Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 5, 2011

The Year Ahead for This Blog

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 3:48 pm

The purpose of this post is more logistical than anything. Last year, I had about 50 posts, which somehow averages to just under 1 per week, despite going for great stretches of time without writing. This year, at least for the next three full months, you can expect very little in terms of new posts. I am in the final stretch for my doctoral dissertation, with a deadline for the graduate school for a spring graduation of April 8 for my defense.

So with my defense scheduled at 11:30 PM on April 8 (just kidding), I have a fairly aggressive workload ahead of me. And if I’m going to be writing, it should be my dissertation (or papers that will comprise my dissertation). If for some odd reason you’re interested in what I do, feel free to visit my personal site.

I will still make the occasional post if I hear something particularly outlandish on Coast to Coast or read it in AiG, ICR, or CMI. Or if someone contacts me with specific requests that I want to honor (such as last autumn with the Power|Force bracelets). As I posted a few months ago, I recommend just leaving my RSS feed in your reader and that’ll pick up the odd posts here and there.

After April, I do hope to get back to a more regular schedule of posting, or at least a higher frequency of posts. To those who think I’ve forgotten, I haven’t: I still plan to do a post on why black holes exist, the difference between magnetic excursions and pole flips, looking into the claims that God is a voltage and energy and so the Devil is matter, and dissecting Jason Lisle’s “Taking Back Astronomy” book — all posts that I’ve promised now, some for over a year. I also have some other topics I plan to get into that I think will be interesting, such as do the Giza pyramids (three main ones) really align with the Orion belt stars, and whether or not there’s such a thing as lunar-induced lunacy.

And, based on the poll I posted on November 20, I will likely be writing a book of some sort related to 2012 astronomy claims. 90% of votes suggested I should do it, though the majority of responses seemed to indicate making it freely accessible if written would be best. I haven’t completely decided yet what’ll happen there – perhaps making a freely downloadable draft available with a for-pay formatted copy – but that decision assumes that it’s been written.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

June 2, 2010

Ah, the Joys of Stepping on Someone’s Toes: Terry Nazon Redux


A few months ago, I wrote a 2-part post about the claims of astrologer Terry Nazon and her claims about 2012. I asked a fellow blogger (Johan), one who knows much more about archaeology than I, to do a third part for the series about her archaeology claims of the Mayans. He kindly obliged and you can read all three parts here: Part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I made a point that her many claims made on her website about the astronomy of 2012 were either (a) wrong, (b) meaningless, or (c) insignificant. Johan’s point in the third part was that her information about the Maya was (a) wrong and (b) reflected a fairly ethnocentric view on her part.

My point was to conclude that she (a) doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about from an astronomy nor archaeological point of view, and (b) if what she said could be shown to be so demonstrably wrong, why should someone pay her several hundred dollars for a phone call ($330 for an hour, or $75 for an e-mail reading)?

Edited to Add: On September 18, 2012, I got an e-mail from my thesis advisor and boss that Terry was planning on suing me for various things. I have updated this post accordingly, leaving the original language but making edits with strikes to indicate deletions and underlines to indicate additions. I also note that while I filed this under “scams,” this is my opinion based on her writings, it is not a statement of legal fact.

What’s Going On

Apparently rather than defending her claims, over the past 24 hours Johan and I have been receiving much spam and angry threats to both our blogs as well as through e-mail. The e-mails were almost certainly from Ms. Nazon, sent from the Comcast IP address in Florida, the same as her area code on her website, and from her eponymous and Comcast-based e-mail address. The comments, attempted to be posted under various names, have also come from the same IP address.

It appears also as though she is now trying to pass herself off as me, posting under the name “astrostu206265” (the ID I happened to choose when I started this blog due to a sort of “inside number” to astronomers of 206265), e-mail address “astrostu206265@yahoo.com” (which to my knowledge does not exist), and of course that IP address ( She (apparently) has tried to do this on my blog and she has done this on others. I got an e-mail from The Godless Monster blog writer asking if I made the post to their blog under that IP address with the message:

“You are all a bunch of anonymous cowards who hide behind anonymous names and @anywhere emails…no one will listen to anywhos @anywhere.com s
fakes. cowards and phonies who must not believe what they write because they are ashamed to put there name and face to it…stand up cowards and be counted.”

That’s the same message she that person with that IP and that e-mail tried to post to my blog, twice. And she that person with that IP and that e-mail posted it to the comments section of “New Discoveries and Comments About Creationism” where I happened to post a comment or two.

The purpose of this post is to let fellow bloggers know – if they happen to do a search for “astrostu206265” – what’s going on, and to block that IP address and similar messages if she that person with that IP and that e-mail moves computers.

