Friday, December 31, 2010

Last entry from 2010's DPS Notebook

Well, as those of you who read this space may know, I've been promising one last post on my experiences at this year's DPS ever since the event ended way back in October. It's not that I haven't written one, on the contrary, I composed a capping piece on the red-eye back to Toronto. No, the question has been whether or not I'm comfortable with publicly posting my musings on that flight.

Knowing how much to share is a tough line to walk. On the one hand, you could take the "Dragnet" route and stick entirely to your stated subject: "Just the facts, ma'am." While they make useful references, such blogs are somewhat dry. They also ignore the fact that all of us who do science for a living are real people with hopes, dreams, desires and foibles. But you can't put so much of that on the webpage that you drown out the subject matter. So it's tough to balance the two.

What puts me over the top on this one (after much reflection) is that it does, honestly, express how I was feeling as the conference drew to a close. It was a happy time, and we all know how fleeting those can be. As such, I'd like to be able to look back, years from now and remember how it was that I felt. As such, I'm presenting this as a bit of a year-end piece:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

CATP Seminar Series, Dr. Gordon Southam

Astrobiology is a big, big field and so many of its aspects remain a bit of a learning experience for me. One of the fun parts of being a fellow of the Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP or "Cat-Pee" to us in the program, part of NSERC/NRCAN's CREATE program) is that we hold seminars every two weeks that are broadcast across the country. The seminars give those of us working in one part of the field a chance to see what is happening in other parts, and to learn about potential synergies with our own work. My area of focus is habitability and water cycles, and so last week's talk, given by Dr. Gordon Southam of the University of Western Ontario, a hard-core microbiologist, was quite a departure.

While I'll be the first to admit that some of the material was over my head, there were a number of interesting aspects which were a little surprising for me. I plan on using this space to discuss those aspects from this talk and from future talks. So hopefully the "CATP Seminar Series" will become a regular feature here. Don't think of it so much as a review, but instead look at it as an exploration or a discovery journal. The full list of upcomming talks can be found on the CREATE website, located here.

Dr. Southam's talk, delivered last Friday, was entitled "Biogeochemical Processes from the perspective of a Bacteria." His main take-home point was that conditions that are extreme (high temperature, pressure, salinity, pH) to you and me are normal to certain strains of bacteria. At first that statement seems a bit simplistic. After all, if bacteria have evolved to take advantage of so-called extreme conditions, then naturally those would be the environments under which they would be most "comfortable" (by which I mean their biological processes would be optimized). Thus even the term for these organisms, extremophiles, is a bit misleading.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

First Impressions of CPSX: A Smart and Noble Gamble

[My new home: The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario]

Before I begin, thanks to all my readers out there! It wasn't long ago that I had thought no one came by this space. But to my astonishment, sometime in the last 24 hours "HTWT" just passed a thousand page views (6-month rolling window) for the first time. I suppose I will have to write more often now - and try to encourage some dialog! I also know what you like, with my two Astrobio posts making the top 3 most viewed. Since I'm in Western partially on a CATP (Canadian Astrobiology Training Program) grant, you can look forward to more of the same in the years to come.

On to business: I want to give my first impressions of my new academic home, the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at the University of Western Ontario. To my knowledge it is the only academic organization of its kind in Canada, completely devoted to the study of other worlds and how to go about exploring them. It's a young group, only a few years old, and did not exist when I left for the US back in 2003.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An Astrobiology tempest: Arsenic Life?

Is this an SEM Image of the first known lifeform to use a different biochemistry from the rest of us?

So many interesting things to mention about the recent findings of (partially) Arsenic-based life in Mono Lake, CA. First of all there's the discovery itself, detailed in a paper by Felisa Wolfe-Simon over at Science Magazine. But there's also something to be said about the way that NASA has handled the media surrounding the discovery. Additionally, in the week since the announcement, we've had some serious backlash by bloggers, including particularly pointed remarks by fellow science blogger, and microbiologist Rosie Redfield over at RRResearch. Some seem to think that "research paper review by blog" is a good thing and a sign of the times, but is it a substitute for the peer review process? Most troubling of all are the questions being raised in some spheres about the scope of NASA's astrobiological work and the worth of the planetary sciences. After all, they argue, what's Space got to do with studying pond scum on a lake in California?

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Year at York

I've just completed my first three days at Western, and it seems like a good time to reflect back on the year of working at York. I should mention first that I will not be disappearing entirely from York. Since I will be continuing to live in Toronto, and will be periodically travelling back and forth to London, the good folks at York have been kind enough to offer me a place to hang my hat while I am in Toronto. As such, my activities with the York University Observatory will continue, though they will be scaled back compared to what they were before my move.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Importance of Advocacy

When I was in High School, I was a bit of a film buff. I was so interested I even worked at a movie theatre part time! I saw as many as I could manage and looked forward to Sunday Mornings each week when I could sit down and hear what Siskel and Ebert had to say. While I valued their opinions, what I enjoyed most was getting a glimpse into how their critiques were put together. And if they could do it, why not me? So a friend of mine by the name of Robert and I decided to write our own film reviews and publish them in the School Newspaper. We called it "Films Under Fire" and it was a hit. We had our own website and a logo.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dr. Jonathan Fortney (Conversations at the DPS, profile 6)

Dr. Jonathan Fortney enjoys a field lecture and the start of a life in Planetary Science near Dry Falls, Washington State in 2002. Photo by Jason Barnes.

Well folks, we've come to the end of our journey. I'll have some additional insights from DPS to post later in the week, but for now please enjoy the short blurb below of Dr. Jonathan Fortney, the last of the DPS interviews. In some ways, Jonathan is our most distinguished guest, as he won the DPS's Urey Prize as the top early career researcher this year. You'll have to forgive him if his voice sounds a little raw - I snagged him right after he gave his lecture! Even though Jonathan got his PhD at the University of Arizona, I can't say that I knew him well while he was there. His last year and my first year were the only ones that overlapped, so in some ways we were only ships passing in the night.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Night at the RASC

UPDATE: PDF of the Talk Slides are available here!

Last night I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Annual General Meeting in Toronto at the Ontario Science Centre. For 45 minutes (and then some with questions!), we talked about the exploration of our solar system by robotic spacecraft over the last 50 years. In my talk I made some comparisons to the earlier era of maritime discovery which lasted from the mid 1400s up until the early 1700s. Later, in lieu of the upcoming Planetary Decadal Survey, to be released in March of 2011, I discussed some of the big questions that we're on the verge of answering and what exploration by spacecraft might look like in the next 50 years.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dr. David Choi (Conversations at the DPS, profile 5)

Dr. David Choi (provided photo) - if it weren't for the background, this could be a candid shot. No one smiles as much as he!

Like myself, Dr. David Choi is an atmospheric scientist, after a sort. However, while I look at the atmospheres of Earth, Mars and Titan, David studies Giant Planet atmospheres. The Gas Giants are, of course, essentially all atmosphere, which makes them very different targets from the thin shells that I look at. As David will himself tell you tonight, this gives them a bit of a 'fluid dynamics laboratory' quality which lets us test out our theories of how an atmosphere should fundamentally behave. Thus, David runs computer models and tests the results against spacecraft observations of the flow of the atmosphere, most recently using Cassini Data.

While at the University of Arizona, where he got his PhD, David worked for Dr. Adam Showman. From Adam, Dave got a thorough grounding in geophysics and mathematics (I remember my Principles of Planetary Physics-B well and still shudder at the sheer complexity) and has produced some impressive research. For his accomplishments he was awarded the Kuiper Prize from the Department of Planetary Sciences earlier this year. Since then David has stayed on at LPL as a postdoctoral research associate. As such, despite the connection of all of my interview subjects to LPL, he is the only one whose main affiliation remains at the U of A.

The hard-core computer modelling and observation-interpreting researcher is only one aspect of David's personality. He has also been a stalwart part of the organizational and social sides of the department and graduate student life and a strong believer in outreach. His contributions include working as a reviewer for the community, both for NASA R&A and Icarus, an organizer of journal clubs, and speaking at elementary schools about science and the planets. It's not often that I get to speak to such a well-rounded individual as David and I hope you enjoy listening to what he has to say tonight!

David's Interview, part 5 of our 6-part series, "Conversations at the DPS" runs tonight at 8:00 PM EST on's "Live at York U." I will be off again this week, but Paul & company will keep things lively! Next week we will wrap up with Dr. Jonathan Fortney.

