Friday, May 13, 2011

Martian Fog Update

Disney's vision of a plant on Mars via Paleo-Future. I can only hope that I'm growing the Martian version of our tree of knowledge.

By design, one of the main jobs of a Scientist is to add to our body of knowledge. Typically, we're all working away quietly on this tiny piece or another of a very large tree. Often, the particular leaf that we are adding is esoteric and may therefore be of interest only to a small group or even just ourselves. But sometimes, we get the chance to work on a finely-filigreed golden leaf of a project, or on a major branch. It is on those projects that a wider swath of the world takes note.

I'm proud to say that I've had the chance to work alongside some of the masters on projects of this latter kind. Phoenix was something that quite obviously would add a whole bough to our Martian tree of knowledge and it was no surprise that it did so. Huygens did the same for Titan. On each, I was part of one particularly shiny leaf as a co-author. Marty Tomasko's paper detailing rain on Titan which appeared in Nature in 2005 has now been cited over 204 times and was reported in the wider media across the world. The same was true with Jim Whiteway's discovery of snow on Mars which appeared in Science in 2009 and is already up to 22 citations.

In each case, we knew even before the release that we had something special. What I didn't realize was that, in its small way, the same could be said about my work on Martian fog. Rather, I had thought that this was a topic only of great interest to me. Fog is certainly something I've had some personal experience with. St. John's, Newfoundland, where I grew up, is known for this meteorological phenomenon. Located at the convergence of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream, the city sees a whopping 124 days of fog a year, on average.

But instead of remaining obscure, the response has been overwhelming! While I haven't yet been on any nighttime talk shows (nor do I expect to be), the work has been reported in many venues. In print these include AGU's Journal Highlights/EOS Magazine, York's YFile Newsletter, The Indian Express Newspaper, American Scientist Magazine and National Geographic Magazine where the story has been "liked" by 112 people on facebook. That's astounding to me! I don't think I've ever had my work read by more than a handful of people previously.

There has also been quite a bit of chatter online. Stories have appeared in real clear science, digg, weather geeks found on mars, news around the world, newkerala, ok4me2, my perennial favourite linker to my sf review blog: stumbleupon, and science week just to name a few. The blog in the shadow of ares even found parallels with some of their own work! Meanwhile above top secret doesn't entirely my results. Here on Blogger, the write-up I put together has now been viewed over 89 times, ranking it as the 3rd most popular thing I've written. Thanks for visiting, and, as always, special thanks and a tip of my hat go out to the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla for the blog post and retweets!

I had always wondered what it would be like to have one of those papers you hear about in the news. Now I know. What's particularly interesting to me is the way in which things snowballed. The idea for the paper came out of a discussion that Cameron Dickinson (now at MDA Space Missions) and I had back in 2009 which I worked up into a paper over the summer of 2010. When we first announced our results at that fall's DPS meeting, we were assigned a poster and that poster was not heavily visited. That's pretty much par for the course for most of my research. Despite this initial reaction, and given that the work fit best into a letter format, we decided to try for GRL - a relatively high impact journal in the geosciences. In early January, we recieved word that we had been accepted for publication. The paper went up online with little fanfare on January 11, and we thought that that was that.

However, at LPSC in March, I recieved word that the AGU had selected us as an Editor's pick for the month and was given a draft paragraph for the release. That, in turn, was picked up by National Geographic and I did my first ever interview with a popular magazine. The NatGeo article appeared on April 4th and from there travelled far and wide. Never did we issue a press release or hold a news conference (as had been done with Marty and Jim's papers above). I suppose we didn't realize what it was that we had.

So there you go; that's the tale from my end. I suppose you never know what other people will find interesting, but I'm glad that many of you did. I hope to continue to produce interesting material to share with you as we continue to grow the tree of knowledge about our solar system!

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