Final Thoughts

I hadn’t really planned on making this whole thing public since I didn’t want to feed it, but I did want to make a quick public statement in an attempt to separate what she’s doing from my own actions. I’m in Colorado, my IP address starts with 67.161.x. Oh, and if anyone happens to know a way to have WordPress actually spoof my handle (astrostu206265) and make it appear as my actual name, let me know, ’cause I’ve been looking for that for awhile I’ve changed my handle here so WP displays it as my name.

I also noticed that, throughout this, she still has the wrong information (and type-os) on her website. And in case she does end up fixing it, I saved a copy of the page like all the sites I talk about as evidence that I wasn’t trying to make straw man arguments. She’s also still claiming that she is, “Terry Nazon, World Famous Celebrity Astrologer.” Interesting way for one of that status to act, assuming it was her.

May 31, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience — Follow-Up


Two posts ago, I wrote a post soliciting advice on how to teach science versus pseudoscience to a class of college undergraduates in an astronomy for non-majors introductory course. I received several replies, though apparently some people had problems leaving comments on the blog … to the point that they tried to leave a comment and I didn’t get any sort of notification — WordPress didn’t record it at all.

Not sure what’s going on there, but if that happens here, I’ll give out my e-mail address and you can e-mail me.

What I’ve Done for the Lecture

It was interesting trying to meld disparate advice into a lecture format that seems to sorta kinda make sense. For the moment, I’ve decided to:

  1. Start with the infamous “Rainbow Lady” YouTube video of the woman thinking there’s a government conspiracy to make water coming out of her sprinkler show a rainbow. The purpose is to have the students try to frame the scenario in a scientific way. An observation is shown, how can they go about figuring out what’s going on? I have prompt questions written to myself to try to steer the conversation towards what experiments could they do, is it simpler to explain it through known phenomenon or a government conspiracy, is it possible to disprove a conspiracy, and is it possible to prove that diffraction is the explanation — answers to the last two being “no” which will lead into …
  2. What is a theory? Differentiating between every-day use and scientific use including the “this can never be proven” part.
  3. What is science? Starting out with a quote by Einstein and then outlining the scientific method.
  4. Flowchart of the scientific method. And I have decided that I will be posting my lectures on the course website as PDFs*.
  5. Finish off the “What Is Science?” part with the facts/observations < hypothesis < law < theory hierarchy.
  6. What is pseudoscience? I’ve written two slides on many common parts of pseudoscientific claims/beliefs/ideas/”theories.” End with a much shorter flow chart.
  7. End with two main types of pseudoscience that will be addressed in the course (mainly through the required writing assignment). Those would be (1) Claims that argue against science or an established concept/idea, and (2) Claims that make you go, “WTF did that come from?”

*I know this is a point of contention among many instructors. I was forever against it. I recently heard though from people who actually do do research in astronomy education that their data shows posting lecture notes does not change their class attendance. Also, since lecture will nominally be only half of any given class period, group work and class discussions comprising the rest will mean that just printing out the lectures and not attending class will not get them a good grade. Posting the lectures online will also let them not have to spend time copying down word-for-word what’s on the screen but focus more on the explanation and discussion.

Other Things I Considered

A few weeks ago I heard an amazing caller on the Coast to Coast AM radio show. In the space of 2 minutes, he talked about how Earth’s atmosphere was lost and flash-froze all the animals due to Earth losing all gravity and coupling to the moon’s off-center core and the moon retreating and …. . Needless to say, I cut that clip out and was going to use it as an example and have the class discuss it. However, I’ve now decided that I’m going to use it, but I’m going to use it as a test question later on in the course after we’ve talked about gravity, Earth, the moon, and atmospheres.

Another thing I considered was to have an example from the other infamous YouTube clip of “Dr. Werner” trying to explain how homeopathy works. If you don’t know the clip, I recommend watching about the first 6.5 minutes. It’s precious. But, I decided that even if I could cut it down to the first 3 min 40 sec, it was too far afield for the class and the history majors may feel lost to the finer points that “Steven Hawkings” didn’t come up with string theory and that mass cannot simply be crossed out of E=m*c2 to make E=c2. Oh, and the lecture already has 11 slides and with discussion that’ll probably put me at 20 minutes already.

From another suggestion, I thought I may start with a magic trick to show the importance of careful observation, how your senses can be fooled, how you think what’s going on isn’t actually going on, and the importance then of careful observation and testing. I was actually pretty into magic early on in my life and I have amassed quite a bit of tricks. The one I was going to show has to do with disappearing water into a cup. I’m not going to go further in case I actually do end up doing the trick and someone in my class finds this blog. But, I for now have decided against that because (1) I’m not sure how a group with a median age of 21 will respond, and (2) I can’t think of a good transition between it and the Rainbow Lady or another good place in the lecture to put it.

