A new exoplanet!

You might think I’m going to discuss the newly discovered explanet around Proxima Centauri, but – no – that’s pretty much been done to death. Instead, I thought I might tell you about our paper that was accepted on the same day.

Credit: Buchhave et al. (2016)

Credit: Buchhave et al. (2016)

Our paper is about the Kepler-20 system. In 2011, it was announced that the Kepler spacecraft had found 4 planet candidates in what is now known as the Kepler-20 system. The following year, 3 were validated (Kepler 20 b, c and d) and it was announced that there may also be two Earth-sized planets in the system. These two were confirmed (Kepler-20e and f) later the same year.

The Kepler satellite uses the transit method for detecting exoplanets. This essentially looks for small periodic dips in a star’s brightness to infer the presence of an orbiting object. From this, you can determine the object’s radius, but not its mass. For that, you need to use the radial velocity, or Doppler wobble, method, which I discussed in this post. Some of the early studies did do some radial velocity measurements and did present mass estimates for a few of the planets, but they were not accurate enough to infer much about their composition.

What we did was observe the system with HARPS-N. The observant among you may already have noticed that the figure above has 6 planets, not 5. Yes, we discovered one more. A ~20 Earth mass planet, located between Kepler-20f and d. It wasn’t found earlier because it doesn’t transit, so we don’t know the radius. However, given its mass, it is probably similar to Neptune. You may also have noticed, that the figure above also compares the orbits to that of Mercury; all 6 planets orbit closer to their parent star than Mercury is to the Sun.

Credit: Buchhave et al. (2016)

Credit: Buchhave et al. (2016)

We also managed to get a more accurate estimate for the mass of Kepler-20b. It’s a ~1.9 Earth radius planet with a mass of ~9.7 Earth masses. This gives it a density of 8.2 g cm-3. If you look at the mass-radius relation figure on the left (Kelper-20b is the orange data point labelled K-20b), it lies on the same composition curve as the Earth and Venus. It is, therefore, the most massive rocky planet known.

Recently, it’s been suggested that most planets with radii of 1.6 Earth radii, or greater, are not rocky. Here we have one that it 1.9 Earth radii, and apparently rocky. It is, however, orbiting very close to its parent star and, therefore, heavily irradiated. It’s possible, therefore, that this is a planet that once had a significant gaseous envelope that it has lost due to photo-evaporation; we are maybe seeing the bare core of what once was a gaseous planet. It is therefore still possible that rocky planets do not typically form with radii above 1.6 Earth radii.

Anyway, that’s some of my exoplanet news for the week. Maybe not quite as exciting as the new planet around Proxima Centauri, but still interesting, even though none of the planets are potentially habitable (the host star is similar to the Sun) and even though it is almost certainly too far away to consider sending anything to visit the system🙂 .

Posted in Personal, Research, Science, The scientific method, Universities | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

William Rowan Hamilton

A screaming song is good in case you need to scream. In case you need one to scream at anyone who’d dare to tell you that Science ought to kneel down to the Militaro-Industrial Complex to save itself, here’s one:

(Yes, Virginia, Verisatium is the screaming guy at the right.)

My best buddy lives near the Outremont park cameoed in the video. Tango dancers, who sometimes invade it, have been contacted for my next science communication project. Anyone has monkeys or Obi-Wan Kenobi quotes to spare?

Posted in Sound Science (tm) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Science communication

I came across a Guardian article called why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public. The only polite way I can describe it is missing the point entirely. The article was motivated by Brian Cox’s appearance on Australian Question Time and concludes with

It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

Science communication is not about changing minds, or winning hearts and minds; it’s very simply about communicating information. That is all. It’s not the responsibility of scientists to decide if society should be convinced of something; their only responsibility is communicating the information that they have.

It often seems that what some expect from scientists is highly inconsistent. They have to be objective and make all caveats and uncertainties clear. However, it’s also their fault if people aren’t convinced. Scientists are not salespeople and certainly are not trying to market their ideas to the general public. They’re simply people who try to understand things and, ideally, communicate their findings to others. Whether others choose to accept what they are told, or not, is up to them.

In my view, it’s all quite simple. A scientist/researcher who is speaking on behalf of their institution should behave professionally and should treat those with whom they’re communicating with respect. However, someone who has a public profile who also happens to be a scientist can – as far as I’m concerned – behave like anyone else with a public profile. If a scientist, like Brian Cox, encounters a politician promoting conspiracy theories on a TV panel show, I see no reason why they should think: “I’m a professional scientist, I should avoid making this person seem like an idiot”. They might in some circumstances, but there’s no obvious reason why they should restrain themselves when others do not.

The article also says:

How many science communicators do you know who will take the time to listen to their audience? Who are willing to step outside their cosy little bubble and make an effort to reach people where they are, where they are confused and hurting; where they need?

