H-R Diagram of media stars

By Phil Plait | July 27, 2010 12:00 pm

Graphing variables is a critical skill in science. If something depends on something else — like the speed of sounds depends on air density, or the surface gravity of an object depends on its size — then if you plot the two things on a graph, you should see a pattern. The result is a line, or a curve. If the two things don’t depend on each other, you get a random collection of dots: a scatter plot.

About a hundred years ago, two astronomers plotted the brightness of stars against their color (from blue to red) and what they found was amazing: a clear connection between the two! In fact, stars fell into several groups, and over the years we’ve learned about why that happens. Most stars are stable, like the Sun, and fall into the Main Sequence of the plot. Some are old, some young, some dying, some dead. And they all have their place in what we now call the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, or H-R diagram for short. It’s one of the most useful tools astronomers have ever created.

And now my friend Stuart who runs Astronomy Blog has done it one better: he’s created an H-R diagram of media stars. It’s awesome:


That’s really funny, and I wish I had thought of it. The vertical axis is fame, as denoted by Google results, and the horizontal axis is peer-reviewed papers. I’m actually only first author on I think two papers, but I was listed as author on a lot due to my work on Hubble. So I do OK on this diagram. I note that Brian Cox is more luminous than me, but then, he’s an actual rock star. If there were a branch for white main sequence stars, he and I would be in a dead heat.

Next up, I hope: a space-time diagram showing warping due to massive astronomers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Geekery, Humor
MORE ABOUT: Brian Cox, H-R Diagram

Comments (73)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    I love this idea! Classic! Well done Stuart. :-)

    But where’s James Kaler and where’s Patrick Moore?

    Or planet hunter Debrah Fisher?

    Actually looking at this as a standard sort of HR diagram, I’d guess the Bad Astronomer & Brian Cox were both – along with N. deGrasse Tyson – super-luminous, super-hot, late A or early F class supergiants about where Deneb and Polaris are on the HR diagram.

    The BA news is this makes you super-massive as well – well over ten solar masses and destined for short lives with explosive endings! 😉

  2. Magrathea

    I don’t quite get how Michio Kaku > Neil deGrasse-Tyson

    For Me, Neil is absolutely the best :)

    That’s quite a funny diagram I must say! Congrats!

  3. sisu

    I don’t quite get how Phil Plait > Neil deGrasse-Tyson (sorry Phil!)

    Using Google hits as a measure of fame definitely introduces a bias toward major web presences.

  4. CrankyNerd

    This is great. I’m kind of surprised though that Andy Lawrence didn’t score a little higher in the search results. Seems I see his name quite a bit.

  5. “Correct to a factor of a few.” LOL! Love it! 😀

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    Personally Phil, I think you belong in the “New media” stellar branch surely – at least until your new TV show screens! 😉

    I’d also love to see where some of the old pre-internet astronomers – E.E. Barnard, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, etc .. fit there. Of course, entering & searching for them under just say “Hubble” or “Fermi” or “Tycho” or “Galileo” will risk confusion with space observatories, spaceprobes to Jupiter, Lunar craters, Gamma ray (ex-GLAST too?) space telescopes, asteroids, etc..

    Messier – ie. in my nom de plume – with Monsieur Charles Messier’s long catalogue of Deep Sky Objects may get overwhelming special recognition that way and, again, not from the comets he most keenly sought! 😉

    In my first post here “The BA news” in the last sentence there should read “the bad news” – %$#@!@!$@ tyois. :-(

  7. Where does Brian Greene (Elegant Universe) fit in?

  8. Floyd

    You missed an astronomy expert that is also a true Rock Star.

    Bryan May of Queen has a PhD in Astronomy, and is considered the top expert on Zodiacal Light, as well as being an amazing rock guitarist.

  9. Gareth

    Well you learn something new every day, don’t you? I never knew Myleene Klass was an astronomer! Talented young lady. (Well, I say “young”, she’s only a year younger than me…)

  10. Tribeca Mike

    Interesting, but what are the effective temperatures of these stars? On second thought, I really don’t want to know.