Another idea I had was to start out with an observation. Someone weighs themselves, gets a weight, takes a shower, dries off, gets a weight that’s 0.5 lbs more, and then weighs themselves a half hour later and gets the same weight as the first time. How would they go about figuring out what’s going on? I decided against that because it’s a minor thing that’s not really on-point and I think the Rainbow Lady can be better-used to accomplish the same goal.

Final Thoughts

Thanks again for all those who replied or tried to reply. I still have about 22 hours before the class, so if anyone has further advice or comments on what I’ve decided to do so far, please let me know. Post in the comments here, and then copy your comment (before submitting!) and if it doesn’t go through, send me an e-mail to the address provided above.

May 25, 2010

How to Teach Science versus Pseudoscience?


Some people who read this blog may have noticed another paucity of posts lately. I have the usual excuses – finishing up a paper and submitting it, being busy with research – and then unusual excuses – I went on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park for a week, and I’m prepping to teach a class next month.

It’s the latter that is the reason for this post. I’m teaching my first class ever as Instructor of Record, meaning I have complete control over what’s taught and how. The class is a “summermester” meaning that it is every day for the entire month of June — June 1 through July 2, 11:00-12:35. The class is “General Astronomy: Solar System” for non-majors without a lab component. Checking the roster shows that, at the moment, there are about 25 students signed up, 1 freshman, 3 sophomores, about 15 juniors, and the rest seniors. Most are liberal arts students, but there are some from the sciences.

One of the assignments that I have already written is a course-long writing assignment. It requires the students to look into one of four modern popular astronomy-related pseudosciences — Planet X and 2012, The Apollo Moon Hoax, Is the Universe <6000 Years Old?, and The Hollo Earth "Theory."

Application of Critical Thinking

I will be passing out this assignment the first day of class. I will also be requiring intermediate progress items: (1) At the end of the first week (only 4 days into the class) they need to turn in an outline of their paper that lists the topic, sub-topics they’ll discuss, and at least 3 references they’ll use; (2) at the end of the 3rd week, a rough draft to me; and (3) at the end of the 4th week, a close to final draft that they’ll exchange with someone who’s NOT doing their topic, read over the weekend, and then peer-review on Monday.

As you can see, there is a reasonable emphasis on this paper. I also hope to gear the class towards an Astronomy Cast -inspired “How do we know what we know?” approach, and I plan to bring in pseudoscience topics that are related to homeworks and tests (I’m a fan of Phil Plait’s question of, “How can I state with great confidence that over 95% of violent crimes occur within 1 week of the full or new moon?”).

How to Teach?

The point of this post is to solicit advice from readers: How can I actually write an introductory lecture on this subject? I want the lecture to be no more than 20 minutes, and I would like it to teach science from pseudoscience without (a) getting preachy and (b) WITHOUT examples at the beginning. The last half of the lecture can be examples (good class discussion starters!), but I would really like to introduce the topic without falling into debunking.

I do have a wonderful 2-minute clip from a Coast to Coast AM caller who rambled about Earth’s gravity field collapsing pushing the moon away removing our atmosphere which flash-froze animals that I plan on playing towards the end.

My thoughts so far are showing the scientific method flow chart, or maybe asking the class how they would go about showing something is “true,” contrast that with methods employed by pseudoscience proponents … but those ideas are fairly vague. I start in a week; if people have advice, I’m interested in hearing (reading) it!

March 8, 2010

Is Debunking a Fringe Person Still Worth It?


This morning, I received an IM from a friend congratulating me on the 100,000+ reads on my blog. I responded with a bit of surprise, saying that I didn’t realize she read my blog. Her response was that she has an RSS feed of it and skims what I write when there’s a new post.

This particular friend happens to be the person I briefly consulted for my two-part (eventually three-part) series on the astrologer Terry Nazon (here and here), because this friend practices astrology as a hobby.

Somewhat fearful, I asked her what she thought of the two blog posts about Ms. Nazon. Her response was, “I think that you were probably debunking a hack astrologer.” That led me to quickly justify why I did it, but I think it does raise a decent question: Should one spend the time debunking someone who is on the fringe of their particular pseudoscientific belief system?

Why I Think the Answer Is “Maybe”

I think that there are several reasons both do to this and not to do it. On the “not” side there’s the obvious time-waste component for relatively little gain if they’re on the fringe. There’s the lack of applicability to the underlying field you’re trying to refute. Another con is that you run the risk of presenting a straw man argument – though I try to make very clear that I am only addressing specific claims, not the entire field.

