BAN #201: The Stay-at-home-due-to-coronavirus Edition

16 March 2020   Issue #201

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]


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About this newsletter

Ooo, meta

Welcome to the special COVID-19 issue of the Bad Astronomy Newsletter. This is not exactly how I wanted to get the third round of 100 issues started (note the issue number), but here we are. If you want facts about the virus, pandemic, and the social responsibility of everyone to minimize the impact, well, I suggest you Google it. I have no special insight here (except for railing against politicians on Twitter). But I do have some advice for how to stay at home, and what you can do there, so please read on.

Also, a plea: If you have friends who would like to read this newsletter, or (with all due modesty) might benefit from it, please tell them to subscribe! Free or paid, either works for me. And if you’re interested and in a position to do so, getting a paid subscription helps me keep it going. I honestly, truly appreciate it. Thanks!



Inside a Writer’s Brain

Free advice is worth every penny

There’s a pretty good chance you’re reading this newsletter from home. With the need to contain the spread of COVID-19 (caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2), a sizeable fraction of people who go someplace to work every day are now working from home… or I bet if you personally don’t, you know someone who does.

There’s been a lot of talk on social media from folks giving advice on how to do this, and a lot of it is really solid. A quick search will yield tons of results.

But… some of it is a bit rigid, and I want to take a sec to talk about that. I’ve been working from home for more than ten years now (!!), writing practically every day — including my blog, this newsletter, a book, a couple of TV shows, and more. While I do go out and do things, I spend far and away most of my time at home.

I’m just saying that to let you know I have experience here. But — and this is crucial — my experience is my own. What I’ve gone through, how I’ve learned to do this, is a function of being aware of my own needs and habits, and figuring out how to be productive.

A lot of the advice I’ve been seeing hasn’t included that. For example I’ve seen people say, “Keep a schedule and stick to it!” and that is the worst possible advice for me. I wouldn’t say I’m incapable of working on a schedule like that — I’ve done it, though I don’t enjoy it — but given enough time it’d drive me bonkers.

Sometimes I get to writing pretty quickly after breakfast, sometimes it doesn’t happen until after lunch. I usually stop working around 7-ish (dinner time) and quit for the day; I’ve learned that if I write too much past that time I have a hard time getting to sleep. Sometimes a second cup of coffee around 2 gives me the burst I need to pound out an article, and sometimes it gives me a stomachache and makes it hard to focus.

What I do is creative and it’s not always possible to schedule that. I have friends who are machines and can write solid prose for hours a day and still manage to do voice-over stuff and also manage their business obligations every day, day in and out (Sigler, I’m looking at you). But I’m not like that. I write when I can write. Happily I have a job that supports that, and I appreciate that profoundly; it’s a rare happenstance.

And this is my point. Working from home is different for everyone. You might need a strict schedule. You might need to get dressed every day, minimize distractions, and turn off social media. For me I wear PJs all day, have distractions everywhere, and check twitter every ten minutes. My brain works that way, and it works for me. But it may not for you!

So this is my advice for people new to working from home: Find out what works for you. Try different things. Wear business clothes, or work naked. Focus on work for hours, or work for one and then go for a walk (you should probably put on clothes at that point). Eat a snack, listen to music, work in the kitchen or in a room set up as an office. See what works and what doesn’t. Tweak it, adjust it if needed, and try again.

Hey, come to think of it, I just invented the scientific method! Yay me.

This may not be easy, and it may take a while. Don’t freak out, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, and take a step back. Be flexible, and be aware. Get your work done, but do it in a way that works.

When this is all over, I wonder how many people will find that working from home is something they can do from here on out… and of course there will be people who find that working at an office is what they themselves need. Different strokes, which is the whole point I’m making here.

I hope you figure out what works for you. You can do this.


I recommend

Something I think you’ll like

So if you’re home and maybe going a little stir crazy and looking for something different to do, may I recommend some citizen science?

A lot of data analysis tasks are easy for computers, but pattern recognition is something our brains have been highly evolved to do after a billion years of allele tweaking. It turns out that tests have shown that people, with even minimal training, are better at doing a lot of basic analysis than software. And that’s where citizen science comes in.

A lot of astronomers have huge amounts of data from telescopic surveys, and getting computers to analyze them can be hard. So different groups have created game-like interfaces so that non-scientists can take a stab at the data themselves.

A great site for this is Cosmoquest, run by my dear friend and fellow astronomer and science communicator Pamela Gay. They have a ton of cool activities, but I’ll note they are in the middle of an upgrade, so stay tuned there to see what projects they have.

[Example of the spiral arms traced in a galaxy (in this case M51). Credit: Spiral Graph]

Another is Zooniverse, and it also has a bunch of ways you can poke at actual data. They have a new one I just found out about called Spiral Graph, where they show you images of spiral galaxies and you trace the arms as best you can. I played with it a bit over the weekend and it’s a little bit more challenging than most such projects, but still kinda fun.

[Pitch angle is the angle between a spiral and a circle at a given point; a circle has a 0° pitch angle, but the one here is a few degrees. Credit: Morn the Gorn / Wikipedia]

The idea is based on what’s called pitch angle, which describes how tightly or loosely wound the spiral arms of a galaxy are — I wrote about this in an article a while back. From that angle you can tell a lot about a galaxy, which is why Spiral Graph was made. By having citizen scientists analyzing thousands of galaxies, a big database of info can be built up and we can learn more about how the arms of a spiral reflect the properties of the galaxy. Also, the process somewhat self-correcting; if 20 people all analyze the same galaxy, small errors in the tracing aren’t that important. And the end result is generally pretty good, good enough for publishing!

My favorite part of all this is that this shows you don’t have to be a trained scientist to actually help science; a little enthusiasm and some spare time can be just as important. So get tracing!


Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Astronomers have calculated the size of a neutron star with greater accuracy than before. This is cool stuff! From Wednesday’s article. Credit: Casey Reed / Penn State University]

Monday 02 March, 2020: Record-breaking blazar found 12.8 *billion* light years from Earth

Tuesday 03 March, 2020: A rare find: An eclipsing binary brown dwarf in a triple brown dwarf system

Wednesday 04 March, 2020: How big is a neutron star?

Thursday 05 March, 2020: Think time is too short now? 70 million years ago a day was only 23.5 hours long

Friday 06 March, 2020: Hubble’s gorgeous “Mystic Mountain” remastered


Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!