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!

Vlog: Gaia Sprint 2018 is a wrap!

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Our remote Gaia Sprint here in Seattle was a great success! We had an average of about 12 people throughout the week, and a total of 22 people joined us throughout the week. Not bad for a quickly organized Sprint!

Here are some concluding thoughts on this event over coffee/tea with Dr. Daniela Huppenkothen on a Friday afternoon...

Video: Celebrating incredible student research projects

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One of my absolute favorite events every spring is the student research presentations! At WWU we have "Scholar's Week", which includes two days of poster presentations from undergraduates in all departments.

This year TWO of my student collaborators presented excellent summaries of their work. In this episode of the ASTRO VLOG we're celebrating student research, and meeting some of these incredible young academics.

Video: Hiking down memory lane

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I was recently home in Eastern Washington to celebrate Mother's day. Here's a short vlog of taking a hike up a hill and down memory lane. With a BONUS reel-to-reel player, complete with bootleg rock & roll from my uncle.

Vlog: Gaia DR2 was released!! Mind = Blown!

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The big data release from Gaia was a couple weeks ago! This is "Data Release 2", containing over a BILLION stars, with precise distances and motions. Amazing. Ever since then I have been racing to write a new paper, and have ideas for new projects to chase and grants to write! Exciting times!

Here is a short travel vlog from the day Gaia DR2 was released:

36 Hours in Pasadena

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This spring I've had an overwhelming travel schedule: this month I've gone on a trip every week. I normally limit my travel to about 1 trip per month, but this spring has been a confluence of rare opportunities, warm invitations, and long-held plans. One more trip to CA this week coming up, and then after a few weeks break I have a final trip to AZ... and then 2 months of being home!

Besides the TESS launch in FL, I have recently been to CA and AZ to visit astronomy departments and give talks.  Each of these trips has been excellent, I am happy to report... but they are exhausting! You spend all day talking with people for 30-45 minutes, each time trying to find the overlap between each other's research/interests. When you talk with folks you know (such as old friends), you often only get an hour or two to catch up, maybe a meal if you're lucky!

I'm not complaining, I love to travel! These visits are a key part of doing science. You need to talk with people, spread ideas, get info on upcoming projects... This is also yet another reason why academia is not a equitable work environment. You need money to travel, as well as time, family flexibility, health... I am fortunate that my family and job have afforded me this season of jet-setting to finish up my NSF postdoctoral fellowship to help boost my networking & collaborations, and set me (I hope) on the right foot for my upcoming appointment as a Research Scientist at the DIRAC Institute (UW)!

This week's vlog: highlights from my recent visit to Caltech

Not shown (unfortunately) was a fantastic burrito from the food truck on campus, which brought back a million good memories of living in San Diego...

We Have LIFTOFF!

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After the scrubbed launch on Monday, my wife helped convince me to stay the extra two days in Florida to see the next attempt... and on Wednesday last week I was privileged to watch one of the most amazing things I've ever seen!

Check out this week's vlog for a personal look at TESS launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9:

Rocket Launch?

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I've never had the chance to see a real rocket launch - until now! I was invited to come watch the launch of TESS, NASA's new exoplanet hunting mission. This is because I was the lead on one of the first "Guest Investigator" programs, which will do all the other science with TESS beyond finding neat planets. This mission will likely be the cornerstone of my research for the next several years!

So now I'm traveling to Florida to watch a telescope get launched in to space!! WOOO!


Alas, the launch was scrubbed on Monday, but is slated now for Wednesday. You can watch the launch live here!

Video: 11 months overdue...

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I finally finished this paper draft I'm working on, the 2nd major paper in my NSF postdoc work... only 11 months behind when I'd hoped!

 Today I'm discussing project timelines, and Daniela and I go checkout some cool stuff on UW's campus. Enjoy Ep. 19 of my Astronomy Vlog! Be sure to subscribe for weekly updates!

Cherry Blossoms, Ethics, and a Selfie from OUTER SPACE!

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In this week's Astro Vlog episode I get to attend a super interesting talk about Data Science and Ethics, and give a short/fun talk about the WaveAtKepler selfie of Earth (that I discussed in a previous post) at the Seattle "Astronomy on Tap" monthly event!

Since it's spring, the beautiful cherry blossoms are also out at UW!

Check it out...



Be sure to subscribe for more weekly videos about life as an astronomer!

Video: Problems with Academia

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This wasn't the video I wanted to shoot. I had planned to talk about workflow and writing, but instead I spent the day saddened and outraged by what happened to a colleague...

