Category: astro 101

What does open communication mean to you?

I’m struggling with an issue. I can’t decide, or maybe I’m afraid to admit, if I’m being naive. Or perhaps so inexperienced, I’m blinded by imposter syndrome, the feeling that you really don’t belong in the group of experts you find yourself in. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the end of this post, I’ll at least have a better understanding of my confusion.

In a few months, there will be a Gordon Research Conference (GRC)  that I’d like to go to. It’s called Astronomy’s Discoveries and Physics Education. The theme is finding ways to use the latest discoveries in astronomy (and astronomy education, knowing the invited speakers) to motivate and enhance undergraduate physics education.

I haven’t been to that many conferences – maybe a dozen over my academic career, often by the same organizations. With my limited experience, there are 2 aspects of the GRC that are new to me.

1. Attendance by application and selection

You have to apply and then be accepted to attend. Not the usual,  accepted to present a paper or hang a poster, but accepted to be there. Kind of like TED talks, I hear. I guess that ensures that the people attending are motivated to be there and, more importantly, are sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject that they can make meaningful contributions to the conference.

2. All communication is treated as private.

This is the one that’s got me confused. By accepting the invitation to attend the GRC, you agree to their “Disclaiming Statements” which, because you can’t link directly to them, I’ll reproduce here:

To encourage open communication, each member of a Conference agrees that any information presented at a Gordon Research Conference or Gordon Research Seminar, whether in a formal talk, poster session, or discussion, is a private communication from the individual making the contribution and is presented with the restriction that such information is not for public use. Prior to quoting or publishing any such information presented at a Conference in any publication, written or electronic, written approval of the contributing member must first be obtained. The audio or video recording of lectures by any means, the photography of slide or poster material, and printed or electronic quotes from papers, presentations and discussion at a Conference without written consent of the contributing member is prohibited. Scientific publications are not to be prepared as emanating from the Conferences. Authors are requested to omit references to the Conferences in any publication, written or electronic. These restrictions apply to each member of a Conference and are intended to cover social networks, blogs, tweets or any other publication, distribution, communication or sharing of information presented or discussed at the Conference. Guests are not permitted to attend the Conference lectures and discussion sessions. Each member of a Conference acknowledges and agrees to these restrictions when registration is accepted and as a condition of being permitted to attend a Conference. Although Gordon Research Conference staff will take reasonable steps to enforce the restrictions against recording and photographing Conference presentations, each member of a Conference assumes sole responsibility for the protection and preservation of any intellectual property rights in such member’s contributions to a Conference.

(Source: follow the Disclaiming Statements link on the right-side menu here.)

Buried in the middle of this statement is a restriction on communicating any information from the conference via “social networks, blogs, tweets or any other publication, distribution, communication or sharing of information.”

In other words, I will not be able to tweet from this conference. And that’s got me, well, disturbed.

It’s not that I’ll have to disconnect my iPhone from my hand and won’t be able to follow what @RealSomeFamousPerson had for #theirmeal. Fine, whatever. I can catch up with my followers and those I follow on Twitter each morning at breakfast or evening at the pub.

Rather, it’s that as I’ve attend more conference and benefited from people I follow who share their conference experiences, I’ve learned of 2 remarkable ways that Twitter enhances my conference experience and my professional development:

  1. Twitter creates a forum for people at the conference to share ideas and reactions to the speakers. This “back channel” connects people around the room and in different parallel sessions.
  2. Twitter invites the outside community, the people not at the conference, to be a part of what’s happening there. In fact, and this is the heart of my confusion with the GRC policy, I benefit so much from following colleagues who tweet and blog their conference experiences, I feel an obligation to share the inspiration, ideas and resources that I am privileged to gather in person.

I posed this dilemma on Twitter and received replies from John Burk (@occam98), Chris Goedde (@chrisgoedde), Brian Utter (@quantumtweep), Phillip Cook (@cookp) and Joss Ives (@jossives) that helped me begin to understand the policy. Both Chris and Joss suggested that policy allows people to speak more freely and more easily share their latest ideas and results, without the fear of being scooped. I think that’s what the opening line of the Disclaiming Statement is all about: “To encourage open communication…” I get that, especially if the GRC about breaking research, which many GRC’s are. If you’ve on the verge of discovering a better way to assay your samples or process your data or distill your protein, and want feedback from your peers, then you want to keep that communication private. Phillip suggests this is pretty common with pre-published research.

