Author Archives: John C. Armstrong

Getting there from here…

This is a post I made for my HNRS2030 students, reblogging to Write Science

HNRS 2030 - Our place in the Cosmos

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from…We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

As Carl says, most of what we know we’ve learned from the surface of the planet. All of what we know has been gleaned from instruments sent by humans to the near and far reaches of our solar system. The sun is 93 million miles from Earth. α Centauri is 4.4 light years further. Andromeda, our nearest large galactic neighbor, is a 2.5 million light years away.

But only careful application of the scientific method to observations of the solar system, the galaxy, and our Universe has allowed us to deduce the…

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The Science Behind the Press Release

Every morning I receive the most up-to-the-minute NASA press releases. Being an astrobiologist, I got particularly excited when the press release headline read:

NASA’s Kepler Confirms Its First Planet In Habitable Zone

I immediately posted to Facebook that we had found an earth-like planet in habitable zone and that this was the beginning of host of such discoveries.

However, by the end of the day, my mailbox was full of analyses from my research group about how this planet was a little too big to be an Earth twin and since it was also a little closer to the star, it was probably more like a Venus twin, and that we didn’t know the cloud cover or composition so making claims about habitability was really premature. And so on.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, my colleagues and I are heaving a collective heavy sigh because we are all a little tired of the press releases that promise such amazing discoveries, that, in the end, turn out to be not quite what we were looking for. While Kepler-22B is the closest thing yet, I’m thinking of the dust-up around the unconfirmed (and likely nonexistent) Gliese 581 g, but there have been others in the extrasolar planetary science community.

The funny bit? On closer reading of the press release, the researchers are very clear that they did not find an Earth-like planet, only a planet that was nearly the size of the Earth in the habitable zone.  They make no claims about habitability, only stating, as Kepler program scientist Douglas Hudgins did, that “this is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin.”

But who reads the press release in detail? I certainly didn’t and I immediately told Facebook, my friends, and my doctor that Kepler had just discovered its first Earth-like planet in habitable zone. Because I am enthusiastic like that.

I am also pretty sure the general public didn’t read the press release. And, judging by a list of recent headlines…

New planet Kepler22b could already be inhabited with lifeform

US military pays SETI to check Kepler22b for aliens

Newly discovered planet ‘Kepler22b‘ is eerily similar to Earth, NASA says 

…the bloggers and the press didn’t either.

But the “press release as scientific dissemination tool” is a growing phenomenon, especially when communicating science to the general public. NASA, to its credit,  has very solid press releases that are based on scientific evidence, recent images, or published papers or proceedings. But often, there is also a layer of enthusiasm that cynics would call “hype”. Why? Because the scientists are very excited about what they find, especially if it is new or controversial.

A nearly ancient example, from my students’ perspective, is the findings by David McKay and his team of evidence for ancient life in the martian meteorite ALH84001. To be sure, this was a published and solid peer-reviewed piece of scientific work by McKay and his co-authors. They had discovered three pieces of evidence indicated the possibility that microbial life had inhabited the rock. They outlined their methods and findings in a peer-reviewed journal, and invited the scientific community to weigh in on the issue.

The real problem? The press conference was announced by The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and his address was so full of hyperbole they used some of it for the announcement that SETI had found evidence for an intelligent signal from space in the movie Contact.

The NASA press conference announcing arsenic loving bacteria is a more recent example. NASA followed the same pattern of presenting scientific results from peer-reviewed work, even going so far as to dedicate nearly half of the press conference to a scientist who didn’t believe the conclusions of the authors. But, again, the hyperbole of the press release caused a backlash from scientists condemning the work, and the authors, for shoddy science.

Not that such condemnation shouldn’t take place. I have received some bitter rebuttals to some of my published work, but those have come in the form of referees’ comments or, more commonly, new papers that dispassionately refute my findings. Such is the way of science.

