Meme Me Up, Scotty

Even before I started writing about science instead of struggling to pass it, I knew who some of the traditional big names were among its primary print media outlets: Science magazine, Nature, Scientific American, Popular Science and Discover, to name but a few.

Maybe I’m showing my age, but one of those biggies, Nature, just went down a peg in my prestige book, undone by what I consider to be a dying art: the ability to write a good headline. You know, one that’s above all else correct and then — and only then, if possible — catchy and creative without sacrificing and/or detracting from the content. Here’s a link to the story, in case it didn’t flood your news feed, along with its offending ‘I can haz genomes’: cats claw their way into genetics headline.

Forget the dog-versus-cat debate, I’ve got a bone to pick with (I can only assume) the copy editor here. To each his own as to what defines humor, but it’s a fine line in any setting, particularly that of science journalism. Regardless where you choose to draw it, there’s a time and place even for the craftiest turn of phrase. In my opinion, this story was neither.


At the risk of being perceived as catty, this one missed the mark for me. But I acknowledge potentially being in the minority there. For instance, one Twitter commenter credited them for “trying to thread the needle between catchy and accurate.” Um, #fail.

Reducing such a long-awaited milestone for human health, if not victory for cat enthusiasts, to a cheesy (or should I say cheezburger) Internet meme runs the risk of turning people off to the story (which involves a Texas A&M University geneticist — read an overview complete with a solid headline here) before they’ve even read word one of the lead. Good luck convincing them the research is solid or serious from there.

Lolcats, indeed.

Interestingly enough, another Texas A&M professor, Mays Business School’s Caleb Warren, is one of the many researchers working to define the science of humor. Toward that end, he and his University of Colorado at Boulder collaborator Peter McGraw have developed something they call the benign violation theory, the foundation of McGraw’s Humor Research Lab at UC Boulder and a widely published subject in a variety of sources, from a book to mainstream psychology journals. According to a broader Bloomberg article, they postulate that humor emerges “when: a) a situation violates some kind of norm; b) the violation is benign; and c) these two things occur to the observer simultaneously.”

It's a Venn diagram, so that's a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

It’s a Venn diagram, so that’s a plus. (Credit: Peter McGraw, Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado at Boulder)

So, yeah, I guess it’s possible that I just didn’t get the joke. I am blonde.

OK, off my soap, er litter box.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

I’m pleased to report the week wasn’t a total loss for science journalism. Props to Science staff writer Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for circling back on a story that made international headlines earlier this month (in some cases for all the wrong reasons) and for leaving no step un-retraced in her subsequent effort not only to set the record as straight as possible from here but also to understand where and why things went wrong. Further proof that this work is serious business — and intensely personal in addition to professional, at that — for parties well beyond the scientists involved.

Got a Little Story for Ya, Ags

As a writer, I do so love a good story and those who wield both the appropriate subject matter and the flair for its proper delivery.

One of the best absolute naturals in all above respects is Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who I describe to people as a marketer’s dream for good reason. Beyond his ease with media representatives, administrators and officials, and external visitors and general audiences, he’s also a master at breaking down the subject at hand and explaining why it matters. And in going the extra mile.

I offer a recent example — a follow-up email to Battalion reporter John Rangel, thanking him for a recent story:


I would like to congratulate you on the article in The Batt on the most distant galaxy. You nailed the science and gave a feeling for the excitement of the discovery. Great job!

By the way, there are some points to this discovery that you, as an engineering student, may enjoy. It is difficult to define what is distance in astronomy because the universe is expanding, and the grid by which we measure distances is also stretching at the same time. So for me the best way to understand distance is just what you did — give it in units of how much time it took for light to get here compared to the age of the universe. However, you will see some articles refer to the distance to this object as 30 billion light years or so. This is the way astronomers would measure it, but this distance is not intuitive. Imagine we are in our galaxy in the early universe and we are looking at this distant galaxy. It would be very close to us because the universe is so small. Imagine putting a 3-D grid on this early universe and put our galaxy at one corner and the distant galaxy at another corner. Now run the universe forward to today. The universe has stretched a lot (expanded, if you will). Our galaxy and the other one are still at those corners, but the grid has expanded by a factor of 9 now. That short distant that separated us and that galaxy has now stretched into about 30 billion light years — the co-moving distance we call it. So you will also hear astronomers quote distances that are greater than the age of the universe.

How can something be farther away than the age of the universe (in today’s time) and we can still see it? Well, the weird thing is that we will never see that galaxy when it is today age — 13.8 billion years old. We can only see it now, but as the universe evolves, the galaxy will actually disappear from our universe or perhaps more to the point — will disappear from our vision.

The other point is that although galaxies appear to be moving away from us and this appears as a Doppler shift, it is actually not a Doppler shift. It is space stretching. Nothing is actually moving. The motion looks like a velocity and a Doppler shift, but there is no kinetic energy involved. If there were, galaxies near the edge of the universe would have a ridiculous amount of energy because they are moving close to the speed of light.

Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe, was careful never to call this apparent expansion a velocity — he called it a cosmological redshift which is what astronomers should also call it, and if they don’t, well I will go kick their butts.

