Sunday, June 12, 2011

perception of science

its often that people ask me things like "what does a scientist actually do all day?" "how do you discover stuff?" "do you have to stay up all night?"

no, i dont usually stay up all night. i go to observatories with big telescopes every couple months for a week or two to collect data (optical data can only be collected at night, but radio observations can be taken 24 hours a day!), but mostly i'm sitting in front of my laptop (mac, in case you were wondering) working away at various tasks.

its hard to portray in movies the thrills of data reduction, statistical analysis, computer programming, or the time it takes to think through problems after inevitably getting stuck a few times.  so they dont.  instead, they show flashy lab equipment or the eureka! moments or scientists using computers to zoom into fuzzy images to miraculously increase the resolution! oh, if only the universe worked that way!

in reality, my day-to-day office work is completely different every day.  to give an idea, here is a list various things i've been working on over the last few weeks:

  • organizing recent research into a paper to submit to a journal
  • writing a talk for the Astronomical Society of Australia's Annual Scientific Meeting
  • finishing a proposal to use the parkes telescope early next year (ie. learning how radio astronomy works) 
  • learning to use python
  • finally getting my webpage up to date
  • responding to the comments a journal made on a research paper i recently submitted
  • helping to clean up a data set ("data reduction") taken at the AAO so that it's science-ready
  • organizing travel trips to advertise my research results and get feedback from experts around the world
  • trying to keep up to date with the literature and what other astronomers are doing
  • refereeing a journal paper submitted by another astronomer somewhere in the world
  • brainstorming about developing new instruments for old telescopes  and their potential science
  • helping organize professional workshops taking place in sydney
  • and probably other things that i cant remember right now.

usually i focus on one or two tasks to accomplish each day and priorities are set by hard deadlines. for instance, the telescope proposal is due early this week, so thats what i'm focusing on right now. but i also told my collaborators i'd finish the data reduction for them by the end of the week, so thats important. and i'd like to present some new results in my talk at the upcoming meeting so i have to test something i think i found in order to make sure it is a robust result and not caused by an observational bias of some sort.

and to be honest, i'm a bit spoiled right now because i do not have large time-consuming obligations to the observatory where i work, nor am i solely responsible for advising any PhD students, or teaching any classes.  so i'm in the lucky position of really being able to focus on research productivity, pursue new collaborative projects, and engage in public outreach (visiting schools, talking to amateur astronomy groups and teachers, public science writing, and writing songs about previous planets, etc..:).  

there are many different science questions i'm thinking about at any given time, with the goal of actually learning something towards their solutions that can be shared with humanity through discussion and publication.  each idea pops around the different stages of the "science in reality" section below with the hope that no research gets lost in the doldrums

so anyway, all of this was sparked by this "flowchart of the perception of science in popular culture versus actual science" i saw at electron cafe.   enjoy!


Rik Gern said...

Interesting post. As a "bohemian with a work ethic" I am interested in what people with interesting jobs actually do. I checked out some of the links, and tried to read the abstracts of your research papers, but must admit that they were over my head. Would you consider doing some posts where you explain your research in layperson's terms? The idea of galaxy formation and evolution sounds fascinating, but I'd need a modern day Carl Sagan to help me understand the research.

Unknown said...

hi rik - yes, i keep intending to talk about my own research, but i just havent gotten around to it yet. i'll try soon. thanks for suggesting it!