ellipsix informatics

Off to APS!

Just a quick update: I'm heading off to the APS April meeting in Savannh, GA this weekend! I'll be presenting updates on my group's latest research project on Saturday, but there will also be hundreds (or thousands?) of other research projects being promoted. I'll probably be too busy to live-tweet much, but if I find anything cool, I'll mention it either in a blog post here, or on Twitter.

When I get back from the meeting next week, hopefully I'll have more of the long-overdue blog posts on science that I've been promising.


BICEP2 and the primordial B-modes

Yesterday the BICEP2 experiment (Wikipedia page) announced a result that physicists and astronomers around the world had been positively drooling over for two days: the detection of primordial B-modes in the cosmic microwave background.

Ordinarily I would write a whole blog post going through the BICEP2 paper: what the experiment is, what they're looking for in the cosmic microwave background, what exactly they found, and why you should be excited about it too, but right now I'm super-busy with other things (including another blog post slated for later this week). So instead I leave you with this collection of links to peruse:

Background info:

Reports of the results:

Popular articles:

There are many others, of course, but that should be enough to get you started. Also follow the #BICEP2 hashtag on Twitter.

I leave you with perhaps the most immediately interesting result to keep an eye on:

BICEP2+Planck+WMAP+highL tensor-scalar ratio

This figure, taken from the official BICEP results page linked above, represents one of the key numbers in the BICEP2 result, the tensor-scalar ratio r which basically represents the strength of primordial gravitational waves from inflation. (See e.g. Sean Carroll's background post for more details) Before yesterday's result, the best measurements we had of r — from the Planck and WMAP satellites, studies of baryon acoustic oscillations, and other assorted inputs — generally suggested r \lesssim 0.1 or so, depending on which measurements you count. In particular they were all perfectly consistent with r = 0, which would have implied no primordial gravitational waves. BICEP2 is the first experiment to exclude r=0 (look back to my statistics post to know what it means to exclude a value), and at the very high significance of 7\sigma! They measured r = 0.2, which is quite large, and in fact kind of conflicts with the earlier measurements. So cosmologists will be looking very closely at future data releases from Planck and other experiments to see where this value settles down.


Ellipsix Informatics is on Facebook!

I finally broke down and made a Facebook page for this site. There probably won't be anything there other than blog posts, at least not for a while, but if that's how you want to find out when I post new things, have at it!


Science Online for the online

For an organization with "Online" in its very name, you'd think Science Online would have no trouble putting the content of their flagship conference, well, online. Well, guess what: collating and summarizing all that information is hard! So if you weren't at last week's Science Online Together conference, and even if you were, it's all too easy to go a little crazy searching through thousands of tweets, Storify sessions, and blog posts to pick out the parts you'd find useful.

With that in mind, I've spent far too much time over the past three days putting together the following non-attendee's guide to Science Online Together 2014. Each of the individual sessions is listed, in chronological order (because no other order really makes sense), along with

  • the session's facilitator: the person who moderated the session, who is a good contact point for questions
  • the session's Twitter hashtag, where you can find (almost) all tweets about the session, including those from live-tweeters as well as questions contributed by others and further discussion taking place afterwards
  • the session's Storify page(s), if there is one or more than one, which consists of a selection of relevant tweets plus commentary
  • for those sessions I attended, the blog post I wrote containing a brief recap
  • anything else I know of that constitutes a semi-canonical summary of the session

Ideally, whatever information was recorded about the content of each session, you should be able to find through the links here. Several of the sessions were videotaped, and when the recordings go up on the Science Online site in 60 days (well 53 days by now), I'll add them here. If you know of anything I've missed that should be included, such as your own blog posts or Storifies or so on summarizing any of these sessions, let me know! (@ellipsix on Twitter, or contact@ellipsix.net)

And of course, major props to Karyn Traphagen for facilitating everything!

Thursday February 27

Friday February 28

Saturday March 1


Science Online Together: day 3 recap

They say all good things must come to an end. I guess that's true, but it would be really great if there were a magic pill that would keep us from having to sleep so Science Online Together a.k.a. The Best Thing Ever could go on forever.

Okay, technically that exists. It's called speed. It's more tempting than it should be.

Seriously though. Even with the fallout from the sexual harassment incidents over the last year hanging over everyone's heads, it was truly a great experience for at least those of us who weren't strongly affected by that — which probably includes most of the 200+ people who had never been to a Science Online event before. Congratulations to Karyn Traphagen and everyone else who helped pull this off!