Anyway, sorry for the long email about your great article.

cheers, nick

I don’t know about John Rangel, but for this writer, the initial interview is typically a formative experience. I remember well my first trip to Dr. Suntzeff’s Texas A&M campus office — a veritable time capsule spanning the high points of astronomical history as well as his career, which includes 25 years at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. I was interviewing him for a piece on Albert Einstein’s cosmological constant — Einstein’s self-described “biggest blunder” which he predicted in 1917 as the proverbial glue holding together the theory of a never-changing universe that Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery of the universe’s expansion later debunked. (Incidentally, in a Kevin Bacon-esque six-degrees-of-separation constant, Hubble served as mentor to Allan Sandage, who in turn is the one who encouraged Dr. Suntzeff to focus on Type Ia supernovas — specifically their brightness — to measure precise distances, which is how Dr. Suntzeff came to help discover dark energy and roughly 75 percent of the universe. But that’s a whole ‘nother story!)

After posing a basic equation-type question to gauge my level of astrophysical knowledge (essentially negative infinity), Dr. Suntzeff took great pains to explain not only the equation and the basic physics behind it, but also each and every piece in his collection, in addition to the actual research I was there to discuss. And so began an educational relationship across subsequent visits and stories, typically supplemented with emailed anecdotes and other means of follow-up insight about astrophysics and oh, so much more that has always served to enlighten or entertain. (Ask him sometime about saving Alan Alda’s life while down in Chile or about being school mates with Robin Williams — yes, that Robin Williams — or about the time he made international headlines for discovering nothing! Yeah, I have hundreds of these, as does he.)

Bottom line, it all goes to prove my long-held theory that most professors first and foremost are born educators and — big surprise — people, too. Their areas of expertise are vitally important, but somehow lost amid all that focused excellence and relentless drive is their intrinsic motivation and passion for knowledge generation, big-picture dreams and doing what they love and want you to love, too. Or at the very least understand in some tangible way.

Trust me, it’s a great story well worth the time it takes to read. Even better if you get the chance to hear it in person.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

Light Years Ahead and Apart

Every day is a learning experience when you’re covering Texas A&M Science. In many cases, that experience doesn’t end with the finished story — for us as the writers or for the reporters who choose to pick it up.

It should come as no surprise that our professors are natural educators, in and outside their classrooms. Email and social media, along with news outlets that enable and encourage reader comments, offer extended opportunities for those savvy enough to harness them in the ever-broadening realm of public education and outreach.

Take, for instance, the recent most-distant-galaxy discovery. Astronomers Casey Papovich, Vithal Tilvi and Nick Suntzeff went to great lengths to help us get that story not only out but also accurate, from handling initial interviews to helping with multiple revisions and small tweaks to the article in progress as well as to the supporting images and captions.

Galaxy_ArtistRendering_TilviBreathtakingly beautiful, isn’t it? But as good as it is and we thought we did, it turns out people — general readers and even some astronomers — got a bit confused regarding the distance part of that most distant galaxy find. Enter the chance to educate, as illustrated in the following two examples.

In the first, Papovich expands on the 30 billion light years question in response to a direct email from a science writer in Germany:

Technically, the answer is “yes,” but I tend to use the distance the galaxy appears to be (that’s where we “see” it) That distance is only 13 billion light years distant.

The 30 billion light years comes from the following. If you could stop the universe expanding and run a tape measure, then the distance we would measure would be 30 billion light years. But we don’t see the galaxy there. I tend to quote the “light travel distance” because that’s the distance the galaxy “appears” to be (the light left the galaxy 13 billion years ago and has been chasing after us as we are carried away with the expansion). That distance (the light travel distance) is 13 billion light years.

 Now, the galaxy we’re seeing has also been moving in the other direction for 13 billion years, so it has also moved away. That’s why the present-day distance is 30 billion light years (but we can’t see the galaxy at that distance). Because we “see” the galaxy at the light travel distance, I quote that distance (13 billion light years).

Distances are very screwy because the universe is expanding so fast.

Hope that helps, Casey

And here’s the second example, in which Suntzeff responds to a comment on the story featured in the local newspaper, The Bryan-College Station Eagle:

The attentive Eagle readers here have caught an obvious mistake, but let me turn this into a learning moment (hey, give me a break! I am a professor at A&M.) When you measure distances to stuff in the universe, the meaning of distance is ambiguous. It has taken 13 billion years for this light to get to us from this galaxy, and this is one way of measuring distance. Another way, which is often used in astronomy, is asking how much the universe has expanded since that time — sort of how far away is the object in today’s much larger universe. We call this the “scale” distance. That number is more like 30 billion light years for this galaxy. For me, it is easier to think of distance as how long it took the light to get to us, which would be 13 billion years. But the 30 billion year distance is also correct, if not obvious. And yes, this will be on the mid-term.

Any way you slice/write it, I think it’s pretty darned cool we get paid to promote the likes of a discovery of the most distant galaxy known to man (one born only 1 billion years or so after the Big Bang) alongside such great ambassadors for astronomy, Texas A&M University and the state of Texas, and science education as a whole. Welcome to Aggieland!