(You didn't think I'd forget the obligatory Death Valley, 2006 Shot, did you? Here's Dave passing the time on the road from Death Valley to Racetrack Playa in 2006, as photographed by Catherine Neish. There was some downtime as the result of a vehicular break down (eventually, we were forced to abandon that vehicle, as opposed to my truck, which I simply drove for five miles over rough ground with a shredded tire on that journey!)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dr. Britney Schmidt (Conversations at the DPS, profile 4)

Dr. Britney Schmidt poses in front of a combination of rocky and icy material, sadly not at Death Valley.

Britney Schmidt is a rising star of planetary science, as many of us have known for a while now. I first encountered her in Bob Brown's lab at LPL where she worked as an undergraduate. At the time, she was performing lab experiments on isotopic systems in sublimating ices, and cutting her space mission baby teeth on Cassini. I also had the opportunity to participate in a JPL Team-X exercise (aka Planetary Science Summer School) with her in 2005. While we butted heads a bit on that project, we gained a mutual respect for one another (or so I'd like to think) and our group put out a solid proposal for an Europan Orbiter.

Britney would later follow-up on what is perhaps the most critical part for such a spacecraft, an ice-penetrating radar, which is something she looks into in her current position as a postdoc at University of Texas at Austin. In her spare time she is also the director of the Education and Public Outreach effort for the Dawn Mission. Dawn will be the first robotic spacecraft to enter into the gravitational well of a body as an orbiter, break orbit and go on to another body, in this case two of the largest main-belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres.

This expertise with asteroids is something that Britney picked up during her doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles. Like me, she is a bit of a jack of all trades with experience running lab experiments, doing theory and observing other planets in their natural environments. In particular, she has used the Hubble Space Telescope to look at asteroids, revealing that there are examples which bear the spectral signs of water ice on their surfaces. I find it facinating that the more we look at comets, the more they look like asteroids (the flyby of comet Hartley-2 showed a very "asteroidal-like" body) and similarly, the more we look at asteroids, the more some of these look like comets. Britney's work was published in Science last year and won her acclaim. At the time of her interview, I hadn't seen her in person for over five years and it was good to catch up.

Britney's interview runs tonight (Monday) at 8:00 PM EST over on's "Live at York U" program. Unlike for the previous interviews, I am off tonight - but not to worry, Jesse and Paul will keep you entertained with the latest news from the Observatory and commentary on what Britney has to say, so feel free to pop by and ask questions in the OPV chat room!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. David Minton (Conversations at the DPS, profile 3)

Dr. David Minton has made a career chasing the solar system's earliest rocks. Provided Image, captured at Racetrack Playa, above Death Valley in 2006

Not everyone showed up at LPL fresh out of undergrad. Among us were several students who had previously studied in other fields and obtained masters degrees. Most of these were the usual suspects: geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy. However, I admit I took some interest in David Minton, who was coming to us with an Aerospace Engineering Degree. To my knowledge he was the third such student after myself and Yuan Lian (also in my class).

You might think that with an engineering background, the obvious speciality would be in spacecraft, and indeed David started out working with Peter Smith on the Phoenix Mission in the summer of 2005. But after that summer, he discovered that his passion was dynamical simulations. It is the work in which he has had a great deal of success, and he has stayed with it ever since, first in Renu Malhotra's research group and later at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. Next fall, David will take up an Assistant Professor position at Purdue in Layfayette, Indiana where he will work alongside several other researchers in a budding planetary science group founded by National Academy of Science member H. Jay Melosh.

Perhaps dynamical simulations needs some more exposition. Basically, what David does is run simulations of particles in the early solar system to see how the planets formed out of the material in the solar nebula. From this information we can say why we have the planets where we see them, and what composition we expect those planets to have. It also gives us a statistical tool which enables us to examine planet formation in general and, therefore, gives us information on what kinds of planetary systems we can expect to find around other stars.

This field is still young, and as computing power increases, the simulations that David and his colleagues can run become more and more detailed. What we see is that the solar system, early in its life was a fascinating and strange place, full of giant impacts, and migrating giant planets. In fact, it was David who found evidence of this behaviour by closely examining the distribution of rocks in the asteroid belt. It was this achievement, while he was still a grad student at LPL, which won him the Kuiper Award and set him on the course that led him to Purdue.

For me, David's interview was a chance to learn about a field about which I knew little, but whose results were vitally important to my own work. After all, if you don't know the starting value for D/H who is to say that today's value is enriched? I hope that you too enjoy hearing what he has to say about the ancient arrangements of the planets.

David's interview runs Monday, November 8 at 8:00PM EST on's Live at York U program. I'll be there able to answer questions live on the air. To ask a question, leave me a comment here or better yet, join us in our online chat room during the show over at .

Friday, November 5, 2010

And now a word from our sponsors

Opportunities to do planetary science may be somewhat limited in Canada, so it behooves us to spread them as widely as possible when they arise. I'll be starting work with this program on December 1st as part of the 2010 round of fellowships (Post by me on this to follow in a few weeks, I hope!). The good news is that the program will also be selecting fellows next year (2011) as well. The advert is pasted below. Interested? Feel free to contact the folks listed below below, or myself, or make a comment below and I will get back to you!

NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program
MSc, PhD, Post Doctoral Fellow positions available 2011

Astrobiology is broadly defined as the scientific study of the origin, evolution, distribution, conditions and destiny of life in the universe. This new, transdisciplinary science is based on two scientific revolutions - the recent realization that microbial life is extremely hardy and can thrive in very harsh environments previously thought uninhabitable on Earth and the explosion of space technologies that are driving the robotic exploration of Mars and other planets in the search for life in our solar system. The Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP) is the first Canadian cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training program in Astrobiology and is a NSERC–funded Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program (CREATE) (2009-2015) located at McGill University, McMaster University, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, and the University of Winnipeg. CATP by its very nature will be accomplished through collaborative and integrative research approaches containing elements of geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, microbiology, and robotics. CATP trainees (~70 graduate & undergraduate students, PDFs over the next 5 years) will be exposed to innovative research and training approaches, combining fieldwork at unique Canadian analogue sites, including those in the high Arctic, with laboratory work at cutting edge analytical facilities at participating university, government, and industry partners. Shared expertise within and among institutions will be provided by means of course and seminar videoconferencing, and interdisciplinary supervision. Professional training will be enhanced by training rotations with our collaborators at CSA, MDA Space Missions, and our international partners, including NASA Ames. CATP HQP trained in various aspects of astrobiology will be at the forefront of the search for life beyond the Earth. Indeed, CATP will address the recognized lack of HQP in space science and lead to new scientific opportunities and promote Canadian participation in future missions to Mars. The skills acquired through this program will be directly transferable to various other disciplines, such as Earth and environmental sciences, robotics, medicine, and astronomy.

We are presently seeking applicants for Graduate Student Fellowship (MSc and PhD) and Post Doctoral Fellow (PDF) positions available in 2011.

Successful applicants will have a strong interest in astrobiology and have an excellent background in microbiology/ molecular biology, geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and/or robotics or other related disciplines.

Applications will be received until January 14, 2011.

For detailed information on the CATP and how to apply, please visit the CATP website ( or please directly contact:

Mr. Robert Oxley
NSERC CREATE CATP Project Coordinator
McGill University
Telephone: (514) 398 7901 Email:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

DPS Follow-Up: How Science Gets Funded

It's a fact of life, we all need to eat, our cryostats need liquid nitrogen and where would we be without paying for telescope time? All those things need money, but as postdocs we're not always well acquainted with where the money comes to pay for them. At the basic level, we recognize that our supervisors get paid a salary. If they work at a University, 9 months out of the year (in the US) this salary is paid by the institution. However, if your supervisor is a research scientist, then 100% of his or her salary comes from a little something we like to call the granting system. Grants likely pay for your salary if you are a grad student or a postdoc, and the equipment and resources you marshall to do your work are typically paid for by grants. As a whole, this type of funding is called "soft money." The funding is "soft" in the sense that if the stars align badly for you and your grant proposals are rejected you will find yourself not only without that new Mass Spectrometer you needed, but may also find yourself out of a job.

Some think this aspect of science is a bit unseemly and professors often shield their students from the funding side of the equation. They think they are doing us a favour, but it is to our ultimate benefit to understand how the system works and how to use it to our advantage. The faster we figure it out, the more rapidly we can become productive professional scientists and harness the built-in power of the granting system to advance our craft. The granting agencies know this too, which is why the best of them try to help us out. NASA R&A is the model here, and Curt Neibur (whom I like to think of as the man who makes Bureaucracy fun) from NASA-HQ has been giving presentations for the past few years at career development workshops.