    As for Professor Kaku, my enjoyment of his television work dwindled somewhat when he was filmed taking a shower in an episode of his series on time. And what’s with this recent trend on these science shows of showing endless beautifully shot close-ups of scientists acting like they’re pondering something unknowable (like “when can I go back to the yummy craft services table?”) or just plain staring into the camera?

    As long as I’m babbling, Martin Rees is now Baron Rees of Ludlow.

  11. Theron

    Ok, non-Brit here, and I only know Ms. Klaas from You Tube footage of David Mitchell’s greatest rant ever:


    But I don’t see anything on her bio that has to do with science/astronomy. Anyone know why she’s on here?

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    @2. Magrathea Says: [July 27th, 2010 at 12:20 pm]

    I don’t quite get how Michio Kaku > Neil deGrasse-Tyson
    For Me, Neil is absolutely the best …

    See that’s where its really subjective – my favorite popular astronomy authors are Patrick Moore, Jim Kaler, Carl Sagan and Tim Ferris plus “new media wise” the Bad Astronomer Phil Plait and, for TV, Brian Cox.

    Personally, I can’t stand N. deGrasse Tyson mostly over his Pluto bashing and his real nastiness to those who disagree with him on this. (Don’t get me started here – really!) :-(

    Still, I suppose we’re all different & have different tastes.

    Come to think of it another name I’d add would be Dava Sobel’s.

  13. Bouch

    I think the thing that surprised me the most in this chart is that Carl Sagan published more papers than Stephen Hawking…

    I also like the description of “Dark Astronomers”!

  14. LMR

    Unless others are getting wildly different results (connecting to different search servers within the cluster) – I get about 324,000 results for “Neil deGrasse Tyson” as opposed to about 140,000 for “Phil Plait” – so it looks like there’s a little bit of play room in the “fame” axis.

    Even searching without quotes, which would likely favor Phil as only two separate terms would need to match on the page, I still get about a 100,000 record favor to NDT (no offense, Phil).

  15. Bryan Feir

    @13. Bouch:
    Well, remember Sagan was involved in data analysis from the Pioneer and Voyager missions, helped develop the Mariner missions, as well as being co-founder of the Planetary Society, working in radio astronomy, SETI, as well as getting involved in nuclear disarmament and environmentalism… I can easily believe the number of papers he published is well into the hundreds. Sagan was fairly multi-disciplinary, Hawking has been much more focused in his work.

  16. Eddie Janssen

    I’m with Floyd on this one. So, for the next couple of minutes I’m going to listen to the Bohemian Rhapsody.

  17. Tribeca Mike

    Bouch — Dark Astronomers is the term used for those with moody, melancholic or emotionally erratic natures, such as Isaac Newton, Tycho Brahe and every scientist ever portrayed by Jeff Goldblum.

  18. Matt T

    Whoa, you beat NdGT? Nicely done. (“Lemme tell you kids about the time I whupped this big dude called Tyson — he was a heavyweight champ, I tell ya…”)

    @Messier (#12)
    another name I’d add would be Dava Sobel’s
    Ditto. I’m guessing she’d be in Klass’s class…? Actually, a name I’d really like to see on there: Galileo… 😎

    Also: finally we have scientific proof that Carl Sagan is greater than everyone. I’m voting for him the next time we elect a god.

  19. Rae

    My Bad Astrnomy ceramic necklace *finally* arrived in the mail today and it is beautiful! I’m glad I can show my love of your blog, raise money for luekemia research and look cool ALL at the same time! My Dad died of luekemia when I was 15 so as soon as I saw your post about them I knew this was something I couldn’t miss.

    Also your discovery channel show looks freakin’ INSANE!!! Anyword on airing in the UK?

  20. I saw this last week and it made me chuckle. I’d like to see where a few others fall according to these methods, too. It’d be nice to know which engines and how he got these numbers.

    Your comment on space-time diagram due to massive astronomers reminds me of my dark energy theory. I believe it all has to do with the ego of a (somewhat-) prominent DE/particle theorist’s ego, repelling everything around him.

  21. Christopher Ambler

    “Next up, I hope: a space-time diagram showing warping due to massive astronomers.”

    Why? You planning on gaining weight?

  22. Matt

    Where’s Hoagland???

