By Phil Plait | January 15, 2011 7:00 am

When I was in grad school, we had a class that met once a week and talked about current research in astronomy. We were given a recently published paper to read, and then we’d discuss the methods, the results, what it meant for the field at large. It was a great way to keep up with the cutting edge work being done.

The internet has changed how a class like that can work. We used to have to wait for a paper to be physically published in a journal — which could take up to six months after it was submitted, as was the case for a paper I worked on once (not that I’m still ticked, grrrr) — but now once a paper is accepted by a professional journal, it can be posted online at astro-ph, a preprint database. Whenever a press release is sent out, that’s one of the first places I go so I can read the details of the work leading to the release.

And now some enterprising grad students at Harvard have put all this together with astrobites, a research summary blog, where they take recent papers and summarize the work. It’s aimed at undergrads, but I don’t see any reason it can’t be used by any level of professional astronomer, from undergrad to pro. And while the level is a bit heady, I suspect a lot of folks who read my blog would find it useful as well. They don’t shy away from math or complex graphs, but the posts are at different levels for different topics, and they cover a wide range of astronomical ideas.

None of us is an expert in everything, so I suspect I’ll spend some otherwise idle moments thumbing through the archive there. I’ve also added it to my feed reader. This is a very useful site, and I’m glad to see the grads at Harvard taking the initiative on it!


Comments (21)

  1. bulbul

    Six months? In humanities, we refer to anything under a year as “expedited”.

  2. This is happily similar to an idea I came up with in my undergrad. I’d cancelled my “Astronomy” magazine subscription years earlier for being too simplistic for my tastes, but found that the full journal articles I was reading were overwhelming, referring to other sources that I felt it necessary to read that were similarly overwhelming and referred to other sources I felt necessary to read that were……

    I lamented that there wasn’t an “in-between” stage of writing that was more suitable for undergrads. I considered trying to develop one, but couldn’t figure out how to go about it given the deluge of articles. So it’s good to see that someone else took a stab at it.

  3. Mike Saunders

    It must be nice that astronomy has switched over like that.
    Generally papers in my field take 10-12 months to be published after being submitted, and nobody preprints anything (I don’t think its allowed under the rules of the journals everyone publishes in).
    Pretty much the only way to stay informed is to read conference papers that are ‘updates’ of wider work, then find previous out of date journal articles to find the real details of the work.

  4. Neal

    Do astronomers not use the arXiV?

  5. Gabriel Rosa

    The site Jon Voisey’s name links to is NOT his Angryastronomer blog but an ad/commercial site. Someone (moderator, blog owner,…) should correct it lest somebody’s computer gets infected by a trojan, worm or whatever.

  6. Mike G

    astro-ph isn’t new at all. I used it as a grad student in the mid-90s. It’s expanded quite a bit since then, but it was widely used by astronomers and astrophysicists (and high energy physicists) at the time.

  7. Gabriel Rosa

    astro-ph IS part of arxiv (take a look at the link:!

  8. mike burkhart

    Thats why I get on this and other astronomy websites, this help to keep up with curent discoverys that won’t be in books for years or in magazines for weeks. The internet can have news of a new discovery in a matter of hours.

  9. DrFlimmer

    @ Neal

    astro-ph is the astrophysical part of arXiv.

  10. Gabriel Rosa (5): That was a typo in Jon’s comment, so I fixed it. Thanks for letting me know.

  11. Speaking as another grad student in astronomy, this is amazing. One of the hardest things to do in any academic discipline is convey information effectively. Astro-ph is a great resource, but these folks have miraculously made the time to boil things down even more. Bravo.

  12. Nathan

    Phil, you might be interested in – a reddit-like clone of astro-ph where astronomers around the world vote on papers that they’re interested in. It was setup by a UCSC grad student to help facilitate a morning astro-ph coffee discussion and it’s sort of taken off from there.

  13. Neal

    LOL. Egg on my face.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great idea. :-)

    Times have certainly changed & the internet sure has made a difference.

    In this one case that is clearly for the better. :-)

    @ 2. Jon Voisey Says:

    This is happily similar to an idea I came up with in my undergrad. I’d cancelled my “Astronomy” magazine subscription years earlier for being too simplistic for my tastes.

    Hmm.. I’m not so sure about that – not in regard to your tastes of course, sure we’re all different and have our takes on everything – but in your claim that such mags are too simplistic.

    For What It’s Worth, I love reading the various astronomy magazines and often find some interesting articles and news that I would’ve otherwise missed in them. Plus you can go back to them as convenient hard-copy resources and references and some of the artwork in them is just marvellously superb.

    Call me old-fashioned if you like, heck I probably am, but I do love the astronomy magazines (& print literature generally) & I think and hope they’ll always have their place. :-)

  15. KC

    “The internet can have news of a new discovery in a matter of hours.”

    This is unfortunately true…the latest news/info is gobbled up, chewed up and then puked onto people’s screens. Kind of like taking reality and shoving it through a wood-chipper.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ KC : “The internet can have news of a new discovery in a matter of hours.”

    News in hours – misinformation in minutes. 😉

    Misinformation that can then take days or weeks to get right. :-(

    Not saying that will necessarily be the case with this astrobites blog but,
    in general, sometimes patience really is a virtue – even in these “instant gratification” days. Sometimes taking enough time to properly process and assess the information, to reflect and check and correct and consider and mull it over is worth doing. Sometimes I think we get and respond to things too quickly & miss out on having more measured and better thought-out more in-depth responses.

  17. Just Discovered (pun intended) that episode 3 of Bad Universe will air in the US on the Discovery Channel on January 23 at 5PM Eastern!


  18. Astrofiend

    Fantastic idea. This lets me keep up with results over a wider swathe of astronomy than I have time for otherwise. Astro-ph is great for getting the timely in-depth results I need in areas of greatest interest, but it is good to be able to keep up with the rest of the astronomical world too.

  19. Matt B.

    So how does anyone know how to publish a paper in the first place? I only have a bachelor’s degree, so I probably just didn’t get to the point where they tell you, but I assume they don’t just hand you an address with your diploma. Whenever I read about some famous scientist, it’ll simply say that he published a book or a paper, but it never says where or how.


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