A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Showing posts with label academics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label academics. Show all posts

Season 4: The Sabbatical Years

Mike Brown’s Planets is back. After a long break at the conclusion of Season 3 (I define these Seasons after the fact: if I haven’t written anything in a while I declare it to have been because, clearly. it is the end of the season), the writing will now resume. This season is destined to be the most exciting of all for the simple fact that it also coincides with my current sabbatical, which started last week and lasts for the next 6 months.

My sabbatical will be a funny thing. While most people take the opportunity to take their families to glamorous places and work in exciting new labs, I am taking the opportunity to spend more time in my comfy green chair at home, writing. Diane refers to it as my staybbatical, which I guess is about right. And, after a few days of tidying up loose ends from my office, I am finally here, sitting in the green chair. Let Season 4 commence.

The end of the fall

The fall term always gets a little overwhelming, as classes get into session and lectures need to be written, problem sets graded, exams created. I have an amazingly long backlog of things about which I want to write at this point but which I have not yet had the time to even get started. To top things off, my life appears to be changing forever. Most of these pieces get written on weekend afternoons while Lilah is napping. But the days of napping appear to be coming to a close.I understand intellectually that this is likely, after all, few 10 year olds nap, but I had never really stopped to think about the effect on my life. It’s not all bad; being able to pondering going out to do something with Lilah in the afternoon could be quite fun! But it will definitely gobble up my quiet afternoon writing time. But, today, after a late Halloween night and a no-doubt sugar-induced-early-morning wakeup, Lilah is currently snoozing away and I am going to now type as quickly as possible. Ready? Go! (Halloween? Yes, I started writing this almost a month ago, giving a perfect demonstration of the point I am trying to make.)
Back at the end of August I asked everyone to review my paper on Titan fog, and, to my surprise, many people took the task extremely seriously. The paper was discussed in classes and in on-line forums and was stared at by many eyes. If you recall back in August one of the reasons for attempting this open review was the fear that having only a single official reviewer leads to a huge random factor as to whether or not you will get anything useful out of the process. In this case, I have to say that the official review was pretty difficult to decipher. The reviewer commented on a few typos, complained about the location of the references, and said that the paper was generally incomprehensible.
Incomprehensible? Now, I will admit to having written papers that are incomprehensible before (how about this one; I can barely understand it myself 20 years later), but I actually thought that the paper was pretty clear. What’s more, of the many comments I had gotten from outside the official review process, no one had quite said “incomprehensible.” So what was going on here?
I reread the paper several dozens of times, and reread all of the comments that I had gotten, and realized, I think, the source of the problem. I think I was much too terse in my explanation of what I had actually done. Sure, I discussed fog and its discovery in gory detail. But I perhaps did not do a great job of describing how I really sorted through all of the data to find fog. It’s a pretty crucial step. If you don’t provide enough details in your paper that someone else could come after you and reproduce precisely what you did, you have failed an important point of having a paper in the first place.
One reason for describing all of this poorly was that the real process was actually quite different from the way I attempted to describe it in the paper. The real process consisted of this: I was looking at a bunch of pictures of Titan and said “Whoa; what the heck is that?” That turned out to be fog. I suspect that many discoveries are made that way, but if you read scientific papers you will rarely learn that fact. If you read my paper, you will find something like “Fog is very important so one fine day we decided to go look for fog on Titan. And we found it.”
OK, partially this description is true. After the first few times of accidentally seeing the fog we did, one fine day, systematically search through the entire data set. But that description was all pretty muddled.
The solution was a nearly complete rewrite of the paper. Had I just gotten the official review I would have fixed the typos and reworded a few things here and there and wondered what the heck the reviewer was talking about, but with the strength of the large number of comments, I could really tell what people were seeing and reading and I could make it significantly better. At least I think it is. But don’t take my word for it. Remind yourself of the first version, here. And now go read the new version here as it is about to appears in this week's Astrophysical Journal Letters. You still will not read the new version and realize that the real way we found fog is that we stumbled on it accidentally, but you will at least, I think, have a better idea of precisely what we did and how we did it. Want to go find fog yourself? I think the roadmap is now significantly more clear.
My conclusion from this experiment? I can’t tell you whether this system will always lead to such dramatic improvements in the quality of a paper, but in this particular case there is no doubt that when you read the two versions of the paper and you note any improvements almost all of those improvements came from the open review, rather than the official review. All of the comments that were sent to me were incorporated in one way or another. And for that, I would like to say a hardy THANK YOU to everyone.
But wait, there’s more!
Fresh on the heels of the Titan fog paper, I have submitted a paper to the Astronomical Journal called “The size, density, and formation of the Orcus-Vanth system in the Kuiper belt.”
This paper, I will admit, is less accessible than the paper about fog on Titan, yet, still, would you give it a read? It’s been posted online for a week and one reader already pointed out a rather stupid math error (thanks Alan Martin) of the sort that creeps into papers when you work on them one hour a week for 3 months (the error is still there, until we fix it in the next round of reviews, so feel free to go track it down and marvel at how stupid I sometimes can be).
Normally I would spend a few pages here telling you what the paper is about but, conveniently, I did that last spring, when we were searching for an appropriate name for the moon of Orcus. Go back and reread the post about coming up with names for the moon of Orcus, where I talk about the strange characteristics of what we now call Vanth. And, with a bit of continued Lilah napping over the weeks to come, stay tuned for thoughts about searching for the real Planet X, why I hate the 5 dwarf planets, and strategies for Lilah-weekend-nap-inducement.
And look! Lilah is done with her nap, and ready to start in on last night’s candy. Back to the sugar frenzy. (and with that, Lilah was awake, and we were off, and now it is a month later and Lilah is settled into a post-Thanksgiving nap and I finally have a spare moment to finish and post. Classes end next week for the year, so I look forward to a bit more time for reflection soon. Stay tuned.)

