Public perception of astronomers

By Phil Plait | June 16, 2009 12:00 pm

A comment on another post here at BA led me to an interesting paper: "Public Perception of Astronomers: Revered, Reviled and Ridiculed" by Michael West of the European Southern Observatory (a PDF version is available as well). It’s an interesting essay on the changing way astronomers have been depicted and interpreted over time, starting in ancient Greece.

He makes a point on why this is important:

Although we live today in a time of remarkable astronomical discoveries, as many politicians and businesses know the public’s collective memory can be short, and hence astronomers cannot aff ord to be complacent about our public image.

True. He enumerates these points:

(a) Astronomy is funded by taxpayers or private donors and supported by politicians.

[...]

(b) Society’s perception of astronomers is strongly influenced by the arts, literature, movies and television.

[...]

(c) Astronomers’ ability to educate and inspire the public with new discoveries is aff ected by the way they are viewed as social creatures.

He gives some details on these, and I could argue some of the fine details, but won’t bother; they aren’t very important to the broader issue (though he does mention "Big Bang Theory", citing a review that really only skims the surface of the show’s characters, which perforce will make them seem two-dimensional; I argue the main roles of Sheldon and Leonard are actually deeper than a first glance might imply).

More interesting are the examples West cites of astronomers throughout history as depicted in literature and arts; from having them mocked in such venues as Walt Whitman’s poem "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" — Whitman says that a lecture by an astronomer bored him, and then extrapolated to the whole profession, which I find unpoetic indeed — to heroic representations such as in the movie "Contact".

The examples are numerous and fascinating, and there were quite a few about which I was unaware. I’ll have to expand my repertoire, it appears!

As I reached the conclusion, I found my self nodding in agreement with West… and then was quite pleasantly surprised to see this:

To get our message to the public, astronomers must not only adopt new technologies but also find creative new ways to use them. A good example is astronomy popularizer Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website, which was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 25 best blogs of 2009, citing him as "a voice of reason amidst the nonsense of non-science."

Well! That was awfully cool. And, of course, quite true.

As was his conclusion:

The bottom line is that astronomers must actively de fine our public image, otherwise it will be defi ned for us. Although it is impossible to control how astronomers are perceived by society, we do have some power to influence our public image.

I agree. Just like any other group of people, there is a broad and rich range of astronomers out there. Some really are like the characters on "Big Bang Theory" (oh, how many Sheldons have I dealt with over the years?), and some really are like Ellie Arroway from "Contact". We are tall and short, men and women, venal and altruistic, short-sighted and far-thinking, socially awkward and the life of the party.

And also like any group of people, it’s easy to try to categorize us and put us in nice, sequestered little boxes in your mind. But that’s not fair, as it wouldn’t be for any group. If you don’t know any astronomers personally, I suggest you take a look at the ones who blog. They will be self-selected to have a desire to communicate, so there’s a bit of bias there, but still, I bet you’ll get a surprisingly diverse set of opinions. Check out the Carnival of Space when I post a link to it every week. It’s a fantastic place to start.

Go on. Meet an astronomer. Maybe we’ll surprise you.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind

Comments (73)

Links to this Post

  1. Teknoport » Public perception of astronomers | June 16, 2009
  1. Jeff

    unfortunately, I’ve worked with them and their ilk my whole career. They aren’t my favorite people.

    I will say this, they’ve invented an invigorating, fascinating, ever-changing science , which is why I keep coming back for more; plus you know the old saying, you don’t choose your profession, it chooses you.

  2. EJ

    I’d quibble with some of his characterizations – for example the point of the Turkish astronomer in the Little Prince is to ridicule adults in general as being closed-minded and unimaginative compared to children – he just happens to be an astronomer because it fits into the story.

