Monday, January 7, 2013

Standing Out at a Big Science Meeting

After flying across the US, today I will attend the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in Long Beach, California. This is one of the largest astronomy meetings in the world, involving almost 3,000 astronomers and more than 1,900 talks and posters. There are ten press briefings for science writers, each of them including several different results for a total of 42 presentations (Douglas Adams fans would approve). Clara Moskowitz, from space.com, has already written an introductory article about the meeting and I've seen blog posts by Nicole GugliucciKevin Schawinski and astrobetter. I'm sure there are others.

With a meeting of this size, one of the bigger challenges for people is getting noticed, whether it be for your poster or your press briefing. In this post I'll discuss some ways to get attention that shouldn't attract the derision of colleagues or a visit by the local police. I'll also give an informal preview of the press briefings.

Press Briefings

I'll begin with the press briefings, where science writers are the main audience. Rick Fienberg, the AAS press officer, had the daunting task of winnowing about 1900 abstracts down to ~40 for the briefings. Astronomers attending the meeting can help by self-selecting their abstracts as being potentially interesting to the public. I'm unsure how useful this is, since it depends on how many people decide to self-select and how wisely they do it. Presumably, Fienberg will try to follow the advice given in this article, "What Makes an Astronomy Story Newsworthy?". If a result satisifies several of the criteria listed here, it may be appropriate for publicity. It helps that Fienberg has a lot of experience in astronomy publicity, having worked at Sky and Telescope for many years. He's also managed to get the AAS onto Ivan Oransky's Embargo Watch honor roll, and to maintain this status by smart handling of an embargo break.

Not only are there many abstracts to choose from at the AAS, but they are often vague about what the results and conclusions are. One reason for this is that people often submit AAS abstracts before their work is completed or even started, so at the time of writing they don't know what their results will be. This means that some educated guessing and detective work is needed to select interesting results. Fienberg also relies on the assistance of public affairs officers at universities, observatories and science centers like those at the Chandra X-ray Center or Space Telescope Science Institute. It's good division of labor.

Here are some briefings that caught my eye, and why, based on the limited information available to me. The first briefing on Monday, Jan 7th, at 10:30am (PST) is about exoplanets, including new results from Kepler. The study of exoplanets is probably the hottest field in astronomy at the moment, so this helps attract attention, but the titles of the abstracts can still sound dry to a non-expert audience. For example, one abstract, by Francois Fressin from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is titled "Kepler False Positive Rate & Occurrence of Earth-size and Larger Planets", but the corresponding briefing is titled "At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-size Planet", which sounds more interesting because it gives a specific result.

The next session (Mon, 12:45pm, PST) is about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field providing data on very distant galaxies, with some at redshifts perhaps as large as 12, when the universe was only a few percent of its current age. This field has built-in superlatives and these have an easier job impressing people, especially those who don't have a solid background in astronomy. However, writers might also be suffering from news-fatigue in this area, because several contenders for the most distant galaxy have been claimed over the last year or so, including one just last month at an unconfirmed redshift of 11.9.
We'll see if the briefing by Richard Ellis from Caltech, titled "Hubble’s First View of the Universe to Redshifts 12", is referring to more data obtained for this previously-reported object, or a new, even more distant object. It could be something else altogether.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech and the UDF 2012 Team
The 3rd session on Monday (2:30pm, PST) is titled "A High-Energy Astrophysics Extravaganza" and begins with a briefing about results from the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), a NASA mission. This launched on June 12 last year, but few results have been released so far, so it will be interesting to hear about progress. The abstract is vague and gives little away.

I know that the next high-energy astrophysics briefing, by Oleg Kargaltsev, is interesting because I helped organize it. It's about observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory of "remarkable" - using the author's word - variations in a jet from the Vela pulsar. One reason this result might stand out for writers is a visual one: it involves a movie, rather than still images. It also involves exotic behavior from an object that is inherently exotic, a neutron star. These contain the densest material known in the universe that can be directly observed.

The Wednesday session at 10:30am (PST) on "Exploding Stars and Dark Energy" includes a briefing on the fascinating object SN 2009ip. I've already written two blog posts on this object, the first describing the destruction of a star in a supernova explosion, three years after it had already been thought to explode, and the second including some science background plus detailed comments from the authors, Jon Mauerhan, Nathan Smith and Alex Filippenko. Note that this isn't old news, because these blog posts were about a paper that had just been submitted, and the paper has very recently been accepted for publication. There will also be a briefing about the "Dark Energy Survey", covering one of my favorite topics in astronomy, the study of the accelerating expansion of the universe. This field presents significant observational challenges so it seems appropriate that a cosmic jerk is involved.