CONVERGE session: Creating Collaboration World Wide across the Web

As the last day began, it was pretty clear from the number of empty chairs that the previous night's sci-fi gala had taken a toll on people. Still, a sizeable fraction of the community showed up to see an inspiring and even entertaining presentation from Jon Schull and Nick Parker about the organization they work with, E-Nabling the Future, which connects people who have lost parts of their hands with others who have 3D printers they can use to inexpensively construct low-tech, functional prosthetics. Nick and Jon talked about how they adapted the specifications of full medical prosthetic hands, which can cost many thousands of dollars, to design plastic hands that cost $20 or $30. They then share the designs with people who have 3D printers, who print out and assemble the pieces, combine them with a few screws and a little string, and wind up with a functional replacement hand that can be controlled by moving your wrist or elbow joint.

The neat thing about this is that the different people carrying out different parts of the manufacturing process — the designer, the printer, the recipient — never even have to meet. It's a great case study in how the internet drastically lowers the barriers to collaboration, even for tasks you wouldn't think could be separated and distributed like that.

If you have access to a 3D printer, or you want to help contribute to refining the designs, E-Nabling the Future is always looking for more participation. Check out their website to see how you can help!

Discussion session: Comment Best Practices

Saturday morning started with Scicurious "Bethany" Brookshire leading a discussion session on handling comments on blog posts. Comments are like sex, she says: you don't have to have them at all, but if you do, use a "condom" — in other words, have a plan for preventing them from getting out of control.

Fundamentally, comments are a tradeoff. If you allow them on your blog, you get the opportunity to receive feedback on content you post. This is largely a good thing when you have a knowledgeable and civil audience: they can give you additional ideas, they can prompt you to clarify difficult concepts, and they can tell you when you're wrong. On the other hand, allowing comments opens the door to trolls and personal attacks that can make you or your commenters feel uncomfortable. Moderating comments seems to provide the best of both worlds, but it puts a lot of responsibility on you, the blog's author, not only in terms of how much time you have to spend watching your site to prevent bad comments from sticking around, but also in terms of deciding which comments are appropriate and which ones aren't. If your audience is sufficiently mature, you can offload some of this responsibility on other commenters by allowing them to upvote and downvote comments to distinguish the good content from the fluff.

Several people also pointed out that commenting has moved, in large part, from blogs to large social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and reddit. You can't expect people to post a lot of comments on a blog post itself anymore. Much of the discussion happens off-site, and as an author, if you want to participate in it and guide the response to your content, you have to follow your readers to the communities where they hold their discussions, and have an online presence on those sites. Explicitly connecting your own site into those external discussions, for example by using Facebook as your commenting platform or by embedding one of those widgets that show how many people have shared/tweeted/etc. your post, can help build interest in the post and also keep you more wired into the dialogue about it.

At the end, Scicurious suggested something I really liked: coming up with a list of comment best practices, which I tweeted (roughly) under the hashtag #commentBestPractices.

  • Have a clear written policy on comments, and enforce it, but don't expect people to read it
  • Give positive feedback to good comments (and not to frivolous ones)
  • Reserve the right to make final judgments on what comments are acceptable and to edit or delete as appropriate
  • Allow editing of comments, optionally with a publicly visible edit history
  • Limit the number of links allowed in comments to prevent spam
  • Finally, engage in the comment discussions of your own content!

I do think this was one of the most productive sessions I attended throughout the conference, and there were a lot of other interesting points which I didn't even get to mention here. For more on this session, check out the #scioComments hashtag on Twitter!

Discussion session: Online Communities

My last session of the conference, facilitated by Lou Woodley, was about online communities: how to build them, maintain them, and help them grow.

Early on, it became clear that one of the keys to an online community's success is having a core of motivated contributors who are committed to keeping the community healthy. Sometimes this happens naturally; for example, if a community is already backed by a large organization with a purpose that will attract like-minded people, it tends to attract a core of dedicated contributors through the organization's efforts to promote the community. "Organic" communities that don't have that backing have a harder time putting together that core. Successful community-building requires certain roles to be filled by those dedicated contributors, such as educating new members and starting discussions about the community's direction, so if the people suited to fill those roles aren't present or the community isn't aware of what roles need to be filled, it's probably not going to last.