  3. And sometimes it’s okay to have a mancrush on some of them, right? :P

  4. IVAN3MAN

    You Might Be An Astronomer if

    * you own a flashlight that shines red light
    * you have ever said, “Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.”
    * you can easily tell the difference between a meteor, an airplane, and a satellite
    * you think it’s only natural to see the Sun set when you wake up and rise just before you go to bed
    * you actually know the latitude of your home town, your college, and any other place you’ve been to more than twice
    * you bring a clipboard and red light with you on EVERY vacation
    * you snicker when someone complains about getting “only” six hours of sleep the night before
    * you know which moon in the Solar System resembles the Death Star
    * your family is tired of watching “Contact” over and over
    * you can see the Milky Way despite the light pollution of your home town
    * your favorite pastime when visiting beautiful spots in the countryside is measuring your Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude
    * you actually know how to measure your Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude
    * you’ve ever planned a trip to the moon to improve the “seeing”
    * you’ve ever considered blowing up the moon to reduce the light in the sky from the full moon
    * you’ve ever wondered how much you’d be fined if you blew out all of the streetlights on your street so you could see the stars better
    * you pronounce “Maria” with the emphasis on the first syllable
    * you consider a compliment to be the fourth variable star discovered in Gemini
    * you’ve ever called 1,000 years “very quick”
    * you pronounce “Messier” with a French accent
    * the phrase “onion skin” makes you think of a type II supernova
    * you can pronounce Chandrasekhar, Chicxulub, Schwarzschild, and Hyakutake
    * you wonder why no one else is awake at three in the morning
    * someone calls you a “wimp” and you wonder what dark matter has to do with anything
    * you’ve lost the ability to enjoy a beautiful sunset because you’re too busy wondering if the clouds will clear
    * you think a “macho man” is a man who lives on Massive Compact Halo Objects
    * you can predict the weather based on your observing schedule
    * you think that the curvature of space-time is easier to understand than gravity waves
    * you snicker when someone complains about getting “only” four hours of sleep the night before
    * when someone casually wonders aloud how many planets out there might be able to support life you immediately think of the Drake equation
    * you consider anything except for hydrogen and helium a “metal”
    * you think the purpose of life is to study the sky
    * you know the difference between a comet and an asteroid
    * you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you detonated a nuclear bomb on Jupiter
    * you missed the sunset because you were taking flats
    * if North is drawn at the top of the page, you expect to see East on the left and West on the right
    * the last “dirty snowball” you saw was beautiful
    * you can convert from AUs to Angstroms
    * you consider an insult to be the fourth variable star discovered in Ophiuchus
    * you know what APOD stands for
    * you missed the sunrise because you were taking flats
    * you catch yourself saying things like, “You do realize that the coefficient of friction decreases exponentially as you step over the foul line, don’t you?” while doing simple activities, such as bowling
    * after such a statement, someone had to explain to you why all your friends looked at you as though you could no longer speak English
    * words such as “retrograde”, “logarithmic”, “exponential”, and “elliptical” are part of your everyday vocabulary
    * you can draw an H-R diagram from memory
    * you know what an H-R diagram is
    * you’ve ever said that you’re made of stardust
    * the phrase “a mere billion years” is not a contradiction in terms
    * you consider dressing up as Carl Sagan for Halloween
    * you can spell Chandrasekhar, Chicxulub, Schwarzschild, and Hyakutake
    * you attend the local planetarium religiously
    * you know more than the person giving the planetarium show
    * you’re actually jealous when you hear someone complain about getting “only” two hours of sleep the night before
    * you can refer to WINOs, MaCHOs, WIMPs, TOEs, and GUTs with a straight face
    * you don’t know why you wouldn’t refer to WINOs, MaCHOs, WIMPs, TOEs, and GUTs with a straight face
    * you’ve ever called 11 kilometers per second “very slow”
    * you know who Hertzsprung and Russel are
    * you can spell Hertzsprung
    * you’ve created countless mnemonics for the Harvard Spectral Class sequence even though you know the order backwards and forwards
    * you stay up until three in the morning on a cloudy night, because you actually saw a star at 11:00
    * you think in acronyms
    * you’ve ever convinced yourself that you could see the rings of Saturn naked-eye
    * you know all of the different stages of sleep deprivation
    * you know the entire Greek alphabet even though you’ve never had one class in Greek
    * you have a personal vendetta against the weatherman
    * you put on your application to JPL that you know how to use units correctly — and that you can convert from cgs to SI
    * you “know” that Mount Olympus is on Mars
    * “pc” means neither “politically correct” nor “personal computer” to you — it means parsec, of course
    * you know when the next meteor shower is
    * you think that -1 is bigger than 6 (it’s brighter, anyway)
    * you know why you’d want to spell or pronounce Chandrasekhar, Chicxulub, Schwarzschild, or Hyakutake
    * you know the difference between a meteor, a meteoroid, and a meteorite
    * you have your own meteorite
    * you are envious when someone says they got ANY sleep during the weeks of August 11, November 17 or December 13
    * you know what is special about each of those three weeks
    * you plan your whole yearly calendar around those three weeks
    * you’d be willing to make yourself 20 years older just to have been in the Arizona desert in the early morning of November 17, 1966!
    * the most important event on August 11, 1999 had nothing to do with the moon and the Sun
    * your first reaction at seeing a fireball streak gloriously across the sky is to check your watch – or start counting
    * your claim to fame is that you’ve met Tom Bopp, or witnessed a shuttle launch
    * when someone mentions Jodie Foster you think of Eleanor Arroway
    * you know the difference between pulsing and pulsating
    * you haven’t seen the sun in a month
    * you’ve ever entered into a debate about whether Pluto is a planet
    * you can see clouds in the dark
    * you have RAMSDIS Online as well as several local weather stations bookmarked on your home computer
    * you wonder why July 20th isn’t a national holiday
    * you know how to pronounce Arecibo
    * you can give the mass of the sun, the average distance between the Earth and the sun, the location of the Earth-moon barycenter, the mass of a Hydrogen atom, and the value of the gravitational constant off the top of your head
    * you find yourself crossing your “h”s on a regular basis
    * you can tell what time it is by looking at the sky — but only at night
    * you know the exact value of the speed of light
    * you can quote the exact value of an Astronomical Unit from memory
    * you can quote the distance of a parsec in Astronomical Units, from memory
    * you can quote the distance of a light year in Astronomical Units, to four decimal places, from memory
    * you’ve ever referred to a gigalightyear
    * your friends take it as a given that you’re tired
    * you’ve ever decorated your room with a reproduction of your favorite portion of the night sky
    * you have the URL for the Astronomy Picture of the Day memorized
    * you know how to say “armpit” in Arabic
    * you’ve ever convinced yourself that you can see the four Galilean satellites naked-eye
    * you’ve ever debated whether Charon is a planet
    * terms like “Gamma UMa”, “Alpha Boo”, and “OU Oph” make sense to you
    * you use Polaris to find the Big Dipper
    * you know Greek and Roman mythology
    * you haven’t slept in two weeks, but you stay up all night anyway because it is clear
    * you know what NASA stands for
    * you can give the nominative and genitive of all of the constellations
    * — even though you have no idea what a “nominative” or a “genitive” is
    * you know the difference between a constellation and an asterism
    * you can pronounce Betelgeuse, Uranus, Charon, and Cassiopeia at least two different ways each
    * someone calls you a “liar” and all you can think of is Orpheus and his harp
    * you cancel a date because it is your night to observe
    * . . . and then it rains
    * you can list the four Galilean satellites in order of size, distance from Jupiter, or likelihood of life
    * the word “Messier” makes you think of galaxies, nebulae, and clusters
    * you can pronounce Bootes
    * you can point precisely to any first- or second-magnitude star, even though it is completely overcast
    * you can point precisely to any first- or second-magnitude star, even if the star is below the horizon
    * a well-meaning but ignorant friend has ever introduced you as an astrologer
    * this same friend has ever asked how your study of cosmetology was going
    * you’ve caught errors on this list (if so, please let me know)
    * your favorite part of the day is when you get to go to bed
    * this list made sense to you
    * you’ve ever made a list titled “You Might Be an Astronomer if…”

