Champagne and Chocolate

Many of my recent blog posts have all been about Milky Way Project, and there’s a good reason for that. The publication of our first paper, which is in press at the moment with Monthly Notices, was just a first big milestone, with more to come. I’m currently writing a follow-up paper using the initial data catalogues, and as I’m scheduled to give a talk about it at the end of the month at the joint UK/German National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, I’d better make a move on with getting the results out.

The paper won’t be the photogenic blockbuster that Rob wrote for us,  but just in case you don’t share my histogram-fetish (… you simple soul!), I’ve managed to find space for one rather sexy bubble picture to add a bit of spice. If and when the paper gets accepted I’ll instruct the editor to place it on Page 3.

My own data adventures aside, this week was another heap of fun for the project. NASA put out a press release to mark the first data release. It didn’t get picked up in too many places – there was Astronomy Magazine,, and also a short piece in the Mail Online with obligatory pretty pics of the Spitzer images and our MWP heat maps. The Mail upped Eli Bressert’s “champagne bubble” quote to liken the Milky Way to a nougat-y chocolate bar.

If I’m being a pedantic scientist, I should add that neither of those analogies are actually very accurate. Champagne bubbles are maybe somewhat similar in that they’re lighter than the liquid they’re in, but our interstellar bubbles aren’t thought to be floating or rising through the interstellar medium. But they do expand. As for chocolate bars… No, that doesn’t work either.

At Milky Way Project HQ, we launched a new phase of the project. While we continue to collect your ‘regular’ bubble drawings, we’ve now added close-up images of bubbles that are already in the catalogue, for which we’re trying to get more precise sizes and thicknesses. Rob explains all here. Our drawing tools were fairly coarse, as some users had remarked, particularly for drawing smaller bubbles. So with these new images we will try to gather more precise measurements.

I’m really looking forward to the NAM conference later this month. I haven’t been to one of these meetings since the first year of my PhD (Dublin!), and they’re great for catching up with old friends and colleagues. Having it joint with its German equivalent meeting (the AG) means that both old and new friends will be at the meeting. Another factlet is that I’m actually half-Mancie, and although my association with the city is pretty patchy (what, you haven’t noticed my striking Northern accent?), it’s fun to be there.

Instrumentation School

Not much blogging activity in the last week as I’m travelling around Europe for a bunch of meetings – expect updates on dotAstronomy and Milky Way Project in the next week, once I’m back at home.

In the mean time, I wanted to share the announcement of this interesting instrumentation school taking place in Toronto this summer. Since a few years, the University of Toronto hosts the Dunlap Institute, which is specialised in astronomical instrumentation. It’s really great to see such centres of excellence being set up – after all, very little science without good instruments. This course looks excellent for students who would like to get involved in instrumentation.

American Astronomical Society Meeting, Austin


This week I’m at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, TX. I’m excited to be here for a number of reasons, first and foremost that I’ve never been to a AAS meeting before. It’s one of the biggest gatherings of astronomers, so there’s lots of people to meet, including some old friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in a while. And of course there’s the talks, the posters, and the wonderful city of Austin:


I’m planning to organise a meet-up for DotAstronomy alumnae/i and enthusiasts this evening, so keep an eye on twitter for details of that.

As always there’s a big media presence at AAS so expect some astronomy stories in the papers and online this week. AAS have a list of blogs and twitter accounts covering the meeting (mine’s not on there but if I hear interesting talks I’ll certainly write something about it). I’ve had lots of discussions recently about science reporting, peer review, blogging and such, so I was interested to read Blogging & Tweeting guidelines in the printed programme. A few selections:

[...] Please do not publicly report private conversations – only scheduled presentations and public comments are fair game for blogging, tweeting, etc.

Remember that many presentations at AAS meetings concern work that has not yet been peer reviewed. So think twice before posting a blog entry or tweet that is critical of such work. It is helpful to receive constructive criticism during the Q&A after your talk or while standing next to your poster, but it is hurtful to be raked over the coals online before your session is even over and with no easy way to respond. [...]

That’s quite sensible really – it’s not trying to stop people from writing or commenting, just to be balanced, fair and take the status of the work into account. There’s also an embargo policy for the meeting:

When meeting abstracts are available publicly, either electronically or in print, they are not embargoed.Abstracts reflect the situation at the time of submission and often do not correspond exactly to the paper that is ultimately presented, usually months later. Reporters should note that preparing a story based exclusively on an abstract is ill-advised.Some results to be presented at AAS or Division meetings are also the subject of papers whose manuscripts are available via preprint servers such as or that have already been published in scholarly journals. Such publicly available results are not embargoed.Interviews with presenters, as well as graphics, animations, and other information to be presented for the first time at the meeting, are embargoed until the time of presentation, where “time of presentation” means the start time of the oral or poster session in which the paper will be given, or the start time of the corresponding press conference (if any), whichever comes first.For more information, see

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Edge @ SciFoo 2011

For a number of years now, the awesome Edge (twitter) has posted their take on SciFoo, which I attended in August this year. This year’s review was posted just last week. On the site is an interesting video with short interviews they recorded with a number of Foo campers, including Martin Rees, Frank Wilczek, George Dyson, Lisa Randall, Sean Carroll, Tim O’Reilly and a bunch of other smart people, about the questions that puzzle them today.

In addition, three contributors (Frank Wilczek, Jennifer Jacquet and Timo Hannay) have written some words on their SciFoo experience.

If you’re in need of some food for thought about science, humanity, the world and the future, go check it out.



I’ve just returned from the US, where I was lucky enough to attend SciFoo, a wacky science and technology camp hosted by O’Reilly, Google and Nature at the Googleplex in Mountain View. First, it was obviously great to hang out at Google HQ, a place that is the stuff of legends in techy circles. Yes, the site was great, the food was delicious (and everywhere!) and the toilet seats heated (heated!). The conference itself was everything everyone had warned and promised me it would be. It was exciting, overwhelming and inspirational. I met lots of people from all different walks of life, united by the simple fact that they’re very clever and have bright ideas. There were scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, engineers, young people, old people, men, women.

I was continuously torn between attending sessions on topics I know and care about in which I could actively participate, and sessions on issues that I’m not an expert on, like the economic crisis, the future of the human race, climate change. In the end I did a bit of both and came away with a really great experience. I have a few posts up my sleeve based on some great conversations I had there.

As we’re gearing up towards another .Astronomy conference for next year, I’ve been giving some thought to how the organisers of SciFoo manage to make the conference so special. The format is entirely “Unconference” – that is, driven by the participants, who post up their sessions on a giant whiteboard. We’ve used this format for .Astronomy as well, albeit only for half-days, and it’s surprisingly difficult to end up with a good balance of sessions run by the right people. Perhaps having a bigger pool of participants (SciFoo has a few 100 compared with .Astro’s 50 or so) makes that easier. What I enjoyed particularly was the explicit statement by the organisers that we should expect all conversations to be off the record (“FrieNDA”), and entirely open to everyone. So there was no clique-iness, no barriers for actively participating, and that worked extremely well.

Traditional science conferences sometimes wear me down with their undercurrent of of gossip and sniping. I’m more than guilty of it myself, and there is a time for all that – competition does drive progress, etc. But sometimes you need to be able to just listen and say: “THAT is AWESOME”. That, I think, is an undervalued skill in research.

So here’s another big thanks to the excellent organisers for SciFoo 2011 – I was happy to be part of it. More soon!