    I had started work on a Conspiracy Theory H-R diagram. On one axis would be the Dunning-Kruger Index of its proponents, on the other would be the mean time before the proponents were locked up. But they all piled up in one corner so it wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing so I dropped it.

  23. Robert

    @ Floyd,

    Re: Bryan May of Queen

    Extensive research shows 3,030,000 Google hits and 2 papers.

    So, directly above the M in Myleene and up a level from Sagan and Hawking?

  24. Szwagier

    Gah! Google hits! About as accurate as your average piece of sociological research.

  25. O this just tickles me stupid… love it!!

    Stuart is a genius! And I love how he “apologizes” to Hertzsprung and Russel, LOL… we need an expanded graph of all scientists back to Anaxagoras! Where do you think Copernicus would land? :)

  26. Darth Wader

    So I guess Carl Sagan would be feeling a bit blue

  27. Tim G

    I think Seth Shostak and Frank Drake should be indicated.

  28. Josie

    Where is Pamela Gay? >.<

  29. Stuart

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to my cartoon diagram.

    @MessierTidyUpper I wanted to include Patrick Moore. The problem was that many of the ‘papers’ returned in a literature search were actually book reviews and I didn’t think they should count. I baulked at the thought of going back through 60 or so years worth of results to narrow it down.

    @Theron I included Myleene because, at one point, she was enrolled on an Open University astronomy course. She was also at the 50th Anniversary of The Sky At Night.

    @Floyd I didn’t include Brian May (Queen guitarist) because I couldn’t work out which of the 160 papers that were returned by NASA’s ADS were his and which were due to the other Brian May(s). It looks as though Robert (#22) has done the hard work though.

    @LMR All the red points were found using google.co.uk (since that is what Google redirects me to) and putting quotation marks around names (for those with obvious namesakes I included the word “astronomer” too). Since making the plot I’ve realised that google.com gives very different results for some people…

    @Szwagier Using Google search results is rubbish, I know. For the purposes of my cartoon it was enough. To be a bit more serious you might use something like the Celebrity Index (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/lamport/pubs/celebrity.pdf) or a Google First Name Rank. :-) It has also been suggested that plotting citation index on one axis might be interesting too. I’ll leave that to someone else to make.

  30. Allen

    No offense Phil, but I think Neil deGrasse Tyson beats you in fame. You’re both awesome, but he’s had a show longer than you 😛

  31. Jamey

    Is Hawking really an astronomer, or is he a quantum physicist with an emphasis on cosmology?

  32. Jearley

    Very clever!
    I got to hear lectures from both Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak at the SETI institute last week during a workshop, and they were great.
    So, Phil, I saw while I was there that you were going to be at SETIcon in a few weeks. It looks like it will be a good event- quite a set of speakers!

  33. Andrew

    Missing my favorite: Pamela Gay!

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    Actually thinking of it overnight I reckon there be some ironic humour in classing Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the white dwarf region of the chart! 😉

    Is there a science popularisation version looking at those who’ve promoted astronomy such as Patrick Moore, Carl Sagan and Tim Ferris?

    Would there be a way to include astrophotographers such as David Malin and the many amateur astronomers who’ve made huge contributions to astronomy without necessarily getting papers such as Jon Dobson who invented the Dobsonian telescope and encouraged mass sidewalk astronomy published& people like comet hunter Bill Bradfield and Rev. Robert Evans who’s found more supernova than any other human individual etc .. ?

    Can we have a revised or new version one day – please! Such a great idea. :-)

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    D’oh! Typos. Correction :


    Would there be a way to include astrophotographers such as David Malin and the many amateur astronomers who’ve made huge contributions to astronomy without necessarily getting science papers published such as Jon Dobson who invented the Dobsonian telescope and encouraged mass sidewalk astronomy & people like comet hunter Bill Bradfield and Rev. Robert Evans who’s found more supernova than any other human individual etc .. ?

