Public Outreach

Along with my student Karan Davis, I enjoyed a visit last night to the town of Cambridge, about a two hours north of Boise, to talk to folks there about the August 21st solar eclipse.

We were invited by Nina Hawkins, one of the librarians at the public library there in town, and we met her before the presentation at the newly refurbished Country Coffee Cabin in Midvale.

A BLT and fingersteak basket later, Nina led us up the nine-mile winding road to Cambridge, where we were greeted by a few dozen Cantabrigians at the library. For about an hour, Karan and I described the upcoming event and answered questions from the public. As always, I was impressed by how engaged and interested everyone was, especially late on a Thursday evening.

After passing out eclipse shades to the attendees, we packed up our road show and drove back down to Boise, just as the Sun set in the cloud-strewn pink sky, a preview of the twilight effect we will experience during the eclipse in August.

The presentation I gave in Cambridge is posted below.

Sunset over Idaho Falls.

Just returned from my trip to Idaho Falls, speaking to hundreds of locals about the upcoming eclipse.

I was invited to give two presentations at the Idaho Falls Public Library, a library so beautiful and spacious it has an atrium with a fountain.

On Tuesday evening, I gave a presentation to the broader Idaho Falls community. A few minutes before the presentation, there were only about a dozen attendees, which made me a little nervous, but by the appointed hour, the space had filled beyond capacity, with nearly one hundred folks – an unexpected large but very welcome crowd.

Before my next presentation on Wednesday afternoon, I took a side trip up to the St. Anthony dune field. Since the dune field is likely to be a prime spot for eclipse-viewing, I was curious to see what preparations they were making.

The dune field near St. Anthony.

Back to Idaho Falls for an afternoon presentation geared to the youngest eclipse enthusiasts. Here again, we had an unexpectedly large crowd, with easily 200 kids and parents cheerfully crammed into the presentation space.

Wednesday’s crowd.

After helping the kids make souvenir planispheres, I packed up my roadshow for the long drive back to Boise. The megaflood-carved landscape of the Snake River Plain combined with a Planet Money podcast about a flatware-crafting commune to make the time pass quickly.

The presentations I gave in Idaho Falls are posted below.

Idaho Falls Community Presentation

Idaho Falls Children’s Presentation

UPDATE: The stargazing event today went swimmingly – several dozen visitors came down to talk about the solar eclipse and look at the Sun. We even had crew from KTVB film some interviews. Some photos from our event below.

Join the Boise State Physics Department and learn more about the Aug 21 solar eclipse. We will host a conversation about observing the eclipse and distribute eclipse shades.

The event will take place on Sunday, June 18 from 12p till 2p in the plaza just north of the Multipurpose Classroom Building on Boise State’s campus.

Questions can be sent to Prof. Brian Jackson via e-mail –

Asking questions at a scientific conference is one of the most exciting but intimidating aspects of conference attendance. Here, I give a few suggestions (write down your questions, introduce yourself, etc.) to ease the process.

Annual scientific conferences are one of the highlights of working in astronomy – you get to visit a new place, you get to meet with old friends, and you get to hear about scientific results so cutting-edge they can change from hour to hour. Optimizing the conference experience requires a fair amount of planning, but fortunately, there are a number of online guides explaining how to plan your conference, how to prepare an oral presentation, how to make a poster, etc.

At the end of most presentations, the audience is invited to ask questions, and these question-and-answer sessions can lead to some of the most exciting, interesting, and dramatic developments at a conference. These exchanges can also be very important forums for feedback and can give a budding scientist a chance to make connections to the broader community.

But asking a question in front of a big crowd can be a little daunting, and unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any advice online about how to do it. (UPDATE: After writing this blog post, I found this discussion that echoes some of my points.)

