constructive recommendations” from two anonymous referees.
− In cases where peer review has failed we can thank post-publication peer review for exposing the problems. By publicizing before peer review, authors are effectively inviting an open, informal refereeing process to run in parallel with the journal’s peer review. The BICEP2 authors effectively acknowledge this in the “Note added” section near the end of their published paper. An open process like this gives scrutiny from the greatest possible number of experts before the paper is published. Such an approach makes a lot of sense in giving the best paper, assuming that the authors seriously consider the comments they receive, as the BICEP2 authors appear to have done. (As an aside, open peer review arguably should include a public record of comments and responses, as suggested, for example, by planners of the Open Journal for Astrophysics. However, this journal is still in the testing phase.)
Similarly − on the publicity side − much of the potential benefit of open peer review depends on how the team respond to external comments and criticism. For example, if necessary, will they put out a new release or a correction explaining any changes to their original publicity claims, especially when more data becomes available?
− By placing the paper on the arXiv and publicizing it at an early stage, there is an opportunity for outsiders to witness some of the scientific process in action, as noted by Dennis Overbye. In the case of BICEP2 the skepticism of experts was quickly revealed in comments given in the press, as reported by Joel Achenbach. The paper triggered a flurry of activity, with 421 papers citing the original paper − at the time of writing − most of them theory papers where the result was assumed to be correct. At the same time, the detailed observational results were closely examined and criticized as noted by Richard Easther, Alan Duffy, Heino Falcke and others, resulting in some important revisions.
− By doing publicity before publication, results can be released to the public and to other scientists earlier than they otherwise would have been, since the authors do not have to wait for the refereeing process. In fields like medical science, delays can potentially be life-threatening. In astrophysics there is less practical need for haste, but long delays can be frustrating.
|The BICEP2 telescope in the foreground and the South Pole Telescope in the background. Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University).|
− The most important disadvantage: there is a chance a very good referee or referees will be found and the paper will be improved. It is possible that just the clarity of description or the references will be improved, but it is also possible that significant problems in analysis or interpretation will be found. For example, maybe the referee will be the world’s leading expert about crucial but problematic details of the analysis. This is a conservative approach to publicity, adopting the attitude that some independent checking is better than none.
In the case of BICEP2, their use of Planck data from a conference talk was problematic and they may not have properly accounted for all of the foreground emission, as explained in this paper submitted in late May by Raphael Flauger, Colin Hill and David Spergel. The Flauger et al. paper’s abstract finishes by saying:“These results suggest that BICEP1 and BICEP2 data alone cannot distinguish between foregrounds and a primordial gravitational wave signal, and that future Keck Array observations at 100 GHz and Planck observations at higher frequencies will be crucial to determine whether the signal is of primordial origin.“
In the published version of their paper, the BICEP2 authors, to their credit, have added a number of important caveats including this sentence added to the abstract: “However, these models are not sufficiently constrained by external public data to exclude the possibility of dust emission bright enough to explain the entire excess signal”. They also added this statement near the end of the paper: “More data are clearly required to resolve the situation.” If they had received some of this feedback about foreground emission from a referee or colleague before publicity, their press conference claims may have been made with less confidence.
− For academics, whether they like it or not, publishing papers in journals is still (*) one of the main arbiters of academic success. A successful paper isn't achieved until publication is complete and publication isn't complete until peer review is finished. So, by publicizing before peer review is finished you can give the appearance of adopting one standard for your scientific colleagues and a different, lower one for everyone else.
− With publicity, especially a press conference, you can reach a bigger or a much bigger audience than you would normally reach without publicity. The audience is the tax-paying public, who fund a large amount of research. So, as a matter of responsibility, standards of review should not be significantly lowered even if there are time pressures, such as fears of leaks or concern about being scooped by competitors.