On the “do it” side, I think there are stronger arguments, providing you have the time. The first I thought of is that this person is still making their claims and they do have an audience. In Ms. Nazan’s case, she was going to be featured on an internationally syndicated radio show that reaches literally millions of people every night on over 525 radio stations. Many of her website page headings (her site, her blog, her Facebook) bill her as “Terry Nazon World Famous Astrologer” with the word “Celebrity” sometimes thrown in there. She also apparently makes enough money to run her website.

That led me to the second reason: She’s bilking people out of a heck of a lot of money. I’ll repeat the numbers – at least the current ones on her website – which are $4.99 per minute, $75 for an e-mail reading, $75 for a 15-minute reading, $150 for a 30-minute reading, and $330 for a 60-minute phone reading. I am still amazed at that – I cannot grasp that people are willing to throw that much money at her for something that says at the bottom of her website in very small print, “For entertainment purposes only,” and for someone who was absolutely so demonstrably wrong in her claims (as I illustrated here and here). A three-hour reading from her costs more than my month’s rent.

Third – and this is more minor – you get experience picking through arguments in a logical, methodical way.

And for me, that’s really enough. If (1) the person has a name for themselves and an audience, and (2) there actually is harm being done – in this case separating people from their money during a recession – then I think they’re fair game. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the fringe of their particular field. You still get the experience of debunking someone, and hopefully some of the people being harmed will at least begin to doubt what they’re about to do. If by my blog posts I have stopped one person from contacting Terry Nazon for a reading, then I will be pretty happy and consider it worth it.

Similarly, despite using some of the more fringe claims of 2012 and Planet X stuff to address some of the more basic claims people make, my blog generally gets ~150-250 hits a day from people searching for information on the subject, or linking to my blog from forums or bulletin boards as a resource to learn what’s really not going to happen. I have actually received e-mails from people who say that they were very worried and my blog helped them to calm down from the hysteria that they were approaching. And of course the Comments section posts are nice, too.

What Do You Think?

This is where I normally sum up my position, but I think I already did that. Rather, I’ll use this quick ending to ask you, the reader, what do you think about this? Should people bother to spend time debunking more fringe claims in a field? Or is it just a waste of time? Please answer in the Comments!

March 7, 2010

Arbitrary Milestone Reached: More than 100,000 Blog Views

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 9:06 pm
Tags: , , ,

Humans, by their nature, have many arbitrary milestones by which they judge, rate, rank, measure, and place their lives. In our base-10 number system, many of these have to do with multiples of that base. For example, someone’s 50th birthday is much more momentous than their 49th or 51st, and it’s usually celebrated with more interest than their 60th or 40th. Another example is when that next digit on the car goes from “0” to “1” just after all the preceding digits are “9.”

In similar fashion, I was watching my blog stats on Thursday while I was supposed to be in talks at a conference in Texas. My blog views were at 99,992, and I was hoping to get a screen shot when it passed to 100,000. Unfortunately, I was in a very expensive hotel. You know it’s expensive because most of the stuff that normal hotels give you for free – internet, not getting a newspaper in the morning, continental breakfast, parking, for example – they charged you for at this hotel.

Anyway, the signal upon which I was piggybacking died, and I was without internet in my room for about a half hour. Finally, the page reloaded and I was at 100,010 hits. Darn! I mean, Yay! Well, oh well. I could photoshop it to be 100,000, but it’s not quite the same thing. Anyway, for posterity, here it is, and thank you, RSS followers, subscribers, Christian Forum linkers, 2012 Hoax wiki links, Yahoo! Answers links, and general internet searchers for 100,000 reads. It took about 17.5 months to get there … let’s see if the next 100,000 can go faster! Or, perhaps I should celebrate the 250,000 mark, since that’s a “quarter million” and sounds better?

More than 100,000 Page Views

More than 100,000 Page Views

March 1, 2010

Judging a Middle and High School Regional Science Fair


Last week, I judged a regional high school and middle school science fair that was held at my university. I’m trying to be fairly general in my post here and not use specific names, places, etc. in order to keep some semblance of privacy for people involved.

With that in mind, this post contains my experience, thoughts, examples, and general judging criteria, questions I asked, and things that I looked for when judging this fair.

Hopefully it will be (a) an interesting read, and/or (b) useful to future science fair judges, and/or (c) useful for students and parents in preparing for their own science fairs.

Getting Ready

First off, this science fair was for high school (grades 9-12, about ages 13-18) and middle school (grades 6-8, about ages 10-14) students, and it is a “regional” fair, effectively city-wide. It is part of a much larger one where from this, we send people on to state, national, and sometimes just fast-track to international competitions.