Curt's message is direct: you need to start applying for grants yesterday, and (in the US) you can do it at all levels of experience past undergrad. A key point of his was that nothing attracts the interest of hiring committees more than success in acquiring funding. It simultaneously proves several things. First, that your work is of a high enough caliber as a committee has voted you scarce resources. Secondly, that you will not be a burden on the new department, but you have a proven ability to bring in the overhead dollars that keep it afloat.

Even so, it can be a bit daunting, and that is where Curt's presentations propose to help. By outlining how the system works, how decisions get made, and what you can do to help as well as increase your chances of success, he bleeds that mystery out of the process. By clearly defining the options are, we can make better decisions about which way to go and how to learn how to avoid pitfalls. A great example - you can serve on a grant decision panel either as a full member or an associate as a senior doctoral candidate or as a postdoc.

The clarity of the US system gave me an action item upon my return to Canada. How does grant writing get done here? Unfortunately, things aren't so clear here, but I'll share the information which I have managed to gather so far. First off, instead of supporting 9 months, most Canadian universities support the activities of their faculty for the full 12 months out of the year. That means that the urgency of paying for your missing three months is largely missing, and it is possible to subsist entirely on hard money. However, if you want to support graduate students or do research you still need to bring in soft money. There are several agencies that can help here including the canadian fund for infrastructure (CFI) who you go to when you need that new mass spec or some other expensive durable good. As well there are grant opportunities that come up every now and again.

However, the most common agency to apply to is NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). You'll be familiar with these folks if you've ever received an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA), post graduate scholarship (PGS) or postdoctoral fellowship (PDF). These three awards are the usual progression of things, and as such, NSERC does not allow non faculty to write or be a P.I. on a grant application.

That's a combination of a bad thing and a good thing. It's good in the sense that Canadian students and postdocs aren't expected to apply for grant money outside of the USRA/PGS/PDF system and so theoretically can concentrate on their research. Furthermore, since it is essentially impossible for Canadian students or postdocs to obtain grant funding, one would hope that Canadian Universities would not expect grant success when selecting entry-level faculty positions. But at the same time, it's bad because there will be more of a learning curve once you do get selected for a faculty position. It also means that Canadian postdocs will be less competitive outside the country. In a perverse way it could also make us less competitive inside the country, as a department might want to skip the learning curve and go with someone who has existing granting experience from working in the US.

Can we Canadians take advantage of the clear-cut US system? Well, the short answer is no. While it's true that you don't need to be a US citizen to apply for a NASA-type grant (only the nationality of your sponsoring institution is important) if you're a foreign national you will need to move to the US and secure the appropriate visa to hold the grant. If this is something you'd be interested in, note that you may be able to make your application from your home country and move only if your application is successful. To do this, you will need to sign up with a US-based research institution. In planetary science, some of the most well known include PSI (Planetary Science Institute) in Tucson, SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) and SSI (Space Science Institute) both in Boulder.

So what's a Canadian to do? Luckily there are some hopeful signs. For starters, the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) new SSEP program looks like it hopes to be a Canadian version of NASA R&A, thus it is conceivable that they will eventually break ranks with NSERC, whose rules are followed by most other granting programs, and allow all comers to apply. However, I advise you not to wait. Talk with your advisor and see if you can participate in the grant writing process, as it's never too early to learn.

Oh and one other thing, especially if you're interested in space missions - make friends south of the border! As a foreign national, you don't cost NASA a cent. Therefore we are attractive additions to mission proposals. As NASA has no issue with a grad student or a postdoc being part of a science team this is a flashy way to get your own funding, if you can swing it. The danger is that CSA may choose not to participate, as they did with the most recent Discovery proposal cycle. If that happens, you're up the creek without a paddle. For the sakes of all us early career folks, I can only hope that this decision not to support was merely a blip, as there are many more opportunities to develop younger scientists through the lower-cost missions, and I would hate to see our substantial participation on fewer flagship missions cut down on the opportunities to participate.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dr. Catherine Neish (Conversations at the DPS, profile 2)

A world of possibility: Dr Catherine Neish at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, CA in 2006. Photograph by Diana Smith.

It was only recently, once I finished a dissertation on "habitability," that I finally admitted to myself that I am a bit of an Astrobiologist. Perhaps a bit of the reason I was so slow to come to that realization was that I tend to eschew the sorts of things that are in fashion and, especially a few years ago, nothing was more in fashion than Astrobiology. However, this week's interview subject, Dr. Catherine Neish, has always been an Astrobiologist and has said it loud and proud. Even during her undergrad at UBC, it was a topic of interest and led her to complete an REU at the famous Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico and to the presidency of their Astronomy club. Since that time, you could often see the SETI screen saver putting away, participating in a program to help process all the accumulated data, searching for signals from the sky.

When it comes to academics, she's no dilettante either. At the University of Arizona, Catherine held down a Julie Payette fellowship from the Canadian Government, the most prestigious fellowship on offer, and was a Galileo Circle Scholar. At the time, she specialized in laboratory experiments to simulate the prebiotic chemistry of Saturn's moon Titan (a tough task, to be sure!). Somehow, even with all of that she managed to participate in student government as the president of the U of A's graduate and professional student council. She also was the Principal Investigator of her Team-X class.

These days, she holds down a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA's Applied Physics Lab in Baltimore, MD, where she works on Lunar Science with the mini-RF team, a component of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Also, as a dual citizen, she straddles the line between the Canadian take on planetary science and that of the United States, able to move effortlessly from one to the other. As such, she offers a unique perspective on the space aspirations of both countries, which I enjoyed fleshing out during our conversation.

Catherine's Interview runs Monday, November 1st at 8PM EDT over on's "Live at York U" program. I'll be on-air to discuss further the topics from the interview, so if you'd like to ask a question, join us over at I'll happily answer any questions from the audience on the air!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dr. Jason Barnes (Conversations at the DPS, Profile 1)

Dr. Jason Barnes - never hesitating to find the necessary vantage point for his work. Photographed by Brian Jackson near Death Valley, California in 2006.

Tomorrow evening at 8PM EDT, the first interview in our six-part series "Conversations at the DPS" will run over on This first edition features Dr. Jason Barnes, currently an Assistant Prof at the University of Idaho. Jason is an old friend of mine from my earliest graduate school days. He was a few years ahead of me in the program, but stuck around for two years after his PhD doing a postdoc with Bob Brown on the VIMS Instrument. His PhD thesis was entitled "Characterizing transiting extrasolar giant planets: On companions, rings, and love handles." However, his postdoc was a complete 180° pivot, in which he began the planetary surfaces work on the surface of Titan which he continues to this day. This demonstrates the kind of researcher that a jack-of-all trades planetary science program is able to produce; a very useful kind of versatility.

Since he left LPL/UA, Jason has kept busy. He spent two years on an NPP (NASA Postdoctoal Program) at the NASA Ames Research facility near Mountain View, CA (located between San Francisco and San Jose) prior to begining his appointment at Idaho. All the while, he maintained his affiliation with the VIMS instrument in particular and the Cassini mission in general. Already, he has begun to look out beyond the current exploration of Titan's surface (currently due to wind down with Casssini by 2018). He is the principal investigator on the AVIATR mission which seeks to place a nuclear-powered UAV in Titan's atmosphere - a daring proposal. But he hasn't abandoned extrasolar planets entirely, publishing work on this topic as recently as last year (2009).

One aspect of his work is something I really appreciate: bringing novel techniques to bear on planetary mission data to wring every last piece of information out of a few bits. I really enjoyed his DPS talk on constraining wave heights on Titan based on nothing other then the width of a single specular glint over a couple of pixels in just a few frames of VIMS imagery. This is an area that I enjoy as well (check out my most recent paper on the SSI for an example, and I hope to have another in press in the near future!) and it's good to see other people breaking outside of a single research technique to attempt these analyses.

Jason's interview was a joy to do: it didn't really feel like a formal interview, but was more like the many chats we would have around the campfire on field trips. Those were some of the high points in my graduate career, and I hope you enjoy listening to the interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Jason.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are the Humanities a Subset?