Maintaining an online community's health is, in some ways, no different than for an offline community. It's important to understand the interpersonal interactions taking place within the community, because when a community is headed toward failure (or success), that's where the first signs show up. But this is not a matter of keeping alert for individual bad relationships. You can get useful information from the overall structure of the network of interactions between community members. If a group of members is splintering off to form a subgroup that starts to isolate itself from the rest of the community, for example, that can be damaging to the health of the community as a whole.

Community management is a broad topic and, unsurprisingly, there was a lot more discussed than I was able to mention here. Lou's Storify page has a lot more details, if you're interested. And the discussion will continue, on Twitter under the #scioCommunity hashtag and in a series of community manager chats that Lou is planning for the future.

Topic Tables at Lunch

Lunch on Saturday was one of the things I was really waiting for: a chance to meet most of the other physics and astronomy people at the conference. There weren't that many of us, interestingly enough; most of the people I talked to came from a background of entomology, paleontology, marine biology (probably not too surprising because the last Science Online conference was Science Online Oceans), or neuroscience. It was kind of a rushed affair because people drifted out of the last discussion sessions at different times, but I did get to stay at the table long enough to have a very interesting talk with Catherine Q. about dark matter, and I got some fun stories from Tom Swanson to take back to Penn State. (Did you know that visual awesomeness of a presentation is measured in milliGibbles?)

Wrapping up

All things considered, I had a great time. (The trip home is another story, which is why this blog post comes to you two days late... but let's not dwell on that.) In general, I really love the "unconference" format where the discussion sessions are facilitated by a moderator but most of the content comes from the attendees, the long breaks between sessions allowing for discussions to spill out into the hall, and the activities designed to bring together people who have never met and get them talking to each other. It's all very effective at breaking down the barriers between "experts" and "novices" that are apparent at other conferences (like physics conferences) I've been to. And breaking down those barriers is important for two reasons: it facilitates the best possible exchange of ideas, because people are less afraid of asking stupid questions, and it sucks new people in and makes them want to come back :-) After I graduate this summer I may be going somewhere where it's going to be difficult and expensive to get back to the US, but I fully expect Science Online Together 2015 to make it worth the trip. Let me know if I'll see you there!


Science Online Together: day 2 recap

I think this tidbit I posted on Twitter summarizes day 2 of Science Online well: "Attending #scio14 as an introvert is like the emotional equivalent of running a marathon." Or three, as was pointed out to me in a reply. It's tiring! But awesome.

CONVERGE session: Reaching Diverse Audiences

To start out the day we were treated to a talk by Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics, about that time he was commissioned to make a video explaining the Higgs boson... then a year went by, and the director of the ATLAS Higgs group told him it was all wrong. The truth is, once the true explanation of the Higgs mechanism/field/boson — the mathematical one — filters through scientists, publicists, journalists, and the internet, it can get pretty distorted. Who can blame the cartoonist at the end of the chain? Just a few days ago, Jorge put up a new comic "re-explaining" the Higgs boson, which stays a lot closer to the fundamental math. It certainly gets my seal of approval! (Self-plug: if you want to see the actual math behind the Higgs mechanism, check out my blog post on the subject.)

Bonus perk: I met Jorge after his talk. He's really nice. :-)

After that, Monica Feliu-Mojer gave a very enlightening presentation on Ciencia PR, a bilingual organization that curates Spanish content from mostly Puerto Rican scientists for distribution to people in Puerto Rico. Ciencia PR and other organizations like it exist because most science content is packaged in a way that targets a traditional white, educated, primarily male audience. When someone in a place like Puerto Rico looks at that content, they see science as something foreign and unfamiliar. On the other hand, if you get Puerto Rican scientists to talk about Puerto Rican science topics — her example was the geology of the island, and how it "migrated" from the Pacific Ocean due to plate tectonics — the science becomes more relatable to other Puerto Ricans, and they're a lot more likely to be interested in science in general.

Discussion session: Beyond Blogs, Twitter, and FB

The day's first session, run by Joe Hansen, focused on other social media platforms beyond the "big three" — blogs, Facebook, and Twitter — that can be used to promote science. Platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Vine, which facilitate easy sharing of photos and videos, are quickly gaining popularity especially among younger kids. If we as scientists and science communicators aren't using those platforms to promote our content, we're potentially missing out on a large and very receptive audience.