There are different categories, in this case the ones I remember were Physics, Earth and Space Science, Environmental, Chemistry, Health and Medicine, I think an Engineering one, and then some others that I don’t remember (’cause they weren’t near my table and I didn’t judge them). When signing up as a judge, we could request the main topic we wanted to judge and then were asked to fill in 1-3 others. I requested Earth and Space Science primarily, and Physics as my second. I also checked the box indicating I wanted to be a “head judge,” meaning that within a particular subject, I would be responsible for determining 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places, and I would also confer with the Roaming Judges about best in show and who to send on to state/national/international. Based on who the head judges were last year and that I had judged this fair before, I thought I had a decent shot.

The week before, I got an e-mail saying I’d been placed in Physics and Environmental. I was not a head judge. When I showed up the morning of, I got my packet and found I was in Earth and Space Science (ESS) in the morning along with Environmental, and ESS and Physics in the afternoon. Still not a head judge. It had been changed because they had last-minute judge cancellations.

The Day Of

I went to sit down before we started at the ESS table. I got to talking with a few people there – only one whom I’d met before – and then the head judge for our table – who studies space weather forecasting – introduced herself and told us what her bias was in judging. She liked the projects where the students really seemed to have a passion for it and followed the scientific method, as evidenced by them coming up with the project themselves, and then forming a hypothesis and working towards answering it.

Fair ‘nough. Since she had told us that, I decided I would say what mine were. I said that I really liked it when the students would form a hypothesis and then their experiment showed that they were actually wrong. And then that they decided that, on the basis of their data, their initial hypothesis was incorrect.

(I said that they get brownie points if it’s a common pseudoscience. This isn’t to say that I would judge students more harshly if they started off with a “correct” hypothesis, just that I think it is admirable when they are willing to change their beliefs on the basis of observable data – since on this blog I have illustrated many cases where people will not.)

Then I gave an example from the previous year of a middle schooler who thought that granite was radioactive and emitted poison radon gas. He found out by testing various common building rocks that he was wrong and he changed his mind about the initial hypothesis as a result. I then gave a second example of a high school student last year who thought that magnetic healing was real and that she …

That was where I was interrupted by the head judge. She said, “But magnetic healing does work.”

I looked at her and replied, “I mean stuff like the bracelets …” and that was when she held up her wrist and I saw one on her “… because blood is made with non-ferromagnetic iron.”

While she admitted that it may be a placebo effect, she claimed that she had debilitating arthritis in her wrist and that the magnets in the bracelet really helped her to function. I dropped it and moved on. But that was how my morning started. I figure if I had been in the Health and Medicine category, I would’ve spoken with the organizer at that time.

Brief Overview of the Day

In the morning session, the high schoolers are judged by up to 6 or 7 judges to get them more exposure. In the afternoon, each middle schooler is judged by up to 4 or 5.

Anyway, the next 8 hours of judging were fairly uneventful. There were some pretty good projects, and there were some really bad ones. Since I’ve seen people ask what judges actually look for and not just what we’re told to look for, I thought I’d post some specific examples of good and bad:

Example of a BAD Middle School Project

There was a middle school project where two guys wanted to see how quickly they could turn a water wheel with a hose based upon how far above the wheel the hose was as some sort of analogy for a hydroelectric dam. One of the guys was out sick, so he may have been the smrt one in the group (see what I did there?).

Besides not really being comparable to most of the projects there in terms of science nor skill, they got the “wrong” answer despite having the “right” physics on the poster and not realizing it. What I mean is that they found their wheel spun faster when the hose was closer to it. He said they had issues with the water blowing in the breeze when they held it high up which may have affected it. So I asked how it did not mimic an actual dam, and the guy thought, and then said the height of the water. I asked, “What else?” He didn’t know … I was looking for the idea that real dams aren’t bothered by the wind.

In his talk to me, he had mentioned potential energy, so I asked him what it was, trying to get him to realize the “right” answer for the overall project. He said he didn’t know, he hadn’t been paying attention in class that day. I looked pointedly at a location on his poster, then he looked, and said, “Oh, it’s right there …” he proceeded to read what they had written as to the definition of potential energy, and then just looked at me and said, “Yeah.”

(For those wondering, the higher the water starts, the more potential energy it has to convert to kinetic energy to spin the wheel.)

Example of a BAD High School Project

A bad one I judged at the high school level was a girl who was looking at minor gas components to Earth’s atmosphere and their affects on infrared (IR) absorption -> greenhouse effects. She used basically a blackbox model (she had no idea what went into it, it was a computer program handed to her) and used Earth’s standard atmosphere.

She modeled Earth and the sun as two black bodies. When I asked her to explain black bodies to me, she pointed to a part of her poster that had the equation and basically read the equation to me. I asked her what “I” was (as in the equation is “I = …”). She rambled off the standard definition of radiative energy per square unit per solid angle per blah blah blah. I asked her to tell me what it was in her own words. She didn’t know. I asked if, “Intensity” could be a synonym, and she said, “I guess.”