  5. Ken

    Hmm… I’m trying to think of any depictions of evil astronomers in the movies, and I can’t really come up with any. The closest might be “we can’t tell the public about the asteroid because they’ll panic”, which gets used in every movie involving astronomical disaster. But the profession doesn’t seem to give rise to mad scientists with their own plans to destroy the world, which seems to be the preserve of the physicists, biologists, and medical doctors. Anyone got any counter-examples?

  6. >By contrast, their non-scientist neighbor is described as “at ease in the world, a sucker for hunks and, in her often mortified response to the guys’ brainy antics, a proxy for viewers.”

    A proxy for *some* viewers. Frankly, Leonard is a proxy for *me*.

    And I love that show. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve seen in years. I have known many people for whom the four guys are only *very* slightly caricatures regardless of whether they are (stereo)typical.

    @Ivan3Man: Summarize much?
    > You haven’t seen the sun in a month

    Or, rather, it hasn’t seen YOU. You could very well have been staring at it the whole month long.

  7. “Just like any other group of people, there is a broad and rich range of astronomers out there.”

    NO! We’re all stunningly beautiful, witty, brilliant, and fun, right? C’mon, roll with it here!

    Okay, seriously, one of the best lessons I learned at the VLA was how to talk to the public when we gave our tours of the array. Or even if not how, but why it was so important. They stressed for us to point out that all we do here comes from their (the taxpayers’) money, even if it’s only the equivalent to a handful of coins. I wish that every student in astronomy can have that experience and benefit from it.

    And NO we don’t listen through the dishes. It’s amazing to me, as I still struggle to define what I do on a daily basis as a grad student, the disconnect between what astronomers do or what scientists do in general, and what most people think we do. If they think of it at all. It’s not glamorous or aimless or really all that bizarre. It’s only when you tear yourself away from your code, pry your hands off the keyboard and away from that analysis software that you go, oh, wow, I’m studying the universe.

    And big kudos to you for the inspiration!

  8. IF:
    >You’ve gone to Griffith Park to meet Dr. Krupp

    >You know what VLA means.

    >You’ve been there…

  9. T.E.L.

    Why fret only about astronomers? Public money also goes to geologists, marine biologists, etc. But I don’t see them firing up the ol’ Propaganda Machine to put some spin on their images. Feynman told of how some fellow scientist was scheduled to be interviewed, and sought advice on how to paint a picture of his specialty as valuable to the taxpaying public. Feynman, wisely, told the guy to forget about the sugar; just be honest and explain what was he did in his profession. The gentleman argued that, if research isn’t made to look relevant to the peoples’ interests, they may not support funding. Feynman pointed out that the people should be the ones to decide, fairly, what is of importance to their lives. They should decide how their money gets spent.

    Just because science returns enriching dividends doesn’t mean scientists are entitled to public funding. Research gets considerable backing these days because it has a track record of paying off. If astronomy pays off, then funding will continue. What does it matter how Hollywood tells it? Hollywood also portrays lots of other kinds of professions with equal ignorance. Do truck drivers and assembly line workers need spin?

  10. Caleb Jones

    Reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Lisa wants to be an astronomer. She tries to get the town to address light pollution in Springfield. At one point, Lisa visits a nearby observatory. She asks Prof. Frink, who is standing on the outside railing of the observatory, about the light pollution problem. He agrees that light pollution is a problem, but says he can’t leave to help her because other astronomers will move in on the observatory and he’ll lose his telescope time. He then throws a stapler a scientist hiding behind a nearby rock, and several scientist’s in white lab coats scurry off into the woods, one of them shouting “I thought you said he was out of staplers.”

    Ah… Simpsons.

  11. rob

    @5 Ken:

    what?!!? there is a giant asteroid coming towards us?!?

    aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

    run!!!!!

  12. DrFlimmer

    Damn, I AM an astro-physicist (I must say it this way, because I am a theoretician, do not play with IRAF and hence am not a “real” astronomer). Thanks to you, Ivan3man, now I know for sure :D

    Btw:
    YMBAA, IF

    * your favorite computer program is IRAF
    * you hate IRAF
    * you know what IRAF is

  13. Davidlpf

    @Ivan3man
    I don’t really want to admit to how many I got right.

    >If you were ever impressed that a professor had an office next to Dr. Marcy at Berkeley and you know why that is cool.

  14. Charlie Young

    …and on top of everything else, according to an MSN article on professions you’d be suprised make over six figures, astronomers were listed. At least some of you are well paid! It looks like your ilk are not very common, either. They said there were only about 1300 of you.