Thank you from the future

Being a professor at Caltech, I get to dress up in a gown and funny hood one morning every June and sit on stage, watch hundreds of new Doctors and Masters and Bachelors go by and listen to a commencement speaker impart words of wisdom on the graduates. One June, a few years ago, I even got to be one of those commencement speakers. I spoke at the graduation ceremony for Cal State LA in their football stadium, with 20,000 people in the audience – a personal record that I suspect will never be exceeded – and my image projected, rock star style, on multiple giant screens around the stadium. I had a few butterflies in my stomach that morning. But I managed to give a speech that I ended up liking. It went something like this:
First, I’d like to thank President Rosser for inviting me to be here to share this morning with you. I’d like to thank all of the students for inviting me, too, except that I can see all of you down there discretely picking up your programs and flipping through saying “um, who exactly is this guy again and why is he here?” So let me help you out with those two because really if you ask your neighbor he or she probably won’t know either, but that’s OK.
Who am I? You got the quick intro: astronomer, professor at that much smaller university about 5 miles north of here, discoverer of the 10th planet or perhaps destroyer of the 9th planet depending on who you talk to. And I guess those are the official qualifications for why I’m here talking to you today. But let me tell you how I would actually introduce myself if we met out in the parking lot. I’d probably ask where you were from and I’d say “oh I’m your neighbor; my house is about 10 miles up the road that way.” And then I would probably tell you that I teach geology classes to large groups of Caltech freshmen many of whom seem to have never been outside during the daytime before I take them and make them look at the world around them. And then I would start talking about my wife and our 11 month old daughter and you’d have to find a way to get me to shut up because, you know, you need to be somewhere by dinner time and I might keep talking for weeks.
OK. So that’s who I am. The next question is: why am I here? The goal of a commencement speech is to give you a seed of advice at this precise turning point in your life – some seed that is going to implant in you and grow and help steer you as you commence on your new life. It’s a powerful idea that that I could do that, that I could transfer a little bit of wisdom from me to you to help steer through all of the cross currents and distractions of real life to finally get to your ultimate goal. Now that would be seriously influential.
But I’ve got bad news for you, though. I’ve got no advice to tell you how to get along in life. No little words of wisdom. No seeds to plant. As my wife will attest, I barely know how to get along in life myself, and if I had any seeds I probably set them down somewhere in the other room and now I can’t remember where I put them even though I just had them a second ago. I can’t really give you any advice on how to get to the future because the most important thing that you will realize – which you probably already realize since you have made it this far -- is that really you just have to figure it all out on your own. OK maybe that even counted as advice, but if that’s all you get after all of those years of classes and driving and rearranging schedules to get here on time then you should really ask for your money back. No, really, I’ve got no advice to give, unless, of course, you wanna run off and find planets, then I’m definitely your guy. But otherwise? Nothing really.
So I thought: what can I do? No advice to give, but I’m supposed to talk for ten minutes I can just try to be funny for a few more minutes then we can get on with the serious business of whooping and hollering as all 3600 of you walk across the stage. Then I remembered what my wife told me: scientists are not funny people. Why do you think they put them all in the far back of the stadium there? Not funny at all. Don’t even try.
So I’m going to go out on a limb and try to do something that is a lot harder than trying to be funny, which is trying to be serious. I do have something I want to tell you, which is maybe better – or at least more rare – than advice. I want to tell you thank you. Thank you for everything that you’ve done to be sitting right there right now. But really this is not from me, I really want to tell you thank you from the future. And you might think that I am uniquely qualified to talk about the future since I’m an astronomer and all, but, um, really, being an astronomer has very little to do with predicting the future. That’s an ASTROLOGER. They’re the ones that get paid better. But people do get confused all the time.
