Astro Coffee Briefs from Ohio State

By Sean Carroll | August 23, 2011 7:48 am

Kris Stanek alerted me to this fun idea from the astronomers at Ohio State: when they submit a paper to arxiv, they accompany it by a simple YouTube video that explains the basic idea. Called “Coffee Briefs,” there is only one such video so far, for a paper by Jennifer van Saders and Mark Pinsonneault. But they hope to make it regular series.

The Sensitivity of Convection Zone Depth to Stellar Abundances: An Absolute Stellar Abundance Scale from Asteroseismology
Jennifer L. van Saders, Marc H. Pinsonneault

The base of the convection zone is a source of acoustic glitches in the asteroseismic frequency spectra of solar-like oscillators, allowing one to precisely measure the acoustic depth to the feature. We examine the sensitivity of the depth of the convection zone to mass, stellar abundances, and input physics, and in particular, the use of a measurement of the acoustic depth to the CZ as an atmosphere-independent, absolute measure of stellar metallicities. We find that for low mass stars on the main sequence with $0.4 M_{odot} le M le 1.6 M_{odot}$, the acoustic depth to the base of the convection zone, normalized by the acoustic depth to the center of the star, $tau_{cz,n}$, is both a strong function of mass, and varies at the 0.5-1% per 0.1 dex level in [Z/X], and is therefore also a sensitive probe of the composition. We estimate the theoretical uncertainties in the stellar models, and show that combined with reasonable observational uncertainties, we can expect measure the the metallicity to within 0.15 – 0.3 dex for solar-like stars. We discuss the applications of this work to rotational mixing, particularly in the context of the observed mid F star Li dip, and to distguishing between different mixtures of heavy elements.

This example might not be immediately accessible to non-experts, but I think the idea is to pitch the video at the level of astronomy grad students. Certainly the participants deserve a lot of credit for trying out an innovative way to talk about their research.

The key to the ambition of making this a regular even is keeping it simple and easy. If it takes a couple of hours to put it together, no problem; if it takes a couple of days, enthusiasm will flag. I’m not sure what software was used to make the video and the simple graphics — iMovie, maybe? For the DNA computer video we showed some time back, it was quite an elaborate job, and you would worry that it would be onerous to do something like that for every paper one writes.

  • Jennifer van Saders

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for writing about this!

    I made this video using Windows Live Movie Maker, which gives very nice results without a steep learning curve. The entire process (filming, learning how to use the software, and editing) took roughly a day. I expect that future videos will take substantially less time to produce, now that I’m comfortable with the mechanics of the process.

  • Anon

    Hi Sean,

    Can we expect a blog post any time soon about this – ?

  • Mike

    From a point of view of a person breathing polluted air while stuck in gridlock on the 405 “freeway”

    Bringing forward what one would like to do, as opposed to first developing the theoretical foundation from where one can begin to see what they’re allowed to do, is the path usually chosen in the mindset of public opinion.

    Anyway, I wonder if the research done by Saders and Pinsonneault could help in developing a theory of inducing a wormhole, by seeding the Sun with heavy metals?

  • Thomas

    I think Alain Connes started this out some time ago with his paper “Fun with F1”

  • R

    I think physics, too, could benefit from efforts like this to communicate research results in a less technical way. So many laypeople in the US seem to distrust science; perhaps making our work more accessible–less math, more quotidian words–would breed more trust?

  • Owlmirror

    Does latex still work?


    $latex 0.4 M_{odot} le M le 1.6 M_{odot} $

    $latex tau_{cz,n}$

  • Jorge

    This is a neat idea. It’d be nice to have a website (astrobetter perhaps?) with pointers on how to make these more efficiently. Way to go Jennifer! You’re very brave!


  • GRBjunky

    Well, while the person who came up with this idea deserve some credit, is it another proof that Americans can’t read, including scientists? I think it takes much less time to read the abstract and scan through the figures than watching a youtube video.

  • American


    since I have not read your post, I have no idea what you are saying, but if you make a video about it, I might take a look.


  • GRBjunky

    American: Do you think this generation of scientist, just as your next door rich high school drop outs, cannot selectively take in information that they need, but have to depend on an idiot tube?

  • Fred

    too many videos

  • Phillip Helbig

    Am I the only one thinking that it was an ad for underwear? Maybe with something printed on it like “astronomers do it at night” or “lawyers do it in their briefs” or “divers do it deeper”. The “coffee” part confused me, though.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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