Social and anti-social astronomers

Its exam time. Don’t we love it. Students and Staff alike. We do ours a little earlier than most, so my marking is all done and we are in the middle of exam boards. Its a multi-stage process these days, with separate special circumstances committees, pre-boards, and stage-1 course boards, before the official final exam board. The latter then largely homologates the recommendations of these earlier committees. Probably more efficient than it used to be, but even more bureaucratic. So we all look forward to the small amount of socialisation that goes with the process – the annual exam board dinner !

So there we were last night, at Blonde. By the way, I recommend you don’t Google “Blonde, Edinburgh” unless you have safe search switched on. Or on the other hand… anyway. It was a fairly usual mix. Gossiping about George and Carlos and the Gruber Prize, bitching about absent members of staff, and as the wine flowed on, bitching about present members of staff. But there was also an interesting conversation about Blogs and Twitter.

Nearly everybody present was a Luddite and thought blogs and tweeting were onanistic and time wasting. A polite exception was made for my blog, and Peter’s, on account of they were (at least sometimes) a useful community conversation forum. Myself and @wikimir and @paula_wilkie were the only Tweeters. To everybody else, Twitter seemed even more clearly bizarrely pointless. People thought the idea of @WETI was funny, but that was seen as a joke on Tweeting. I was challenged to describe a real use of Twitter. About the best I could come up with was that Paul Crowther knew everything first, and that if you followed him on Twitter, you would know everything second. The response to this was “whats the hurry ?”

Then this morning I became aware of an interesting new attempt to make Twitter useful – the Astronomy Journal Club, set up by Emma Rigby, Matt Burleigh, and Emily Baldwin. I learned about it first in Sarah Kendrew’s blog post here. Its all brand new, so who knows if its going to work, but why not give it a go ?

18 Responses to Social and anti-social astronomers

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the linkage Andy. I previously also wrote this about my experience with twitter.

    As for the “what’s the rush” comment – sure, perhaps if you’re in a comfortable faculty position… But as a student or postdoc it can be hard to get access to community gossip – and whether you have it definitely makes a difference to younger researchers. And sometimes one insightful tweet from you or Paul or Andrew teaches me more than half a day of reading papers would ever do.

  2. andyxl says:

    And for all you Twitter-skeptics, here is an articleabout Twitter helping to chase the recent supernova in M51

  3. ian smail says:

    i’d suggest that most of us would be better off spending more time talking to our colleagues… than using twitter.

    but i guess i’m in the skeptics box

    …watching the HST results come in last night – i did wonder if there was a use for a running commentary on twitte.

  4. ian smail says:

    actually what would be really useful would be for paul c. to move his web page to a blog so it could host discussion (although i fear that would mean you and peter c. would lose market share).

  5. andyxl says:

    Ahh … just Crowther-recyclers, Peter and me….

    A blog wouldn’t be a good replacement for Paul’s website : its a narrative stream, whereas Paul’s main site is more structured. But it would be really good if Paul did both. Of course you only short updates. Oh hang on, thats Paul’s Twitter stream.

    Sometimes I have thought we should have a kind of shared blogspace where any one of several pompous profs could do astrogossip from day to day. The trendy kidz like Sarah and Stu could still do their own thing. And maybe Columbo could have his own blog. Mrs Trellis and The Watcher could have regular guest spots.

  6. Sarah says:

    “i’d suggest that most of us would be better off spending more time talking to our colleagues… than using twitter”

    @ian – sure, that’s a fair point. Certainly when it comes to scientific news and papers. But I can learn far more about policy and funding issues in other countries than my own from people posting about news and linking to original sources on blogs and twitter. The astronomy world is much bigger than what I can see from my office window, and it’s a definite plus to know about these things when applying for jobs or having to politick in large consortia.

    And while I, as a postdoc, can quite easily talk to senior faculty over coffee more junior people like undergrads or PhD students might not have many opportunities for that. We’re not just writing/tweeting for those who already work in astronomy, but also for those who may one day want to.

    • ian smail says:

      i buy that argument for a blog (which as you can see i think is useful discussion forum) – but i’d guess the information content in a 140-whatever character twitter limits the understanding of anyone but those already in the know, at least beyond the most mundane facts.

      • Sarah says:

        You’d be surprised at the information content that’s achievable in 140 chars! But the conciseness of twitter is part of its attraction: it doesn’t take much time or effort to have a quick scroll through what people are saying a few times a day. And you can just bookmark any links that look interesting for later.

      • Kav says:

        @Ian, a blog is a great thing for sharing ideas and stories but twitter has its place.

        You are getting hung up on the 140 character limit but a lot of information can be passed along in 140 characters, especially in the form of links to longer pieces on blogs or other web sites.

        You could trawl through lots of astro/space blogs/sites or subscribe to their RSS feed. Or you could follow a number of like-minded people on twitter and have info about interesting stuff delivered straight to you. Often from sources you might otherwise never have been aware of.

      • Ian – that was my reaction to Twitter too. Until I tried it.

      • telescoper says:

        The 140-character limit is a bit of a challenge sometimes, but you soon get used to it. However, in my view, the most useful way of using Twitter is to exchange URLs of interesting web articles for which the length restriction isn’t a problem. I’ve got loads of interesting information via Twitter that way, and that’s primarily why I use it.

      • Nick Cross says:

        Try using Chinese characters: typically there are 2 characters to a word, which gives you twice the information content of English if you restrict yourself to four letter words. Plus, no need for spaces.

  7. ian smail says:

    steve – that sounds frighteningly like a line from some horror/zombie/vampire B-movie: “that was my reaction to ‘drinking blood/eating brains/virgin sacrifices’ until I tried it too”. (why does twitter come across as a cult?)

    i think i’ll stick to trying to talk to my colleagues over coffee… which is of course one of the reasons we have universities.

    • telescoper says:

      I’ve never understood why Twitter has to be an alternative to talking to your colleagues…it’s possible to do both, you know!

    • Much of the Twittersphere *is* populated with the direst drivel, personal opinion and slaughter of the English language (mostly outside the @e_astronomer feed…), but the remaining 1% can be both useful and entertaining. Indeed, much of it can be useful where your colleagues (bless them all) cannot – you know: outside work.

      Brisbane’s floods early this year saw both Twitter and something called Facebook used to great effect by both the City Council and the Queensland Police Service. Easy transmission of information about a rapidly developing emergency became invaluable, especially with mobile phone networks impossibly clogged.

      As for the 140-char limit, it is quite a pleasant exercise to express ideas succinctly in that little space.

  8. Late to this discussion, since still knee deep in project vivas, exam marking, assessing essays, exam boards blah blah..I’m happy deferring to the expert bloggers (Peter & Andy) for discussion on policy, since my webpage is intended to serve merely as an up to date repository of media/RCUK/RAS/IoP material.

    For the non-cult types, a possible astro analogy might be how you get your arXiv fix; either (a) choosing to access astro-ph webpages each day to check on new submissions (= STFC webpage), or (b) sign up to automated daily email’s (= Twitter stream).

    Twitter offers much, although its undeniably addictive.

    Back to those fascinating astro project reports..

  9. For anyone tempted to join the sect, this week’s twitter astronomy Journal Club features Mike Merrifield’s (@ProfMike_M) A&G article setting out how he’d improve peer review of telescope time:

    Topical, given today’s ESO announcement. Even if you don’t sign up, you can follow discussion using the #astroJC hashtag. Thu at 8pm BST.


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