But the press release deluge piped directly into an eager blogosphere is creating a climate where even scientists forget that peer review for publication is but the first thin veneer of scientific review. Papers, even bad ones, even ones that contain shoddy lab work or crummy models, get published. They should get published. How else is the scientific community going to get a crack at tearing them apart or building up supporting evidence?

This idea that publication is the first and last line of scientific review even leads people I respect, like Joel Salatin, to condemn scientific studies as containing the biases of the researchers and, thus, should not be trusted.  Of course scientific studies are biased by the ideas of the researchers. Of course they should not be trusted. That is why they invented journal clubs for grad students, where we learn to tear apart peer-reviewed and published scientific papers for the utter dreck that most of them are. I only need to go back and read a small collection of my own work to find cringe-worthy errors that have later been pointed out to me after publication in a peer reviewed journal. To my credit, we’ve published a fair number of our our such rebuttals. What goes around comes around.

But I know why my fellow scientists get so outraged when a press release results in news stories that mislead the public. We have one of the least scientifically literate populations on the planet and the really funny part is this: most of them read a lot of science news! My students eat up space related stories on the web. My dentist, after recounting an accurate analysis of special relativity he’d read about online, went on to tell me how Einstein’s ideas proved that you could invent the universe just by thinking about it.

What should we do about this? We have a primed engine, in the form of public relations officers, who routinely write accurate press releases for NASA and other university research groups. We have a skilled scientific community who are not interested in misleading anyone, let alone the public. And, I believe, we have a talented press corp and nascent group of science bloggers who are intelligent, thorough, and interested in communicating the wonders of science to the world.

And yet half of my students think the space shuttle (still) routinely visits the Moon and the other half believe we never put men on the Moon in the first place.

But at least they are pretty sure there is an Earth-like twin orbiting a sun-like star in the galaxy. And someday we might actually find it.

Two Utah Astronomers tangentially acquainted to Physics Nobel laureate

(Note: This is in honor of – and with all due respect to – the winners of this year’s 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.  This really was a special time to watch the supernovae data come down as researchers diligently pushed observations to larger and larger red-shifts.  Still, I just couldn’t resist given the current WriteScience prompt of “headlines”!)

OGDEN, UT – In a surprise outpouring of residual honor, two Utah astronomers received recognition last week for being co-located at the same university as Dr. Adam Riess while he conducted his award-winning research that lead to his sharing of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Weber State University Associate Professor John Armstrong, a classically trained astronomer, graduated from the University of Washington and worked closely with team members there whose offices were next to where Dr. Riess and colleagues performed some of the research that led to the award.

Another Utah astrophysicist, Dr. Stacy Palen, also an Associate Professor at Weber State University, frequently attended lunch meetings with Dr. Riess’s colleague Professor Chris Stubbs, now at Harvard.

The two Weber State University professors learned of their honor after being contacted over FM frequencies by the National Public Radio station KUER, broadcasting from Salt Lake City, Utah last Tuesday.

“It is a real honor to be recognized as someone who worked with someone who worked closely with a Nobel laureate,” said Dr. Armstrong.  “At 39 years of age, I am not the youngest person to have worked near Dr. Riess, but it is an honor to achieve this much before I am 40.”

“The work that went into watching researchers observe that our universe is not only expanding but accelerating was immense,” said Dr. Palen, “I truly feel part of the scientific process.”

The significance of those accomplishments are not lost on Dr. Armstrong.  “We’ve known the Universe is expanding since Hubble’s earliest observations,” he said, referring to Edwin Hubble’s pioneering work measuring the recession rates of galaxies, “but to learn that the recession rate is accelerating is truly unexpected.  It is one of the most surprising observations of the last few decades.”

“Such accomplishments literally force us to re-write the astronomy textbooks,” said Dr. Palen, “And I do mean literally.  I just finished re-writing mine.”

Both Drs. Palen and Armstrong recall several seminars on the topic of cosmology, many attended by Dr. Riess and his colleagues.  “Little did I know, at the time, of our contribution to this important effort,” reflected Dr. Armstrong.

