4 Minutes of my PhD

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3 years ago today I defended my PhD.

To celebrate this milestone, here is the first 4 minutes of my PhD defense, where I tell a classical story of the Carrington Flare (aka Solar Storm) of 1859.



Of course, I posted about my defense on this blog in 2015, and you can find a full version of the talk here (but without the slide overlays). I'll try to update this video with the slide overlays and upload to YouTube someday...

Kepler takes a nap

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Today we got an email saying that NASA's amazing Kepler telescope, which I have used as the backbone of my research since at least 2013, was put into a "nap mode". The concern is a dropping fuel level, which you can read about here. This is likely the beginning of the end for the observational portion of the mission - though the science impact will continue to grow for the next decade!

Here's a short video with some thoughts on this mission and how it has changed my life!

Supernova Hunting!

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What is it like to use a real astronomical observatory? In this week's Astro Vlog episode I am observing on the Apache Point Observatory's 3.5 meter telescope. This is a smaller telescope now'a'days, and its bigger than a house!

This facility also uses a remote observing technology, where through the magic of the internet I can control the telescope from my laptop in my pajamas. Tonight I'm using the telescope to follow up on supernova candidates found from the Zwicky Transient Facility... check it out!

The "Curve of Knowledge"

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As a student I was worried that I wouldn't be able to come up with new ideas, or discover the Next Cool Thing!... I think a lot of people worry about that.

Honestly: I still worry that I don't have another "amazing" idea in me...


To help ease that fear as a PhD student, I jotted down a concept I called the "Curve of Knowledge". It works like this:
  1. Come up with new ideas or notions for projects as they occur to you naturally
  2. Spend a little time vetting the idea, making sure it's not obviously flawed
  3. Look through the literature, assuming somebody already had this idea decades ago
  4. When you inevitably find that the idea has been done, see what the date on the paper says.
As you practice coming up with ideas and growing in your domain knowledge, you'll notice in Step 4 that this offset shrinks. You'll start naturally coming up with ideas that have only recently been executed, maybe even being only a few weeks old! e.g. I've had new project ideas develop when Kepler data is released, only to have somebody else publish the paper a month later, before I can execute it

You could negatively view that outcome as being "scooped"... but instead I saw (and still see) it as an indicator that I have arrived at the cutting edge!

You also will notice that Step 1 becomes easier as you go. Ideas will more naturally come up as you gain experience. Creativity and idea generation are skills that you can practice and improve upon! Especially in science, you can practice them in a principled manner and get quantitively better at creativity!

Bonus: Old but not New, Forgotten Ideas

One thing I didn't mention in the video: sometimes when you're doing literature searches on projects you'll find that this idea was first outlined or speculated about 60 years ago, but the data/technology didn't exist then to execute it, and nobody has written about it since! If this occurs, proceed with the idea immediately! I have repeatedly come to the conclusion that I have no truly original ideas, but am satisfied with having ideas that have been forgotten by the community or haven't been considered for a couple generations.

You get triple bonus points from me if your original ideas cite 50-, 60-, even 70-year old papers that pseudo-scooped you, but nothing from 0-20 years ago!

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