    One of the really great things about astronomy is that it enables non-scientists to participate and contribute significantly too just by knowing and observing the sky with supernova, variable stars, meteors et al, methinks. :-)

    Another excellent element of astronomy is how it is so interdisciplinary with ties to other areas like geology (planets, bolide impacts), physics, engineering (telescope making, observatory construction), mythology (constellation stories) and so on even the fields of writing and blogging eg. Jim kaler, Phil Plait, Ken Croswell. :-)

    Wonder if Stuart could come up with a larger expanded version of this with more of these names and “branches?” (Main astronomers sequence, Amateur branch? Old media branch, variable interdisciplinary contributors – Stephen Hawking and Harry Schmitt and so on!) Be hard to do I guess.


    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Evans_(astronomer)





  36. JupiterIsBigDownUnder

    #22 @Matt There’d need to be a negative axis for explicity Non-Peer reviewed paper to include Hoagland ???
    Even zero doesn’t show well on a logarithmic scale …

  37. Wait — shouldn’t “protoastronomers” be to the right and above the main sequence?

    (But otherwise — excellent!)

  38. This reminds me of the Simonsen T-M diagram, in which Mike Simonsen describes the evolutionary track of amateur astronomers. Also an adaption of the HR-diagram. It can be found here: http://simostronomy.blogspot.com/2008/11/simonsen-t-m-diagram.html

  39. Nigel Depledge
  40. Don Smith

    I love the idea (my first thought was that it would be media stars in the political sense — as in who generates more light than heat: media blowhards are at the high temp, low luminosity end, while sensible people who get ignored are at the opposite corner), but speaking as someone with a very common name, using the number of Google hits is a bit problematic. How are you going to make sure all the hits refer to the same person? I’m at least a co-author on 45 papers, but “Donald Smith” gets 4.66 million Google hits. I don’t think I should be placed above Brian Cox! Trying “Donald Smith Astronomy” drops it to less than 4000, and there are lots of other Donald Smiths in Astronomy. I suspect I’m a Dark Astronomer…

  41. MarcusBailius

    I like the thought of one for massive astronomers… Back in 1991, July, I was in the museum on Mount Wilson when the whole mountain gave itself a bit of a shake. Went outside the building, to find Patrick Moore had just stepped out of his car. Naturally, I blamed it on him!

    It was an aftershock, I gathered, from a mag 6 tremor a week or so earlier.

    …The thing about the H-R diagram, really, is that these two guys took everything then known about stars (how bright they were, and what colour they were), and drew a graph of one plotted against the other.

    And for that, they got a Nobel Prize!

  42. BigBob

    31. Allen Says:
    July 27th, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    No offense Phil, but I think Neil deGrasse Tyson beats you in fame. You’re both awesome, but he’s had a show longer than you 😛

    Plus Tyson’s written some books. Why don’t you give it a go?!


  43. #41 Marcus:
    I was on Mt. Wilson the same day! I assume you mean you were there with an eclipse tour group.
    That evening, Patrick gave a talk to our group. He mentioned the tremor, and made the same joke himself: “Contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t caused by me jumping up and down!”

  44. BMcP

    I am glad to see Carl Sagan virtually at the top in acknowledgment and well represented in actual science papers, I am not sure if there will ever be anyone like him again.

  45. Sorbit

    I don’t think Sagan’s scientific work has had as much of an impact on actual science as Hawking’s. I think it’s unfair to lump the two together.

  46. warwick

    Seth Shostak… graph is poorer by his absence – Definitely a media star not just from the teaching company lectures but the Radio Seti podcast – best one going.

  47. Grand Lunar

    I’m surprised that Neil Tyson isn’t at the same level as you, Phil.

    Well, maybe a revised version may reflect different.


  48. Andromeda

    I’m surprised too that Seth Shostak isn’t included – the number of talks he does each year! Plus, he’s the skeptic on call most of the time when it comes to the ufo crowd. And, of course, the Are We Alone podcast, which I agree with warwick, is the best one going.
    I’m a Shostak fangirl, so?

  49. Well, naturally, I’m in the top left corn–HUH????? Dang, must have landed in the wrong time stream again…

  50. Captn Tommy

    Except for the sainted Sagan, I don’t recall any others being dead or even slightly dead. I recall in MY youth, Von Braun (Now not very PC) being on Disney with his space rockets and space station. It inspired the Heck out of me, Man in space and all that… what a waste of lovely space station components by dumping thirty years of external tanks. Oh well next time around….