Dr. Riess was part of the High-z Supernova team, created in 1994 by Brian P. Schmidt, then a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, and Nicholas B. Suntzeff of Cerro Tololo Inter-American University in Chile.  Dr. Riess and colleagues went on to form the Higher-z Supernova Team, eventually securing the observations that led to the award.

Dr. Riess, now a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, shares the award with Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University.  Dr. Palen and Dr. Armstrong share no affiliation with the co-awardees, according to sources.

Horatio Allen Tibbets of the Cloudy Mountain National Observatory in Utah could not be reached for comment.

The generation that took us to the Moon…

I’m cross-listing this here, from my personal blog, because I think it has some relevance to the discussion of training the “next generation of scientists and engineers”.

The generation that took us to the Moon…

Global Energy Growth, the Drake Equation, and Fermi’s Paradox

A friend and colleague of mine, Tom Murphy, has started a new blog about climate change, peak oil, future energy consumption, and other stuff related to what some have coined “The Long Emergency”. His blog, called “Do the Math”, is unique in that he takes a physics approach to calculate from first principles many aspects of the problems that face us.

I strongly suggest taking a look if you have ever worried about the future of civilization and don’t just want to wring your hands about it, but look at the problems from a physics perspective…the one that says ‘hey, I’m a physicist, how hard could the problem be?’

Turns out, pretty hard. But I like Tom’s approach. Many of his analyses have that Fermi Problem approach that are used in my field of astrobiology to either predict that aliens are everywhere (Drake Equation) or to wonder why they aren’t seen anywhere (Fermi’s Paradox).

One my favorite posts of Tom’s is this one.  In it he extrapolates our current growth rate of energy usage (2.3%) and looks at potential energy sources for future humans.  The punch line is pretty dramatic.  According to Tom, a civilization like ours should be harnessing (and re-emitting) all of the energy incident on the surface of the Earth in a mere 400 years from now at the current rate of growth.   Of course, he is assuming in 400 years we have learned how to harness that energy and dissapate it into space without concern to the state of the climate or the habitability of the planet, but perhaps that is the topic of another post.

Rather than reflected light, the vast majority of this will be emitted in infrared wavelengths as waste heat.  Based on some quick internet research, a typical CCD camera has a dynamic range of about 90 dB, which gives a power ratio of 1 billion.  If the star and the planet differ in total power output by this much, in principle we should be able to see it, provided we can resolve the components on the sky.  Hubble has an angular resolution to see a object in an Earth-like orbit around a Sun-like star out to about 60 light years, provided that object is bright enough.  Since most of that power would be radiating in the infrared rather than visible light, it is likely such an object would be observable with current technology or the next generation of space telescopes.  Looking at the graph, the moment we start using all of the incident radiation on the Earth (the 100% Earth Solar point, at 400 years) we are using (an re-emitting) roughly 1 billionth the total power of the Sun.  Thus, in 400 years, the waste energy of our civilization is observable from space from a distant of about 60 light years using current or near-future technology.

It occurs to me that Tom may have unintentionally answered one of the greatest questions in astrobiology by putting a hard limit on the maximum value of L in the Drake Equation.  Regardless of the other parameters in the Drake Equation (which multiplied together are of order 1 regardless of your pessimism or optimism) L  in large part determines the number of potential civilizations in the galaxy.  Large L predicts lots of civilizations whereas a small L ensures we are alone in the Universe.  According to Tom’s calculations, L = 500 years (our current run of 100 years plus another 400 years).

Inadvertently, Tom may have also linked the Hubbard Peak  to the solution of Fermi’s Paradox, since it is very likely that the end of fossil fuels will preclude us from building the solar arrays necessary to be visible from deep space.

So, in addition to solving the world’s problems through physics, he is pinch hitting for astrobiology and clearing up a few pressing details.  Nice work, Tom!

I can get there from here…

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability.  How do I sustain my lifestyle?  How do I sustain my community?  How do I sustain my career?

