Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bill Nye on the "top kill" method

Aside from the fact it's a terrible tragedy and a total disaster, the undersea oil spill is a fascinating problem. Here's a video from CNN with Bill Nye "The Science Guy" on how "top kill" works. It's more than just sticking mud in a hole! Incidentally, he was the speaker at my PhD graduation and I was proud to shake his hand. I mean Bill Nye, not John King.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Copernicus honored

This is an encouraging story:
Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose findings were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero on Saturday, nearly 500 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. His burial in a tomb in the cathedral where he once served as a church canon and doctor indicates how far the church has come in making peace with the scientist whose revolutionary theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun helped usher in the modern scientific age.
Or as Sky and Telescope puts it:
So, for those keeping score, the Catholic church has sought rapprochement with the three astronomers it once considered most heretical: Galileo, Copernicus, and the outspoken Giordano Bruno, who espoused an infinite universe filled with planetary systems like our own.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Astronomer is one of the least popular professions(?)

The Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics Blog has a post on the most and least "popular" jobs in the United States. Most popular is led by Retail Salespersons (4,209,500 making a median annual salary $20,260), Cashiers (3,439,380 at $17,820), and General Office Clerks (2,815,240 at $17,220.) My profession, Astronomers, makes the "least popular" list at 1,240 (median salary $104,720.) That puts it just below the 1,520 Models and above the 1,170 Geographers.

In a briefing a few weeks ago I was told there are more like seven thousand astronomers, so a lot of people are missing from the list, starting with graduate students who make a lot less than $100K/yr! Astro Better posted this link, and Kelle noted that "Physics and Astronomy" is counted separately. That's me, so I don't count as an astronomer in this calculation. I'd drag down the median salary anyway :)

One thing students do need to keep in mind is that this list does suggest that your chance of becoming an astronomer is comparable to the most chance of becoming a model. There are lots of beautiful, talented people just like there are lots of smart, talented people, and it's hard to make it. However, people with advanced technical degrees do well in general.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On college education

There are many good graduation speeches. I was impressed today by President Obama's speech at Hampton University:

The part on the use of a college education is important:

So, allowing you to compete in the global economy is the first way your education can prepare you. But it can also prepare you as citizens. With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not. Let's face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience with that myself.

Fortunately, you will be well positioned to navigate this terrain. Your education has honed your research abilities, sharpened your analytical powers, and given you a context for understanding the world. Those skills will come in handy.

But the goal was always to teach you something more. Over the past four years, you've argued both sides of a debate. You've read novels and histories that take different cuts at life. You've discovered interests you didn't know you had, and made friends who didn't grow up the same way you did. And you've tried things you'd never done before, including some things we won't talk about in front of your parents.

All of it, I hope, has had the effect of opening your minds; of helping you understand what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. But now that your minds have been opened, it's up to you to keep them that way. And it will be up to you to open minds that remain closed that you meet along the way. That, after all, is the elemental test of any democracy: whether people with differing points of view can learn from each other, work with each other, and find a way forward together.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

NASA Senior Review Results

NASA's 2010 Senior Review is out:
The assessment gave the three missions with the biggest budgets the highest ratings, and deemed them most deserving of continued funding. Planck, which maps radiation left over from the Big Bang, the Chandra X-ray observatory and the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope were judged to be the best of the 11 missions considered
I certainly intend to apply to use both Chandra and Spitzer in the coming years so I'm happy to see this. The committee recommended ending RXTE, INTEGRAL and WISE. I'm sad about WISE's extended mission but it's not unreasonable to argue that scanning the sky a second time is not as valuable as the first one. The mission goals should be met. Still, it's a bit tough to estimate the productivity of WISE in terms of papers when the astronomical community has not yet seen any data.