Thursday, October 18, 2007

New friends and the leaky pipeline

The Visible Universe has two new friends in the blogosphere: Sorting Out Science's Sam Wise, who featured The Visible Universe in the 25th edition of the Carnival of Space, and Astronomom, who is a real-life friend as well.

Astronomom's brand-new blog chronicles life as post-doc and a new mother. Why start a blog with so much already on her plate?

If I'm going to be part of the leaky pipeline in science because of having had a baby as a postdoc then I want that recorded, and maybe my experience will help others. If I do manage some kind of balance, then I'd like that recorded too.

Responding to the story on the astronomy job market, she writes:

I calculated at the start of graduate school that someone was investing 1/4 million dollars in me getting my PhD alone...! I've used telescopes that cost 10s of thousands of dollars a night to run - and I've had many nights on those telescopes. Surely it would be a huge waste to the field if I just disappear from Astronomy.

But as part of astronomy's "leaky pipeline," I don't believe that money is wasted if a student doesn't pursue a research career. There are many fields where individuals with real, hands-on science experience are desperately needed--science policy, science journalism, education--and having scientifically trained people in those positions can only be a good thing for the field.

Of course, some students take their PhDs and head for private-sector positions in investment banking, software design, and the like. Who can blame them when jobs within their field are so scarce? I agree with Astronomom that, in the long run, an oversupply of highly-educated astronomers isn't good for anyone: Yet, the more students are clamoring for degrees and courses in astronomy, the more tenure-track faculty should be necessary to instruct them.

That's in theory, anyway.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dear Sir or Madam

Here's a story I never thought I'd see outside the AAS newsletter. The astronomy job market is in the doldrums. Those who get coveted tenure-track positions keep them long past traditional retirement age, and thanks to federal penny-pinching, few new research positions are opening up.

According to's Sebastian Thaler:

Are we to tell our children that the universe is good for looking at, but that when it comes to choosing a career, it's best to keep one's gaze firmly bound to Earth? In effect, that's what's happening now.

So go ahead, make a wish upon the first star you see tonight — and wish luck upon whoever wants to study it.

Well, I could have told you that. But catching the story on was a surprise--like opening the New York Times and finding your face on the front page.

Not to compare to the front page of the New York Times, of course, but you get the idea. And when you consider how small the astronomy community really is (the American Astronomical Society claims about 6,500 members, not all of whom are even active researchers), and the granularity of the story (even the Astrophysics Jobs Rumor Mill got a mention), the my-life-is-news sensation isn't quite so crazy.

Is this how Heidi and Spencer feel?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Where's the romance?

If you liked the thrill is gone, you'll love Friday's column, a more detailed take on the pros v. amateur debate. One thing: The Camera left off the first sentence of the story, so you will have to mentally paste it back in: What's the difference between professional astronomers and amateurs?

(And by the way, have you noticed that there are sure a lot of love songs with this "thrill is gone" theme? There's You Don't Bring Me Flowers. And the one from Top Gun. Any others? Come on, readers, I know you're out there! Or, actually, I don't. So show yourselves!)

Another opening, another show

The first phase of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA)--the new UC Berkeley/SETI Institute radio array under construction at Hat Creek--is now up and running. This new radio array exploits cheap 20-foot aluminum radio dishes to synthesize a large collecting area and wide field of view. The ATA is also a multitasker: It can can look at different parts of the sky at the same time (the telescopic equivalent of having eyes in the back of your head), maximizing available observing time.

The ATA can pull the same trick in the frequency domain, taking data anywhere between 0.5 and 11 Gigahertz on any dish at any time. If you were to compare that to how the human ear processes sound, it would be no great shakes--we can process sound waves spanning about ten octaves. But for a radio telescope, it's like suddenly being able to hear the whole orchestra when, before, you could only pick up the flute or the bass.

The ATA will also be a full-time SETI instrument. That's not to say that it won't be doing "traditional" radio astronomy, too: It can do both at the same time. So data will be piping through the SETI computers 24/7, stepping up the speed of targeted searches by 100x.

This first phase included forty-two dishes; the plan is to bring that number up to 350--when more money comes along. Half of the $50 million spent on the ATA to date came from Paul Allen's foundation. (For ideas on where they might come up with the rest, check out last week's column.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The thrill is gone

The New York Times has been working the amateur astronomy beat, following up their June 8 story on astronomy villages with today's Home and Garden feature on luxury home observatories.

No more lugging telescopes out into the cold and the dark for these "baby boomers and wealthy tech types," reports the Times. No more red flashlights, clunky tripods, and star parties. Amateurs are spending tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to work like the professionals, installing rooftop domes that house serious scopes:

For comfort, most home observatories have a separate insulated and air-conditioned control room that houses all the computer equipment. These rooms often look like studies, with lots of space photography hanging on the walls.

I always envied the amateurs their connection with the sky: The amateurs were the ones who knew the constellations backward and forward, who could point out a star and tell you all that you could see within a pinky's-width. They were the ones drawn to the romance of cold, still air, and the low-tech pleasures of binoculars, 800-speed film, and their own eyes.

The professionals got the comforts of climate-controlled computer rooms, computer-driven domes, and point-and-click slewing. But for all this technology, we might go a whole night without actually seeing a single star. Automation severed our connection with the sky.

As Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley planet-hunter, lamented to Reuters in a story picked up by The Gist:

"There are no eyepieces anywhere [at the Keck telescope]. In fact, we don't have an eyepiece for the Keck telescope....Some of the romance of astronomy is gone."

Professional astronomers, of course, aren't in the business of romance: They're in it for the science, and for that they sacrifice the pleasures that amateurs get to keep.

But apparently the amateurs--provided they have the money--don't want those pleasures any more. And with that attitude, how long will it be before Richard Branson is launching personal a Hubble for every baby boomer with a suitable portfolio?