Of course, creating videos and images isn't as easy as writing. Some science communicators have the resources to put out this type of content consistently; these are usually large corporations or government organizations with well-established outreach teams, like Google, GE, or NASA. Others, like bloggers and independent video creators, can't. But on the other hand, it's often easier to go into more depth on a topic in a written medium like a blog or newsletter. We can enjoy some of the benefits of both kinds of content by cross-linking between videos and blogs on a certain topic, allowing consumers to follow a trail from, say, a popular science video on a topic to a blog post on the same topic to a science news article on a related topic and finally to the relevant research paper (if they're really interested).

On another note, the community brought up the importance of knowing your audience and connecting with them on a personal level. People respond to these personal connections, whether they come from your (the science communicator's) own personal experience, or stories that make the science seem more human. This builds off the same lessons brought up in #scioSelfPR the previous day and this morning's CONVERGE session on Ciencia PR, and other sessions that I didn't get to go to.

For more information on this session, follow the #scioBeyond hashtag on Twitter.

Q&A session: Insights from Science Communication Research

In the second time slot of the day, I sat in on a Q&A session with Liz Neely and Louie Rivers, two experts on science communication as a formal subfield of psychological research. A lot of questions got brought up and answered in various ways in this session; here are some of the main ones I caught:

  • Why do scientists feel the need to communicate to the public in the first place? Well, not all of them do. But for those who do, the reasons include sharing the inspiration they feel when they think about science, improving the education of the general public as a societal obligation, and other things.
  • What are effective techniques for communicating science? In a sense the whole conference is about this so most of what came up in other sessions is relevant to this question as well. The key seems to be knowing your audience though. No one technique works for everyone, because different people learn in different ways and respond to different kinds of content, so it's necessary to put your message in the proper context for the people you're trying to reach and appeal to things they're familiar with. Repetition is also very important, as even having a message repeated often enough by one person can make it seem more real, although having it come from a variety of trusted sources is better.
  • Is there research on how people respond to positive vs. negative information? Yes (of course); people tend to remember negative information more strongly, which is why fearmongering is (unfortunately) so effective, but even this depends on context and what you're trying to convey.
  • What are effective ways to address misconceptions? It helps to respect people's existing views and strongly held beliefs. Don't tell them that their entire philosophy of life is wrong; instead, give them a smaller nugget of information that doesn't make them question everything they know. Also, use personal stories, not just data, to make information more relatable.
  • What can communicators do to help scientists get their message across more clearly? Helping scientists understand the journalistic process may be one thing. We ran out of time on this point though.

There was lots more that I wasn't able to catch during this session, so for more information, check the #scioSciComm hashtag.

Discussion session: lessons from teaching for science communication

After lunch I attended a very interesting discussion led by Aatish Bhatia on how lessons from traditional science education — that is, teaching — can be applied to improve science communication. This session focused on three pillars of effectively conveying science knowledge: (1) generate interest in the topic by relating it to reality, (2) produce clarity through a well-structured argument, and (3) help the information endure by making sure the audience is invested in the question. Several of the teachers in the room brought up familiar ways to do this in teaching, such as interactive labs in which the students develop their own hypotheses or classroom demonstrations with surprising properties (really Adam, what is in that edible candle?), and then the discussion turned to ways to apply the principles to science writing.

One of the main themes the community focused on was the importance of confusion in the process of learning. Rhett Allainn was quoted on saying "confusion is the sweat of learning," which is an apt analogy for teaching because in order to really learn a concept, it's necessary to go through some confusion to break down previous incorrect assumptions you may have had about that. But how do you — or do you even — create that sort of confusion in an article? Well, when reporting on a scientific result, you can guide the reader through the confusion that the scientists themselves had before they found the result by presenting the broader context of the work. More generally, people often have existing misconceptions about a topic that you can address head-on, before explaining the "right answer" to induce a period of confusion. But this backfires sometimes, because simply mentioning a misconception can make it more likely to be remembered, and indeed sometimes people will remember the misconception better than the actual explanation!

For more on this session, follow the #sciImprove hashtag on Twitter.

Discussion session: Blog Networks

I closed out the day attending a session on the role of blog networks in science blogging, now and in the future. This one was led by Curtis Brainard, the editor of the Scientific American blog network.

