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This time of year encompasses endings and beginnings. For those in academia, the end of summer — that summer in which so much research was going to get done — looms; the hecticity (if I may be allowed one neologism) of the new term is about to flood in. For some observatories, summer shutdown tasks are being completed, and for all those tied to the federal fiscal year, budget juggling is under way. Unfortunately, the Congress, which is supposed to have all the budget appropriations bills for the new fiscal year completed by October 1, decided not to bother and went on vacation. The lack of seriousness with which they treat this solemn responsibility leaves all of us in unproductive uncertainty. It’s clearly going to be another “interesting” year.
Our Executive Officer, Kevin Marvel, is at a beginning — of his well-deserved sabbatical leave during which he will be doing research in Finland for his book on Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander, the Prussian astronomer who published the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) catalog of a third of a million stars more than 150 years ago — the early dawn of “big data”. Kevin will also be teaching a science policy course at the University of Arizona and a non-profit management course at New Mexico State. We will welcome Kevin back in time for the January meeting in Washington, DC, which promises to be one of the largest AAS meetings ever. The Vice Presidents are putting the final touches on a packed program for which the abstract deadline — be forewarned — is only a scant seven weeks away.
The AAS Washington office is also at a beginning — having just moved into their new, far-less-cramped and purpose-built quarters one floor down in the AGU building just north of Dupont Circle. The space became available when the AGU outsourced their journal operations, and we jumped at the opportunity to solve our long-term space problems on favorable financial terms and with minimum disruption. If you find yourself in the nation’s capital, drop in for a visit.
Another exciting Washington beginning is the nomination of astrophysicist France Cordova to be the next director of the National Science Foundation. Let’s hope her confirmation is less contentious than many the Senate has been dealing with this term.
Speaking of journals, I’d like to thank those of you who took the time to write in response to my last column concerning the AAS publications and how we might make them even more useful by linking data to articles. I was encouraged by the amount of support this notion received, particularly among the younger members of our Society. In that vein, I would like to highlight here a relevant upcoming workshop on archival data that will be held during the Washington meeting, sponsored by the AAS Employment Committee.
We are also at the beginning of a new initiative I reported on earlier — an AAS Agents program designed to enhance both the Society’s service to its members and its effectiveness in support of our discipline. Consider volunteering to be the AAS Agent for your institution by registering at http://aas.org/agents/aas-agents-program. But you’ll have to hurry if you want a shot at the coveted title Agent 007, as it’s the next one up.
Returning to the depressing topic of Washington politics, it is easy to get inured to the dysfunctionality. However, I am encouraged by the ideas and energy our members and fellow scientists are willing to invest in continuing to fight for rational science policy. Our Communicating With Washington effort received expressions of interest from 60 volunteers in the most recent sign-up period. This program, started under the leadership of our highly energetic Bahcall Fellow Bethany Johns, will be carried forward by our brand new Bahcall Fellow Josh Shiode (congratulations, Josh, and welcome aboard). In addition, we have recently joined an effort led by the APS and involving many other scientific societies to set up a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, “Science Counts”, which will work toward educating voters directly about the invaluable role federally funded science plays in the future of the nation. As Carl Sagan once noted in a different context (comparing science and science fiction), the story describing the payoff on our federal research investment is spectacular and has the added advantage that it’s true!
In hopes this month brings you satisfying endings and exciting beginnings,
Maintaining professional connections, running experiments, and disseminating results are key parts of the scientific process. Therefore, astronomers have long required and enjoyed frequent travel for attending meetings, observing, and giving seminars/colloquia. However, in the current era of shrinking budgets we are forced to consider how grant funding is best used, and part of the solution may be to find alternatives to air travel. It is an opportunity to assess whether all the travel we do is required. Improving technology now allows us to do remotely much of the work that previously required a physical trip. Reduced travel has the added benefits of reducing astronomy’s large per-capita carbon footprint and doing our part to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming. This article reviews some of the alternatives to travel and seeks to provide recommendations on how to work remotely effectively.
Budget pressure and technology improvements are now driving a trend for more virtual meetings. NSF grant review panels are now done virtually, saving significant money and travel time. Committee members have had positive experiences with these reviews. The Gemini International Time Allocation Committee (ITAC) used to hold a two-day physical meeting requiring international or long-distance travel by most members. This is now done in roughly half a day with a virtual meeting that uses custom online interactive software. Many other examples exist and are only becoming more common. With the proper tools and organization virtual meetings can be very effective.