I always enjoy the sharp with and careful reasoning that can be found in many of Stanley Fish's columns. His most recent is no exception and clears up a misunderstanding I had with his previous offering. You see, Dr. Fish was describing how the Humanities have been tantalizing targets for University Administrators who have sought to reduce their costs as the result of vanishing public funding for Universities. He felt that on pure economic grounds, Humanities are not justifiable. Does arcane analysis of literature add nothing to the public's enjoyment of said literature? If not, then perhaps there is no direct societal value. Do humanities programs produce goods of value, or graduates who go on to be highly compensated? If not, then perhaps there is no direct economic benefit. Fair enough. However, Dr. Fish seems to imply that the case for the humanities should be argued based entirely on tradition, as the following quote emphasizes.

I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.

-Dr. Stanley Fish, (New York Times)

What remained unsaid, and has been added in the most recent column, is that the analysis of humanists is not in terms of direct value, but of added value:

Instead ask what contribution can a knowledge of the Russian language and Russian culture make to our efforts in Far Eastern studies to understand what is going on in China and Japan (the answer is, a big contribution). Ask would it be helpful for students in chemistry to know French or students in architecture and engineering to know the classics (you bet it would).

Now, Fish eschews this added value argument, but this could be a winning stroke for the humanities. Perhaps they are a little bit like BASF whose ads used to proclaim "we don't make a lot of the things you buy, we make a lot of the things you buy better." In this sense, the Humanities are a subset of the larger university, adding value to the activities of all other groups and to the students and researchers so produced. In fact, by implication, it might be the humanities that make the University and differentiate it from a directly economically justified entity, such as a trade college.

Moreover, there is the role of University Presidents. In many cases, these are appointed by state legislatures which raises an interesting question: is the chief administrator simply a soldier carrying out the wishes of elected representatives? Or should the president be an advocate for the University community? One of Fish's major beefs seems to have been that the president who sought to cancel languages at SUNY leaned towards the former instead of the latter:

That’s O.K. It’s not their job to value the humanities or even to understand them. But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

It's an interesting perspective, coming from the other side of the academic business from my own. Over here, we often brag about the amount of money we bring in and specializations live or die by how economically viable they are for the university. However, if you move back a single step, you could make similar arguments for my own business of planetary science as are often made about the "unproductive" humanities. After all, from the university's perspective we are highly viable because we are able to obtain NASA/CSA/NSERC grants. But when you think about why those grants are available in the first place, you come back to the problem faced by Dr. Fish. After all, putting aside the quest for knowledge and distant benefits, what does exploring the solar system do for humanity in the right here and now? (aside from inspiring many young scientists and engineers to enter the field who otherwise would not have done so; many of whom "leak out" of the profession and go on to pursue directly viable enterprises)

I can also sympathize on Dr. Fish's point of synergies. For instance, when we have a group come by the observatory on public nights, we do our best to connect them with what they are seeing. That means not only do we tell them why the stars look the way they do, how they were formed and how far away they are; but we also tell them about constellations and the greek, latin and arabic etymologies of their names. That kind of detailed cultural information which enhances the experience doesn't spring forth from planetary science or astronomy. Instead, it is the humanities that provides the connecting details that allows us to prove the economic and cultural worth of our field to others. Food for thought for those who would break up the concept of the University.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

DPS Notebook, Odds and Ends

Still emptying the DPS journal folks, one more to go after this one, but that one won't be about DPS per se, just general musings on the profession, conferences, etc. (something I wrote at 4AM on the plane home, so I've yet to decide whether to throw it up).

The first thing to mention is that I was lucky enough to get a total of six interviews with early career folks at the DPS and I feel they went rather well. After speaking with my colleagues at "Live at York U" over on, we have come to a decision regarding the schedule. Things kick off with a little introduction from me on October 18th, including some clips from talks by Ray Arvidson, Bob Pappalardo, Steve Squyres and Jim Green, then we get into the meat of things:

October 25th - Dr. Jason Barnes (Idaho)
November 1st - Dr. Catherine Neish (Johns Hopkins/NASA-APL)
November 8th - Dr. David Minton (SwRI/Purdue)
November 15th - Dr. Britany Schmidt (Texas)
November 22nd - Dr. David Choi (Arizona)
November 29th - Dr. Jonathan Fortney (Santa Cruz)

Note that all interviews will run over on at 8PM Eastern, 5PM Pacific. I believe that we will be shifting with the clocks when that happens, so for listeners in Arizona, note that time change. I am also happy to report that all the interviews will run in complete form, and have only been slightly cut. So look for 20-30 mins for the interviews.

I'm planning on doing a little blurb about each of the subjects on the day their interview airs. But I will reveal this much now: in addition to planetary science we all share a connection to the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Some of us are still there (Choi) and most of us got our PhD's there (exception: Schmidt [UCLA]). In part I picked these people because I was familiar with them, even if I don't know them that well personally. But it is a testament to the program at LPL that I didn't have to look outside to find a wide range of expertise and planetary targets for study. We will be spanning the entire solar system both in time from its formation to the present day, and from the Earth, through the Asteroids, Jupiter, Europa, Saturn, Titan, the Ice Giants, the Kuiper belt and on to Extrasolar Planetary Systems.

Are you a Planetary Scientists and would like to be the subject of a future interview? Drop me a line in the comments! If you're located in the Greater Toronto Area or will be at next March's LPSC, we can arrange something taped, otherwise we can do a live interview. Either way we'd love to hear from you!

Other interesting tidbits (based on my #DPS2010 posts):

(1) Mars just keeps getting more warm and wet in the past - we've found exposures of the missing carbonates exposed by impact craters all over the place. The absence of carbonates was a major mystery for a long time. However, it seems that much in the same way that most of the water-altered minerals at Gusev were buried by later deposits, the carbonates are not absent, merely covered up! I was less impressed by the atmospheric modelling teams who used today's martian terrain and obliquity to describe the movement of volatiles 4 billion years in the past. While it's true that we don't know what that Mars would have looked like, it seems clear that Tharsis, at least, would not have existed. Since, in the current day, Tharsis is a major obstacle for a moving air mass and causes a great deal of atmospheric condensation through orographic cloud formation it should not be present in past models. Still, the authors did point out that it is difficult to support liquid on Mars with the faint young sun, even if you assume a very thick 5 Bar CO2 atmosphere.

(2) A consensus is emerging over lunar swirls - as someone who has done some geomorphology, I'm a sucker for an interestingly shaped surface feature. The lunar swirls have been a mystery for a long time since they were first seen in the 1960s. In an impressive series of talks in the lunar session, observations made by LRO placed brick after brick in the foundation that these are features in which variations frozen into mare lavas have been emphasized by differential space weathering. The anomalous magnetization of these features show that they deflect the solar wind. Thus, in addition to their differing magnetization they show differing albedos and a lack of solar-H implantation (so no hydrated water). However, Radar backscatter shows no difference in roughness, implying that the swirls are only skin deep (less than 15cm)!

(3) The disappearing exoplanets announcement - a great deal of excitement surrounded a talk called "Title Embargoed." After all, if we couldn't know the title ahead of time, it must have been a pretty big discovery! However, through the magic of delayed peer review, the presenters took to the stage only to announce that Nature would not permit them to speak about the work. Speculation as to what was to be reported was rampant, as were thoughts as to why the reviewers might be drawing out the process. In this highly competitive field, it could be that the reviewers are stalling until they can replicate the result. Or it could be that the discovery is itself uncertain and the authors are having difficulty satisfying the reviewers that their discovery is genuine, above the error bounds of their measurement. For an example, just take a look at the discovery (or not) of an earth-sized planet just this past week.

(4) Titan surface geology outpaces our wildest hopes - data from Radar and VIMS were presented in which wave height in the Titanian lakes was constrained both from specular glinting and backscatter. As well, the controversial proposition that the equatorial "coffee ground" sand dunes show interspersed liquid hydrocarbon seepage was debated.

(5) Faster computers make dynamical calculations better - some of the major problems in solar system formation are beginning to sort themselves out, in particular the long-standing puzzle of why Mars is so small. It seems that the solution may be that as the Giant Planets migrated inward then outward, they created a sharp edge to the disc of planetessimals which formed the inner planets. As well, the outward migration would have scattered a great deal of icy material in past the solar system's snow line, enhancing the amount of water delivered to the terrestrial planets. This is troubling from an astrobiological point of view, since to make this situation work you need two large gas giants which form early and in just the right places and then evolve until they hit a resonance with one another many millions of years down the road. How common is that type of formation? At the very least it adds another term to the drake equation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sagan's Lesson: Learning from the EPO Masters at the DPS

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, as photographed by Matthew Field in 2007 ( A mecca for astronomers and planetary scientists old and young alike, this place embodies the contact between science and the public.

