Thursday, October 25, 2012

galaxies in the thick of it grow up fast

my first science press release came out this week!   it has been an exciting and frightening experience.  i'll get to that, but first, the science! 

you can read the full AAO press release, here and there was also an official release from the fresh science event i attended last week.  

we looked at one of the most massive galaxy clusters as it was 11 billion years ago.   such clusters of galaxies are the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity, and are some of the first systems that formed after the Big Bang.  here's an image of it:

Galaxy cluster XMMU J2235.3-2557
Credit: Piero Rosati (ESO) and Chris Lidman (AAO)
almost all the little smudges you see in this image are entire galaxies, each harbouring hundreds of billions of stars.

you can see lots of red galaxies clumped together at the center of the cluster.   we found that the galaxies in the center of the cluster are all very massive and no longer forming stars.   they have reached "maturity."   but the galaxies outside that central region are still growing and forming new stars.  we are continuing to study what sort of physical processes within the cluster environment affect these galaxies.

do the galaxies in the center stop forming stars because the they live in a sea of hot gas that exists throughout the cluster, between the galaxies?   has all their gas been completely stripped away so that there is actually no fuel from which to form new stars?  or do they have internal supplies of gas that cannot cool, condense, and form new stars?  more to come....!

the interesting/frightening part of this whole press release business is that the material inside the news articles that have been posted in some australian print media, does not really focus on my actual research project much at all!  i wrote last week about my experiences with the media training i received as part of the "fresh science" program. it was very good training overall, but i still was not prepared enough, apparently.  

the articles that came out in the papers have had titles like "Our galaxy is going to crash. Everybody panic ... in a billion years, or two" and the not-quite-so threatening "Billions of years until galaxy collides." 

the thing that i failed to get across during my interview with the guy from the australian associated press was that my research actually looks at the processes that *stop* star formation, not potential causes of new star formation, like interactions between galaxies.  he got very excited about the interaction between the milky way and andromeda, even though i tried to emphasize, not strongly enough i see now, that my research focuses mostly on the very distant galaxies.  

so while i'm excited about having a press release and proud of the research i've done, i'm honestly a bit embarrassed by the resulting media stories, because they are so far off of what my actual research is.   luckily, this misinterpretation doesnt really matter in terms of our daily lives, as i dont work in the medical field or with major industry businesses, who might make the inaccuracy much more seriously.  as the journo quoted me "the sun is more of a worry than the galaxy collision."   sheesh. 

so... lesson learned - the hard way, despite all that training i went through!!

this research was published as:

Bauer, A. E.; Grützbauch, R.; Jørgensen, I,  Varela, J.; Begmann, M., 2011, "Star formation in the XMMU J2235.3-2557 galaxy cluster at z= 1.39," MNRAS, 411, 2009.

Grützbauch, Ruth; Bauer, Amanda E.; Jørgensen, Inger; Varela, Jesus, 2012, "Suppression of star formation in the central 200 kpc of a z= 1.4 galaxy cluster," MNRAS, 423, 3652.


Anonymous said...

I think your press release was fine with just one change. The word 'collide' should have been left out. Irresistible to someone looking for a headline. Another suggestion would be, near the end of the interview ask the reporter what they understand to be the gist of the story, that is, what is their takeaway. This would give you an opportunity to clarify your main point.

Greybeard said...

Was that galaxy cluster image taken at infra-red wavelengths?
Can you comment on how such young galaxies can cease star formation so soon after the big bang?

Eva said...

When I had my press release a few years ago, the Mexican press ran with it. Some of them were careful, while others said a bunch of nonsense. You made a honest attempt, but the habits of the press are very powerful.

The Amanda Bauer Fan said...

Big congrats to ya! I absolutely abhor the handling of astronomical and general scientific news in the non academic mainstream media! Everything has to be sensationalised for the sake of sales!