Chondrules in Canada


This slice of the Allende meteorite bears strong resemblance to ALMA’s image of HL Tau (Wikipedia commons)

Last week, my intern-daughter and I traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to participate in a conference on chondrules as astrophysical objects. Although my primary reason for making the trip was because the organizers invited me to speak—a talk that I think went very well—I was pleasantly surprised at how much I took home from the conference itself.

Chondrules, as you may or may not know, are the tiny bits and pieces thought to have played a role in early planet formation. They show up as tiny spherules inside of meteorites. It turns out that meteorites have three critical ingredients: chondrules, calcium-aluminum inclusions (CAIs), and everything else. CAIs formed as material in the disk of dust and gas around the young sun condensed into solids, which happens when temperatures in the disk cool to a certain level.

It turns out chondrules and planets are sort of a chicken-and-egg thing. This week, I learned that scientists still aren’t certain exactly what role chondrules play when it comes to world-building. I’ve always heard of chondrules as the bits and pieces that went on to form planets, but it’s possible that they could instead be the bits and pieces left behind after planet formation.

We don’t even know how, exactly, chondrules form. There are some pretty intriguing models running the gauntlet from gas falling together to material being flash-heated as a young planet shoves things out of the way. Some models even call for chondrules to form a fine layer on the surface of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, something that upcoming missions could check for.

Of course, I used the time to network and meet new people, as well as reconnecting with folks I’ve met in the past. I’ve already received one paper in my inbox that I plan to review to see how widely covered it was, and how timely it might be. I have a few ideas for features playing around in my brain, as well. Once I sort through the possibilities, I’ll start the massive labor of pitching these stories, along with the outstanding Astrobiology Science Conference pieces that I held onto because I knew I’d be traveling.

For now, I have a new appreciation of chondrules and the fundamental questions behind how planets form.

What are some other great space mysteries that you think haven’t gotten enough press?

Featuring features: Part II of What Makes Your Research News

My Astronomy magazine cover story told the tale of violence in the early solar system.

As a freelance writer, most of my assignments fall in the realm of news articles. News articles generally focus on a single piece of research, and include quotes from one of the researchers and, occasionally, one other outside source.

Far more time-consuming are the longer features, such as those found in magazines. Features can contain information from multiple studies, as well as comments from researchers in the field. These are the types of stories you find in a magazine, though online features are also quite common (and something that I need to work on breaking into).

What makes research interesting enough for a feature? Many of the same factors that I mentioned last week—the wow factor, a first, the evolution of a theory, or oddities—are quite the same. But because features often focus on multiple lines of research, it means things need to mesh well together; it’s very rare for a feature to hinge on a single piece of research. Because they take a larger investment for both the author and the publisher, features don’t tend to focus on new or ‘fringe’ theories, though they might mention one in passing.

While news pieces are timely, with publication days to weeks after a paper is accepted or released, features have a bit more wiggle room. They can include research that took place years or even decades before. All features require a ‘hook’, something that makes it matter to the folks reading today, but the research itself can be a bit broader in when it came out.

Features have a different timescale than news articles. I’ve had news pieces that turned around in less than 24 hours, from assignment to publication. Features, especially in magazines, can take months. Last April, while at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference, I pulled together several threads to pitch a feature. My deadline was early November (it was originally October, but I realized that the Division of Planetary Sciences conference was in October and could produce more research on the subject). As of early May, more than a year later, it’s now moving through the fact checkers. Other publications are more timely, with turnarounds of three to four months.

One of my favorite features is the article I wrote for Sky & Telescope about phoenix planets. While most planets form soon after their star, some can survive or even be reborn after the death of their sun. For this article, I drew from research on white dwarf pollution, the first exoplanet (discovered around a pulsar left behind after a supernova), and outer system moons that could become habitable once their star dies. Together, all of these created an excellent theme of phoenix planets.

Another great piece came from evolving theories on solar system formation. In my notes, I called it ‘the solar system that might have been’, and I believe that’s how it was originally pitched. The article, which was the Astronomy February 2017 cover story, went to press with a stronger focus on the collisions and violence of the early solar system. In addition to discussing the Nice and Grand Tack models, I also spoke about research by Katherine Volk about how the solar system could have included a batch of rocky worlds inside Mercury’s orbit and David Nesvorny’s work on an ejected planet (which he said would NOT be the hypothesized Planet 9).

