Capping a Big Week for Astronomy

Friday afternoon I’ll be on NPR’s Science Friday to talk about the recent dark matter results. Nothing that regular readers haven’t heard already, I suspect.

(Update: the audio files are on the right-hand side of this page. At least the mp3 file seems to be working. It was a short-but-sweet segment.)

We’ll share the show with an update on Pluto’s status. A quick query of Google News reveals that there have been about ten times more stories about Pluto than about dark matter. This despite the fact that the Bullet Cluster data have taught us something profound about the constituents and forces of our universe, while the “planet” business has taught us about the vote of a committee on what to call stuff. Why is that?

Dark Matter Motivational Poster

(Motivational poster generator found via La Blonde Parisienne.)

This entry was posted in Science and the Media. Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to Capping a Big Week for Astronomy

  1. twaters says:

    Probably because we can only beat Turkey when it comes to taking science seriously

  2. mollishka says:

    Oh wow. I’m totally not a poster person, but I…. I want that poster. I will need to have a talk with our color printer….

  3. Lee says:

    A “decision” on whether or not Pluto is a planet is a simple story; on the other hand, any story about dark matter, no matter the significance, is so relatively complex that several things are necessary to make it understandable: a smart science writer or broadcaster with a wide audience who knows the significance of this story; an ability on his or her part to make the story intelligible to a wide audience (and as good as your blog entry on this the other day was, it would have to be a lot shorter to fit into the average newspaper), and an intelligent, educated audience that would take the time to read the entire article and gain a bit of understanding. Unfortunately, even if you can assume the first two, the last is tough. I think a lot of people are interested in this story because they still confuse astronomy with astrology.

  4. Elliot says:


    Point taken. Remember however George Bush was elected president here. Lesson: People like simple messages that they can relate to not complex “intellectual” stuff they don’t understand.

    Is this the way things should be. Hell no. But its the way they are.


  5. Cynthia says:

    Simply bad astronomy: Pluto eclipses dark matter

  6. Pingback: Spinach Blogging - Asymptotia

  7. jay says:

    Humans are political animals. They like to vote or like to talk about votes. Even if you nailed down something profound, you don’t get much attention if it doesn’t have anything to be dramatized or politicized. Look at the recent flurry of media attention about Perelman’s proof of Poincare’s conjecture. In this week’s issue of New Yorker Sylvia Nasar, the author of “A Beautiful Mind”, even introduced a ugly, manipulative, power-craving (of course Chinese) mathematician to contrast with pure-minded unworldly Grisha Perelman. How dramatic it is! 😉

    Sean, if you are unable to dramatize the recent finding about dark matter, forget about people’s not getting the importance of the discovery. “What do you care what other people hype about?” You tell listeners what you think a profound discovery, then a handful of them might be inspired to become budding astrophysicists who will carry the torches down the generations. Isn’t that enough for you or for all humanity?

    By the way, I will be happy to be among listeners (of course via ipod).

  8. weaklens says:

    Hi Sean,

    The main result of the dark matter paper was actually published in ApJ
    about two years ago.
    The new paper (the short one, not the long one with strong lensing
    results) only increases the significance of the result by adding more

    It’s a bit sad to see that many people become aware of about this important
    result only when it goes press released.

  9. George Musser says:

    For most people most of the time, scientific research is little more than received wisdom. But the question of defining “planet” has been a debate in which they could meaningfully participate. A lot of people gave thought to scientific issues. They learned something. I think that is to be celebrated.


  10. jamie says:

    Rather than being upset by dark matter’s being upstaged by Pluto, I find it heartening that the general public takes so much interest in the Pluto matter at all. Both dark matter and Pluto are, admittedly, topics that have almost no relevance to most people’s daily lives.

    As Lee mentioned, the concept of dark matter is not easy to understand without sufficient background, and as jay mentioned, humans are political (social) animals; part of the reason the planets arouse so much public affection is because they’re not only easy to understand, we’ve also anthropomorphized them to some extent, giving them gods’ names and personalities. We learn about them in second grade, not in college.

    People love SETI because of the notion of there being sentient creatures similar to ourselves somewhere out there; apart from the planets and SETI, astronomy primarily interests people via pretty pictures. Aesthetics do not take a background in physics to “get.”

    Let’s not be too elitist about this matter (hah, a pun). Just think of how many people have similar affections for dinosaurs, zoo animals, volcanoes, earthquakes, other natural disasters, sharks, fast or fantastic vehicles, aeroplanes, rockets. Just remember how so many people know nothing about ancient Egypt except — mummies and pyramids!

    Fine, so people are drawn by simple things. Personally, although I know dark matter, I don’t know a jot about Egypt except mummies, nothing about old France except Napoleon, not a damn about music except that Bach and Beethoven once existed and their music strikes me at the core of my soul. I can’t diagram a sentence or analyze a novel, though I love to read. I’m sure that must frustrate somebody somewhere.

