Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December Scientiae: Time for Thanks and Wishes

This month's Scientiae is hosted jointly by Jokerine and Cherish. Since the holiday season is upon us, they ask the blogging community to write about:

...things about which you are thankful for in your work, what gets you through.


What is it you would like for yourself or others in STEM fields? Stories of cheer are also encouraged (and encouraging!)

Many of you know that I'm not exactly keen on my work these days (or months, or years), but there is still much I am thankful for - especially things that get me through the hard/boring days.

In terms of my work, I am thankful that I have a job that seems interesting to a lot of people. Chatting with others about my work, especially those outside my field, makes me remember why I love astronomy in general. I am lucky that people find my line of work interesting, and want to know more, instead of shying away (or running away) once I tell them what I do.

There are lots of things that get me through the days where I am totally hating my job - reading blogs, PhD comics, coffee with DH or with friends, going for walks, and playing Habour Master on my iPhone. Seriously, without these things, I would be in a terrible, terrible place some days.

What I am truly grateful for though has been my experience in science education and outreach. Without it, I don't think I could have pushed through and finished my PhD. I'm crossing my fingers that I can continue in this area as I move forward in my career.

As for a wish list for myself and others in STEM, one major thing comes to mind: a media that was scientifically literate so that a) the public would be getting the correct information and b) scientists aren't made out to be the "bad guy".

Here is an example of what I mean. The Hubble Heritage Team uses scientific data to create beautiful astronomical images. Because of the way Hubble works (taking multiple pictures of the sky in patches), many of they images look like this (note the black "blocks"):

Fig. 1 - Bad blocks! M16 Eagle Nebula NGC 6611, "Pillars of Creation." Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

The team would receive many phone calls asking why they are cutting and pasting pictures together, and/or why are they trying to "hide" the real data (for example, maybe there was a UFO there!!). So, to appease these people, the Hubble Heritage Team started cropping images so they didn't have these black blocks in them:

Fig. 2 - Bad blocks gone (credit: same as Fig. 1)

The phone calls stopped. In essence, the team either had to extrapolate data, or crop some data out, in order for people not to think they were hiding something. Ah, the irony. Of course, this hit the media and perpetuated the misunderstanding. Wouldn't it be nice if these people had known that, to cover such a large area in the sky, the Hubble telescope had to take many pictures?

Even with this confusion, I think Hubble has done an amazing job bringing astronomy to the eyes of the public. Many people know of Astronomy Picture of the Day, and are excited by astronomy in general. So, I think the whole professional astronomy community owes much thanks and gratitude to the Hubble Heritage Team.