Not every presentation at the DPS is on planetary science, there is also a limited subset of posters, talks and booths which deal with education and public outreach. While this component is much less developed than it is at LPSC, which has featured an EPO session, it is present nevertheless in the exhibit hall. Some of these are education of the scientists themselves, for instance, there was a poster on the PDS, the planetary data system, which a scientist who happened to be attending and who had never used spacecraft data before would have found very informative. Others announced
new journals, such as Springer's “Planetary Science” which, no doubt intends to try and give the Division's own journal, Icarus, a run for its money. Still others advertised services and products of use to the planetary community.

But there was also material presented on how we can better go about educating our students and getting our message out to the broader public. The fact that these presentations are here at all are a testament to a famous planetary scientist named Carl Sagan who believed strongly that as scientists and recipients of public funding that it was imperative that we share our knowledge, our experience and our enthusiasm with the broader community. In his honour, the DPS each year awards the Sagan Medal to the active planetary scientist who has done the most over their lifetime to
advancing planetary science amongst the public. This year's recipient was Carolyn Porco, Voyager mission veteran and Principal Investigator for Cassini's ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem), now located at SSI (Space Science Institute) in Boulder, Colorado.

Carolyn was a friend of Carl's, and the award was originally planned to be given to her by his wife, Ann Druyan. Sadly, Ann was not able to attend, but a touching letter was read in her absence. Carolyn then took the stage in the bright lights of a camera crew, and delivered a brilliant speech. This in some respects is a testament to today's most famous scientists: they are also masters of media and minor stars in their own rights. For instance, in addition to her appearances in documentaries about Cassini, Science and Space Exploration, Carolyn was also a science advisor on
movies, including “Contact” and contributed to the portrayal of Titan in “Star Trek.”

These are all interesting interfaces where education, media and planetary science touch. But EPO is also reasonably big business. Your typical NASA Spacecraft contract since the early 2000s requires that 1% of money be spent on EPO. For a mission like Phoenix, that works out to several million dollars, and we were lucky enough to have funding for a separate media/public affairs officer (Doug Lombardi then Sara Hammond) and an education/outreach director (Carla Bitter). We had a full size mock-up
built, many very professional presentations were given, a publicity trip to Alaska for educators was held and so forth. With so much money at stake, this is an area at which we need to excel.

Beyond this component were some activities which were not, on the surface, meant to be educational but from which I learned some immediately applicable lessons. There were trips to two world famous locations. The first was the Griffith Observatory, which despite the name was never a research observatory, but instead was directly intended by its founder, Griffith J. Griffith as a place where the public could come and learn about astronomy and get the chance to use the smaller telescopes. While
the urban sprawl of Los Angeles has severely restricted what is observable from Griffith, its educational aspect is top notch. I was lucky enough to attend two planetarium shows and take a look through one of their Schmidt-Cassegrains at the Wild Duck Cluster. I was particularly impressed by their use of live presenters. While they didn't demand audience participation (in fact it was more of a performance) they were seamlessly able to show us how the stars looked at different places on the Earth by using Norse Mythology and "The Lord of the Rings" to grab the audience.

I also must admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for Art-Deco architecture, so how could I resist? A colleague who accompanied me to the observatory described my reaction as "a kid in a candy store."

Next was the final activity of the conference for me, a visit to the largest telescope in the world from 1948-1975 and in North America through 1998 (an interesting piece of trivia, at 6m the LZT is the largest telescope on Canadian soil and the largest liquid-mirror telescope in the world). Mount Palomar is easily worth the trip to the mountains inland of San Diego. The structure is amazing; a 200" (5m) mirror is cradled within a 500-ton RA/Dec rig and balanced on a gigantic horseshoe. Heck, the secondary mirror is 42" wide! They were even kind enough to move the dome around for us, with my group poised on the edge! Since I help to give tours at the York Observatory, it was useful to pick up a few tricks of the trade from the docents who have been working at this amazing piece of technology for decades.

An interesting note: both Griffith and Palomar are steeped in history and chance. Griffith almost didn't happen as the City of Los Angeles originally did not wish to accept the gift of such a distant site (at the time LA was a small town of 100,000 residents, now you might describe Griffith as almost being downtown). At Palomar, the epic pouring of the mirror (it took months to cool) at Corning in New York in 1936 had to wait for the end of WWII for installation. Originally, the operator occupied a cage near the prime focus, high above the floor, where glass slides would be installed. Of course, some folks decided to put their own heads at prime focus and one described it as the most religious moment of his life. Fascinating stuff!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Belated report on NASA Night

Sorry for the wait, folks, but I've been slammed with work and such for the past few days and am only now getting to posting some of my conference notes! This one deals with the NASA night that was held during the conference. I'll also have at least one more posting and a wrap posting in a day or two (I hope!) which deals with the random collection of other notes I made. So without further ado, I give you NASA Night at the DPS!


The NASA logo, affectionately called the Meatball by the community.

Tuesday night was the annual NASA night here at DPS. Basically, it's a town-hall style meeting in which NASA, through the planetary science director, updates the community on what has been happening over the last year, what issues are outstanding. After that they take a number of questions from the community. One of the real treats of last night was a half-hour session devoted to an update on the Planetary Science Decadal survey, given by the chair, Steve Squyres.

Squyres revealed that the first draft of the Decadal Survey has in fact been submitted to the NRC, just this past week. This draft will next undergo peer review and should be available for release by the end of February 2011 and will be presented formally in march at LPSC (The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference). Now while Squyres could not reveal the contents of the report at this stage, he was able to speak in broad strokes about what we should expect. First of all, this decadal survey had an additional constraint compared to previous decadal surveys. Not only was the committee tasked with identifying the best science to be done, but they were asked to determine the cost of doing that science and to use that cost estimate as a factor in ranking what should be done. The result may be less of a guideline, as previous decadal surveys have been, and more of a concrete and implementable plan.

To that end, the survey committee sought out a great deal of mission assessment (millions of dollars worth) and then had the numbers checked over independently by Aerospace Corporation. There are exceptions. First of all, the smallest missions, the Discovery-class, will not be ranked as these are meant to respond to opportunities and discoveries as the decade goes on. As well, the survey committee was asked to not interfere with the current New Frontiers selection process, and so the three surviving candidates - OSIRIS, SAGE and MoonRise - were not evaluated. It should be interesting to see what makes its way into the final report. You could certainly tell that Squyres was excited and wished he could just go ahead and spill the beans right then and there.

Following the decadal survey update, Jim Green, the planetary science director at NASA Headquarters described the highlights of the year past and the year yet to come. Two items stuck out in my mind. First, there is a real bonanza of activity taking place over the next 600 days or so, something that NASA is describing as the Year of the Solar System. Given its length, it's a Mars Year, as Green pointed out. It also has a website,, and a new educational software package named “eyes on the solar system” which was demoed here at DPS and will go live at the end of the month. Over the course of this time, we've got the release of the decadal survey, the arrival of Messenger at Mercury, and the launch of three spacecraft over four months in 2011 (GRAIL [moon], Juno [jupiter] and MSL [mars]).

The second item is the difficulty that NASA is having in getting the Pu-238 that is required for NASA to run planetary missions beyond Mars. As we get further and further out in the solar system, the amount of solar flux available to power spacecraft gets less and less, so much so that by the time you get out to the orbit of Jupiter, where the flux is less than 4% of what it is at Earth, it is especially impractical for spacecraft to be solar powered, although Juno intends to try it.

Instead, spacecraft are powered by the radioactive decay of Pu-238. This material is packaged as alloy at far from weapons-grade concentrations in a series of aeroshells which are intended to survive a launch-pad accident. Meanwhile, the heat given off by the radioactive decay is harnessed as a power source, classically using a thermocouple run in reverse, to produce an RTG, or radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

But the total amount of Pu-238 is limited, and it has been more than 30 years since Pu-238 was last produced by the United States. As such, the stock of material has been steadily diminishing, despite purchases from the russians, so that currently there is insufficient plutonium to power all the NASA missions that are on the books. This includes efforts to extend the lifetime of the current stock by utilizing more efficient heat utilization methods, such as sterling cycles (SRGs) which are much more efficient and thus require less plutonium. There have also been efforts to front-load the usage (since the stock naturally decays away and less is left on the shelf each day) by offering incentives in the recent Discovery AO to teams proposing SRG power sources. A large fraction of the 28 propsers reportedly took them up on the offer.

