Friday, January 13, 2012

Astronomy: The 219th American Astronomical Meeting

I've now returned to Chile after spending a few days at the largest, bi-yearly, astronomical meeting in the US. This was the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which was held January 8-12, 2012 in Austin, TX.

This was my first time in Austin; it's a nice city. Lots of good tex-mex and the capitol building was nice to visit:

The AAS meetings, especially in Winter, are extremely large. An estimated 2700 astronomers attended this January. Multiple meetings take place simultaneously, and posters are up all day. Hence, it is physically impossible to do and see everything going on. I personally was running back and forth between some of the sessions to try to hit particular talks. One way to keep track of some of the other talks was to check the twitter feed via the hashtag #aas219. For example, I wasn't at the NRAO session, but still learned the VLA's new name: the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array.

More important than checking the talks, though, is meeting up with collaborators, friends, and other researchers in the field. I had my own poster on Wednesday, and while I did attend some sessions, the majority of the day I was at my poster talking to 'customers'. I met many great people that day (and throughout the conference) which I knew only by reading their papers.

There were also several interesting research results presented. I wasn't at any of the press meetings, but found out through the web. I list some of ones that interest me as well as links for more information:

  • At least 100 billion planets expected in the Galaxy. Click here for the news.
  • 3 new, small planets detected by Kepler. The smallest is the size of Mars. Click here for the news.
  • 2 new circumbinary planets, each orbiting a pair of close stars. Click here for the news.

This last result is particularly relevant to my research (and the poster I presented) so expect a future blog post on planets in binary star systems.

As I've mentioned already, I was keeping track of the conference via the twitter feed (#aas219). I started using The Archivist, but the output of that is not always terribly useful. The most interesting result from that is the following:

This is a breakdown of the most prolific twitterers using the #aas219 hashtag. I've you've been wondering who to follow for astronomy news, these are good folks to consider.

Also interesting is the frequency of posts (alas without a vertical scale), which clearly shows when the conference was in session:

However, my personal favorite way to visualize the social media's response to AAS is through word clouds. Using Google Reader I gathered all tweets from January 6 to 13th and present here a word cloud generated with Wordle:

I afterwards realized that my copy-pasting may have duplicated some entries, but that should not affect the results too much. I'm only including the 100 most common words after removing a few things like #aas219, RT, and time stamps. For those seeing word clouds for the first time: the larger the text, the more frequently it was mentioned. Note that upper case and lower case words (see Exoplanets and exoplanets) are unfortunately not counted together.
The URLs in the cloud point to the 100 billion+ planets and the smallest exoplanet links I provide above. As you can probably tell, Kepler, exoplanets, and planets are hot topics in astronomy right now. It's possible that Milky Way and galaxy are there because of tweets like "100 billion+ planets in Milky Way galaxy" which really are about planets again.
A few terms are in Spanish (Sociedad, Astronomica) and Xbox refers to the tweets about Steve Hawley's talk which mentioned that the HAL computer on the Space Shuttle was about 0.005% as powerful as an Xbox 360. A few prominent speakers and tweeters (as indicated by the @ symbol) were  also frequently mentioned.

There's a few common words in the cloud regarding the moment of silence held for Steve Rawlings at the meeting. This was done on Thursday after I left, but the news is that this observational cosmologist was found dead Wednesday evening at a colleague's home near Oxford. His colleague, the mathematician Dr. Sivia, was arrested on suspicion of murder, which makes this an even sadder story. Here and here are some of several news articles about it. That's an odd way to end the meeting, to say the least. I did not know Dr. Rawlings, but my thoughts go out to his family and friends.

So that's it for my summary. It was a good conference to catch up with some of my colleagues in the US. It was somewhat overwhelming, but worth the long trip up. My only regret is that, through an unfortunate oversight, my flight left Thursday morning, while the conference was still in session (though on it's last day). I doubt I'll attend the next AAS meeting, despite the interesting locale for the coming Summer session (Anchorage, Alaska), but perhaps I'll get to go to other future meetings.

UPDATE Jan 16, 2012: As mentioned in Astrobetter, @doug_burke has some nice statistics on AAS 219. It turns out I came in as the #62 most frequent tweeter, right at the bottom of the list.

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