The main point to come up was, why use a blog network in the first place? This is not hard, as it's easy to see some of the advantages of being in a network, as a blogger: you benefit from the promotion efforts of the network's sponsor, it gives your blogging a sense of legitimacy that an independent blog may lack, you get a sense of community and collaboration with other bloggers in the network, and you have the support of a manager when things go wrong (such as copyright infringement lawsuits or persistent comment trolls). It also increases your appeal to readers because they get the sense you've been "vetted" by the network (whether or not that actually happens). Of course, there are disadvantages too, in particular working in a blog network doesn't give you the same level of independence as with an independent blog, and you have an obligation to write even when it's not convenient to do so. Sometimes interpersonal differences among the bloggers and the manager can make for a difficult experience, or even lead to the death of a blog network, as with "PepsiGate" and the Science Blogs network.

There were quite a few other issues brought up that we didn't have time to fully flesh out in the session, so check out the #sciBlogNet Twitter hashtag for more!

Dinner Gala and PowerPoint Karaoke

We wrapped up the day with a sci-fi themed dinner held in the Sheraton's ballroom, featuring little hamburgers and chicken sandwiches and, you know, food :-P on a buffet. The more exciting parts of that were the sci-fi themed decorations, the carbonated dry-ice ice cream, and the after-dinner entertainment. Brian Malow put together a little shindig called "PowerPoint karaoke." The premise is that someone goes up on a stage and gives a short presentation based on slides which they do not get to see in advance! So they have to make up what they're talking about on the spot. Especially considering that each presenter was given a set of slides on a topic completely different from what they knew, it was absolutely hilarious. Kudos to the organizers on putting that together.

After that, events continued with karaoke (the normal kind) and game night downstairs, but I was too tired to do anything other than going to sleep. Which sucks. I hate to have missed out on the party, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do... which is also why I'm bringing the blog post to you now, the next morning. Time to get started on the last day of the conference!


Science Online Together: day 1 recap

Science Online in three words: BEST. CONFERENCE. EVER.

Okay so that sounds like I'm overselling, but I really am having a great time here. Even though it's my first time attending a Science Online event, I came in immediately feeling welcomed by the community because the attendees cover such a broad spectrum — from journalists to PR specialists to science grad students — united only by a common passion for science communication. Unlike the physics conferences I've been to, there's no pressure to prove myself to the "experts"; in fact, in some sense there are no experts. Sure, some people have more experience with science communication, or at previous Science Online conferences, but there's definitely a sense that everyone has something to contribute. I had no qualms about speaking up at my very first discussion session. :-)

It has been an intense day though! I had substantive conversations with over 30 people who I had never met as of 24 hours ago. Some of them I already knew through Twitter, though, which was pretty cool — it's exciting to recognize the faces in the profile pictures. I've been building a list of everyone I meet during the conference, which you should definitely check out if you use Twitter at all. (And if you don't, it's time to start! The tweets flying back and forth constitute at least as much of this conference as the in-person discussions do.)

CONVERGE: Welcome and Changing Challenges into Opportunities

Karyn Traphagen, the executive director of Science Online, kicked off the conference by welcoming everyone, thanking our host NCSU, and giving a quick introduction to the "unconference" format. As I mentioned yesterday, most of Science Online is not like a traditional conference where you have individual people giving presentations and everyone else passively listening. Yes, the CONVERGE talks are like that, but most of the time slots are filled with discussion sessions led by a moderator who guides the conversation while calling on the attendees to do most of the talking. From what I've seen today, each discussion session has about 40-70 people, depending on popularity, and because there is no pressure to have prepared remarks, it's a really low-pressure setting in which it's easy for anyone to contribute something to the discussion.

Today's CONVERGE talk was given by Meg Lowman and her former student, Rebecca Tripp. They talked about a program allowing wheelchair-bound students like Rebecca to contribute to science research by climbing ropes into the canopy layer of the rain forest, searching for new and interesting biological processes and undiscovered species. It's a great example of how people who might have difficulty with a traditional scientific career can bypass that difficulty by finding the right opportunity. But they also offered a cautionary tale about how, without significant, conscious support from the scientific community, we drive out people who experience these difficulties. The lesson carries over from students with disabilities to those who have to deal with less obvious difficulties, like subtle racial or gender discrimination.

Discussion: Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally

After the CONVERGE talk, I moved on to the first discussion session, focused on ways to prevent inappropriate behavior within the Science Online community and elsewhere. This session was prompted largely by the revelation last year that Bora Zivkovic, the founder of Science Online, had sexually harassed several women. I was only a passive observer of the reaction to those events, so I won't try to describe them here, instead offering a link to this excellently detailed summary.