I’m having a hard time applying this model to education. I suppose I’ll come away from the conference a better science education practitioner, which should cascade to my colleagues and their students. But I don’t feel like I’m doing this for me. I don’t have that killer instinct that might be necessary for academics (see “imposter syndrome”.) In my heart, I do what I do for the students (see “naive”.) Obviously I’m benefiting from this job and salary and perks (like attending conferences) but I continually filter my activities through, “Who will benefit from this?” If the answer isn’t students or their instructors, I think twice. In my mind, I can think of no better way to pique the interest and boost the enthusiasm of science educators than to share the latest discoveries, approaches and practices from the experts in the field.

Hmm, all this writing has helped. I won’t not go to the GRC because of this policy. A colleague who has an important presentation at this GRC has offered to introduce me to the organizer, Charlie Holbrow, so we can talk about the origin of the policy and the breadth of the restrictions it imposes. In the end, perhaps I’ll just have to turn off my phone. But that doesn’t seem like “encouraging open communication” to me.

Have you attended a GRC? Maybe these restrictions are relaxed or ignored. What about other professional events where communication with the outside world is restricted – what have you done before, during or after those? Drop a comment below if you have any thoughts, thanks.

Image: Communications Artwork by thomasfrank09 on flickr CC

The astronomy of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year occurs on January 23 this year. The fact that we even have to announce the date reveals that it changes each year. That’s because the date for Chinese or Lunar New Year depends on how the annual cycle of the Earth orbiting the Sun interlocks with the roughly monthly cycle of the Moon orbiting the Earth. The event that lights the fuse on the celebrations is the December solstice.

There are some parts of the Northern hemisphere where it doesn’t get very cold in the winter, like Vancouver where I live. But talk to anyone living just about anywhere else, and they’ll tell you through chattering teeth, that December 21 is the middle of freakin’ winter, not its beginning, as our Western calendars proclaim.

On Western calendars, winter begins in the Northern hemisphere on the December 21 solstice, not when it starts to get cold out.

In other words, those freezing cold days on the Prairies in November? Fall, not winter. Changing the name doesn’t make them any warmer.

The ancient Chinese astronomers and calendar-makers knew their hot from cold, though, and recognized the December solstice is the middle winter, just like March is the middle of spring, June is the middle of summer and September is the middle of fall:

In Chinese tradition, the December solstice occurs in the middle of winter.

Chinese New Year marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the transition from dreary blue to vibrant green in the diagram above. Now the Lunar Cycle comes into play. Each season — winter, spring, summer and fall — is roughly 3 months long so there’s about a month and a half from the solstice to the New Year.

Or a lunar cycle and a half.

Here’s how it works: take note of the Moon’s phase on December 21 and let the lunar cycle play out. Last year, for example, there was a new Moon on December 24, 2011, a few days after the solstice. So began the last lunar cycle of the year which finishes on Monday, January 23, 2012, Chinese New Year.

Depending on the Moon’s phase at solstice, the date for Chinese New Year can vary by about a month. This year, we’re pretty close to the earliest possible date. For next year, though, there are new Moon’s on December 11, 2012, on January 11, 2013 (the end of the middle, winter solstice cycle) so that Chinese New Year won’t be until February 10, 2013.

If all this dependence on the phases of the Moon seems a little archaic and superstitious, let me ask you a question: When are Canada Day and Independence Day?

No brainers: July 1 and July 4.

What about Halloween? October 31. D’uh!

Okay, smarty-pants, when’s Easter this year?

Er, um, just a sec while I… [google google google] … Sunday, April 8, 2012.

You see, the phase of the Moon also plays a part in determining the date for Easter, which is defined as the first Sunday after the first full Moon after spring equinox. This year, the Moon is pretty close to new at the equinox and there won’t be a full Moon until Friday, April 6.  Easter occurs that Sunday, April 8. The fact that the most important date in the Christian calendar depends on the phase of the Moon, and that preparing for Easter depends on predicting those phases far in advance, are reasons why the Vatican has had an observatory for more than 250 years.