I actually think many do come out of their supposed cosy little bubbles, but I think there is also an irony to the above suggestion. This isn’t saying “come out of your bubble and participate as if you were just a member of the public”. It’s saying “come out of your bubble, but behave as if you’re still in it”. There seems to be an expectation that scientists who engage publicly (in whatever way) have to behave in some pre-defined manner; they have to be polite and respectful and should avoid getting frustrated and avoid saying anything that makes members of the public feel stupid.

Not only do I think this is fundamentally wrong (scientists are as much members of the public as anyone else) I think it’s also wrong from a science communication perspective. I think that it’s good for scientists/researchers to show that they’re human like everyone else; to show that they’re not just people who only come out of their ivory towers to explain things to the masses. In fact, the latter would seem far more condescending than a scientist – every now and again – mocking a politician on a TV panel show.

As far as I’m concerned, science communication itself is difficult and there isn’t one right way of doing it. It depends on the circumstances, the audience, and what’s being communicated. There are also no fixed rules; if we knew what worked, it wouldn’t be so controversial. Scientists are people too, and just because they might have specialist knowledge about some topic, doesn’t mean that they have special powers of persuasion or a super-human ability to avoid showing their frustration at what they encounter.

Posted in Personal, Research, Science | Tagged , , , , | 82 Comments

Saving science?

After my discussion about Reiner Grundmann’s Nature Comment, someone made me aware of an article called saving science. It’s rather long and has already been described as the the largest (and most verbose) strawman ever. His basic argument seems to be that science isn’t self-correcting and that to save it scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.

One immediate issue is that the author appears to have largely mixed up science and engineering and appears to be suggesting that to save science, it must become engineering. Well, that’s not really saving it, it’s changing it. As a society, if we decide that [a]bsent their real-world validation through technology, scientific truths would be mere abstractions, then we could choose to change what we support, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would somehow save science. Of course, I think this would be wrong; I think there is merit in fundamental science, applied science, engineering, and technology and we should be careful of assuming that the only research that has value is that which has an obvious application.

However, I have a few more fundamental issues with the article. The author is Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University. The topic of this article is – as I understand it – his research area, and yet it all seems rather sloppy. He doesn’t do – in my view – a good job of distinguishing between the different research areas and between applied and fundamental research. He also makes a number of assertions that seem poorly justified. For example:

While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas.

On what basis does he conclude that it is likely to be as or worse in many other research areas. Does he have any real evidence for this? He also suggests that

… the system that each year generates twenty-five thousand promising new Ph.D. scientists and nearly two million new articles of mostly dubious value ….

On what basis does he conclude that the two million new articles [are] of mostly dubious value? I appreciate that there is probably a lot of poor research out there, but suggesting that they are of mostly dubious value seems a rather strong claim. There are many reasons why we undertake research, and quantifying the value of a piece of research is extremely difficult.

However, some of what he says does have merit. There are clearly some problems that we could aim to resolve. Universities are now run much more like businesses than they once were and, hence, they certainly value research that can bring in funding over that which might still be good, but won’t attract as much money. There is a definite publish or perish mentality. What we value can also incentivise behaviour that may not be ideal; we’re all expected to show that our research has impact and this pressure can lead to a tendency to over-hype results.

But let’s think about this for a moment. The author of this piece is a Professor of Science and Society who is claiming that science is self-destructing and must be saved by coming out into the real world. Could this be? Possibly, but on the other hand a Professor of Science and Society who says “there are some problems with how we conduct research, but – overall – it’s been amazingly successful and we must be careful not to fix what ain’t broke” won’t have nearly as much impact as one who claims that it’s fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul.

Of course, this is clearly a complex topic, and some of what he says does have merit. I may also misunderstand some of what he was suggesting. So, if anyone has any views of their own, feel free to make them through the comments. Standard moderation/comment rules apply🙂

Posted in Research, Science, The philosophy of science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 89 Comments

Katie Mack, Brian Cox and Eric Idle

I was going to post this yesterday, but then Willard beat me to it. I thought I would post it now, but it’s all a bit disjointed, so apologies. Anyway, a couple of my fellow physicists/astrophysicists have been quite prominent in the public climate science debate in the last day or so. Brian Cox was on the Australian Question Time and did an impressive job of countering the claims of the newly elected Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts.

As a result, Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicst at Melbourne University who is also quite a high profile science communicator, started tweeting about climate change. As one might expect, Katie then encountered a number of what I shall politely call “skeptics” and responded in a manner that appealed to J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame (as if that wasn’t obvious).

Even a Python got involved

I actually found all of the exchanges very amusing, which I do think is probably the optimal way to deal with those who are clueless, but are very unlikely to ever recognise their ignorance. It was also interesting how much impact these have had. Brian Cox’s exchange with Malcolm Roberts is all over the news, and – as you can see above – more than 70000 people have retweeted J.K. Rowling’s tweet about Katie Mack’s response. Maybe it really is becoming more and more obvious that climate denial is ridiculous and that the only suitable response is to mock those who promote it.