In the wake of those events, Bora is of course no longer involved with Science Online, leaving the community at this conference (and the larger online science community) to confront a legacy of suppressed harassment. The overwhelming message from the attendees at this session was that it's important to talk about instances of inappropriate behavior, including but not limited to what Bora did, because to skirt the issue (by saying "in light of recent events blah blah blah" and so on) conveys that the Science Online community is not a safe place to speak up about things that make you uncomfortable, and that's precisely the culture that allows that sort of behavior to continue.

For more on this session — and there is lots more that's worth reading — see the Storify page and follow the #scioBoundaries hashtag on Twitter. I want to thank Kathryn Jepsen in particular for some very enlightening discussions after the session, and all others who contributed to the discussion, because it was a tough topic to work through but it's very important.

Discussion: Helping Science Readers Become Critical Thinkers

The next session was about how science writers can encourage their readers to critically evaluate the science they (the writers) are reporting on, rather than just consuming it and taking it on faith that the reports are correct. This is a constant source of tension between writers and scientists: writers want to gain publicity and sell content, which means it's often in their interest to cast scientific results into a form that will appeal to the general public by simplifying and even sensationalizing them. Scientists, on the other hand, want news articles and other reports not to misrepresent the results and to properly place those results in their larger context.

Although no clear consensus emerged out of this discussion, there were lots of prospective ideas and suggestions for both sides. For writers, it's important to provide the detailed information that will allow your readers to evaluate for themselves both your article and the science you're writing about. Linking to source material and leaving details in the comments, where they don't intrude on the main article, are especially encouraged. Also, it's important not to misrepresent an individual scientific study as representing a groundbreaking advance in the field (unless it is, which is exceptionally rare); instead, show it for what it is, an incremental advance that may be uncertain but plays a small part in leading the field toward the right conclusion. For scientists, on the other hand, it's useful to verify that a reporter interviewing you has correctly understood what you've told them, perhaps by asking the reporter to paraphrase it back to you. (This works for anyone else you're trying to explain your work to.)

For more on this session, see the Storify page and follow the #scioCritSci hashtag on Twitter. You'll be able to watch the video of the session in 60 days (no idea why they wait so long) on the Science Online website. Also stay tuned for the related #scioStandards session on Saturday!

Discussion: Bringing Science to Popular Topics

Definitely the most fun session of the day, this post-lunch discussion was quite skillfully led by Brian Malow, the science comedian (in the sense that he is @sciencecomedian on Twitter). The focus was using everyday activities that non-scientists are already passionate about to pique their interest in science.

This session covered a wide range of ideas, too many to list here, so you should definitely check out the Twitter hashtag where everything is documented. But one of the major points to emerge was that science is involved in everything. Regardless of who you're trying to appeal to, there's going to be something they're passionate about, and you can find the science underlying that and use it as a hook to capture their interest. It doesn't even necessarily need to be recognized as science; the important thing is to get people to critically analyze something, anything. When they inevitably have questions, the scientific process has the answers.

Discussion: Healthy Online Promotion

I rounded out the day with a session led by David Wescott, a public relations specialist based here in Durham. The discussion was guided by a worksheet he uses with clients, and it actually developed into somewhat of an opportunity for self-promotion, with various attendees (not me though) identifying themselves with their names and the websites or organizations they want to promote, and others offering advice.

The #1 rule of self promotion: know your audience. A big question covered at the session was, how can you promote your content without becoming annoying? Knowing your audience is key because when you market content to the right people in the right venues, it's a lot less likely to be considered inappropriate.

In order to find the right venues, it's often necessary to look beyond the standard social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Those are general-purpose tools, but more subject-specific sites can be better places to share your content because you reach more of your target audience and fewer people who won't be interested in your work. Joanne Manaster offered the helpful 60-30-10 rule: spend 60% of your time online sharing interesting links, 30% interacting with and promoting others, and 10% promoting yourself. When all is said and done, you can roughly measure success in self-promotion by how many other people are resharing your content.

For more on this session, look through the Twitter hashtag #scioSelfPR. Like the other sessions in the video-equipped room, this one will also be available for viewing on the website in 60 days.

Dinner and Game Night

After the discussion sessions wrapped up, we came back to the conference hotel, split into groups, and headed out to dinner. I was in the group at Beasley's Chicken and Honey, which as the name suggests, specializes in various sorts of fried chicken with a hint of honey. It's really delicious. I'm sure I'm going to gain at least 10 pounds on this trip, but hey, who's counting?

