Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Exploration: an activity suitable for all audiences

The cover of the August edition of CMOS' Bulletin - the middle image hints at a medium-complexity article, an interesting art form which is more complex than a standard outreach article and less complex than a full-on scientific article. Such medium-complexity prose can be a challenge to write, but has particularly valuable potential payoffs.

Even a casual and infrequent visitor to this blog will know that I feel it's important to write for a variety of audiences. Often I'm emphasizing either a professional audience, in speaking about published research that I or my students have led (50 papers now, as of last month!), or a general outreach audience to share the enthusiasm, excitement and wonder of space exploration. If there's not enough evidence of the latter in these pages for you, allow me to direct you across to my lab's blog at york-pvl.blogspot.ca where you can hear from my students!

But there's a third audience for which I don't typically write - the deeply interested layperson or mildly interested expert. Here, I'm talking about folks who don't get a paycheque doing planetary science, but who can tell the difference between New Frontiers and New Horizons.* Combine those with practicing scientists and engineers who might work in sister (and typically terrestrial) fields like Geology, Atmospheric Science or Space Engineering who know the difference between cirrus and cumulus,** penitentes and suncups,*** or framing and push-broom cameras,**** but who are surprised to see the word 'Mars' or 'Pluto' before those familiar terms. Think the readership of Scientific American, or Physics Today here.



The result is that there is what you might call a medium-complexity audience for planetary science. This summer, my students and I have waded into this area with two articles in the newsletters of learned societies. The first, published in Planetary Matters, the newsletter of the Geological Association of Canada's Planetary Sciences Division spoke about our work with Plutonian ice forms. You can read a copy here. That article is actually a reprinted and edited form of a post that appeared right here on this blog in January. Arguably, many of the posts on this blog can be considered of medium complexity in that they give more information than I would in an outreach presentation and give some "inside baseball"-style details about how the planetary sausage is made.

The second article appeared in the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society's (CMOS) The Bulletin in their August issue (just published in late September). In that article, Christina, Charissa and I put together a wide-ranging generic discussion of weather on Mars suitable for atmospheric scientists. I'd love to share this one with you as well, but unfortunately it's behind a paywall. CMOS is an organization with which I've had a long association and it was nice to be able to talk a little bit about the particular flavour of atmospheric science that I and my students practice.

Overall, I think the experience has been a positive one and I've learned a fair bit in the production of these two articles. Like any form of writing it takes time to master and I have appreciated the opportunity to practice. Something I'd change for next time is to throw in a few references (three seems a good number) without sacrificing the light and conversational tone. The experts are used to seeing those and an interested layperson will appreciate the note for where to find out more. Jargon and acronyms, though, have to be kept to a minimum without dumbing down the article. While not every technical term needs an exhaustive introduction, it's important to pay attention to what's specific to your own corner of the field and what to expect when you venture beyond.

Aside from self-improvement, why write these sorts of articles? Well, for the highly interested laypeople, these are the folks who talk to their members of congress/parliament and who back up practicing scientists when we make the case that space exploration is a worthwhile activity. The Planetary Society has become expert at helping to marshal the efforts of this group. Furthermore, producing text for those who are passionate about your shared interest can be a re-energizing experience, reminding you of why you do what it is that you do.

The second - reaching out to practicing scientists in sister fields, is a bit more subtle. Part of it is hoping that they'll see a connection with their work (as I often have when reading about my colleagues' research) that will spark an idea for a new and unexpected line of research. The other is to help maintain a bit of an extended planetary community. By keeping colleagues informed, they are able to help contribute when a large mission arises and there is grant money to be had applying their skills to planetary problems. This is especially needed in Canada where we don't have a NASA R and A program to maintain a pure planetary science community.
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*New Frontiers is a NASA program for planetary exploration missions costing about $1 Billion whereas New Horizons is a space mission that visited Pluto in 2015. Complicating matters slightly is that New Horizons was the first mission selected under the New Frontiers program.
**We have great debates about whether you can really call a cloud 'cirrus' if it's found within a few km of the surface, even if it looks like, acts like and is made out of identical particles as terrestrial cirrus
***The one grades into the other as the wind-speed increases
****Framing cameras take single 2D shots, exactly like a digital camera; push-broom cameras capture a single line of pixels (conceptually) that use the spacecraft's motion, traveling over a planetary surface to build up an image.

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