  15. Davidlpf

    Image reduction and analysis facility. Haven’t used it in 8 years one of my final course was learning how to use it.

  16. jay

    from my perch, the type of people who become astronomers lack some interpersonal skill or personality…the major exception is the author of this blog…a good PR campaign would do wonders but it also may scare away some potentially good star gazers…(sigh)

    astronomers are like sewer workers, no body wants to hear from them til crap starts falling from the sky

  17. dhtroy

    I think all of that can be boiled down to the following short summary of what an Astronomer really is:

    Space Nerd.

  18. Sili
  19. DrFlimmer,

    AIPS >> IRAF

    (runs and hides)

    jay, really? How many do you know? And have you ever been to a party full of astronomers? (Hint: FUN)

  20. Davidlpf

    Well part of the reason thet I am astronomer right now because I do not have the right social skulls for dealing with certain people(some them lack some social skulls too) , but I have done observatory tours and found then enjoyable.

  21. I have just finished rereading The Red Limit by Timothy Ferris and I remain amazed how much that book still resonates with me 32 years later. One of the overriding themes in the book is the diverse culture in which astronomers live and the cutthroat competition in which they engage.

  22. Kevin

    You can’t pigeonhole astronomers (or any scientist, for that matter) into nice little packages of description. Yeah, there are Sheldons and Leonards, but I’ve met other types as well. Heck, we’ve got a rock-and-roll scientist (Dr. Brian May!)

    Public perception lumps all scientists into the “introverted geek who has no social attributes” and it takes constant work by scientists to refute that perception by showing we’re just as fun as everyone else (well, perhaps not lawyers, mind you. Or chartered accountants.).

    I find when giving tours of our observatory (our group isn’t funded by the taxpayers, but by grants and donations) people are pleasantly surprised that we aren’t the stereotypical science-types that they expected.

    And the real cool thing is, as more and more young women are getting into science, it’s breaking the stereotypes even more.

    The public needs to realize that science can be done by anyone, and it’s fun! Cool! Groovy! Froody! And “neat-o.” :)

  23. Chas, PE

    Phil:

    Good luck with that improving the image of astronomers thing.

    We’ve been trying to get the media to recognize the contribution of Engineers for years, with no luck at all.

    Everyone knows that architects design bridges, stylists design cars, and electronic devices grow on trees.

    Not to mention, “NASA Scientists launch missle” “NASA Engineers try to Explain missle failure”

  24. IVAN3MAN

    @ #6. Dennis,

    Here in the UK, whenever the Sun eventually appears, people think it’s a UFO!

  25. I think Star Trek has done a lot for Astronomy.

    I always think astronomers are pretty cool. I once watched a documentary, though, about the discovery of a moon or a planet(this is why I’m no astronomer, I can’t remember anything) and it told the story of this two-person team that stayed up for hours and hours keeping track of ridiculously minute and tedious details, day after day, for months. They were tracking something, or looking for something in the sky- I dunno, all I remember is being really perplexed and admiring them at the same time. it was a simultaneous “wow!” and “why??!?!” Anyone who has that sort of self-discipline for tedium is awesome in my book.

  26. @ Chas: not to worry, I’ve seen plenty of science and news magazines that have cool features about new technology or new scientific developements, and they sometimes mention engineers. Most of the time is implied(or maybe most of the time it’s me thinking, “how do those genius engineers think of this stuff?”) Anyway, I guess we need a show like Star Trek for engineering..oh wait, Star Trek does have engineering! yay!

    everyone in the world should watch Star Trek.

    I like it, if you can’t tell.

  27. Molly

    Nice one Chas!

  28. “The bottom line is that astronomers must actively de fine our public image, otherwise it will be defi ned for us.”

    Which leads to Wyland’s Law:
    “Anything that can automatically be done FOR you, can automatically be done TO you.”

  29. Stone Age Scientist

    Hey Phil,

    This is so very generous of you.

    BTW: What about Galileo and the persecutions he underwent for his ‘radical beliefs’ (which turned out to be very scientific? :(

    Society’s perception of astronomers is strongly influenced by the arts, literature, movies and television.

    Might I add religion as one of the factors?

  30. @ LarianLeQuella:

    And sometimes it’s okay to have a mancrush on some of them, right?

    Damn straight! Er, rather…

    @ Ken:

    Still my favorite “evil astronomer” = Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray (1939). Fiendish plots, dreams of world domination, and Bela Lugosi, too! Check out the trailer on YouTube.

  31. George E Martin

    @12 DrFlimmer mentions IRAF and@19 Nicole mentions AIPS (Astronomical Image Processing System). It’s probably due to your wavelength upbringing as to which of those two Astronomy package you think of first. (And there are others!)

    I wonder how well known and hated CASA (Common Astronomy Software Applications) will become?

    George

  32. Cindy

    I remember somebody commenting when they heard I did observational astronomy that “observing must be so romantic”. My reply “uh, no, not really. Unless you consider staying up all night trying to stay awake while staring at a computer screen out in the middle of nowhere romantic”.

    And unlike most female astronomers, my boyfriend and now husband is a biochemist, so he never went on an observing run with me.

    I would have loved to be on an observing run with Phil because he would have had me laughing the entire night.

    Phil, you need to blog sometime about the funniest observing story – maybe have a contest. Of course, some of them are only funny if you’re sleep deprived.