One of the results she found was that water vapor accounts for around 60% of IR absorption in the atmosphere. I asked her how much water vapor was in the atmosphere in her model. Since a second step was that she varied the amount from the standard atmospheric composition (making, for example, methane 500% of what it really is), she said, “100%.” I clarified: “No, I mean how much of the atmosphere in the standard model is water vapor?” She didn’t know.

I dinged her quite a bit for (a) just spouting off terms and not knowing what they were, and (b) not knowing what went into her model at all, especially in a field (climate modeling / global warming) where some of the major criticisms are what assumptions and parameters go into the models.

Example of a MEDIOCRE Middle School Project

There was a girl who looked at different soil samples around the county in a North-South then East-West line. She did a decent job, found a pattern or two, and was able to apply it to other things like saying that based on her results, if someone wanted to grow a garden she would recommend certain places and not others. Her stuff was good, but just within the scope of the project. There was nothing really brought in from outside, no bigger picture, and she got some terminology wrong, like what “topography” was. She also had told the judge just before me that she did the project in the space of a week before the Fair because her teacher suggested it to her since she had done well in their soils unit of science class.

Example of a Good Middle School Project

A good middle school project I saw was where a guy had built (supposedly himself) a water tank and made wheels out of styrofoam. The wheels all had the same outside diameter, different inside diameters, and then spokes. It was a model for turbulence for bike wheels.

He threw out terms like “Reynolds Number” and when I asked what it meant, he was able to answer it. Then I asked him if the Reynolds Number of water was larger or smaller than molasses. He got it wrong. Then I asked which had a higher viscosity. He got it right.

Moving on, after he had done his models in water, he tried out different tires with different spoke lengths on a bike — apparently he’s a “pro” biker (remember – a middle schooler) and has won some significant races. He found that the benefits from the water model were much more muted, by say 5% increases in speed due to reduced turbulence instead of the 100% he was seeing in the tank. He was able to answer why that may be. And he was able to say that even at 1-2% when you’re talking about a race where he won by 0.04 seconds over 17 minutes, then that really counts.

Things I Asked and Looked For

1. I started out after introducing myself and telling the student to assume I knew nothing about their project and subject and to start from there. In other words, I really wanted to see if they could explain it to a lay person without using the big words, and in their own words. I also ran into a problem last year where some of the high school projects were over my head (that wasn’t an issue this year); this had been my fault, really, since I should have made them explain it to me until I understood it and could tell if they understood it.

2. Whenever they used a term or concept that I thought was above grade-level, I would stop them and ask them to explain it. Sometimes they could, sometimes they couldn’t. I did count it against them if they couldn’t because it meant they were just using buzz words and didn’t know what they actually meant.

3. About half-way through each project, I would pause and repeat back to them a general summary of what they were doing to make sure that I understood it. After all, it wasn’t fair to the student if I thought they were doing something they weren’t, and I thought it helped the student because it showed I was actually paying attention.

4. I asked them what the bigger picture was at the end. How they could apply it to something else, or what it could do for people? Most of them were able to answer that, and I would hope it’s a fairly standard question. There were admittedly some cases where there was no real practical application, such as determining rotation rates for stars, but in those cases I would ask them what the application to the field would be, instead of every-day life.

5. I would always ask if there was anything else they wanted to tell me or thought I should know before I left and said, “Thank you, and good luck.” I thought that was important in case they realized at that time they had left something important out.

6. If I remembered, I asked them how they got the idea for the project and how much help they had. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember to do that every time. But in general, you can tell as a judge how much help they had had.

7. One aspect that I in particular looked for was confidence in the results – as in error bars. Almost no one had error bars, and the one who did I asked how he got them and whether they were believable.

The error bar obsession probably comes from my own research and my professors from undergrad. In fact, I’m presenting some research on age-dating martian volcanos this week at a conference (LPSC XLI) that’s basically ALL about error bars, and it’s what I expect pretty much everyone to ask me about at my poster on Thursday night (if you’re actually interested in this, ask below in the comments).

An example of the importance of this was a high school student who was doing an experiment growing algae, and he found a negative mass on the 3rd day. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know, maybe something about the atmosphere changing. I asked him what his uncertainty was in his measurements, and he said that when all the analysis was done, he would do the detailed fitting analysis and the uncertainty in his fits. I replied, “No, each measurement you made has an inherent uncertainty in it, and you should be displaying that on your graph. For example, you found a mass of negative 0.01 gms. If your uncertainty in that measurement is ±0.1, then you’re fine. If it’s ±0.00001, then you have a problem.”