What are some good threads of space and astronomical research you would like to see written up as a feature?

See last week’s piece on news articles and what makes a piece of research newsworthy.

Chondrule Conference: What Makes Your Research News (Part I)

This slice of the Allende meteorite bears strong resemblance to ALMA’s image of HL Tau (Wikipedia commons)


Another week, another conference. This week, I’m headed to Vancouver, Canada for the Chondrules as Astrophysical Objects workshop. But this conference has a different twist—I’m not only listening, I’m also speaking. Thanks to an invite from Aaron Boley, I’ll wrap up the conference by talking about what makes a particular piece of research newsworthy.

That seems like a simple question, but it’s actually not. Although I go through these calculations multiple times in a week, it’s a bit more abstract. It’s like trying to define what makes a particular painting art, or what makes a landscape beautiful. It varies for different people and publications.

Probably the easiest attribute to pick out is what I call the “wow factor” – a story that makes you sit up and take notice. In early 2015, Eric Mamajek and Matt Kenworthy announced the discovery of a ‘super Saturn,’ an exoplanet with rings 200 times the size of our infamous solar system world. Wow. Or observing the features on Pluto for the first time, especially its gorgeous ‘heart’. Wow.

‘First’ is another important word. The first time a planet was observed outside the solar system or the first discovery for evidence of water on Mars were clearly newsworthy. But so were the first batch of Kepler’s exoplanets, or the first detection of gravitational waves. The first multiply imaged supernova was another clear choice, especially since a prediction could be made about an upcoming appearance (leading to the first precisely predicted supernova).

Validating theories with observation is also pretty key. I wrote about David Nesvorny’s ejected gas giant after Kuiper Belt observations seemed to confirm it. Refining theories, such as the Late Heavy Bombardment and the source of Earth’s water, also make the press. I wrote up a great piece last month about how the age of Saturn’s moons may help solve some of the mystery around its rings.

And then there’s just the weird or out-there stories. The idea that many hot Jupiters could be varying shades of pink certainly caused a stir. While aurora grace the skies around Earth’s northern and southern poles, the idea that they could be not only spotted on Jupiter’s moon Io but also used to constrain the volcanic world’s interior was pretty cool.

Of course, most of what I’ve listed relates to what makes a piece of research interested for a news writeup. Next week, I’ll chat a bit about features, a different kind of beast.

What sort of papers have you seen published lately that haven’t gotten the press you think they should have?


Follow the Chondrules as Astrophysical Objects conference on Twitter at #astrochon2017

AbSciCon2017 in Review

The Astrobiology Science Conference, or AbSciCon, is going on all week in Mesa, Arizona!

Last week’s Astrobiology Science Conference was awesome—there’s really no other way to describe it. There were a ton of great talks, and I had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meet new folks. The weather was beautiful all week, and my intern and I had a great trip.

As a self-employed science writer, the most glaring reason to attend conferences is potential stories, and I found quite a few. Of course, I don’t want to give them away for free or have someone else pitch them before I do, but I think I can safely share a few brief summaries.

  • Andrew Maynard (Arizona State University) kicked things off with an awesome interactive plenary talk on planetary protection. Rather than taking a more boring statistical approach, he used an audience poll to ask for one-word answers to a few questions to try to help everyone grasp some of the most important motivations and concerns with space exploration for everyone from kids to politicians to astrobiologists. Then he hit on a few key concerns and opened the session up to the audience for discussion. I already turned that piece in to, so it should be out soon.
  • Lynn Rothschild (NASA Ames Research Center) told us that the most important thing we pack for Mars may be test tubes of cells.
  • Steve Vance (JPL) discussed how ice quakes could help reveal insights about Europa and other icy worlds. He even played a sound clip of what you might hear!
  • In a session devoted to Proxima Centauri b, we learned that the closest exoplanet is most likely rocky and probably the only habitable zone inhabitant, that worlds won’t thrive at the distances comparable to Uranus and Neptune, and that we could maybe spot aurorae from the tiny world!
  • Olivier Bollengier (University of Washington) suggested that the oceans beneath Ganymede, Callisto, and other small icy bodies could percolate through their “Dagwood sandwich” layers of ice and perhaps come in contact with the rocky layers of the core.
  • And Sarah Rugheimer (Cornell) told us that dangerous flares from M-dwarfs could cause alien life to light up to survive, creating a signal we might one day see from Earth.