  33. Mena

    The image of the astronomers over time has changed. Gone are the days when you guys are telling us when the sun eats the moon, what our futures hold, and what not. People never seem to have really wanted to learn anything about anything other than themselves, so of course the image has gotten worse.
    Dr. Flimmer and IVAN3MAN: I’m not an astronomer by any sense of the imagination but my husband knows what to do with my mortal remains. I think that it would be way cool (ooh pun! 2.7K!) to become a Kuiper belt object.

  34. Public perception of Astronomers, but by groups of thugs in this case, is that they run a mile(or more hopefully, they did when I attended one Star Party last year when they saw our group, they drove away) when they see a group of supergeeky/superkewl people, who are into the night sky, that just wanna hang around with telescopes, generally on a hill somwhere, in the dark, just generally having a great time without booze in excess which is usually accompanied without any lewd behaviour. Governments should introduce Astronomers of all sizes and shapes, e.g professional and amatuer, to all high risk crime areas. The coppers can havea day off.

    Claire

  35. @32 George E Martin,

    Interesting question! Because CASA will be used by radio astronomers who “grew up with” AIPS, but is also being marketed to astronomers more used to shorter wavelengths, thus other packages, as ALMA becomes more user-friendly. It’ll be interesting to watch for sure.

    @33 Cindy,

    That’s a great idea! An observing story contest… that means the one that makes you spew your coffee the hardest wins! Sleep deprivation makes for some very funny stuff. One that comes to mind is impromptu dance party in the control room. Or funny nicknames. Or beer for breakfast. Sadly, remote observing, or observing done by operators, is making this more and more scarce in pro astronomy. I think the observers from a few decades ago will have the best stories in the end.

  36. Hi Phil – first time long time, as they say on sports radio :) I just read that Whitman poem, and I’ve got to say I don’t think you’re giving it full credit. I see him saying not that astronomy is boring, or extrapolating anything to the field, but rather talking about how the nuts and bolts of astronomy can seem so distantly removed from the grand beauty of the cosmos. This is an issue I’ve experienced in just a few undergrad/high school research projects, and that I’m sure you’ve perceived in your research too.

    I actually think the poem is very prescient and something that astronomers *especially* should read. After reducing data, or crunching numbers, or scribbling equations, for a month on end, step back or even step outside and look at the big picture. Without that, how can we maintain our interest, the fascination that led us to astronomy in the first place?

  37. Stone Age Scientist

    @ #4 Ivan3Man,

    Man, you really crack me up. If I were Phil, I’d give you

    The 2009 Sparkling And Shiny Plait Award

    for Best Humorous Bad Astronomy Blogger. (Sorry for being so presumptuous, Phil. :) )

    Btw, can I be considered as an astronomer? Everytime someone whacks me on the head with a caveman club, I see shooting stars all over.

  38. Okay, list time:
    4. IVAN3MAN Says:

    You Might Be An Astronomer if…
    * you have ever said, “Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.”
    check
    * you can easily tell the difference between a meteor, an airplane, and a satellite
    pretty much
    * you think it’s only natural to see the Sun set when you wake up and rise just before you go to bed
    it’s NOT?!?!
    * you snicker when someone complains about getting “only” six hours of sleep the night before
    HA!
    * you’ve ever wondered how much you’d be fined if you blew out all of the streetlights on your street so you could see the stars better
    I know where every light is….but am currently unarmed.
    * you pronounce “Maria” with the emphasis on the first syllable
    Really fun when talking with one of the many ‘Latinas’ whose name would translate to Mary.
    * you pronounce “Messier” with a French accent
    Oui.
    * you wonder why no one else is awake at three in the morning
    Usually when I take my walks… actually rather surprised how many cars I hear/see.
    * you think that the curvature of space-time is easier to understand than gravity waves
    huh
    * you snicker when someone complains about getting “only” four hours of sleep the night before
    okay
    * when someone casually wonders aloud how many planets out there might be able to support life you immediately think of the Drake equation

    * you know the difference between a comet and an asteroid**
    We (Tucson) have a Midnight Saturday/Sunday show based on the old ‘Count Floyd’ (Vamprirella/Elvira) ‘bad movies’… the Very Bad Movie. Host(ess) doesn’t do a ‘character’, but does the trivia during commercial breaks. This past week had Battle of the Worlds (Italian, starring Claude Rains) and the comment ‘you know the difference between a comet and an asteroid… comets have tails,and asteroids have lots of little flying saucers to threaten Earth with’
    * you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you detonated a nuclear bomb on Jupiter
    among other places
    * you can convert from AUs to Angstroms***
    I have a PALM application that does that for me (lazy)
    * you’ve ever said that you’re made of stardust
    Does Sagan’s “star stuff” count?
    * you know more than the person giving the planetarium show
    Sometimes the case
    * you’re actually jealous when you hear someone complain about getting “only” two hours of sleep the night before
    what is this “sleep”?
    * you can spell Hertzsprung
    Okay, it’s “Hertz”(electronics/radio) plus “sprung”…
    * you “know” that Mount Olympus is on Mars

    * “pc” means neither “politically correct” nor “personal computer” to you — it means parsec, of course
    Like the Kessel Run ;)

    * you know the difference between a meteor, a meteoroid, and a meteorite
    * you’d be willing to make yourself 20 years older just to have been in the Arizona desert in the early morning of November 17, 1966!
    Not applicable, I was in Florida in 1966, am currently in AZ
    * you’ve ever entered into a debate about whether Pluto is a planet

    * you know how to pronounce Arecibo
    * your friends take it as a given that you’re tired
    * you know Greek and Roman mythology
    * you know what NASA stands for
    * you can pronounce Betelgeuse, Uranus, Charon, and Cassiopeia at least two different ways each
    * the word “Messier” makes you think of galaxies, nebulae, and clusters
    * your favorite part of the day is when you get to go to bed
    * this list made sense to you

    J/P=?