The second session on Wednesday (12:45 pm, PST) is titled "Precision Cosmology and Particle Astrophysics" and includes tests of fundamental physics. Some of these involve projects where non-detections or limits are expected to be found, but the observations and analysis are being pursued because a detection would be a very big deal. Results like this are technically challenging for writers but they often involve novel and interesting science. I'm especially looking forward to the final presentation titled: "Do Galactic Center Gamma Rays Come from Dark Matter?" by Doug Finkbeiner, a colleague of mine from CfA.

Poster Sessions

Very few astronomers attend the press briefings, unless they're directly involved with a result. Instead, the astronomers attend talks and poster sessions, in a kind of separate - and larger - parallel universe.

For the poster sessions, astronomers are mostly trying to get attention from their colleagues, rather than from science writers. On each day of the meeting there are hundreds of posters, and astronomers have limited time to look at them if they attend most of the science talks. The abstracts for the posters are available beforehand, so people can scour the program in advance looking for especially interesting work. In this case it doesn't really matter how the poster looks. However, other people, like me, prefer to browse the posters, and here having an eye-catching presentation can help attract attention.

Here are some examples of eye-catching posters from the last winter AAS meeting, some of them produced, coincidentally, by friends of mine. The first is by Bryan Gaensler, from the University of Sydney, who used a witty headline to catch people's attention: "Snakes in the Plane: Direct Imaging of Magnetized Turbulence in the ISM". I didn't see the movie "Snakes on a Plane", but I'm familiar with Samuel Jackson's epic, profanity-laced outbursts.

Bryan Gaensler poster at the Jan, 2012, AAS.
Here's a second example by Wei-Chun Jao and Todd Henry from Georgia State University. Not only did they include an interesting headline, "Searching for Partners of Cool Senior Citizens" but the main graphics shows two people dancing, to represent double stars. Some scientific questions were included on the left and these were presumably answered in the paper, obtained by clicking on the QR code given in the lower right. Very clever. I'm guessing they had printouts of the paper for people without smart-phones.

Wei-Chun Jao and Todd Henry poster at the Jan, 2012, AAS.
It's not surprising that both Bryan and Todd are talented and effective at teaching and public outreach, as they recognize the value of good presentation (note added May 24th, 2013: I made the assumption that this clever poster was Todd Henry's idea, but I recently heard that it was actually Wei-Chun's idea. Kudos to Wei-Chun for the excellent poster and polite correction).

For a slightly less flashy effort, but one that is still attractive, see this poster by Jack Hughes, from Rutgers University. Not all AAS abstracts have an accepted journal paper to go with the poster, but this one did. The title of the paper was: "The Atacama Cosmology Telescope: ACT-CL J0102-4915 “El Gordo,” A Massive Merging Cluster at Redshift 0.87". Already this has a catchy feature in the title, by including the nickname of "El Gordo" for this galaxy cluster, translated as "The Fat One". This emphasizes the unusually large mass for the object and the Chilean contribution to the research, where the ACT is located. For the title of the poster the authors went even further by including a superlative that's taken from the abstract of the paper. They also showed several attractive images and adopted a format that makes it easy to distinguish between different elements of their result.

Jack Hughes and Felipe Menanteau poster at the Jan, 2012, AAS.
As an aside, we publicized this result at the Chandra X-ray Center and it received good press coverage, including this NPR interview with Felipe Menanteau, the first author of the paper.

I won't show an example of a bad poster, but it's easy to picture one. Just imagine thousands of words of text, in a small font, without any attractive graphics. Posters like this are becoming less common, but they still occur. In a field like astronomy there are few excuses for this, because there are large numbers of beautiful images and artist's impressions available, across a wide range of specialities. Nearly all of them can be used openly.

Other Methods

There are other ways to get attention at a AAS meeting. The meeting has its own Twitter hashtag (#aas221) and there has already been a good amount of tweeting about the meeting. Another method is to write a blog post about getting attention at a AAS meeting, and promote it on social media. I haven't tried this method before, but it's satisfying to try something new.

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