I have a whole list of other great potential story pitches, so I’ll be sure to let you know when they are written up and posted; stay tuned!

The next most important thing for me at conferences is networking, whether with other journalists or with scientists. Press at AbSciCon is pretty slim—my intern and I had the press room to ourselves most days—but we did meet up with a few other journalists. Far more telling was the chance to meet new scientists and renew our relationships with those who have come before. We managed to grab dinner with a few of the known crowd as well as some brand new folks; I’m the champion of attaching myself to a group. We also overcame the lunchtime angst and sat with various folks.

My favorite dinnertime conversation was with Baptiste Journaux (University of Washington), who discussed some of his past research on glaciers. He said that often called for researchers to jump from helicopters and ski to the final location. Immediately I knew that I must find a way to write a feature so that I could jump out of a copter with them. I also spoke with someone who’s sister is striving to bring citizen science to many of the native people who find themselves often disconnected from the research that goes on around them—another story in the making.

The most difficult part post-conference is keeping the energy going when it comes to pitching. That will be the bulk of next week. I also still need to go through my pitches from the Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference—I have a few outstanding features to pursue—and send them out. I’m only home a week before heading off to Canada for a conference on chondrules, where I’ll be giving a talk on science writing, so I’ll have to work quick!

Stories out this week:

Smithsonian: How and When Did Saturn Get Those Magnificent Rings? – Based on research I learned about at the Lunar and Planetary Conference meeting last month Dragonfly Drone Could Explore Saturn Moon Titan – This is officially my new favorite mission proposal, FYI. I hope it makes it all the way through! Auroras from Jupiter’s Volcano Moon Shine Light on Its Interior – I missed this piece on Io’s aurorae going live earlier this month, but it was pretty illuminating (bad pun, I know) Refit Bomber Aircraft Will Help Scientists Study the Total Solar Eclipse – Seriously, airplanes and eclipses. How cool can you get?

Coming this week: AbSciCon

The Astrobiology Science Conference, or AbSciCon, is going on all week in Mesa, Arizona!

I’m extremely excited to attend the Astrobiology Science Conference this week in Mesa, Arizona. AbSciCon 2015 proved to be my favorite conference so far, and I’m interested to see if the conference will hold its place this week. I’ll be tweeting from the conference from @NolaTRedd, and will try to write up a quick review of some of my favorite sessions. There’s a ton of talks I’m already looking forward to, so I can’t wait to see what the conference will hold in store!

I’ve chatted with several other freelancers, and the conference seems to have relatively little in the way of press. I can’t say that disappoints me, as it means fewer people competing for the same stories (freelancing is rough!). Still, I always enjoy chatting with fellow science writers, so I’ll miss that engagement. On the other hand, I”ll make up for it by engaging with scientists. Conferences are some of the best sources not only of articles but of connections, which are big helps when it comes to learning about what’s going on in the science world.

This year’s AbSciCon seems to have a lot of interest in exoplanets, as well as some interesting new ways to hunt for life, past or present, on Mars and other solar system worlds. Jupiter’s moon Europa is sure to play a major role; at LPSC last month, scientists at a workshop on the proposed Europa lander mentioned that the subject would be discussed again with the chemists and biologists at AbSciCon, and I’m interested in hearing what they have to say. (Check out my piece on the status of the lander.)

Speaking of conferences, I’ll be speaking at the Chondrules as Astrophysical Objects in Vancouver in May. While the bulk of the conference relates to the meteoric record from the astronomer’s point of view, I’ll wrap it up by talking about how science writers – or, at least, how I – select a paper out of the hundreds I review as intriguing enough to write a story about it. Make sure you register for the conference if you haven’t already!

I’ll be ducking out of AbSciCona little early on Friday, since Southwest’s latest flight back to Atlanta leaves ridiculously early, but hopefully I won’t miss too much. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to what is sure to be an awesome conference!

What’s your favorite science conference?