Of course, the best part of dinner, and the conference as a whole, is meeting new people. I had a great conversation over dinner with, among others, Ryan Becker, a teacher who has some great ideas about connecting middle school science students with practicing scientists using Twitter. I also met several of the other grad students here, a sign of how far Science Online has come since its origins as a conference for writers and journalists. We're thinking about starting a support group ;-)

After dinner, we came back to the hotel for a night of board games, lengthy discussions, and motion-activated M&M dispensers. Again, this is the best part of the conference, and I stayed out way too late (almost midnight) despite already being sleep deprived. I really like how this conference brings together people from different fields of science and even nonscientists with a wide variety of different perspectives — I could probably amuse myself talking to these people for days. But for now, I'm too tired. Time to go to bed, and rest up for another full day of conferencing tomorrow! (well today, but my definition of "day" is a little fluid) More updates to come....


Science Online is here!

Science Online logo

All the rest of this week I'll be bringing you updates from the Science Online Together conference in beautiful (or at least not snowy) Raleigh. If you haven't heard of it, Science Online Together is an annual conference that brings together all sorts of people involved in promoting and performing science on the internet: bloggers, journalists, creators of educational videos, online course instructors, science popularizers, public relations specialists, and researchers, ranging from grad students to tenured professors. I'm here in my capacity as a blogger, as a moderator of Physics Stack Exchange, and as a contributor to reddit's /r/askscience.

Given the name of the conference, it probably comes as no surprise that it has a significant online presence, even for people who aren't going to be attending. Each day begins with a CONVERGE session: this is like a plenary session in a normal conference, with a speaker addressing all the conference attendees in one room. You can actually watch these sessions live through the Science Online website, and follow along with that part of the conference from the comfort of your home.

The rest of the time is filled with discussion sessions, Q&A sessions, and workshops. I'm sure a number of people will be live-tweeting the whole thing under the #scio14 and #sciox hashtags, and under individual hashtags for each session, which you can find on the forum. (And yes, I'll be contributing to this, but probably not enough to really qualify as live-tweeting.) Fair warning: there will be a lot of tweets. That tends to happen when you put 450 tech-savvy science communication enthusiasts together in the same building.

I feel bad for the wifi :-)

With that, I need to get to sleep and prepare for a full day of conferencing tomorrow. Stay tuned for more updates!


Working on a new look

Later this year is going to be the tenth anniversary of Ellipsix Informatics. In celebration of that, I've been working on a brand new, brighter, theme for the site! And with the Science Online conference coming up this week, I've decided to roll out the first batch of changes: a new colorful header, more prominent featuring of the blog posts on the home page, and some playful changes to the color scheme.

This is just a rough draft to shake things up, so expect to see more changes that refine the site's style as the year goes on. Suggestions and feedback are welcome!


What's in a proton?

Hooray, it's time for science! For my long-overdue first science post of 2014, I'm starting a three-part series explaining the research paper my group recently published in Physical Review Letters. Our research concerns the structure of protons and atomic nuclei, so this post is going to be all about the framework physicists use to describe that structure. It's partially based on an answer of mine at Physics Stack Exchange.

What's in a proton?

Fundamentally, a proton is really made of quantum fields. Remember that. Any time you hear any other description of the composition of a proton, it's just some approximation of the behavior of quantum fields in terms of something people are likely to be more familiar with. We need to do this because quantum fields behave in very nonintuitive ways, so if you're not working with the full mathematical machinery of QCD (which is hard), you have to make some kind of simplified model to use as an analogy.

If you're not familiar with the term, fields in physics are things which can be represented by a value associated with every point in space and time. In the simplest kind of field, a scalar field, the value is just a number. Think of it like this:

representation of a scalar field

More complicated kinds of fields exist as well, where the value is something else. You could, in principle, have a fruit-valued field, that associates a fruit with every point in spacetime. In physics, you'd be more likely to encounter a vector-, spinor-, or tensor-valued field, but the details aren't important. Just keep in mind that the value associated with a field at a certain point can be "strong," meaning that the value differs from the "background" value by a lot, or "weak," meaning that the value is close to the "background" value. When you have multiple fields, they can interact with each other, so that the different kinds of fields tend to be strong in the same place.