Different solutions for effective remote meetings are appropriate for different environments. Hardware solutions such as Polycom systems can create “virtual conference rooms” that are appropriate for times when groups of people can be assembled into a few locations. These tend to be used by institutions with conference rooms that can afford the dedicated hardware. Polycom conferences work well for face-to-face discussions and non-interactive presentations (e.g., slides). However, too many connections make the images of the participants small and hard to see. The screen resolution is usually too low to view computer screens for interactive work or demonstrations. Collaborative work probably requires specialized software (e.g., the Gemini ITAC software), or web services such as Google Drive, Microsoft Office 365, or equivalents. WebEx is another commercial product that allows sharing of presentations in a virtual conference setting that one may consider. We have learned that it is used extensively for NASA meetings and by observatories like NRAO.
Software solutions such as Skype, Google+ Hangout, and GoToMeeting are effective on most computers and mobile devices and seem to be better for smaller groups and interactive demonstrations. They are generally cheaper than Polycoms, but reliability and smoothness of communication may depend on the service selected and the number of connections required. Since these solutions run on normal computers, they are good for very distributed groups and individuals. They tend to have higher screen resolutions than Polycoms, allowing for a more personal experience and effective screen sharing. One might consider using Polycoms in addition to a screen-sharing service as an alternative.
While camera resolutions and bandwidth continue to improve, virtual meetings will not replace the experience of physically meeting and interacting with colleagues. Detecting subtle visual clues that are important for good communication requires good bandwidth and resolution. If you are going to be doing frequent remote meetings with the same people then it is very useful to start with a physical meeting. The better you know the person on the other end of the fiber, the easier it is to videoconference with them.
While a lot of meetings can now be attended virtually, sometimes physical meetings are important and appropriate. The point is to be selective about the meetings you attend in person. If you are organizing or planning to attend a meeting there are a few things that can be done to minimize the amount of travel needed and the carbon footprint of the event. First, avoid meetings that require as much or more travel time than the duration of the meeting, e.g., flying from the US to Europe for a two-day workshop. These are good opportunities for virtual meetings.
Second, consider organizing short but related meetings together so that the attendees don’t have to travel as often. This is an obvious time and money saver that is becoming more and more common. The AAS offers various services to encourage combining meetings, including splinter sessions and “meetings in a meeting” during AAS meetings. Recently the TMT Science Forum was organized back-to-back with its Science Working Group meeting. These are just two of many examples.
Meeting organizers should consider having the meetings in central locations near major airports that minimize the travel distance for all participants. Consider holding meetings that are accessible with a single direct flight rather than two flights (take-offs and landings are especially fuel intensive). Finally, consider webcasting and/or allowing virtual attendance at the meetings for participants who are not able to travel. These and other recommendations were discussed in the Sustainability Committee’s splinter meeting at AAS 220 in Anchorage in 2012. More information can be found on the Sustainable AAS page.
New modes of observing now allow for the collection of data without the need to travel long distances to observing runs that can be easily weathered out. Queue or service observing is a popular mode in which observatory staff executes the observations in the conditions for which they were requested. This mode is also advantageous for observing objects with timing constraints such as eclipses, occultations, and supernovae and GRB follow-up. All space observatories and many major ground-based observatories — including Gemini, VLT, ALMA, and the VLA — offer or are exclusively queue scheduled. Next-generation facilities such as the ELTs are also considering, and should be encouraged to implement, queue scheduling.
Some astronomers feel that with queue observing they lose the ability to provide feedback to the observatory about their data, or lose that vital “personal connection” with the observatory. All queue-scheduled observatories provide some means for feedback and the processes have been improving over time. Gemini sends email daily to notify PIs of new data, with a link to download the files. PIs can then evaluate the data and send feedback or request changes to their contact scientists. For more immediate interaction, a new “eavesdropping” mode allows a remote PI to "look over the shoulder" of a queue observer via a Skype connection when the PI's observations come up in the queue. Data can be obtained in near real-time for on-the-fly evaluation. This mode is especially useful for complicated target acquisitions and when the target brightness, and therefore the exposure time, is not well known.
Other observatories such as Keck, LBT, Apache Point (APO), SOAR, and GBT provide remote observing where the observer controls the telescope from an office in their institution. ALMA is planning to move operations to Santiago, making it remotely operated for staff and saving them travel. VNC connections and/or special remote observing software are used to control the telescope and instruments and view data as if you were on-site. The observer is still subject to the vagaries of the weather and the Internet but avoids the time and expense of a long trip and can immediately evaluate the data and make adjustments.
With video conferencing it is helpful to know the people first; with remote and queue observing it is helpful to know the observatory first. Some observatories, like SOAR, APO, and GBT, require observers to make a site visit for training before they can observe remotely. Visiting a telescope with queue scheduling can teach you a lot about how its systems and instruments work so that you can get the most out of your telescope time. Classical, or visitor, observing is one way to visit, but not the only way. Gemini encourages both queue and classical PIs to visit for a week or two to learn the system, meet the staff, reduce data, and give a science talk. This is especially good for students. The visitors, and the observatory, get more out of the visit and the PIs go home feeling better connected to the facility and often become more effective queue observers.