So I thought it would be helpful to collect a few thoughts on the topic. These ideas are by no means exhaustive and may not be widely agreed upon, so if anyone has suggestions, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Here we go:

1. Don’t feel bad for feeling nervous – One of my colleagues once told me she felt so nervous walking up to the mic to ask questions that she thought her voice would crack. That made me feel a lot better about my own intestinal lepidoptera. Most people get anxious when speaking in front of hundreds of the smartest people in the world, so don’t stress about feeling that way.

If you anticipate wanting to ask a question, though, you can sit close to the mic at the beginning of the presentation to shorten the walk.

2. Write down your question – I tend to take short notes during presentations, usually about things to ask the speaker after the presentation or even in an e-mail after the conference. But it’s very helpful to already know what you want to say before getting to the mic, so not a bad idea to write it down.

3. Introduce yourself – Several times after one of my presentations, someone has asked an interesting question or made a good point that I wanted to follow up on afterward. However, after asking their question, the person melted back into the crowd to remain anonymous forever. So it’s very helpful if you give your name and affiliation before asking your question. Keep in mind that the speaker may be staring into bright lights and not able to see the audience.

I also think it’s just common courtesy to introduce yourself, and if, as a community, we encourage questioners not to remain anonymous, we will reduce the temptation to attack the speaker.

4. Keep it short, and don’t get hung up on a minor point – A good anecdote from this website shows what I mean here: “I … gave my talk and the Q&A followed, then a questioner began a diatribe that lasted at least 20 minutes: in fact, it was a mini-lecture. At first I thought I heard a question begin to emerge, but it disappeared – after that the ‘lecture’ was in full flow. … Finally the chair [of the session] rose to stop him by thanking him and saying it was halfway through lunch, to much relief.”

If you have a lot to say or would like to address a very narrow, technical point in the presentation, it’s probably best to wait until after the session to talk to the speaker. Remember that the presenter is not the only person to whom you are speaking. I think it’s best to focus on questions of general interest, not just to the one or two people who specialize in, for instance, tidal dissipation parameters. Of course, this is a scientific conference where the audience is full of specialists, so there’s a balance to strike here.

Also, at most conferences, there are only a few minutes for questions, so keeping your question short leaves time for others.

5. Don’t ambush the speaker – Once, early in my grad career, a very preeminent astronomer introduced himself at breakfast and expressed a big concern about some recent work I’d done. It was a very good point, and, at the time, I said I didn’t have an answer but would get back to him. After I gave my talk later that afternoon, this astronomer raised the same question, publicly suggesting to hundreds of others that my results were probably wrong. Of course, I still didn’t have an answer for him. (As it turned out, he was wrong, and we responded to those concerns in a few subsequent papers.)

The point of the story is not to complain but to say that it’s not helpful to attack a speaker publicly since it can be hard for someone to come up with a thoughtful response on the spot. I think it’s much more effective (and more polite) to raise such concerns privately (at least at first), perhaps one-on-one or via e-mail. Then, if the presenter refuses to respond or obfuscates, maybe it makes sense to raise your concerns in a public forum so the community is aware of the problem.

6. When in doubt, save it for the post-session – In the end, you almost always have a chance to talk with the speaker later. So if you’re hesitant to ask during the question session, approach the speaker afterward.

It’s true that there are some jerks in the scientific community, but the vast majority of scientists I’ve met are considerate and thoughtful. And even most jerks love it when someone has taken enough interest in their work to ask questions.

If you’re uncomfortable approaching someone you don’t know, reach out to your colleagues at the conference to see if anyone knows the speaker. And then, of course, e-mailing the question is always possible. Another good reason to write it down.

A quick visit last night to a city council meeting in Payette, just about an hour northeast of Boise. I gave a short presentation about the eclipse (below) and helped answer questions for the council and city residents, along with reps from Idaho’s Board of Tourism and Emergency Management.

One particular concern for Payette is traffic on the day of the eclipse. Lots of folks are expected to fly into Boise and the surrounding area for the eclipse and then drive up to the path of totality, which will take many of them along Hwy 95 and through Payette. City fire and police reps are trying hard to plan for any eventuality and seemed well aware of the unprecedented event headed their way.