    Let us use what does draw people, and encourage them onward to a deeper and more satisfying understanding, if they are so inclined. Frankly, I think it’s great that so many people stop me at parties or at the grocery store and ask excited questions about planets, asteroids, and Kuiper belt objects.

  11. Allyson says:


    I am a bit fortunate in that while I know little about science, I know enough physicists to be able to interpret things like this for me in ways I can understand…sometimes through drawings and interpretive dance. It doesn’t make me stupid, which is what I’m gathering from Elliot’s post, which seems to conflate ignorance with stupidity. If one has never seen or heard of an elephant, it isn’t useful to give him/her a discertation on the cruelty behind the ivory trade without first giving the person the information needed to understand that ivory comes from an animal called an elephant. And perhaps showing the person a film, photograph, and drawing of said elephant.

    The person isn’t necessarily stupid for not knowing what an elephant is if the information is out of reach.

    This is sort of how I feel about subjects like Dark Matter. I’d never heard of it until recently, and even then, it was presented to me as ivory, a piece of a greater thing I didn’t know existed. It’s not my fault, I’m not a Bush-voter or a moron, I’m just an average schmo occasionally wonderstruck by the universe and the stuff that floats through it. I’d like to know more, but it’s rare that the information is presented to me in a way I can grasp.

    It’s like asking me to picture the elephant after a bomb was placed in its belly, and figure out what it might all look like from the bits and pieces I can pull out of nearby shrubs.

    I need to know what the big picture is in simple, elegant terms that draw on what is already familiar to create an understanding, and then we can go from there.

    I’m getting a sense that the common belief is that people don’t care about discoveries like this because they’re stupid. But I think it’s more of a case that people don’t know about these discoveries because the information is presented in a way that assumes the reader is already knowledgeable in physics or astronomy. And so it’s out of reach and sounds like gibberish. I didn’t take a science class any more advanced than what a lot of you probably learned in the eighth grade. I still loved Cosmos, you know? But I’m still curious enough to try and pick up as much of an understanding as I can from the remains of the exploding elephant.

    There was a point in there, I swear. I think the point is, I am offended! Very offended! And I demand reparations for my people. I think.

  12. jamie says:

    By the way, check out this article for further insight into why people like Pluto and not dark matter.

    Ex-Planet’s Fans Voice Dismay and Sorrow – New York Times

    Choice quote:

    Pluto, we hardly knew you. Indeed, across the country, and presumably the universe, the news that Pluto was no longer considered a full planet was met with a mix of surprise and shrugs, even as people struggled to eulogize a cosmic entity that most know very little about except its size (small), its distance from Earth (great) and its weather (terrible).

    The main effect, in fact, seemed to be to mystify further a populace that already seemed almost universally confused about the former planet.

    “I think its probably a star,” said Nick Sbicca, 22, who was visiting the Exploratorium, the children’s science center, on Thursday. “I really don’t know. But I think there’s definitely more than eight planets.”

    Sure enough, the kids quoted in the article know more about Pluto than the adults do. And you know what? It simply doesn’t matter that Mr. Sbicca thinks Pluto is a star, as far as facts go. What it may signal is what we really ought to worry about: a public that finds it difficult to comprehend and evaluate statements and arguments regarding logic and policy, not only in science but in many other arenas. That is a far larger problem than whether they care about dark matter. All the more encouragement toward knowledge and understanding is necessary.

  13. jamie says:

    cheers to Allyson, who hits the nail on the head. We need more Carl Sagans. Anyone want to volunteer for the job? And yet, unfortunately, within academia and the scientific community we tend to denigrate those who pursue public education rather than research; they are not “serious” enough. Education is “fluffy.” But public education is a very serious matter.

  14. Sean says:

    There seems to be an awful lot of point-missing going on here. I’m very happy that the Pluto discussion got people talking about astronomy; who wouldn’t be? But the news hook wasn’t new science, it was a vote taken by an assemblage of old men in Prague. That’s fine — but it wasn’t really made clear in any of the news stories I read. The dark matter stuff is huge news, truly a deep insight into the nature of our universe. And not in any sense overly complicated or beyond the grasp of non-experts — in fact it was quite straightforward, easily explainable in under a minute, and illustrated with gorgeous pictures. You don’t think that such a story could have been an even better hook to get people excited about astronomy? Really? Who is being the elitist here? The truth is, people will be interested and excited if we (scientists, journalists, knowledgeable amateurs) make the effort to explain what’s going on and respect their intelligence enough to give them the good stuff.

  15. John S Costello says:

    I’ve watched the animation and looked at those pictures, but seeing the motivational poster something struck me: most of the visible mass is supposed in those gas clouds! All those galaxies? Pipsqueaks, comparatively.

    That’s somewhat hard to believe, that most of the mass is in a relatively unformed state. Is that usual? Is the Milky Way sitting inside a massive cloud of gas that we just don’t see?

  16. Eugene says:

    We lost Pluto?


