The Three R`s: Research, `Riting, & Recording

The past 10 days have been an insanely busy whirlwind of activity for me, and I’m afraid real life pulled me away from online life for a bit. Last Thursday, I gave a presentation at my home university, SIUE, on both my research and podcasting (this was an experimental combination of two talks, and will in the future go back to always being two talks). Tuesday night I gave a talk on professional-amateur astronomy collaborations that highlighted my research on the star AH Leo at the Naperville Astronomical Association outside of Chicago. Both talks went well, and I’ll be recording an online version of the pro-am collaboration talk as time allows. With these presentations behind me and a few last bits of spring break in front of me, I’m going to steal a few days for the three R’s: Research, ‘riting, and recording.

On the research front, I have a date with AH Leo. This stubborn little RR Lyrae star has been refusing to reveal all the downbeats of its complex rhythms for several years. This star pulsates in a complex combination of radial and non-radial pulsations that are discussed in an article I wrote last year. Imagine a song with a driving 2/2 bass drum – Thump thump, Thump thump – that has layered on top of it a complex longer percussion lines – ratta tat tat ratta tatta tat tat ratta ta ta … . AH Leo is dancing to that complex beat, revealing its baseline easily, year after year, but never quite letting me see how that top line repeats.

Common wisdom says, “If at first you don’t succeed, find a bigger hammer.” Last year I went out a found the biggest variable star hammer I know of and hit AH Leo with it. The hammer was the AAVSO and its hordes of highly knowledgeable and skilled amateur astronomers. Last April a call went out – catch AH Leo’s light, record its every change. From across the globe amateur astronomers emerged armed with telescopes and CCDs, and (as weather, spouses, and other obligations allowed) they let no photon go unobserved. Over 4000 data points later, I have the data needed to get at the background oscillations of AH Leo, and thanks to the hard work of Marek Kozabul at Clay Center Observatory, I’m getting one final year’s data to confirm what is going on.

This brings us to the writing part of this entry. Writing blogs is a pleasure. Writing research papers and grants is not. On my ‘Spring Break to do list’ is the need to start writing up AH Leo, and also to start writing up grants for some side projects. To try and mediate the pain I will probably be writing at least one blog entry on tools for both research and grant finding/writing that minimize the pain.

And in the midst of my professional astronomer research and writing, I’m going to work on some recording. I want to get some of my talks turned into enhanced podcasts that I will post on this site. I also have a neat collaboration in the works between Astronomy Cast and an entity that has been a long time promoter of public astronomy education that I can’t wait to reveal. Part of what makes astronomy exciting to me is being able to communicate not just my research (which in the grand scheme of things isn’t the most exciting of stuff) as well as the research of the entire community to the public. My personal excitement about astronomy is fed by the excitement of others. I’m am driven by every letter from a reader/listener and every student who asks a question just out of curiosity. Their desire to know more, makes me want to find more answers and find better ways to communicate those answers.

The other day I was asked why I focus so much on astronomy education research, and I have to admit that I don’t see podcasting and astronomy education research as the same thing. Yes, people do learn about astronomy from Astronomy Cast. But, I also learn about middle-east politics from Time, and about home repairs from “This Old House.” Are people who write for Time doing research how to most effectively teach middle-east politics so people retain what they learn? Are the folks at “This Old House” doing research on best practices in evaluating what people learn about home repair? Maybe, but I’m betting their primary focus is on communicating content and finding the most effective ways to catch and keep their non-captive audiences. Astronomy Cast does educate. Fraser and I rely on the research others have done in using technology to communicate and how to most effectively convey astronomy. We are a content source, and if you are going to place us in a bin, I suspect that our bin would also contain Sky and Telescope, Bad Asttonomy, the Cosmos series, and a whole lot of popular astronomy content. Astronomy text books and astronomy classes, which all have activities for learners and evaluation components to test learning are in a different bin. I have the utmost respect for people doing astronomy education research, and it is because of that respect that I must say I am an astronomy educator, variable star researcher and astronomy communicator/journalist, but not an astronomy education researcher.

Now, if you want to ask me why I spend so much time popularizing astronomy through podcasting and writing, that I can answer. I do it because astronomy inspires people to question, to think, and to want to learn more about science. I want to live in an inspired, scientifically knowledgeable, and questioning society. Through popularizing astronomy I can help to build that future society I want to live in. Astronomy is a gateway drug to wanting to learn science, and I am a dealer standing on a digital street corner peddling cosmology, stellar evolution and planetary science. My little pages of content are free, but if you find yourself coming back, I just might start asking you to donate. Come learn. Go out and tell all your friends. Here, let me give you some links for you little siblings, and don’t forget – the more people who come and learn, the more I will be inspired to give.

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