In another example, there was a student who I thought was the best in his category that I saw in the middle school part. He had looked at earthquake data in our state in order to test an empirical law, and he showed that it was wrong for small earthquakes. He was graphing magnitude versus number of quakes, and was looking at mag. 3-4 and found that it fit the law with a value of 13, but then 1-2 didn’t fit where he found 9 but expected 60. I asked him what the uncertainty was in each point. He didn’t know, but he said that he found only about 10% of what he expected. I told him I realized that, but in his magnitude 3-4 bin, he found it kinda fit the law, but the question was how well it did. In other words, at what magnitude does the law break-down with statistical “certainty.” He didn’t know. Since I was the last judge for him for the day, I told him he needed to look into Poisson statistics (sometimes referred to as “counting” statistics).

Some of the Formal, Official Stuff, and Judging Paperwork

The way I went about the actual judging part was that I left the score sheets alone. I went to each person with a blank sheet of paper and just wrote down notes. I spent about 10-17 minutes with each person (we were told to spend 12 on middle school, 15 on high school), and I did time it. I felt this was important (a) so the students had an equal amount of time with me, and (b) so that there wasn’t a judge waiting because I was taking up all the student’s time (speaking from experience of being that judge waiting …).

When I was done with each student, I went to a table and wrote down comments on the judging form that the students would actually see. I then went onto the next student I was judging.

I waited until I had talked with ALL students in the section before I sat down to actually assign a numerical score (morning was high school, afternoon was middle school). I figured that was the fairest way to do it so that I wasn’t too easy nor too hard at the beginning of the judging period and so that I could get a feel for the general level of the projects and rate them accordingly.

We were told to judge on a 100-pt scale, and judge independent of whether it was individual or team, and whether they worked on their own or in a lab. 30% went to creative ability, 30% to the scientific thought, 15% to thoroughness, 15% to skill, 10% clarity, and then an additional 16 pts to teamwork where the score was then normalized to 100 for teams. If people are interested in more details on what each of these were defined as, ask me in the Comments section.

Final Thoughts

I find judging – the two times I’ve done it – fairly enjoyable. On a jealous note, it’s really amazing what these young adults can do. When I look back at my middle school and high school science projects, there simply was nothing comparable until I specifically chose my “Senior Project” at the end of high school and built a model roller coaster.

Most of the projects at least show some interest in their chosen topic, especially at the high school level. There are always those few where you can tell that the student felt obligated to do something they really don’t care about, but luckily those can be offset by the ones that show thought.

Determining how much help students had is sometimes hard, but it’s important because it can mean the difference between someone winning first place or not even being in the running (something we did last year on a particular tennis racket project). It can be a hard judgement call, but it’s one that I have given my input on and then left it up to the head judge in the topic to decide.

Anyway, to sum up, I hope that this has been interesting and/or informative. If you’re a scientist, I highly recommend judging a science fair, at least once, to get a feel for it and to try to encourage young, potentially future scientists. Those that are actually interested in what they’re doing do enjoy speaking with people who are not their parents/advisor/mentor that understand what they’re doing and its importance.

February 2, 2010

On the Importance of Scientists to Publish in the Scientific Literature AND Other Venues


This post isn’t actually about the process of peer review. It isn’t about the importance of press releases. It’s not about scientists going to conferences and hobnobbing with colleagues. Rather, it’s a tale of hope, joy, and crushing disappointment.

My Research

For very astute readers, you may have picked up bits and pieces of my current research, though I’ve never actually gone into any depth on this blog as that’s not the point of the blog. However, it forms the backdrop of this tale of woe:

My work has – for the past two years and for another year yet to come – been to create a new database of craters on Mars, statistically complete to diameters of about 1.5 kilometers. That’s about 170,000 craters larger than that size, though the database has around another 110,000 craters that are smaller in order to ensure statistical completeness. One of the goals of this database is to study a particular type of crater against the backdrop of other “less interesting” craters. The type I’m studying in particular are known as “lobed craters,” craters with “lobate debris aprons,” or “layered ejecta” craters. Everyone has their own pet term though the Mars Crater Consortium has tried to standardize nomenclature for them to be “layered ejecta.” The picture below illustrates a simple example of this type.

Single-Layered Ejecta Crater, Mars

Single-Layered Ejecta Crater, Mars

The basic idea is that this crater’s ejecta is very cohesive and does not look like typical ejecta that we observed on the moon for years before we went elsewhere in the solar system. Layered ejecta craters exist almost exclusively on Mars, though a few have been observed on some of the outer planet satellites, namely Ganymede and Europa.

The main hypothesis for their formation is that the impactor hit a surface that had solid volatiles in it (as in ice). The volatiles melted into the surface from the impact energy and caused the ejecta to act as a cohesive “mudslide,” giving the appearance we see today.