    Captn Tommy

  51. Jason

    Actually, Zombie Sagan is locked in a government research facility, writing papers and munching on the occasional grey matter.

  52. BMcP

    Surprised to see Michio Kaku there because he is more of a theoretical physicist then an astronomer, but the same can be said for Steven Hawkins.

  53. Floyd

    #23: Thanks for the research.

    Apparently Brian May’s PhD thesis on zodiacal light (which he started on before he joined Queen and which was accepted relatively recently–the band got in the way of his finishing up the thesis) is important stuff.


  54. Matt

    #37 @JupiterIsBigDownUnder,
    for the Hoaglands, the negative values could be the number of flashing, multi-colored websites they have…

  55. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    Wonderful idea, really!
    But where is Lawrence Krauss? (210.000 Google results, 143.000 with “Lawrence M. Krauss”)
    That’s about your altitude on Google, Phil. And with 366 academic (and popular) publications (not counting the numerous columns) he should shine there with the Academic Giants, how could one miss him? http://genesis1.asu.edu/Publications.htm

    Anyway, it’s great to have seen your star ignite over the years, Phil, just don’t go supernova anytime soon.

  56. mike burkhart

    Good ,but what about the fathers of Astronomy : Corpunicus , Gallao ? or other Astronomers of the past who have gone to the big obsveratory in the sky? Off topic : The magazine Astronomy has the 10 most stupid thoerys in astronomy in the curent issue ,I wont name any but 1 that Phil mentioned in his book :The Jupiter effect . ( sorry for pluging a competor of Discover Magazine but I thought it was an interesting artical that some on this blog might want to read.)

  57. ret3

    Whither Jack Horkheimer?

  58. Jearley

    Note to Captn Tommy:

    The old Disney VonBraun footage is available on a DVD set of very early 1950s Tomorrowland shows. I saw it a store and had to have it- it as actually a bit better than I remembered, and includes some footage of Willy Ley.

  59. Karebear1012

    Yes, it is definately missing Pamela Gay! Otherwise it is a brilliant chart, with a bit of snarkiness mixed in. Thanks for posting, Phil!

  60. Anchor

    I’d hate to be viewed as a stick-in-the-mud grouch who would dare douse this intense fire of arbitrarily selective and self-indulgent baloney masquerading as an exercise of scientific thinking, but my mentor, Carl Sagan (who occupies the most energetic if not quite the most luminous position at the upper left) would have characterized this stunt as so much CRAP. And so would I.

    Like Carl, I don’t CARE what other people think if they’re exciting their minds upon whatever other people think. We were both very skeptical of the sneaky means with which some in the business of science popularization went about their business. Carl hated it, and I do too.

    Take this ridiculous example.

    Note that quite a few other “relevant” parameters may have been overlooked: for example, those regions occupied by so-called “dark” or “Proto astronomers” nearer the bottom are by far the longest lived and most populous (for white dwarfs, as the universe continues to age, evenually, grabbing ALL of the above that never exceed Chandrasekhar’s mass limit).

    A host of other parameters might be assigned to axes can be dreamed up that exhibit EXACTLY the same kind of SCATTER PLOT of entries we see here with these names…and I am AMAZED to my BONES that Phil – one of my favorie debunkers – actually introduces this garbage with a fine paragraph explaining how a plotting of dependent variables arrives at a PATTERN…when it is quite obvious that the idiotic superposition of the HR diagram in this example IN NO WAY WHATSOEVER IMPARTS ANY SIGNIFICANCE TO THE DISTRIBUTION…which is but a scatter-shot.


    Is it a line ore a curve or a grouping?


    But that’s exactly how it fools everybody – especially some commentators here who find it “brilliant” or “clever”. (Phil included, or he would have spent at least a LITTLE effort and a few words to disabuse anybody of the notion that there is absolutely no legitimate link between the HR diagram and the superposition of that assinine, um, championship exhibition.