So it’s not that I am an astronomer and thus know the future, no, I think that the one qualification maybe I have for talking about the future really is my 11 month old daughter. Some of you down here – and certainly many of you out there – know what having a child does to you: you immediately start projecting to the world of the distant future, but you also start thinking a lot about the past and your own parents.
So before I start talking to much about the past, first let me ask: How many of you are in the first generation of your family to go to college? (At Cal State LA first generation college students make up the majority of the population.) This thanks goes to you, but the rest of you need to listen to because it will be your job to pass this thanks on to the right person in your own family.
So first, let me admit: I’m not one of you. I’m in the second generation to go to college.
My father grew up in a small Missouri cotton farming town along the Mississippi River. My mother grew up in a small Illinois manufacturing town along the Mississippi River Neither of their parents had gone to high school in their little river towns. My mother’s family came from recent German immigrants and ran a series of grocery stores in town. My father’s family came from all over – Ireland, France, Nebraska, Pennsylvania – before settling down along the river and opening a small business repairing the newly invented TV sets. By the end of the 1950s with college opportunities beginning to expand around the country they both set off to do something no one in their family had never done: go to college. My mother traveled down the river to the big town of St. Louis; my father went up the river to the big town of St. Louis; and they both arrived at St. Louis University with little idea of what was in store for the next 4 (or 40) years
My mother and father both went to college in the 60s and so in my family there really wasn’t much question of college vs. no college. It was simply a where (in Alabama the choice was usually based on whether you were a fan of the University of Alabama or the Auburn University football team). But things were different for my parents. My father grew up in a small cotton farming town along the Mississippi. My mother grew up in a manufacturing town further north along the Mississippi populated by German immigrants.
And, so, in case you haven’t figured this part out yet, my parents are you.
And if my parents are you, I am your children.
You are my parents. I am your children. Your children, though, will never quite understand this well enough to thank you for all that you did. So I’m going to thank you instead.
I’ve got a second thank you that I need to say this morning. It’s not really for you, so I’m only going to give it to you so that you can pass it on. And this is the thanks for the parents and the siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and everyone else who is here supporting you today and who has been supporting you through all of this. Those people – all of you out there – are like my grandparents pushing their children from opposite ends of the Mississippi River in the same direction towards their own goals. The funeral for my grandmother – the last of my living grandparents – was just this last Monday in that little Mississippi River town. Until I sat down to think about what I was going to say this morning to you it never really occurred to me to think very hard about all that she had gone through that allowed me to be where I am today. It certainly never occurred to me to tell her thanks. But she deserves the same thanks that I just extended to you. I wish this one could be from me to her, but I’ll have to settle for from the future to all of you. For your parents out there, your grandchildren – present and future – thank you for all of the things that you did that will make their lives better, even though they won’t really know most of them.