This is an issue of particular concern to the DPS, which has less of a Mars-component than other planetary science conferences, and the division membership has been writing letters to congress about the issue for several years. This year, there was a positive sign in that the approvals bills for NASA and the DOE (Department of Energy) both talked about the desire for DOE to restart Pu-238 production. NASA was even given approval to spend 15 million dollars on its share of this program.

However, the approval of administration budgets by congress is a complicated process with an approval and appropriational level. That is to say that NASA may be “approved” to carry out activities, but the money required to do them may not be “appropriated.” Sure enough, in the appropriations bill for the DOE, language on the restart of plutonium stated that since NASA was the only public user of Pu-238, it should have to shoulder the entire cost burden, some 90 million dollars all told. So unfortunately, it doesn't look like much is going to happen on this issue this year.

As a final note, an old classmate of mine at LPL, Terry Hurford, was announced as one of the new names at NASA HQ. He will be a program scientist in the OPR (Outer Planets Research) division of the NASA R&A Program, and largely takes over for Curt Neibur who becomes project scientist for EJSM.


Following NASA night many of us took off for an important "AG" meeting. The AGs are Assessment Groups and many of the popular destinations in the solar system have one to help prioritize our exploration and science activities. For instance, I get a great deal of mail from MEPAG, the Mars Exploration Program Assessment Group. The AGs have their international counterparts too, the WGs. For Mars that would be IMEWG, the International Mars Exploration Working Group. However, the AG I was headed for was much more social in nature. The BWEAG, or Beer and Wine Exploration Assessment Group, was conceived and chaired by Andy Rivkin. It reminds us that conferences are not just a place to listen to talks, but to interact socially with your peers and discuss what you learned that day. Many a new collaboration has been formed at places like meetings of the BWEAG. To my knowledge, there is not yet an IBWWG, but just in case Andy comes up with one, you read it here first!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The end of lifetime tenure on spacecraft missions

Michael Carroll's concept of the Europa-Jupiter System Mission which proposes to implement a partially revolving science team.

One of my mentors and a friend at the University of Arizona is a professor named Bob Brown. In his earlier days, Bob worked with Voyager and was best known as the originator of a concept known as the solid state greenhouse effect. This concept would later be applied to Neptune's moon Triton and indirectly to the sublimation spiders on Mars. In 1989, as voyager was winding down, Bob was selected as an instrument Principal Investigator for the VIMS (Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) instrument on Cassini and has worked on that mission ever since. Currently, Cassini is funded through 2017 which will bring Bob close to retirement. Now Bob has also worked on other projects, but Voyager and Cassini have dominated his professional life.

It was originally intended for Cassini to have what we in the Mars program know of as a Participating Scientist program. Basically, this is a program whereby younger scientists who were perhaps not well-known enough to make it onto the main science team through the black art of mission team selection, could join the mission later on, after launch. But unfortunately the participating scientist program never happened. In this respect Cassini is far from unique. Phoenix also was forced to cancel its participating scientist program for monetary reasons.

Still, there is a big difference in giving lifetime tenure to science team members when a mission is expected to last 90 sols or even 152 sols, as Phoenix did, and giving lifetime tenure to science team members on a mission which could last 10, 20 or 30 years. This is something that NASA headquarters has realized, and to their credit, once it became clear that the MER rovers were going to far outlive their expected 90-sol missions, they held a participating scientist selection program that allowed new blood onto the mission, and helped the careers of many young scientists.

Now NASA hopes to apply this model to a future flagship mission. Today, Curt Neibur, project scientist for the EJSM (Europa-Jupiter System Mission) project announced a science team concept for the mission which is nothing short of revolutionary. While instrument P.I.'s and their Co-I's would maintain science team status throughout selection and all phases of the mission (projected to last from early 2011 through 2029), much of the science team would be hired on 3-5 year contracts as investigation scientists. These people would roll-on and roll-off the mission providing their expertise for a limmited time only.

This approach makes a great deal of sense. For instance, currently the project scientist needs to try to anticipate all the different expertise which will be required, and hire everyone at the start. As a result, some science team members do relatively little until after launch when their expertise is required. Other unanticipated needs may end up unfilled by a full science-team member. By having the option to change the make-up of the team over time, it becomes possible to use your resources more efficiently. You have the flexibility to hire those science team members who can be most useful in any particular phase at the time when their expertise is most needed, and not have to carry them through the entire project.

Additionally, this gives a way of getting more people involved with the mission, especially younger career people, who might have had great difficulty in breaking into a mission previously. By cycling through these science team members, perhaps as many as 6 generations worth with a mission like EJSM, you can expand the base of those who have intimate knowledge of the data sets to be gathered. That means better science return, as more people in the science community at large will have direct knowledge of how to process and interpret the recieved data. This contrasts markedly from the current situation where many of the researchers operating out of the PDS have had no direct contact with the team, instruments or spacecraft which gathered the data that they are interpreting.

The rub here is how to reward these rolled-off science team members in order to make the program attractive to them. Many questioners were concerned that in the early years, investigation scientist positions would be undesirable. Those who would be selected would be giving up significant time to get hardware ready for flight; time which might be better spent publishing or advancing their careers. Furthermore, given the large number of scientists who would cycle through, the cachet to working on the mission in that capacity would be reduced. As Curt has said before, operations experience on a NASA mission which has ended may be edifying, but a potential academic employer will not regard it as a plus. More potentially problematic is determining which investigation scientists get inside the data embargo once the science phase of the mission begins.

Therein lies an interesting potential consequence of this change. Once a large part of the community begins cycling through a mission during its lifetime, it may become more difficult to justify a 6 to 12-month embargo. As I've commented before, this embargo is one of the main motivators of researchers who work on missions. It allows you justify the calculus of giving up your time in the short term for long-term gains in a professional context. Without that embargo, mission participation may become less attractive to those looking to aggressively advance their careers.

These are complex problems without simple answers, we're just going to have to try a few things and see what ends up working. But one thing is clear, if a major mission, such as EJSM finds that lifetime tenure for science team members is not justifiable, then this is likely a practice that is on its way out. So, while it may not be possible for future researchers to follow the kind of path that Bob has had the opportunity to take, the process of spacecraft mission participation could be opened up to much wider segment of the community. I think that's something to be very pleased with.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Conference Notebook: DPS

This week I'm at the Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) Conference in Pasadena, California. I'm excited because this is the first major planetary conference I've been to since I graduated nearly two years ago. In some ways it's a bit sad that I haven't been able to attend any of the big ones. No AGUFM (American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, held yearly in San Francisco, California during the middle of December), no LPSC (Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held yearly in Houston, Texas) and no DPS. LPSC in particular hurts, since I had a good streak of attendance going from 2004-2007 and since then I haven't been back. However, I see my attendance at DPS this year as evidence that things are on a bit of an upswing for me as I head towards my first true Planetary Science postdoc starting in December.

So what is the DPS? Well, technically, the division is part of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and all DPS members are members of the AAS as well. However, you might be surprised to learn that there is relatively little mixing between those who attend the big AAS meetings and those who attend DPS. This is in contrast to the situation over at the AGU, where the big conference (AGUFM) takes precedence. The reason for this lies in a strange twist of fate. In the United States, at least, planetary science has historically been associated with planetary exploration and shares a bit of a kinship with the human exploration program in NASA as being robotic precursors after a fashion. As such, planetary science has its own constituency down here, its own decadal survey, its own budgets, research institutions and granting programs and in some cases its own departments.

In Canada, planetary science is more of a subfield of many other fields. Thus there are glaciologists who study the polar caps of Mars, atmospheric scientists who look at the clouds, astronomers who study the dynamics. The main unifying trait, is that in Canada the work of planetary science is not conducted by dedicated planetary scientists as much as it is done on a part time basis by scientists trained in other fields. In practice this makes it difficult to assemble something called planetary science from its constituent parts. It also means that different fields of planetary science are more distant from one another in Canada and there is relatively little mixing. Where it would be trivial to answer questions across the field in some US departments, the insular nature of the beast in Canada makes it almost impossible to do this without switching departments or universities.

It's for this reason that DPS and LPSC are such treats. I look forward to a great week of catching up with old friends, making new collaborations and learning new science, getting inspired to do future work, learning about my career possibilities, and even canning a few interviews for ! We got off to a great start yesterday with the Early Career session, which highlighted one shortcoming of the granting system in Canada, its opacity. That gives me a strong action item for when I get back to see if I can decipher how to get funds.