Moving Forward – The Discovery

Now, in my research, I’ve noticed that double-layered ejecta (craters surrounded by not just one, but 2 layers of this cohesive ejecta) seem to be concentrated around volcanic terrain on Mars. While I was busy cataloging and outlining these lobes a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a marked increase of the double-layered ejecta in a certain region of the planet. But there wasn’t a volcano there, I thought.

I zoomed out on the map I was using and, lo!, I saw what appeared to be a volcano. In fact, the caldera of this thing was about 75 km by 90 km, or around 50% larger than the state of Delaware, several times larger than the caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano. This size would put it easily in the top 25% of caldera sizes on the planet Mars.

Taking a step back, another, side-project that I’m working on is creating mosaics of the large volcanos of Mars and performing crater counts within them in order to develop a timeline for the “last gasps” of volcanism. I had a list of 24 volcanos that I had obtained from the USGS last summer, since they keep lists of things like that. And I knew that this new caldera I found was not on my list.

Checking Around

So my next step was of course to check all the lists of known volcanos that I could find for Mars. I re-checked USGS. I even checked Wikipedia. But this feature that looked like a caldera was not on them.

Unfortunately, my advisor was in Antarctica searching for meteorites, so I could not consult with him. Rather, I talked to the post-doc next door, who looked at it and agreed with me that it appeared to be a volcano. On a day when his officemate was there, another post-doc, I asked her, and she wasn’t as certain that it was a volcano, but said it was possible. She suggested I check with some other people outside of the university, but I wanted to wait until my advisor was back to check with him … after all, I didn’t want to make myself look like a fool in front of possible future colleagues.

Spreading the Possible Word

Meanwhile, I was getting excited. I mean, who wouldn’t? I tried not to get my hopes up, but from what I could tell, this thing sure looked like a volcano, not a crater (I knew what an impact crater looked like … I’d been circling them for years). And it wasn’t on any of the lists for Mars volcanos. So I mentioned it to a few people, including a comment on The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast episode from a week ago that some of you may have listened to.

Advisor Returns

My advisor got back to this continent this past weekend and we arranged a meeting for yesterday (Monday) to go over progress on what I’d done for the past 10 weeks while he was gone. I told him the first thing I wanted to talk about was this possible volcano to see what he thought. He seemed fairly excited, too, and I think had briefly looked at it and thought it looked promising.

I went into his office at 1 for our meeting and sit down on the couch, and I said that the first thing to talk about would be this possible volcano discovery. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah …” and handed me a paper, turned to a color picture, with big arrows pointed at my volcano.

The Reaction

I was not happy. Duh. But, as far as I could tell, I had taken the right steps. I’d identified a feature I thought was something interesting. I’d created a high-resolution image of it. I’d checked with a few people, and I’d looked at the standard lists.

The paper that this was tucked away in didn’t have a revealing title, so it’s also not as though I had something I could easily search for. At the time of writing this, I can’t actually find the paper in question, though I did just find an abstract for a conference from 2008 where they identify it. Sigh. The abstract is entitled, “New Evidence for a Magmatic Influence on the Origin of Valles Mariners.” Their paper from last year had a similar title. As you can see, nothing in the title about “volcano.”

Final Thoughts – The Moral

The point of discussing this in my blog is to point out the importance for scientists that, once they make a discovery, they need to not just publish in the standard scientific literature. They also need to make sure that it makes its way to other publications, such as standardized lists so that other people don’t get their hopes up on making a discovery others know of it and can easily find that information rather than doing a very exhaustive literature review. The USGS lists are meant to be used by people as a guide for this sort of thing. But, in my bitter opinion, this was a “science fail” by the authors in terms of publicizing their discovery.

August 29, 2009

Sorry for the Lack of Posts … Expect to Resume in October

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Stuart Robbins @ 11:40 pm

This is a quick post about a lack of posts. To those of you who may have read this regularly, I apologize — I have been extremely busy with work over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, there will be more of the same until I get back from a conference during the first days of October. Expect more posts then.

March 12, 2009

Planet X & 2012: My Interview on “The Conspiracy Skeptic” Podcast

This is a quick post to alert my loyal readers (hi Hanna) that I have been interviewed for an episode of “The Conspiracy Skeptic” podcast put out by Karl Mamer. I admit up-front – this is a looooong interview, with the edited version being about 111 minutes. But the time just flies by!

In the interview, I touch on nearly all aspects of the 2012/Planet X conspiracy/doomsday stuff that I’ve discussed so far on my blog, but this time in “condensed” form.

The site for the podcast is here, and at present, my interview is at the bottom of the page. A direct link to the episode MP3 is here.

In other news, now that I’m nearly done with a grant renewal and conference poster, I should be getting back to semi-regular posts shortly.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.