Once you start thanking people it actually gets kind of addictive. Particularly when you are actually doing the thanking for someone else in the future. I’ve thanked you from your children and from your grandchildren, but I’ve got one more that is a little closer to home for me. I think a lot about my daughter these days and I think a lot about the future that she is going to have. In maybe 21 years or so – let’s say June of 2027 -- she could be sitting down right there where you are now. What will the world be like then? I sometimes think the bad thoughts: with 20 more years of global warming will LA be a place that we can live? Will the WORLD be a place we can live? Will the top speed on the freeways be 10 MPH? Will some psychopath figure out how to get a nuclear device into LA before Jack Bauer can stop him? But you think the good thoughts, too: in 20 more years maybe people will have learned to be nicer and more understanding. For the most part, though, most of these things are going to be imposed on us all from the outside and there will be little we can do. [sorry; this is a commencement speech faux pas. I’m not supposed to admit to you that much of what happens in the world you can do little about. Ok, for the record everything is possible you can be anything you want to be and completely change the world and we all believe in you to do anything. OK? OK. Now back to the real world]. OK, no, but really most of the thoughts that I have when I think about what the world will be like in my daughter’s future involve things that few of us – no matter how influential Time magazine says we are – can do much about. They are just the fabric of life, the collective interactions of the millions of people living out their lives at the same time in our community. And I can’t tell the future, so as much as I try to use the Tarot cards they issue you with the astronomy degree to predict what is going to happen, I really have absolutely no clue whatsoever. But there is one thing that I know – one part of my daughter’s life and future – that will be a constant no matter which of these things – good or bad – comes about. That one part will be you. You are the future fabric of this community of Los Angeles. You know, somewhere out there might be my daughter’s mayor – and by now you gotta trust that I don’t mean that in the cheesy commencement speech “you can be anything” kind of way – I mean that in the very literal “somewhere out there might be my daughter’s mayor or maybe city council member or Senator or whatever” way. Really. It actually seems pretty likely doesn’t it? Somewhere out there might be the high school English teacher that inspires my daughter to go write the great American novel. Somewhere out there might be her older next door neighbor who feeds her cats when she is out of town. Somewhere out there might be the parents of her husband. [If so we will need to talk right after this ceremony is over]. Somewhere might be the owner of the first company she ever works for. Somewhere might be the doctor who delivers my own daughter’s own daughter. Big parts of the fabric of her life, of the fabric of this city are sitting right here.
So, as her father, I’d like to thank you. It will never occur to her to thank you for anything since you’re the fabric and people tend to take fabric for granted, but I’ll thank you from the future for making and being the city and community of her future.
And, OK, I have one request. Really just one thing for you to remember to do when you leave here today. (And, of course, don’t forget what I said before about thanking those people who are here for you today). I still really don’t have meaningful advice, but I do have this one request. You guys are the Los Angeles of my daughter’s future, the fabric of her life in this community. And I just ask that you be nice to her. And to look out for her. It’s not too much to ask of you is it? Just to be nice to someone? Like she’s your own daughter, or your baby sister, or your favorite niece? And I meant to bring with me a big poster board picture of what she looks like so you could know who you were promising to look out for and be nice to, but I got up way too early this morning – astronomers aren’t traditionally morning people – so I just plain forgot. No baby pictures for you, so you really don’t have any way of knowing what she looks like – although you probably wouldn’t go wrong by looking for someone who looks an awful lot like me but is a good bit shorter and much much much cuter– but still, you’ll never know for sure which one of the toddlers then kids then teens then adults that she is, so really I guess the only safe way to honor my request to be nice to my daughter is just to be nice to everyone. And look out for them. You are the future of everyone’s community of Los Angeles and I want you to look out for everyone. It will make the Los Angeles of all of our futures a better place to be.