  39. Stone Age Scientist

    Phil wrote,

    If you don’t know any astronomers personally, I suggest you take a look at the ones who blog… Go on. Meet an astronomer. Maybe we’ll surprise you.

    Whoa!! Now hold yo’ hohsses, Phil. I hope you’re not turning us away. In between juggling around work, doing house chores and laundry, not exercising, reading The Ancestor’s Tale (because Roger Ebert praised it highly), and catching up on your previous articles (a project of which I haven’t even begun to do yet!), I barely have time to set foot into other people’s blogs.

    Anyway, I find the people here very scientifically erudite, and yet still have time for humor. This is what I mostly love about BA, the informality. Anyone can come here in his/her un-dandy self and still fit in. Also, the BA Blog is very accessible to the general public, very much like the format of Discover Magazine: it doesn’t come across as very highbrow at all, and yet still offer nuggets of gold when it comes to science.

  40. Stone Age Scientist

    Ivan3Man @ #4, did you mean to say that Zeus and Hera are actually Martians??

  41. Alex B

    100% agreed Phil. But I consider myself a fledgling biologist and I like Whitman’s poem. To me, it doesn’t paint astronomy as boring. I see it as a reminder to not forget what you are studying. It’s great to know a star’s radius and temperature, just don’t forget its beauty (of course, us science types know that its radius and temperature only adds to our appreciation of it). You, Phil, represent that balance perfectly! Keep on bloggin!!!

  42. Stone Age Scientist

    When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

    When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
    measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
    applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

    – Walt Whitman

  43. Pembertom

    Off topic, but Phil, have you heard about this one:
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/space/20090612/sc_space/boyhitbymeteorite
    Obviously, a 14-year-old German boy was hit by a tiny meteorite and all he got was a scratch to the hand. After hitting him, the meteorite buried itself in a road, creating a hole.

  44. Since nerdy = cool these days, I’d say that most of the work has actually already been done. Astronomers = Nerdy = Cool.

  45. Flying sardines

    @ 43 Stone Age Scientist : Huh? Walt Whitman there seems to be stupidly assuming that the Learn’d Astronomer hasn’t already been doing the same thing & indeed that the Learned Astronomer doesn’t himself goes out and star gazes every night. Because y’know that Learned Astronomer, *he* loves the stars too and unlike Walt (Half?)Whitman has devoted much of his life to understanding them.

    I’ve heard that poem against scientific study (or dry analysis?) before and it just makes me really grumpy at the poets anti-intellectual bias. :-(

    Doing the math and taking the time to learn more does not stop the stars from being beautiful – knowing more about how awesome they truly are – about stars like Eta Carinae and Betelguex and Proxima Centauri and for that matter our Sun – only makes the stars more magnificent, more numinous, more wonderful. (Just like Mira!)

    The biggest issue as far as public perception of astronomers go lately, I would have to say, is the Pluto issue – that I think was badly handled by the IAU and and a big error which brought them into disrepute and caused astronomers generally to be mocked by the public.

    I think they should’ve kept Pluto as a planet – added Eris, Ceres and the other dwarfs as well and said that dwarf planets like dwarf stars are still planets. Or, alternatively, set Pluto as the minimum size for planethood keeping it and adding Eris to our list. They could then have talked about three clasases of planets – rocky like Earth, gas giants like Jupiter and ice dwarfs like Pluto and pretty much everyone would’ve been happy and the public reputation of astronomers much better off.

    The way they decided & defined the term really was an own goal – and hopefully a mistake that will be corrected – the sooner the better.

  46. What’s up with the goofy symbols (Mars, Venus and a square)? Are you expecting
    TAFKANKAAP to show up as a guest blogger soon? (Not completely improbable, considering that Stephen Hawking provided backing vocals on a Pink Floyd album.)

  47. Stone Age Scientist

    Hi Flying Sardines,

    Didn’t Walt Whitman say that there was applause in the lecture room? :)

    The poem reflected Whitman’s sentiments which, of course, say something about his personality. He had been a teacher (for a short time) before, so it wouldn’t be hard to conjecture what might have been going on in his mind during the Astronomy lecture.

    I think in the end we have to give it to him. He is a poet after all.

  48. Is it just me or is the RSS feed not updating?

  49. Phil,

    Hear! Hear!

    IVAN3Man, I’m so all over that list. Nearly every one of those items fits an experience I’ve had; although I don’t have the sacred PhD (yet), I’ve been there, done that on the research side and consider myself an astronomer. I write about some aspect of astronomy nearly every day (books, articles, scripts, my blog etc.), even do some when the weather’s clear. Oh, and MEET Dr. Krupp??? Yeah… and worked for his crew when I wrote the new Griffith exhibits. THAT was an amazing life-changing experience. ;)

    NICOLE: darn straight on the “listening through the headphones” bit. I’ve had SO many people ask me at lectures how radio astronomers hear the heavens. Argh!!!

    Outreach is important, not just by the degreed astronomers, but everybody who loves and knows the night sky. The sky is humanity’s common heritage and, not stretching it to say that we are “of” the sky in a very elemental sense. Sagan said it well: we are all starstuff.