Unfortunately, I was only in town for a few hours, so not any time to poke around. Maybe next time.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, we hosted a workshop for volunteers with the Citizen CATE Project, an ambitious citizen-science project to make a 90-min long movie of totality during the solar eclipse on August 21.

For the August eclipse, it only takes about 2-min for the Moon’s shadow to pass over anyone point on the surface of the Earth – after all, it’s traveling about 1,000 miles per hour.

But the Citizen CATE project aims to extend the duration of totality by outfitting sites all along the eclipse track with telescopes, cameras, Arduinos, etc.

That way, as the Moon’s shadow passes from west to east across the US, from one site to the next, the images can be cut together to produce a totality that lasts much longer than that at any one site. The resulting movie will quickly be uploaded to the internet and made available to eclipse-lovers the world over.

Such citizen science projects go back at least to 1715, when the preeminent Edmund Halley, of cometary fame, predicted the apparition of a solar eclipse to a precision of four minutes. He enlisted the aid of his fellow citizens to record the eclipse duration at more than a dozen locations throughout the British Isles. Compiling these data, he was able to significantly improve the Moon’s ephemeris and make much more accurate future predictions.

And so on Sunday, May 28, the Physics Dept at Boise State invited groups from sites across Idaho to campus for a training workshop hosted by Citizen CATE. The day was hot and sunny – perfect for sunburns and sungazing – and I’ve posted photos from our work below.

Jolts and Juice on the main drag in Ontario.

Last week, I spent a few days in Ontario, Oregon, our neighbor just across the border.

I was invited to visit by Sam Castonguay, a geologist at Treasure Valley Community College (TVCC) as part of my American Astronomical Society Shapely Lectureship. I was allowed to interrupt an advanced calculus class to talk with the students about the upcoming eclipse and astronomy in general. Lots of great questions and enthusiasm for science amongst the TVCC folks.

In the evening of May 31, I gave a presentation to about 70 members of the broader Ontario community about the eclipse. I was really impressed by how engaged and receptive everyone was, and I was able to address concerns folks had about this historical event. People were also very excited to receive eclipse shades.

The next day, I visited with science students at Ontario High School. Even though the semester was nearly over, the students were very attentive and asked a wide range of questions.

And finally, on Saturday, June 2, I attended Ontario’s Global Village Fest at the invite of the local Chamber of Commerce. Good audience, and the clouds that moved into that morning were thick enough to keep the temperatures bearable but thin enough that we were able to set up a to-scale demonstration of the eclipse.

Although all the events left a very positive impression of Ontario, one thing really stuck out during my visit to TVCC. The school recently received a donation of mastadon and mammoth fossils dug out of a nearby quarry. Between my visit to the calculus class and the evening presentation, Castonguay showed me these amazing bones, pictured at left. One of the best things I’ve found about this part of the country is that there are a fair number of fossil deposits throughout. TVCC is in the process of setting up a display for their fossils, and so if you’re in Ontario anytime soon, be sure to visit their collection.

This visit and many others are made possible by support from the Idaho STEM Action Center and donations to the Pony Up Campaign from lots of generous donors, including Michal Martinez, Kathryn Scott, Debra Sklenar, John Freemuth, Keith Sander, Stuart Weiser, Tamsin Clapp, Dorothy A Snowball, Russell Wolff, Luanne Tangedal, Laurie Barrera, Mary Rausch, Steven Drake, Theresa Weiland, Earnest Harper, Brian Cronin, Robert Applequist, Darrell Palmer, Gay Pool, Garretta Reynolds, Lisa Marie Howell, and many anonymous donors.

Thanks to these folks and many others, we raised more than twice what we’d originally asked for, giving us $10k to do public astronomy outreach – an unbelievable outpouring of support from our Boise State community.

I’ve posted my presentations to the community and to the high school below.

UPDATE (2017 Jun 7): Some press coverage in the local paper –

Ontario Community Presentation


Ontario High School Presentation