The trends toward virtual meetings and remote/queue observing are being driven by a combination of budgetary and operations/flexibility considerations. These are also important steps toward making our profession more sustainable in the future, as the need to reduce the human carbon footprint becomes increasingly clear. In this, all of us have a role to play. Here are a few actions to consider:
- If a facility that you use does not have a remote observing mode that you would like to use, contact them and advocate the idea. Most facilities desire feedback and ideas from their users.
- Try holding meetings with colleagues and collaborators using the tools described above.
- If you are organizing a meeting, consider the location of the meeting and remote presence options.
- Encourage any agencies or facilities that do not have virtual meetings to consider these for the future.
- Tell the community about your ideas and experiences at the AAS Sustainability Committee blog.
The major observing facilities are considering and implementing other ways to make themselves more efficient and sustainable.The AAS Sustainability Committee is organizing a splinter session on sustainability efforts at the major observing facilities at the 223rd AAS meeting in Washington, DC, in January 2014. Please stay tuned for more information or contact the Sustainability Committee by using the blog link above or by emailing Kartik Sheth for more details or if you are interested in participating.
Nominations for the 2014 Kavli prizes will open 1 September 2013 and close 1 December 2013. These prizes, administered by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, consist of a cash prize of $1 million, a gold medal, and a scroll in each of three fields: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.
The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics is awarded for outstanding achievement in advancing our knowledge and understanding of the origin, evolution, and properties of the universe, including the fields of cosmology, astrophysics, astronomy, planetary science, solar physics, space science, astrobiology, astronomical and astrophysical instrumentation, and particle astrophysics. Recent laureates:
- 2012: David Jewitt, Jane Luu, and Michael E. Brown for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members;
- 2010: Jerry Nelson, Ray Wilson, and Roger Angel for their contributions to the development of giant telescopes;
- 2008: Maarten Schmidt and Donald Lynden-Bell for their seminal contributions to understanding the nature of quasars.
The winners of the 2014 Kavli prizes will be announced in May/June 2014, and the award ceremony will take place in Oslo, Norway, on 9 September 2014.
For full information and details on how to submit a nomination visit The Kavli Prize webpage.
The Cosmic Origins Program Analysis Group (COPAG) is an open, interdisciplinary forum that provides a conduit for community input into NASA's Cosmic Origins (COR) Program and for informing the scientific community about activities and opportunities related to COR. The COPAG also conducts analyses of science objectives in support of planning and prioritizing COR program activities.
Further information can be found on the COPAG website.
Nominations are due by 20 September 2013; self nominations are welcome.
In preparation for the upcoming National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) facilities proposal cycles, we invite astronomical institutions to host NRAO Community Days (CDs) starting in mid-September and continuing through mid-December 2013. The main goal of these CDs is to inform the community of the capabilities of NRAO telescopes, thus enabling users to carry out cutting-edge scientific research using NRAO facilities. We are particularly interested in reaching new users who presently lack expertise in radio astronomy.
NRAO CDs are one- to two-day events designed in cooperation with host institutions in North America. NRAO staff members will travel to the host institutions with the goal of providing sufficient information for participants to propose for time on NRAO facilities and/or to analyze data taken with these telescopes.
Persons interested in hosting a CD at their institution can apply online. Please include a description of the primary goals of the CD, the expected number of participants, the desired length of the CD, and the NRAO facilities of interest. Host institutions are expected to handle the local workshop logistics and to work with NRAO to advertise the event. Applications may be submitted starting 15 August, and acceptance is on a rolling basis. See the NRAO Community Days webpage for additional details.
Note that the expected proposal deadline for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) Cycle 2 is early December 2013. The next proposal submission deadline for the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is 3 February 2014.
The July 2015 New Horizons encounter with Pluto presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to directly link our Earth-based view of the Pluto system with 'ground truth' provided by in situ measurements. With the encouragement of Dr. James L. Green, Director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, a call for observations is being made in support of the New Horizons mission. Observers throughout the international community are invited to participate. The goal of the observing campaign is to establish an extensive Earth-based measurement context for the state of the Pluto system at the time of the flyby, including evolving trends in the system for at least one year pre- and post-flyby. Further details on the campaign are available at http://www.boulder.swri.edu/nh-support-obs/
Please register your interest by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, informal workshops (information sessions) are being planned during the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in London 8-13 September and during the 45th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) in Denver 6-11 October. The DPS workshop will be held on Tuesday, 8 October, from 12 noon to 1 p.m. CDT in the Plaza Ballroom E at the Sheraton Denver Downtown.