    At best this sort of exercise is a cute and provincial expression of conceit. Rah rah. Goody goody. Let’s all crowd onto that mindless train to nowhere. At worst, however, it might just inspire yet another round of dilapidated thinking on the part of crackpots who love to be inspired by exactly this kind of nonsense…because they are not imaginative enough to dream something like this up on their own. I’m not saying this sort of thing isn’t effective. I’m saying it’s all too effective: that’s precisely how con-artists from religious evangelism to political propaganda-meisters to commercial advertisers have done their THANG for thousands of years: planting the seeds of garbage into the minds of the public, the better to manipulate them with.

    As long as Stuart bothered to waste his time marveling-up this idiocy and had the balls to post it, it was a quaint. But to have Phil loft it up further as something to behold – rendering upon it greater importance – is assinine.


    Admit it. You guys got carriued away and made a heck of a boo boo…and don’t bother to clean up…

    Very commercial of you.

    Again, I’m sorry Phil. I just felt the need to express my heartfelt opinion on this one. You and Stuart are W-R-O-N-G.

  61. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    C’mon, why should astronomers have to be anal? If it was crap, this definitely is the anus it came through! But no, it’s great fun! Oh, wait, you’re Vulcan, right? Anchor?

  62. Stuart

    Anchor (#61), I’m sorry that you don’t like light-hearted cartoons and have to come across as abusive. Making this cartoon wasn’t “an exercise in scientific thinking” on my part and it wasn’t really about “science popularisation” either. It was a parody of an H-R diagram and *isn’t* the actual H-R diagram. I think that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Or possibly the wrong stick entirely.

  63. George Darcy

    Anchor, your comments are as ridiculous as your spelling. Every astronomer I have showed this to, felt very proud of the HR diagram and immediately printed it off to show to yet more people. Students and professors alike. Its not rigorous but its not supposed to be, its supposed to be entertaining. Too much coffee for you today? If you ever feel the need to express your heart-felt opinion, do everyone with a brain and a sense of humour a favour – keep it to yourself. Ps. Are you missing a ‘W’ in your sobriquet?

  64. MadScientist

    Heh – I see Dr. Penny Sackett there. I don’t know if she’s currently associated with any university (so I’m not sure about the Prof. title – emeritus professor perhaps?) – but she’s currently Australia’s Chief Scientist. Why the Australian government didn’t choose an Australian for the job is beyond me – but hey, I’m all for American homogeny on a global scale.

  65. #61

    I believe it takes a sense of humor to get through grad school/career/etc in astronomy, or any intensive field. You know. You joke around with your colleagues at lunch? Astronomers plot everything? Funny, haha?

  66. Anchor (61): Wow, you put a lot of effort into that comment, which is based on a very serious misunderstanding: this isn’t supposed to be a scientific result. It’s a silly bit of fun just to, y’know, have fun. You should try it sometime.

  67. Autumn

    Wow, Anchor, that was akin to sending a certified letter to your congressman to inform him that people are dangerous because we sometimes tell jokes that Completly Ignore the fact that most doors have electronic bells.

  68. Nigel Depledge

    @ Anchor (61) –

    Actually, there is one part where I agree with you.

    Pretty much any log-log plot will produce a straight(-ish) line (for instance, plot the annual GDP of Sweden against the annual population of Monarch butterflies in North America on a log-log plot. I’d bet it’ll be a straight-ish line).

    But, as Phil points out (67), it’s just a bit of fun. Surely Carl Sagan didn’t disagree with having a bit of fun occasionally?

  69. Curt Spivey

    Oh, come on! Where is Seth Shostack?

  70. Matt T

    Come on everybody, lighten up and enjoy the joke. Anchor’s clearly just doing a great parody of an anal-retentive prick with no sense of humor. It’s a joke — a kind of meta-joke, even. Gettit?

    Right, Anchor…? That *was* a joke, wasn’t it?


  71. Captn Tommy

    All said and done it is a scatter diagram laid over a HR plot, so Anchor, though grumpy, is correct.

    But it is funny…
    though where is Mr. Wizard and Bill Nigh the Science Guy?

    We could go on with this forever, thus this arguement also qualifies as a Do Loop. If any one goes back far enough to remember that….

    Remember Mr. Plait if you or any of your team are captured the Secretary will deny all knowledge… the man on the tape

    Captn Tommy


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