Today I got “The Letter”.  I am a tenure track professor in the final year of my tenure review, and “The Letter” is the first in a series of documents that, with luck, will validate what I have been doing for the past several years.  “The Letter” is probably the most important one, because it comes from my department.  It is written by the people who I care the most about, by the people who work with me every day.  It is the most important letter because, while an entire process exists to override the content of the letter if the need arises, who would want to?  If my department isn’t behind me, then what difference does it make?

Tenure is a fascinating concept that is, I think, rooted in sustainability. Here is the way it works: you show, through thought and deed, that you can sustain a certain level of performance in your career.  For several years, you do your good work.  You work hard to help your students, you serve your academic community, and you push important projects forward.  You do this because…well, at the time, you’re not quite sure.  It just seems like the right thing to do.  You get a strong feeling that this is just the way things are.  You should sacrifice for your students, you should do more than is asked of you.  You also get to work on some amazing projects with brilliant people.  And, if you are very, very lucky, you wake every morning remembering that this is what you get to do today.

And after a few years, you realize you are the person who thinks this a good idea.  After a few more, you recognize that you are the person who doesn’t know any other way of doing things.  And after another year, you convince your colleagues this is the case.  After that?  Well, you have to keep it up. You can’t let them down now!

January Prompt – sustainability


Could you tell the difference…

by John Armstrong

I am a big fan of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  SETI‘s job is to search for artificial – dare I say “designed” – signals in the Universe.  To probe the cosmos for any hint of intelligence, some artifact in nature that clearly indicates the existence of another creative species like us.

I’m teaching an honors astrobiology course this term, and the students – much to my joy – chose to study Carl Sagan’s Contact for our final projects.  During the last several weeks, we’ve been reading the book, watching the movie, solving Fermi problems about the number of civilizations and the cost of interstellar communication and transportation.  We’ve been asking the question “Are we alone?” and finding that the answer is really, really important.  If ETI are common, perhaps there is some hope for us.  If they aren’t there, then…well, then what?

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the implications of “contact” on society.  The answers range from “Incredible” to “None”.  From “Independence Day” to “District 9”.  Would it change your life?  And, if not, what scientific result ever could?

As a final project, students can choose to write about ETI in a number of ways.  They can choose a position paper or a research paper.  They can write a poem or a story.  They can choose to write a feature article for a magazine.  But my favorite is the interview/survey.  Several of my students want to ask other people questions about ETI and probe their responses, relating those back to the impact on our society.

One student will survey clergy from various denominations in the area to see if “The Signal”, scientifically realized, would be distinguishable from a message from God.  What would convince them?  The content of the message?  The method of delivery?  As I think about it, this is an important question.

Consider: the world’s religions have been receiving signals from space for thousands of years.  They may have come in the form of blind oracles or a burning bush, but the message is clearly from “beyond”.  How are radio signals from space distinguishable, for your average person, from a statue that bleeds?  Does it come down to an evaluation of the data?  Are we to expect people to “believe” scientists because we can show them wiggly lines on a graph?  How, as a nonscientist, can you tell the difference?

As a kid, I became enamored with the idea that God (or, earlier, gods) were really aliens from another planet visiting Earth.  This made a lot of sense to my little kid mind.  Interstellar space travel is very hard, so they visited 10,000 years ago, and we interpreted their visits from the animistic perspective.  The visited 5,000 years ago, and we saw them as gods from on high, interacting directly with humans.  A couple (or perhaps just one) visited 2,000 years ago.  Even as a kid in junior high, when I read in Exodus God’s commandment to “not have any other gods before me”, that implied that there must be other gods.  And these gods were other aliens.

Crazy, I know.  As I got older, and learned about scientific exploration, I found it more likely that humans just made up stories about gods and God, in order to help us understand the Universe.  That is a much simpler explanation.

But, if tomorrow – or Thursday, during NASA’s big press conference – the signal finally came from “on high”, is it really simpler to attribute it to an alien species?  Or would it be far more likely, in the mind of 90% of the people on the planet, that the message came from “God”.

And how on Earth would you convince them otherwise?