What follows are some thoughts for them, and about systemic problems of racism and equity in academia we must address. Further, as a person who has been privileged, fortunate, and blessed beyond anything that is reasonable in this life, I have a moral duty to be an agent of this change.

Coffee Time: David Hogg

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Another edition of "Coffee Time" on my Astro Vlog!

This time we're taking a few minutes out of the TESS.ninja Sprint in NYC to talk with David Hogg about Hack/Sprint Weeks, the future of astronomy, and the upcoming Gaia Sprint in June.

Hogg traces these events back to .Astronomy, an "unconference" focused on Astronomy and the web. I attended "Dot Astro" 6 in Chicago in 2014, and it was an exciting meeting full of quickly made projects, long discussions, new ideas... For anyone in astronomy interested in how we communicate and interact on the web, I would honestly recommend attending a .Astro meeting!



I think these Hack/Sprint events are a major change for our field, which is why I continue to attend the AAS Hack Together Day, and these Sprints. Projects I typically work on are well thought out (i.e. leading directly to a paper/result), and can take months (or years!) to complete. Most importantly for me, these hack/sprint events provide a time and space to exercise a different mode of working on science: to speculate, experiment in new domains, learn quick, and fail fast.

As Hogg points out in the video below, for many meetings/conferences the "best" parts are the coffee breaks (or dinners, drinks, hallway chance encounters, etc). Science is a human endeavor, and when we spend the time and money to gather I believe we should maximize the human interaction.

Thanks to the Simons Foundation for hosting TESS.ninja at Math for America and the Flatiron Institute. It was a great week full of productive hacks, new ideas, and has me even more excited for the upcoming TESS launch!!

Science and a NYC Snow Storm!

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Two days of hacking/coding/sprinting at the TESS.ninja Sprint in NYC! The weather in New York City turned from sunny and beautiful to sorta snowy. Similarly, my project ideas went from well defined to vague and unfocused -- and then back again! Best for me: great break-out sessions and conversations with people.

I didn't vlog the whole TESS Sprint, but this video covers two days and shows the highs and lows of my time at the meeting. The meeting was a huge success (wrap-up slides here). I had some good science results, learned some new tools, fixed/improved some old ones, and am even more excited for TESS!



In other news, I'm hoping to get to attend the TESS launch next month! If that works out, I'll definitely be vlogging it.

Video: Traveling to NYC for the TESS Sprint

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A short vlog, including a red-eye flight from Seattle to NYC, and the beginning of the TESS.ninja Sprint!

This week I'll be working on flares, musing about "Boyajian's Star", tinkering with images from Kepler/K2.




In other news, NASA has published an official release about the #WaveAtKepler image! (featured in a previous vlog episode, and my Medium writeup here). Very cool!

Coffee Time: Meredith Rawls

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Last week I grabbed coffee with a good friend, and fellow UW Astronomer, Meredith Rawls! We talked about open source software, learning to code, LSST, and our hopes for the future.

Also I drank some great coffee at my favorite Seattle cafe (Solstice!)

Check it out, and be sure to subscribe!

Kepler's Selfie from Outer Space

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Yesterday I received a picture that I've been waiting for over 2 years to see! I posted a longer article about this image in late November, but in short: as part of the normal operations for the Kepler space telescope's "K2" mission, the Earth was going to be in the field of view for a few days in January! Erin Ryan and I petitioned NASA (i.e. wrote an observing proposal) for them to capture this moment as an iconic image that symbolizes the entire Kepler mission. Though we weren't funded, NASA agreed to take the image!

For you data nerds out there, you can play with this image too. Warning: the entire image is over 400mb (it's a monster digital camera), and it's still in a very raw form. The Kepler GO office put a smaller file up here, which only contains the channel with the Earth on it, and Geert Barentsen tweeted how to make your own version of the image in Python!

I have a TON more to say about this image, what it means to me personally, why it's technically interesting, and why I think it's valuable... but for now, here's another installment of my Astro Vlog featuring the Kepler Selfie:



If you're digging these videos showing life as an astronomer, be sure to support me and subscribe on YouTube! I have a LOT of science trips planed this spring/summer, and am looking forward to bringing my camera (and you all) along for the ride.

Video: Making connections between projects

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New episode of the Astro Vlog for the week, thinking about the connections between projects and people. One of the most important things for scientists to do is just talk to each other! This is how we learn about data/missions/ideas/skills that might compliment things we're doing.

