Fishing for Whatever Bites

About two weeks ago we got the 2014 data season underway and have three nights in so far. Two of them look okay. We are on hiatus at the moment since we broke the i/o USB cable one morning when it was -12º F.  Long ago I quit trying to take images below -10º and more recently it has been 0º. At those low temperatures I am not sure that the grease in the telescope drive is behaving like grease. This time, however, it was the USB cable that became too brittle. I knew better. I just couldn’t help myself, wanting to squeeze in every clear night possible. We don’t have world-class equipment and we certainly don’t have clear, stable, transparent skies. What we do have is the ability to take data every clear night and I like to make the most of what we have.

This kind of work naturally leads to “fishing expeditions” with the data. This type of sniffing at the data to see where we get led appeals to me. In part I like this approach to observing because the number of student projects possible is vast. We can look for anything. I also like the way this approach forces us to be very careful with our calibration and statistics. Most of the things that appear to pop out of the data are not “real.” That is, they aren’t astronomical in origin. Many things can go astray. Cosmic rays hit the CCD chip. Transparency changes rapidly. Satellites fly through the field. The telescope loses focus or the seeing changes. When we think we see something odd and interesting we have to ask if we have done enough to understand what all it might be. These are important lessons for students. Often the students and I discuss the history of science, littered with stories of people who published artifacts as significant finds as well as the stories of people who were so careful, perhaps frozen, that they didn’t publish a key discovery, letting others beat them to it. We talk about how lonely it is to think that you might have just discovered something interesting, standing at the edge of the abyss, not quite sure if you are ready to leap. It may be that the most important thing we can teach students is that everything we think we know about the universe came from people doing just this.

But there is a deeper current running through my pleasure in these fishing expeditions. “See what you see and move from there” is a legitimate and fruitful way to do science that can get lost from time to time. Sometimes it seems to me that people think it is only acceptable to do an experiment if you know exactly what you expect to find. To be sure, this is an important approach to science. All my students read Parallax, the wonderful book by Alan Hirshfeld and try to picture our story in the stories of generations of astronomers who sought evidence for trigonometric parallax even though they weren’t fishing for whatever would bite. They knew what they were looking for. Surely cost drives us to favor this approach. We’re not likely to build a top of the line particle accelerator without a pretty good idea of what we expect to see or at least what region of theory space will be excluded by new measurements. Of course, money isn’t the only cost. The time and effort I spend fishing for the odd event or the strange, slow evolution are time and effort I am not spending on an endeavor more likely to be successful. Fortunately I am in a situation that allows such folly. As long as I am involving undergraduate students in meaningful projects I don’t need to be chasing large grants and I don’t need a long list of publications to assure tenure and promotion. I have the freedom not to worry about perhaps observing for thirty years before summarizing what we have seen during that time. Given that freedom I am happy to carry the banner for “fishing for signal” science, adding hundreds of thousands of individual star brightness measurements every clear night. What could be more fun?

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  • August 26 2014 at 4:34 pm
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  • August 26 2014 at 4:34 pm
  • September 2 2014 at 1:19 pm
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