There is long and prestigious history and tradition of Chinese astronomy and time-keeping. I’ve only scratched the surface here, and my sincerest apologies if I’ve misrepresented that tradition through my over-simplification or just plain got-it-wrong-edness. In any case, be sure to take a moment next Monday to wish your friends a hearty Gung Hei Fat Choi!

Six-legged spiders

Here’s a quiz for you: what’s wrong with these pictures?

Black widow spider
Black widow spider
Advent calendar
Pyramids at Giza

Did you find anything wrong? Surely you noticed the black widow spider has only 6 legs, not 8.  Here’s the original – I amputated one leg with photoshop for the pic above. If you rolled-over the pyramids picture and saw the reference to National Geographic, you might suspect the pyramids are in the wrong locations. Not in this picture, though: there’s nothing wrong it. (source)

What about the picture from the advent calendar? If you’re at all familiar with this blog and my passion for teaching astronomy, you might have guessed I’m going to tell you about the Moon and its incorrect phase.

And you’d be right.

The November 25, 2011 edition of the Guardian carried the story, “Your moons are rubbish, astronomer tells Christmas card artists.” The offending advent calendar shows the Moon in the waning crescent phase:

As astronomer Peter Barthel correctly points out, this phase rises around 3:00 am and sets around 3:00 pm. No matter if this Moon is rising, setting or somewhere in between, you’re not going to find people caroling in the town square. The artist got the wrong phase. In fact, Barthel has done much more than point out this one flawed calendar. In an article submitted to the journal Communicating Astronomy with the Public, he finds errors in artists’ depictions of the Moon in everything from Dora the Explorer to Christmas wrapping paper, from the Netherlands to North America.

The responses to the Guardian story, and its offspring like this Globe and Mail piece, seem to fall into three camps:

  1. “Oh, puh-lease! It’s just a picture on a calendar! Gimme break, you grinch!”
  2. “Oh, c’mon! Everybody know the Moon cannot be in the waning crescent phase in the evening!” (I suspect the Guardian reporter might fall into this camp because he writes, “[t]he phases of the moon are easy to grasp.” As someone who teaches astronomy and studies astronomer education, let me tell you, for the vast majority of people, they’re not.)
  3. “Oh, dear.  Another case of scientific illiteracy.”

Me? I’m in Camp 3. Why can’t an artist do some fact-checking before drawing the Moon? Does the artist think to himself, “I wonder if that’s the right phase? Ah, screw it, whatever.” I doubt it. It’s more likely a lack of recognition that the phases of the Moon follow a predictable, understandable pattern. That is, most people don’t even realize you can ask a question like, “when does the waning crescent Moon rise?”

Or worse yet, there’s a distinct possibility that people (yes, now I’m talking about more than this one, particular artist — the problem is widespread) are completely unaware of the Moon, other than the fact that we have one. Why, just recently a colleague said to me, “I have no idea about phases. I never look at the Moon.”

Which brings me back to the six-legged spider. If you bought a book for your kid with a six-legged spider, you’d see the error. Would you draw in a two more legs? I would.  Even your kid would see the error and tell you the book is rubbish. Why the difference between spiders and the Moon, then?

“Because spiders are something everyone sees every day.” Uh-huh, like the Moon.

“Because spiders are icky and gross and awesome. And the Moon is, like, science-y. Boooorrrring…”  Damn.

What do I think we should do about it? I’d like people to learn some astronomy, sure. More than that, though. I want people to think scientifically. I want to live in a world where people have the awareness (and freedom) to stop and ask, “Really? Are you sure about that?”

That’s a tall order so let’s get on it. We can start by modeling scientific awareness for our kids,  students, friends. Show them it’s okay to be passionate about math. Show them it’s okay to step off the sidewalk onto the grass to look at a bug or an interesting stone. Read them stories that engage their brains. Don’t buy books, wrapping paper or calendars with incorrect science. And if you accidentally do, don’t laugh it off with a “whatever…” It only takes one or two of those for kids to learn the science is dumb and only grinches point out mistakes. Instead, take the opportunity to talk with them about how we should always be curious about how things work.

A society of scientifically-literate people? That’s a world I’d like retire in.