Friday, May 19, 2017

Public outreach reminds scientists of the bigger picture

PhD Student Casey Moore prepares to give an hour-long public presentation at a meeting of the Toronto-Center Royal Astronomical Society (RASC). He is now the third member of the lab to do one of these talks in this venue!

by Casey Moore

A few months ago I was asked to give a public lecture to an audience of amateur astronomers – noting that they would probably enjoy hearing about my work with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). I agreed – hesitantly, as I have never given such a talk. The event went off without a hitch and was a nice introduction to giving a talk to the broader community where not everyone is a specialist in planetary science.

For those interested, a brief summary of what I discussed can be found at: , as well as a rather unflattering outdated photograph of myself.

Upon arriving at the venue, I began to feel a little bit anxious. It was an older crowd for the most part, with two or three audience members potentially born in the same decade as me. The issue? My talk covered five decades of Martian exploration.  Events such as the Mariner 4 flyby and the Viking Program that I could only learn about by doing research. The majority of the people in the audience likely witnessed those events. I hoped I would be able to convey the intent and science of those early missions in a way that would do them justice.

I wanted to give my perspective on the concept of learning how to properly convey scientific inquiry to the non-scientist. I think this topic has been mentioned on this blog a by a few other authors and having a variety of perspectives on the subject may be useful.

For those of you not familiar with myself or my work: I am a PhD candidate in the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory at York University studying the dust-loading environment within Gale crater using images taken with the Mars Science Laboratory. This is to say:  I run images through an algorithm and a program tells me how dusty the atmosphere is within the crater. I can talk about this at length given the opportunity and an interested listener, however, I have seen enough family members eyes glaze over to understand that not everyone feels as passionately about suspended dust in the Martian atmosphere as I do.

This is not a new revelation to me. In fact, just last year, a press release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory commemorating 2 Mars Years of atmospheric studies by the Environmental Science Theme Group on MSL summarized my work succinctly as:

“Visibility in Gale Crater is as low as 20 miles (30 kilometers) in summer, and as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) in winter.”  --

Don’t get me wrong; I am honoured to have my work mentioned in a press release! However, seeing years of work summarized in 24 words can be discouraging.

So, how do I talk, at length, on my research when it can be expressed in only 24 words? What I decided to do was to take a step back and try to look at the bigger picture. The Environmental Science Theme Group is trying to understand and characterize the environmental conditions on present day Mars. My work is just a small part of what the many scientists are looking at with the data collected by the rover.

After careful debate, I eventually settled on a title for my public lecture:

Martian weather: Is it really any different than winter in Canada?

If I have learned anything from surviving four Canadian winters myself, it’s that people secretly enjoy knowing that other locations may have a harsher winter than their own. Well, good news Earthlings, a winter in Canada is a tropical getaway for any would be Martians.

This talk now encompasses many aspects of the Martian climate and environmental conditions that I have not studied in depth: thermal variations, clouds, pressure changes, water content, etc. It has forced me to research topics that I may have taken for granted in the past – but these are all aspects that are relevant to my field and which should be of interest to the general public.

Since no human has set foot on Mars, I did my best to tell the story of Mars as seen through the eyes of sophisticated instrumentation spanning several decades of observations of the Red Planet.  From early telescopic observations, to the Viking missions, to Mars Pathfinder, to the Mars Exploration Rovers, to Phoenix, to the Mars Science Laboratory and others. For the sake of time, I did constrain the majority of my talk to landed assets on Mars – but I did also spend a few moments giving a brief overview some of the science conducted by orbital spacecraft.

Increased robotic exploration of Mars has rapidly advanced our knowledge of the climate of on our neighbouring planet.  I will freely admit that there was no chance I could read even 1% of the scientific papers that have come out of one of these missions, yet alone five decades worth. That being said, I attempted keep the talk interesting by including dozens of photographs and movies that hopefully gave the impression that Mars has a dynamic atmosphere.

At the end of the day, it was a great experience – very different than any other talk I had ever given. I even made a joke or two at Matt Damon’s expense (insert jab at the ever popular motion picture “The Martian”) that was received quite well. I am glad I was able to do this; it was refreshing to give a talk that wasn’t for a mark in a course or in front of my seasoned peers and/or mentors. The audience was very friendly and curious and eager to ask questions. I feel that I can finally understand why some people decide to go into science communication -- science really does get people excited, it’s just not always accessible.

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