    For what it’s worth, whenever people find out that I studied astronomy and write about it, their reactions are almost always warmly positive. Oh, sure, you get the occasional curmudgeon who thinks we’re wasting tax money, or the occasional religionist who insists that everything was put there by an invisible being with seemingly magical powers so there’s no reason to study it, but that’s gonna happen. And, f0r what it’s worth, not EVERY religionist is negative about the stars and the study of astronomy. Think of Guy Consolmagno… or Father Richard Royer. I once had a rabbi from Jerusalem attend lectures and star parties when I did a cruise ship lecture gig and he was delightfully well-informed on current research in astronomy and we had some great conversations.

  50. John Y.

    Hey Phil,
    You should give yourselfer more credits, I am serious.
    Many people may think critically, but so few will go through the efforts to promote it and stand against non-thinkers which they exist in large numbers in every corner of the world.
    We need more scientists like Sagan, Feynman, or you to have better world.
    Compliment to people like you.

  51. Long time reader but first time commenter :)

    I am a physics major and physics teacher, so I empathize with the plight of the public perception of astronomers.

    However, I must rise to the defense of Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

    I believe that the author of the article has misunderstood the intent of the poem. Walt Whitman did not leave the lecture because he was bored he left because (to him) the charts, columns and data did not encapsulate HIS experience of viewing the stars.

    Walt Whitman’s wrote his poems in a time when Science was seen as being the final answer for all things; that science would provide the answers from everything from physics to ethics to art. This is the time when people began to replace God (as their source of ultimate objective answers) with Science (as the source of ultimate objective answers). Walt Whitman saw the Science cannot provide ultimate answers to everything (Science cannot decide the morality of an action nor the value of art). Walt Whitman is expressing the fact that our life experiences of physical phenomena cannot be encapsulated through mathematical expressions.

    Forgive, my long post. But it is one of my favorite poems. When I was in undergraduate physics courses and the equations became too long and the concepts became too abstract and seemingly divorced from reality, I would read this poem and be reminded of the limits of science and the vastness of human experience and could return to the equations with a new perspective and sense of wonder.

    But here is a link to the poem, I look forward to your interpretation of the poem: http://quotations.about.com/cs/poemlyrics/a/When_I_Heard_Th.htm

  52. Quiet Desperation

    Society’s perception of astronomers is strongly influenced by the arts, literature, movies and television.

    Society’s perception of EVERYTHING is strongly influenced by the arts, literature, movies and television. Any engineer can tell you that. We *gave* the world the movies and tevelvision- along with some other little things like the transistor, the car, air travel, highways, indoor plumbing and high definition 3D porn- and the various engineering disciplines get less respect than a triple-A ballplayer.

    Since nerdy = cool these days

    I still don’t know where you and others are seeing that, actually. Because of a few nerdy characters on a few TV shows? I think it might be a mass delusion. If you are a nerd who became a billionaire, maybe, but if you’re a regular guy, not so much. As usual, color me cynical. :-(

  53. T.E.L.

    ccpetersen Said:

    “And, f0r what it’s worth, not EVERY religionist is negative about the stars and the study of astronomy. Think of Guy Consolmagno… or Father Richard Royer. I once had a rabbi from Jerusalem attend lectures and star parties when I did a cruise ship lecture gig and he was delightfully well-informed on current research in astronomy and we had some great conversations.”

    Certainly. Another example is John Polkinghorne, and excellent, productive scientist, and nowadays a member of the Anglican clergy. He doesn’t allow his theism to cloud his scientific discipline. (I do, however, take exception to his existence arguments for God. In this, I’m sure, his judgment is prejudicial.)

    By the way: on your mystery site of the day, perhaps it’d be prudent to rename the picture’s file name. :)

  54. Lawyer in MT

    You need more astonomer chicks in bikinis. Or maybe a playmate astronomer. That seems to pull in ratings these days.

  55. T_U_T

    Walt Whitman saw the Science cannot provide ultimate answers to everything (Science cannot decide the morality of an action

    Fail. we have evolutionary game theory to decide the best moral code.

    nor the value of art).

    Fail. You can still reverse-engineer your connections between sensory cortex and the limbic system yielding the exact formula your brain uses to evaluate art.

    Walt Whitman is expressing the fact that our life experiences of physical phenomena cannot be encapsulated through mathematical expressions.

    And triple fail. Working of your neural network is perfectly mathematically describable.

  56. XMark

    Evolving Squid: Yeah, I’m having trouble with the RSS feed as well, can’t view latest updates on my cell phone’s RSS reader :(

  57. T.E.L.

    T_U_T,

    Your rebuttal is right in broad principle, but not in current practice. I challenge you to cough up a perfect mathematical calculation which spells out unambiguously a specific subjective experience decoded from a measured brain-state.

  58. Mello

    I don’t think astronomers have anything to worry about. Yes, their perception is influenced by the arts and media. Good thing the universe is the most beautiful and awe inspiring thing there is.

  59. T_U_T

    T.E.L. There is a difference between ‘does not know’ and ‘can not know’. Paul J was talking about ‘can not know’, I replied that the ‘can not know’ is not true. Nowhere in my post I concluded nor hinted that those things are all known at the present.

  60. T.E.L.

    T_U_T,

    You said it IS perfectly calculable. It isn’t really, hower, until it’s been done in fact. Til then it’s only an assertion. It may not be as calculable as all that; it could be a lot like the weather. Once upon a time von Neumann was certain that meteorology could be all wrapped up, if only he had a big enough computer. Not too long afterward chaotic dynamics were discovered. It’s now known that exactly calculating the atmosphere in arbitrarily fine detail is futile.