How not to, um, be too bad

One of the main things that you might convince yourself of if you walked around classrooms at almost any high powered research institution – including my own institution – is that the ability to do something well and the ability to teach that thing well are totally unrelated. It’s not that there are not good teachers in these places – every place has some outstanding teachers – but you would never be able to predict who is going to be one of the good ones by looking at a CV or noting how famous the person is as an academic.
We all know this to be true.
So I was particularly amused the other day when I got an invitation to give a talk about how to be an effective teacher.
“I have no idea how to tell someone how to be an effective teacher,” I protested.
“But you’re such a good teacher you must know how,” I was told.
First rule of effective teaching: don’t assume that someone who is good at something knows how to teach it. Particularly if that thing is teaching.
I couldn’t really get out of it. Last year I won Caltech’s Richard Feynman Prize for Outstanding Teaching, which is a flattering shot of confidence that perhaps I am doing something right in my classroom, but along with the prize comes some responsibilities. Last fall I had to talk to a group of graduate students about how to be an effective teaching assistant (“Don’t overestimate how organized your professor is”) and I had to give a talk at a graduation lunch on a topic of my choosing (“Why it’s OK to feel like an impostor”). I have to speak at the big dinner before graduation this year (haven’t started thinking about that one).Talking about effective teaching was one of the things I had to do.
Three weeks before the talk I was asked for a title. I had not, of course, even begun to think about what I was going to say (Second rule of effective teaching: know what you intend to say). Jokingly, I suggested “Teaching: How not to suck,” knowing that they would not actually use such a rude title. So, of course, they did. And then they plastered signs with the title all around campus.
Such a shockingly rude title led to a higher-than-usual interest in hearing what I had to say. Plus there was free food. The lecture hall was relatively full. Sadly, though the talk itself kind of sucked (Third rule for effective teaching: don’t raise expectations unrealistically).
I did end up with a few things to say; I just didn’t say them in an organized coherent enough way to have it be useful to anybody who was in the audience. But being forced to think about how to describe effective teaching did give me time to come up with a few general principles, of which some have already been stated. Here are a few more:
Fourth rule for effective teaching: have a thin skin. Students always like professors who care, but they rarely understand exactly what that caring really means. Yes, it is important to me that I teach effectively and students learn what I think they are supposed to be learning and they’re not bored. But I also have a very thin skin. To be short (and rude): I hate to suck. I really really hate to suck. And, believe me, sometimes I do. Students out in the audience of large lecture halls think they are very clever about surreptitiously falling asleep without being noticed. I always notice. There are days when I lecture and I simply know it is not going well. I am not clear; I ramble; I say things in the wrong order. And when I leave the lecture hall I feel simply awful. And I go back to my office and think “I do not want this to ever happen again” and I work hard on the next lecture. But not really because I am a magnanimously caring, but because my skin is too thin to have this happen too many times.
Fifth rule of effective teaching: lecturing is bad. I am fairly convinced that lecturing is one of the least effective ways of transmitting information ever invented. We lecture because that is what the monks did in the medieval times before they had books or computers or videos, and no one seems to have really thought very hard about whether or not this makes any sense anymore. So why do it? I challenged my audience during my talk to come up with any reasons they could think of for why lecturing might be useful. They had three thoughts: (1) It might be entertaining; (2) It might aid memory; and (3) It might aid comprehension.
Is any of this true? Who knows! But simply asking them the question totally changed the dynamic of the lecture. They were no longer passive recipients of wisdom from me, but active participants in trying to figure out what was going on. The change in the room was obvious. People sat up in their chairs; eyes were opened; hands were raised. And all of this means, I think, that brains were engaged. They will remember this part of the lecture more than any other part, and when they stand up in their own classes to give lectures perhaps they will think to themselves “why am I lecturing” and they will at least be thoughtful about what they are doing.
The point, of course, was to demonstrate that lecturing is bad. Engaging is good. I do think that a classroom section can be entertaining and aid memory and aid comprehension, but I think that this rarely happens when I stand and deliver a one-way lecture. If it’s one way it might as well be a video, which is significantly more efficient.
Sixth rule of effective teaching: humbly remember your days of ignorance. I teach a class on geology. Conveniently, I know very little geology. I thus relate quite strongly to my students who are seeing these concepts for the first time. I actually think that it would be very clever to require that introductory classes are taught by relative outsiders to the field.
Seventh rule of effective teaching: never ever go late. All students will hate you even if you are the most informative and entertaining person in the world. Fifty minutes after the start, not a single person still wants to be around. The same is true here, thus I end.