With luck I'll be able to run some more updates this week, and there's a few posts I've been putting off that I hope to get to. I'd love to stay at chat, but I must run off to a session. Follow me over on Twitter @ArcticSaxifrage and the conference at large using #DPS2010.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


The term oversharing refers to someone who lets loose into the public sphere something that would be best left elsewhere. It doesn't necessarily mean information that isn't already public, as oversharing can be the result of taking something that is already public knowledge, but isn't really noticed by most people, and shining the light of public opinion on it. Examples of the first kind are common - for instance the person who puts their social security number up on facebook. Often this sort of thing happens by accident, or out of naivete. But in the latter case, that of attracting undue or undesired attention, is something much more grey as it's the kind of thing that is often done for laudable purposes. For instance, often folks like me will speak out about things that are common place in our own professions. In particular we like to highlight things that make us passionate about our work, stuff that's cool, or anything that gives the broader insight on what it means to be one of us. Done right, we call it E/PO which stands for Education and Public Outreach, and it's an invaluable asset in the sciences where much of our funding comes from government and demands public support. Despite this, there can sometimes be "oversharing" in which material may be posted which can be taken out of context.

A recent example of this kind of EPO gone awry was posted by the good folks over at the Online Engineer Blog ( in the form of a youtube video entitled "Stairway to Heaven." The video showed a couple of electrical technicians (linesmen?) climbing up a 1768 foot guyed tower and antenna to effectuate work on the upper surfaces. Like all structural engineering (at least to me, a former engineer!), guyed masts like these are very neat. They can soar to incredible heights, even reaching above 600m to send out radio signals over thousands of square miles. We don't often get to see them from the perspective of the top and many of us have wondered exactly how you would go about fixing one, should it break. Thus, the video by showing technicians ascending to the top gives us a vicarious glimpse into their work and something they no doubt find to be a very cool part of the job.

Taken solely in this way, the video is a masterstroke piece of EPO. Heck, it even went viral on youtube! If only my martian wind or telltale animations had those kind of page-views! However, one issue with these sorts of things is that people often evaluate them out of context using what they know of their ordinary lives. And success always brings things out of the woodwork. In this case, the downfall of the video was showing the technicians free-climbing. Not something that I would want to do, but something that they are trained to do and something that helps them to do their job. The video even helpfully points out that this type of work is entirely legal and is permitted by regulations that have always been available for download from OSHA. But it didn't matter. People complained that there was no way this was legal. Two TV stations, sensing controversy and a story, asked to run the video. Finally, after much controversy, the video was ultimately withdrawn by the author.

In some ways this is a bit like the unexpected hubub surrounding the "demotion" of Pluto by the IAU back in the earlier part of this decade. To this day, we still get questions about that one at the observatory. I've often been told that the pluto controversy was a good thing for astronomy and planetary science - it provided a teachable moment which gave us all an in which we could use to engage the public. Still there are those who interpret it only as an affront. Why else would Pluto still be a planet when "within the skies of New Mexico and Illinois" by legislative fiat?

Both cases are a result of what is largely an internal point of interest leaking out into the public sphere in ways that were, perhaps, a bit counter-productive. What makes the "stairway to heaven" video different is that, unlike with Pluto (with apologies to Alan Stern and the New Horizons mission), there is serious money involved with the building and maintenance of radio towers. i don't know if the technician who shot the video had the permission of his employer or the operator of the tower to release the video. Probably no one would have cared, (heck, I bet the employer and owner would have enjoyed the exposure!) had it remained a simple point of interest amongst a group of technofiles like myself.

But when it first got popular and then got controversial the forces that be aligned against it. While the site of the tower is not explicitly given, a quick 15-minute google search reveals its location (I won't be more precise then to say that it's in Texas) and the owner. And from there it would be a short trip to the identity of the climber for those involved. That climber wants to keep working. The owner doesn't want a surprise OSHA inspection which a public outcry would demand, despite a lack of wrongdoing. And absolutely no one wants a crusade for an unnecessary change in legislation and working conditions. So there was no way the video could stay up, to the chagrin of many of us who want to experience the understanding (and vicarious thrill!) of watching a well-trained engineer at work.

As for planetary science and myself, this issue goes way beyond "Pluto" and other teachable moments. The mere fact that I write this blog openly (way to infrequently, I know, loyal reader!) is somewhat of a risk. Having no public opinions is always the safer path, but eventually all successful scientists, by virtue of the constituency we serve, need a public presence. While I try to keep things as positive as possible, there is the chance that I will insult or slight others in my industry with my words here. For that I apologize in advance. But I feel the risk is a justified one. I feel fortunate to do what I do for a living and I want to get the word out, good and bad. That's why I help out on public viewing nights at the York Observatory. That's why I write these words here. And maybe, just maybe, someday some future employer will read what I write here to get some measure of this man and something about what I've had to say will tip the scales in my favour in a close race. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Banting Fellowships: Growing Pains

The requirements for the much-ballyhooed Banting postdocs have finally been posted. These are the funding awards announced by the Canadian Government earlier this year which look like very fancy versions of the Australian Super Science Fellowship program. They appear designed to attempt to keep Canadian talent in Canada and are set to become the most prestigious fellowships in the Nation offered to young researchers. Yet, the first year of disbursements will likely feature a very shallow pool which could lead to mixed results for the program a few years down the road. As well a structural issue with eligibility threatens to keep the best candidates from the program.

Quickly, this year's Banting Fellowships would pay $70,000 a year (taxable) to those who graduated with a PhD between Nov 2007 and Dec 2010, i.e. 0-3 years post PhD. Departments would be permitted to supplement this extremely generous salary and would be encouraged to provide substantial research/travel funding to allow the chosen candidates to carry out an ambitious program. Since a significant commitment is required from individual universities and departments, they would be required to nominate only fellows they would be willing to support. Thus the position is somewhere between a traditional postdoc and a starting faculty position.

So far, this all sounds good, however, there is one clause which looks innocuous on the surface, but which has a significant impact on who would be eligible to apply in the first year of the program. (Complete eligibility requirements can be found here, as provided by UBC) Specifically, the eligibility requirements prohibit anyone who currently holds an NSERC, SSHRC or CIHR postdoctoral award which runs out after March 31, 2011 from applying. Since these awards may be cancelled by the applicant at any time, could you announce your intent to terminate the award on March 31st and still apply? The rules say no. Thus those of us who currently hold the most prestigious awards in the country are barred from applying.

You must be thinking that this is no big deal. After all, why would you want to provide awards to people who are already awarded? Better to spread the wealth around. Well, the danger here is in the timing. Since academic jobs and grants are scarce, PhDs often start looking for a job long before they need one. In fact, if your funding runs out less than a year from now, you are in hot water whose temperature will be slowly rising as you approach that cut off date. Making things worse, is the timing of the award to exclude next year's may graduates in contrast to NSERC's usual application cycle.

Here is what I mean by that last paragraph. According to the rules and regulations, only the following people would be permitted to apply:

(1) PhDs who have not yet graduated, but will do so before Dec 31 of this year, and were losers in the spring NSERC competition, or have not begun looking for a job.
(2) Postdocs that are less than 3 years out (mostly 2 years out, due to typical graduation in May) but have been unable to secure funding beyond next March.
(3) Canadians doing postdocs abroad who wish to return home.

There are issues with all these groups. For (1) and (2) either NSERC or their advisors have shown a lack of faith in their abilities, or they have been unlucky (due to the economy, for instance). But the situation is worst for (3). This is the group you would most like to attract, however, they would need to be well-known to a Canadian department in order to merit being nominated above that department's own. Experience has shown that a star of that magnitude is more interested in a faculty position 2 years out than a second postdoc, though there may be some who see this as a bridging position that would make them more attractive to a particular university. However, there is a reason that they left for greener pastures in the first place, and that reason is not likely to have been money.

This suggests that the pool of applicants for the fellowships will be exceptionally shallow this year, and the recipients may not be the top Canadian early career researchers due to the eligibility restrictions. This should be better beginning next year, however, there is one change I would make: extend the eligibility of graduation out to the middle of the next year from the end of March. This would align the fellowships with the NSERC cycle and allow applicants to apply to both simultaneously.