    It’s not unthinkable that some questions aren’t going to be answered by pure analysis. It’s not that some questions can only be answered outsude of science; it’s that some things just may never be well-understood by any means. Since we’ve never known everything to begin with, it’s prejudicial to presume to know ahead of time which unknowns will be made known.

  61. T_U_T

    It isn’t really, hower, until it’s been done in fact.

    Were you considered paralyzed until you made your first step ?
    Did buoyancy not work until someone flew the first air balloon ?
    You are just moving the goalposts by assuming presumption of indescribability.

    Not too long afterward chaotic dynamics were discovered.

    chaotic systems are still describable. Describing a system is something different from analytically computing its future behavior. For example, the lorenz system is chaotic but can be described just
    by 3 differential equations.

  62. T.E.L.

    Poor examples, T_U_T. And an equation in-hand usn’t the same as modeling subjective experience. We have very good reductive equations in physics which are pretty much useless when studying neural systems. Good physicists know this. So do good biologists.

  63. T_U_T

    an equation describing for example the ‘I see a white circle” neural firing pattern is describing the “I see a white circle” experience.
    .
    Could you elaborate more on the alleged uselessness of equations when studying neural systems ? AFAIK all study of neural systems is about their mathematical models.

  64. Great job Phil, and great list IVAN3MAN!

  65. T.E.L.

    T_U_T Said:

    “an equation describing for example the ‘I see a white circle” neural firing pattern is describing the “I see a white circle” experience.”

    Uh-huh. And what is that particular equation?

    I also never said that equations are useless for studying neural systems. What I said was to the effect that the state of the art isn’t at the stage where one can solve a system of equations and produce a meaningful replica of an emotional response to, for instance, a work of art. You’re jumping the gun.

  66. T_U_T

    T.E.L. And again. You behave as if ‘we don’t know’ implied ‘it can not be known’.

  67. Stone Age Scientist

    Were Walt Whitman with us today, he would most certainly make a public apology to Dr. Plait, seeing as how astronomers can also have stellar charisma and cuteness; not at all like the bewhiskered geezer (PZ Myers) who was giving the science lecture in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. ( :D Hahahaha…)

    Quick, Mrs. BA!! Barf bag for Phil!!! Just teasing, Phil. And, apologies to Prof. Myers.

    barfbag
    Thanks to Sarah Nicole Phillips for this (Flickr Creative Commons License) image

    Reading through the most recent comments on this thread, I get the feeling that what Walt Whitman feared has somehow materialised. This fear being, that LIFE eventually becomes a series of equations and a set of diagrams and charts. This much can be said, though: in the context of your article, Whitman did lack the appreciation for the underlying scientific principles that govern all the things that we see with our pair of eyes. (Or did he? Remember that he once was a teacher and therefore should know the good that Science brings to Mankind.) The poem painted science in an unfavorable light. And of course, Whitman was privy to this and the effects it would bring to society. However, we mustn’t forget, too, that there are many ways in which LIFE can be seen (as echoed by Whitman’s poem). Being scientifically pedantic is one of these, and so is being romantic.

  68. Pieter Kok

    This may already have been mentioned, I did not have the time to read the comments:
    Doesn’t the fact that the public perception of astronomers ranges from bore to hero indicate that astronomers are in fact not pigeon-holed, generally speaking, in society? I think you have it easy, compared to physicists and computer scientists.

  69. T.E.L.

    T_U_T Said:

    “T.E.L. And again. You behave as if ‘we don’t know’ implied ‘it can not be known’.”

    You are astoundingly wrong. I never said that. I said exactly the opposite of that in my last post.

    You’ll make a lot more progress with people when you give up being so desperate just to save face.

  70. Jesse

    I think it’s important for astronomers to keep in mind some things about reporting “facts” about findings around the universe.

    I listen to astronomy podcasts, read articles quite a bit. Astronomers have an awfully bad habit of taking the attitude of “What I know about a star system 100 million light-years away is fact, and 100% correct”. I’m sure transitions, doppler effects, gravity bent star-light are all useful explorational tools to find POTENTIAL exoplanets. They aren’t by any means always correct, always accurate – but they often are portrayed as the end all be all to finding exoplanets.

    The bottom line is (fair or not) – the public sees astronomers arguing over whether or not Pluto is a planet this week or not. If they think astronomers don’t really have a handle on our solar system – how in the world can they believe anything they say about a system eleventy billion miles away?

    Things need to be reported and explained differently. The words “potentially” and “possible” need to be used much more than “confirmed” and “fact”.

  71. T_U_T

    that is crazy. I have no clue you are talking about. I never said I RIGHT NOW know mathematical description of the “I see a white circle” experience.
    You first said that “It isn’t really, hower, until it’s been done in fact.” meaning that all things are to be considered impossible until they are actually done.

    And now you deny that you implied that ‘we don’t know’ implies ‘it can not be known’.

    And you even call me desperate to save face. classic case of projection

  72. Markle

    @T_U_T Your assertions remind me of the sophomoric notions of one who has just been introduced to The Calculus. Faith and bluster, little reason. You might as well be claiming that you KNOW how to disprove (or prove) the existence of God (or any other Prime Mover, for that matter). A wise man knows what he doesn’t know and what you don’t seem to realize is that things are not quite as deterministic as they may seem at the macroscopic scale.

    @71 Jesse You’re mimicking a denier/hoaxer line of argument. (almost said reasoning)

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