The tricky thing about quantum fields specifically (as opposed to non-quantum, or classical, fields) is that we can't directly measure them, the way you would directly measure something like air temperature. You can't stick a field-o-meter at some point inside a proton and see what the values of the fields are there. The only way to get any information about a quantum field is to expose it to some sort of external "influence" and see how it reacts — this is what physicists call "observing" the particle. For a proton, this means hitting it with another high-energy particle, called a probe, in a particle accelerator and seeing what comes out. Each collision acts something like an X-ray, exposing a cross-sectional view of the innards of the proton.

Because these are quantum fields, though, the outcome you get from each collision is actually random. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes you get a low-energy electron coming out, sometimes you get a high-energy pion, sometimes you get several things together, and so on. In order to make a coherent picture of the structure of a proton, you have to subject a large number of them to these collisions, find some way of organizing collisions according to how the proton behaves in each one, and accumulate a distribution of the results.

Classification of collisions

Imagine a slow collision between two protons, each of which has relatively little energy. They just deflect each other due to mutual electrical repulsion. (This is called elastic scattering.)

animation of elastic proton scattering

If we give the protons more energy, though, we can force them to actually hit each other, and then the individual particles within them, called partons, start interacting.

animation of low-energy inelastic scattering

At higher energies, a proton-proton collision entails one of the partons in one proton interacting with one of the partons in the other proton. We characterize the collision by two variables — well, really three — which can be calculated from measurements made on the stuff that comes out:

  • x_p is the fraction of the probe proton's forward momentum that is carried by the probe parton
  • x_t is the same, but for the target proton
  • Q^2 is roughly the square of the amount of transverse (sideways) momentum transferred between the two partons.

With only a small amount of total energy available, x_p and x_t can't be particularly small. If they were, the interacting partons would have a small fraction of a small amount of energy, and the interaction products just wouldn't be able to go anywhere after they hit. Also, Q^2 tends to be small, because there's not enough energy to give the interacting particles much of a transverse "kick." You can actually write a mathematical relationship for this:

(\text{total energy})^2 = s = \frac{Q^2}{x_p x_t}

Collisions that occur in modern particle accelerators involve much more energy. There's enough to allow partons with very small values of x_p (in the probe) or x_t (in the target) to participate in the collision and easily make it out to be detected. Or alternatively, there's enough energy to allow the interacting partons to produce something with a large amount of transverse momentum. Accordingly, in these high-energy collisions we get a random distribution of all the combinations of x_p, x_t, and Q^2 that satisfy the relationship above.

Proton structure

Over many years of operating particle accelerators, physicists have found that the behavior of the target proton depends only on x_t and Q^2. In other words, targets in different collisions with the same values of x_t and Q^2 behave pretty much the same way. While there are some subtle details, the results of these decades of experiments can be summarized like this: at smaller values of x_t, the proton behaves like it has more constituent partons, and at larger values of Q^2, it behaves like it has smaller constituents.

This diagram shows how a proton might appear in different kinds of collisions. The contents of each circle represents, roughly, a "snapshot" of how the proton might behave in a collision at the corresponding values of x and Q^2.

kinematic diagram of proton composition

Physicists describe this apparently-changing composition using parton distribution functions, denoted f_i(x, Q^2), where i is the type of parton: up quark, antidown quark, gluon, etc. Mathematically inclined readers can roughly interpret the value of a parton distribution for a particular type of parton as the probability per unit x and per unit Q^2 that the probe interacts with that type of parton with that amount of momentum.

This diagram shows how the parton distributions relate to the "snapshots" in my last picture:

kinematic diagram of proton composition with PDFs

The general field I work in is dedicated to determining these parton distribution functions as accurately as possible, over as wide of a range of x and Q^2 as possible.

As particle accelerators get more and more powerful, we get to use them to explore more and more of this diagram. In particular, proton-ion collisions (which work more or less the same way) at the LHC cover a pretty large region of the diagram, as shown in this figure from a paper by Carlos Salgado:

diagram showing LHC reach in x-Q^2 space

I rotated it 90 degrees so the orientation would match that of my earlier diagrams. The small-x, low-Q^2 region at the upper left is particularly interesting, because we expect the parton distributions to start behaving considerably differently in those kinds of collisions. New effects, called saturation effects, come into play that don't occur anywhere else on the diagram. In my next post, I'll explain what saturation is and why we expect it to happen. Stay tuned!