In my case, at least 6 times in recent memory I've found myself telling people about the WISE mission, and some of the amazing data that is available. I'm not paid to do it, or even officially involved with WISE, but it's data I've been interested in for years. My friend Ethan and I are even toying with ideas on how to find planets with WISE (GitHub repo here), even though the current WISE mission is looking for Near Earth Asteroids!

Video: Tea and Procrastination

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I've posted a new Astro Vlog, this time introducing a new segment: Coffee Time! (we're drinking tea today... but that's OK, we're beverage agnostic here!)

These are intended to be short conversations with interesting people I get to visit with.


Today I'm chatting with my colleague, fellow DIRAC Fellow, Daniela Huppenkothen. We're talking about tea, workflow, and procrastination. This is a serious topic for "knowledge workers", who have to be self-motivated to write or produce their content.

In astronomy, especially in the early years of our careers, daily schedules can be very unstructured. I typically don't teach, and I try to keep very few weekly meetings or phone-cons scheduled. Also I travel a lot, which makes me an unreliable officemate at times.

At the same time, many projects take several years to complete! (Though I've been convinced for many years this doesn't need to be our normal workflow - thus my involvement in HackDays/Weeks, etc) Procrastination naturally arises from this environment of slow, complex work with little structure. AND THAT IS OK! Junior people, listen to the wisdom of Daniela: you do not need to be a productivity machine!

Video: Talking about SETI

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Last week I gave a talk (slides here) about SETI with ZTF and LSST at the "VASCO Workshop".

Here's a video with a short story about how I originally had this idea over 10 years ago, and how it shaped the scientist that I am today.



For those who are interested, here's the April Fools paper I mention, and the writeup I did on THIS blog at the time. Oh, and a little media coverage it received a couple years later!

Video: HOW TO VLOG

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After my AAS 231 daily vlog series, there were lots of questions about how I produced these videos.

Since it may be interesting to some people, I shot a short "how to vlog" video. Check it out!



Of course, the real answer is: steal ideas from smarter people than myself! In particular, I learned a TON from my brother-in-law, whose vlog is here.

Daily Vlog at the AAS 231 Meeting!

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As I mentioned in my previous post, at AAS 231 this year I shot a vlog. The idea (and minimum goal for declaring "success") was to shoot a video about the Hack Together Day. I'm proud to say I beat that goal and


I shot and posted a VLOG about AAS 231 every day!

Topics discussed include:

  • science & astronomy
  • data visualization/sonification
  • conference swag & free food
  • conference experiences
  • self care
  • the hack day!


Here is the first video in that series, a short travel day vlog:


My favorite episode is probably the one from Day 4 on "Self Care", i.e. surviving the week-long marathon that these big meetings can be!

Here is the entire YouTube Playlist for your viewing pleasure.

This was my first time doing any youtube vlogging, and it was a ton of fun. People at AAS were very supportive and willing to give me their time to help make the project a success. I'd hoped, amongst other things, to show an "insiders" view of what it's like to attend this conference, and I think I did!

If you want to see what it's like to be at AAS, give these a watch!

Also, this project generated some excitement back home, so subscribe on Youtube for more videos in the coming weeks giving a view of what life as an astronomer is like.

Video: my AAS231 hack day project

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AAS 231 is less than a week away! I'm super excited, since it has been almost 2 years since I was at a AAS meeting. Longtime readers of this blog will know this is a meeting where I get lots of inspiration, and carry out new side-projects (e.g. the Gender in Astro Talks survey!)

This year is no different, and I will be doing a new Hack Day project: creating a AAS/Hack Day vlog!

As a long-time blogger, I know to not promise too much in terms of specific output (the best laid plans...), but my hope is to shoot several videos documenting what it's like to attend the worlds largest* annual astronomy meeting. Here is a short video explaining the project, and how you can help!


I'm hoping these videos will capture some of the synthesis moments, the conversations between scientists that give rise to new ideas and projects. I'll be documenting heavily the Hack Together Day itself, and trying to film conversations between myself and other astronomers throughout the week. If you're a junior scientist or student and have a poster and want me to help promote your work, I would love to chat! Hit me up!

Twitter Bonus: I'll also be running the AstroTweeps twitter account (@astrotweeps) during that week, so I'll be posting poster pics/live-tweets of talks, and insights into the meeting there!

Since this website has often focused on data visualization, I'll of course try to highlight awesome plots/graphics/maps, and especially animations I'm seeing.


See you all in DC at #AAS231 soon!


*largest annual meeting, probably not the largest single meeting
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