  17. jamie says:


    Knowing that Pluto has been demoted requires only that you understand that all your life there have been nine planets, nine little worlds in our own corner of the universe, and now there are only eight because one is so small that it “doesn’t count.” Heck, you don’t even have to be able to read the news to understand. This is new science to Joe or Jane simply because it is a change to what they have known. And if three thousand scientists are discussing it, it must be important.

    Understanding dark matter requires background. Most journalists are not equipped to explain dark matter, even on a basic level. And they are relatively educated. Plus, many scientists are abominable writers. (Fortunately you seem to do a pretty good job.)

    In other words: dark matter exists. Uh, well, great. What’s that and why should I care? What do you mean, it’s an insight? Never heard of it. Heck, I don’t really even know what the Big Bang is. I heard scientists think the Earth got randomly exploded into existence. But, but, My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets! Oh, well, Eight now, but that messes up the mnemonic.

    I think you are overestimating not the average person’s intelligence, necessarily, but their body of prior knowledge. The dark matter stuff can be understood on a basic level only if you have a basic grasp of a handful of other things. And its profundity can really only be felt if one has been following the story for some time. One in five American adults does not even know that the Earth goes round the Sun.

    Of course, this is a damn shame! Of course, more people would be interested if we did a better job of conveying both information and enthusiasm! But I think that even the best, simplest exposition on dark matter would not reach as many Americans as Pluto does.

    Perhaps a more interesting question is how dark matter and Pluto are being covered in the popular press in Swedish and Japanese, and whether their journalists are able to appropriately cover both issues.

  18. Malte says:

    The tabloids covered both Pluto (Aftonbladet and Expressen) and the dark matter discovery (though only with a short news agency reports, like this one in Expressen).

    Broadsheet Dagens Nyheter, thanks to blogger-turned-journalist Malin Sandström, covered both (Pluto with a series of reports like this one here and one on dark matter) quite nicely.

    More interesting would be to hear from places like Iran (where amateur astronomy is huge), or other places where science really is still popular (Uganda I think).

  19. PK says:

    I think the NPR public is not quite the same as the Discovery Channel public, and many listeners might already have heard of dark matter. Sure, they will remember foremost that Pluto is no longer a planet, but a story about clusters of galaxies moving through each other and heating up interstellar gas will probably also excite a lot of people.

  20. GB says:

    “A quick query of Google News reveals that there have been about ten times more stories about Pluto than about dark matter.”

    I think there is a misinterpretation here. The above information is not an idication of how much people are interested or care about Pluto vs DM, it is an indication of how much journalists believe that people will be interested or care or be impressed about Pluto vs DM, plus their ability to write for the one or the other subject.

    As to why they have this impression, perhaps they think that Pluto demoted is more gossipy. No doubt some smart aleck will have tied it up with American Idol.

  21. Pingback: Zooglea

  22. Malte says:

    GB says: The above information is not an idication of how much people are interested or care about Pluto vs DM, it is an indication of how much journalists believe that people will be interested or care or be impressed about Pluto vs DM, plus their ability to write for the one or the other subject.

    With my journalistic hat on, the Pluto story has been far, far more fun to follow and write about than the Bullet cluster result. The IAU did marvellous pictures to accompany the original resolution (and I really didn’t expect them to do this well at all), then the drama just got better and better as the week went on. Plenty of interest, and plenty of astrophysics if you wanted that too.

    The DM result is, well, another very nice DM result with some pretty pictures. But I think we’d need a dark matter particle identified and/or the whole lot excluded for it to have beaten the planets this week.

    And to be honest, ‘we don’t know what 25% of the universe is made of’ is still worse publicity for astronomers than ‘we can decide what’s a planet and what’s not’.

  23. Elliot says:


    I think you misinterpreted my comment. I was not implying that people were stupid at all. I think that given the enormous expansion of available information over the last 100 years, it is impossible to know everything about everything. I think it is human nature to want the “readers digest” version of stuff that is outside your realm of expertise. Simple is easier than complex.

    I know some very smart people who voted for George Bush by the way. ;(


  24. Pingback: Dynamics of Cats

  25. George Musser says:

    There seems to be an awful lot of point-missing going on here. I’m very happy that the Pluto discussion got people talking about astronomy; who wouldn’t be? But the news hook wasn’t new science, it was a vote taken by an assemblage of old men in Prague.

    Sean, it is one thing to miss a point and another to disagree with it!

    The Pluto debate has been participatory science in a way dark matter cannot be. When nonspecialists read about dark matter, they can ask questions, they can think about it, they can grasp it, but in the end, they have to take astronomers’ word. But when they read about Pluto, they can have an opinion and lay out an argument that is the equal of any experts’.

    By the way, the planet definition is as much “new science” as the 1E0657 result. Both involve the latest developments in a decades-old discussion. The planet debate has been driven by discoveries in the Kuiper Belt and extrasolar systems (although the definition was ultimately restricted to the solar system). Indeed, Pluto was discovered around the same time that dark matter was!