As awareness of the Banting fellowships grows, the program will improve. But it looks a bit rushed this year, almost as if the politicians who made the announcement are desperate to have recipients in front of the camera ASAP.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Some thoughts on Live at York U's Interview with Jim Whiteway

Last night, the program "Live at York U" had an interesting interview with my current postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Jim Whiteway. In astronomical circles, Jim is best known as the Co-Investigator (Co-I, in the jargon of the business) of the Lidar and MET packages on board the Phoenix Lander, but he also heads the Centre for Research in the Earth and Space Sciences at York University. By way of full disclosure I've had the opportunity to collaborate with him on and off since 2006/2007 or so and have been working for him for nine months now. There are a couple of points that he mentioned or that came up in discussion between Paul Delaney (Director of the York University Observatory) and Host Robert Berthiaume that bear repeating or commenting.

First, there's the subject of planetary science in Canada. Jim mentioned that he had always wanted to go into planetary science when he was younger, but noticing that there was little planetary science work being done in Canada at the time, he elected to go into Optics/LIDAR work instead. While it remains difficult to find full time academic work in this field, he feels that things have improved significantly. Graduate students can now pursue planetary or space studies at places like the University of New Brunswick, the University of Toronto, York University and, of course, the University of Western Ontario where my future supervisor, Dr. Gordon Osinski, is deeply involved with both the Canadian Lunar Research network and the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration. There are also smaller projects available here and there from Memorial University to Dalhousie, to McGill to the University of Alberta. To enhance all of this the Canadian Space Agency has been developing our strength in hosting the world's researchers at planetary analog sites. The most famous of these is the Houghton Impact Structure up on Devon Island where NASA, CSA and the Mars Society (Amongst many others) have been known to test equipment. The astrobiological exploration and research at Pavillion Lake also got a lot of good publicity this year. To cap it off, NSERC has recently created a program to fund students and postdocs called CREATE, and the CSA is hopeful that several new research chairs in planetary and space science will be announced later this year.

So it seems that things are on the upswing in Canadian Planetary Science. One of Jim's comments in particular was music to my ears: that Canadian students should consider this field. After being told time and time again by academics in Canada that planetary science was a dying field and I'd best jump ship before my career sank beneath the waves, it feels good that someone is willing to be optimistic in a public way.

However, is Canada the best place for students to learn their craft? This brings me to a second point raised by Delaney and Berthiaume, that students do not seem to have been significantly involved on the Canadian side of Phoenix. Unfortunately this is largely true. There are, of course, exceptions but these are mostly students brought in after the fact to analyze data and not expected to participate in science team discussions or the mission operations. Contrast this with the attitude of the Americans. I (Arizona) worked as a Strategic Science Planner, as did my fellow grad students Doug Archer (Arizona) and Selby Cull (Washington). Many of the IDE/ISE's were also undergrad students for the SSI, in particular. These students gave presentations at the science meetings and helped to decide the course of operations. Some even put in long hours building and validating space hardware. One case in particular bears mention: Rigel Woida, an undergraduate in the Optical Sciences Department at the University of Arizona was the principal engineer on the organic-free blank used to test the TEGA instrument in flight! So obviously there were more opportunities to participate for those working south of the border.

Why the difference between the Canadian and American teams? Part of it has to do with the profile of the mission. I do get the impression that Phoenix was a bigger deal in Canada than it was in the USA, thus the Americans were able to take more of a "gamble" on using students in key roles. Even so there are several upsides to such a gamble. First, costs are lowered as you get a highly skilled workforce willing to accept little pay for the prestige of working on a space mission. Secondly, you are helping to develop the field and build a cadre of young researchers with mission experience who can go on to plan and operate missions of their own later on. In this sense, I feel that Canada missed out a bit on Phoenix.

This brings me to my last comment, a small piece of advice. After the interview, master's student Berthiaume expressed concern about graduate students who might base their entire thesis on a space mission that has yet to fly. Delaney felt that it's no different from researchers in other fields who might base their theses on experiments that have yet to run. Still, I feel there is a significant difference between the two areas. Rarely, in the case of a lab experiment, does a failure so spectacular occur that you cannot repair the equipment and try again. It may take a bit more time and a bit more money, but you aren't ruined. However, if the spacecraft you based your thesis on crashes, the mission it was to take on won't soon be repeated and you will have to start all over again. Thus, we were counselled at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory not to depend upon mission success for getting our PhD's. That piece of good advice has been followed by many, and with resources like the PDS making data from past missions publicly available there is no shortage of research topics to choose from. As Jim mentioned, one dirty little secret about space missions is that the science team can some times be so caught up in running a mission that they do not get to their data until years later (we're still publishing Phoenix data to this day). That means that there are lots of opportunities for significant and ground-breaking student projects to participate in if you talk to a team that has just finished with a mission.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quantification of the Attention Span of Star Trek Internet Users vs Surfer Internet Users

Since we're coming up to the end of summer, and I haven't posted for a while (I admit I've been busy over at ) I thought it might be time for a little fun. Here's a little "study" I conducted way back in 2007. It's based on the work of Rispin (2005) [1] who analyzes the propensity of surfers (as in the wave-rider kind) to write dude with multiple u's when posting online. I looked at those who wrote Khan with multiple a's and analyzed the differences between the two groups:

Introduction: Fun while waiting for a delivery - saw a news article on the "defection" of a Canadian MP named khan entitled "khaaaannn!!" [1] and it reminded me of a colleague's email in April about the work of Rispin (2005) [2]. Rispin contended that for a word with a vowel that is often extended by forum posters, such as "dude" as spelled with multiple u's, the number of repeated characters typed can be fit to a decaying exponential function ( N(n) = N0*exp(-tau*x), where N is the number of users who still have the u key pressed at time x, N0 is the number of users at time 0 and n is the number of u's ) which is related to the typical attention span of the group of users typing 'dude' with multiple u's.

I decided to expand upon this work and compare the exponential decay constant for people who typed 'dude' (more than one u) [1] and those who typed 'khan' (more than one a) and to determine what differences, if any, exist between the two groups. A total of almost 27 million dude writers and 68 million khan writers (according to Google [3]) participated in my study under natural conditions - no participant knew that their propensity for writing excessively long words would be used to determine their attention span.

Results: The frequency of Kh(a^n)n where n is the number of a's is plotted in figure 1:

Figure 1

Figure 2 shows the number of users who still had the a key held down after a fixed period of time compared to the number of users who used only 10 a's, plotted on a log scale to allow for easy calculation of the decay constant:

Figure 2

The time is based on my computer's character speed which is about 29.6 chars/s. Examining at points 20 to 40 (20 to 40 'u's) of dude [1] we get a decay constant of 4s-1 and points 10 to 50 (10 to 50 'a's) of khan, 3s-1. So half the folks typing 'dude' gave up after holding down the u key for 0.17s and half the 'khan' folks let go of the 'a' key after 0.23s (both after the initial wait for the computer to realize you want to type more then one character).

Conclusions: Possible explanations for the discrepancy include: (1) that the people who type dude have a shorter attention span then those who type khan or (2) that people who type 'khan' typically choose to type it on machines which deliver more characters per second.

[1] Singh, K.N. (1982) The Voice of Khan. Internet Site.
[2] Rispin, C. (2005) Duuuuuuuuude: like, an analysis, right.
[3] Google Search Engine (2007)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Getting the word out

[ Photo Credit: Flickr user Tanki (source: used under license ]

Today I canned my first pop science interview for (look for it next Monday, July 19!) with the good folks at the York University Observatory. I've never done anything quite like this before, with the possible exception of sitting in and offering a few comments on an interview that my PhD advisor and Phoenix Mission P.I., Peter Smith, had done with NPR (US National Public Radio). With luck, I picked up a trick or two from Peter, the consummate master of the science interview. So, hopefully I acquitted myself well, and didn't embarrass myself too badly.

Even if I did, it's still a useful process. As I've mentioned in this space before, we Scientists have an obligation to share our knowledge, passion and enthusiasm with the public and I hope that I get more opportunities to do just that.

Additionally, it's interesting to get some behind-the-scenes experience, just to see how these interviews are done. For instance, we ended up recording two interviews since we couldn't use the first take as the result of technical difficulties. What was fascinating is that each take of the interview was completely different, despite operating from the same sheet of questions. In the first (which will not air) we talked mainly about Astrobiology as well as the motivations and philosophy of doing space exploration/planetary science. The second version (which will air) was more of a discussion of the technical aspects of exploring the solar system.

It was a fun experience, and I thank the York University Observatory for the chance to participate. In particular, I'd like to thank my host Rob Berthiaume. Rob, a complete natural as a host, knows exactly how to put an interviewee at ease. You end up simply having a conversation - I think we could have continued talking for hours. Hopefully they'll have me back again. If they do, I'd especially love to be able to answer questions from listeners.