It was also good to see some other scientists commenting on this topic. We certainly shouldn’t expect climate scientists to shoulder all the burden. It might also make some more aware of the kind of crap that some have had to put up with when they do communicate about this publicly. I sometimes get the sense that many don’t realise just how difficult it is to discuss this topic publicly and what you have to put up with if you do. Certainly, in my view, the more who get involved, the merrier.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, Science | Tagged , , , , | 209 Comments

Dialog On Nature

Reficcug 0.2 released the ACTUAL transcript of the Chatham ruled negotiations between the Hartwell Brokering Ship (HBS) and a Throng of Tepid Physicists (TTP).

HBS: You created a conceptual mess – please leave the AGW problem to us.

TTP: Recommend you stop excluding practitioners of the hard sciences. Besides, please beware that teh stoopid modulz contain both hard and soft bits and that Nature bats last.

HBS: This is the captain of an Hartwell Brokering ship. Come back without the attitude of knowing better than others, or go home to your barracks and deliver the field to otters.

TTP: It’s not up to you to exclude anyone and, to repeat, Nature bats last.


TTP: Mr. T’s our own designated hitter. Citizens are already on our island, and Nature (who bats last) could not care less for quarrels over scientific divisions of labor submitted to Nature (the journal). In the voice of Harrison Ford:


Posted in ClimateBall, Satire | 93 Comments

Less science, more social science!

Stoat has a new post called climate science identifies the problem – it can’t tell us what to do in response and – as he says – this is pretty bleedin’ obvious. Science can clearly provide information as to how a system might respond to various changes, but it can’t really tell us whether or not we should do anything to avoid these changes, and – if we should – how we should do so. Evidence can – and should, in my view – inform decision making. It can’t, however, define the actual decision that are made.

Stoat’s post, however, lead me to a recent Nature Geoscience Comment by Reiner Grundmann called Climate change as a wicked social problem. If I was being charitable, I would say that Grundmann’s article is essentially saying the same as Stoat’s post, but that would be incredibly generous. What it’s really arguing is that climate change has been mischaracterised and that it is not a scientific but a social problem, even going as far as to say

If social scientists had been involved significantly and from the beginning, this crucial error in categorizing climate change might have been avoided.

I find it hard to believe that if there had been more involvement from social scientists who had managed to define climate change differently, that we’d somehow have achieved more in terms of addressing climate change than we currently have. I can well believe that we might have convinced ourselves that we had – while being in the same position as we are now – but that hardly seems an improvement. Also, as far as I can see, there are lots of social scientists involved in addressing this issue already, many of whom are doing very interesting and worthwhile work. What was stopping others from getting involved; were they wanting some kind of special invitation?

He then says

The key issue lies with the fact that scientific insights are being used to derive policy. If climate policy is justified with science, opponents of the policy will attack the science.

Well, yes, this does indeed seem true. I, naively, had assumed that one role of social scientists might be to address this problem, not suggest that [t]his line of argument also highlights that the climate problem is not a scientific problem, but a social problem: one cannot derive climate policies from climate science. So, rather than helping to find ways to addres this issue, Grundmann argues that we should simply accept that climate change is really a social, not a scientific, problem. In other words, if any evidence suggested that we should consider policy options that might be inconvenient to some, they can simply attack the evidence, and we should then say: “fair enough, let’s treat this problem differently”. Seems pretty much guaranteed to ensure that evidence-based policy making will be the exception, rather than the rule.

The article then suggests that climate change is really – as the title suggests – a wicked problem, not a tame problem. The argument being that climate change doesn’t have a stopping rule:

We do not know when we have succeeded solving the problem, because we do not have an agreed metric.

Well, this seems rather confused. I don’t think there is much dispute as to what it would take to address climate change; reduce emissions and eventually get them to zero, or close to zero. Doesn’t seem too wicked to me. The difficulty comes in deciding whether or not to do so, how to do so, how fast to do it, and whether or not to possibly bank on technologies we have yet to develop. Of course, we will also have to adapt to various changes, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some kind of stopping rule.

Having said that, addressing climate change is not easy, the available evidence does not define what we should do, and clearly many different disciplines will inform the decision making process. That doesn’t mean that

climate science provides no help to meet this challenge, once it has been acknowledged.

There are still many policy relevant aspects to climate science, even once the science has been acknowledged. For example, how do we plan for sea level rise, if we don’t have any idea of how much sea level rise to expect?

The article ends with Grundmann arguing that there are potentially serious consequences to the various policy options and that the social sciences can play a crucial role in understanding these consequences and helping to inform policy. Well, this seems pretty obvious and, as far as I can tell, is already taking place. What’s odd is arguing that we should essentially now dismiss the scientific evidence, while focussing only on the evidence from social science. So, only evidence-based when the evidence suits you?

The crux of the article appears in the final sentence:

[i]t is high time the expertise of the social sciences is recognized and assembled.

My impression is that a lot of good social science is already recognised. In my opinion, one way to ensure that more is recognised would be to write stuff worth recognising, rather than simply insisting that people do so.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Comedy, Policy, Politics, Research, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 198 Comments