My Science Talk NW presentation

Last week, I attended Science Talk Northwest in Portland and participated in their Science Communication Contest. Presentations had to fit within three minutes (with a 30 second grace period), you could not use any slides, and you could use a prop. The competition was specifically for “trainees,” who ranged from undergrads to postdocs.

I didn’t win, but I did make it into the Top 10! The winner and runner-up both did outstanding jobs and used props very creatively (did you know a super soaker is like a placenta, and that drumming can relate to personalized medicine?). I will have to think about how to incorporate props into future presentations about LSST and astronomy. I felt much more solid about this talk than previous three-minute slide-free talks I have given, however, because I began preparing it more than a couple days in advance and incorporated intentional gestures to help remind me what came next.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that, for me, gestures are the next best thing to having a slide or image as a visual memory cue. Deciding ahead of time what gestures to use was partially motivated by a workshop I attended on “The Performing Art of Science Presentation” by Nancy Houfek at the recent AAS meeting. I also appreciated the 30-second grace period, because it helped me be deliberate about my pacing and emphases. I was less likely to panic or speed up if I thought I was running behind.

Say… how is the whole I-work-for-LSST-at-UW-now-and-mostly-live-in-Seattle thing going? Very well, thank you! I only wish I could say the same for my country.

Without further ado, I present an approximate transcript of my #SciTalkNW three-minute talk. (I actually gave this talk twice: once in the initial round, and again in the final round, after some feedback from peers and experts.) When the conference organizers make a video available, I will update this post, and you can be amused at how my memory and the video differ.
UPDATE April 2017: link to my video, link to all the finalists’ videos

What’s your favorite picture of space? Maybe you think of one of those gorgeous Hubble pictures, like the Carina Nebula or the Pillars of Creation. Or maybe you have a memory of going outside at night, far from city lights, and looking up to see stars stretched across the sky.

All of these images have one thing in common: they’re static snapshots. They capture a single moment in time. But most things in space are dynamic and moving! While astronomers can learn a lot about our Universe from images like these, what we really need is a movie.

This is why a team of international scientists are building the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST. It’s under construction right now on the top of a mountain in Chile. When completed, this telescope will have a main mirror that’s eight and a half meters across—that’s like 27 feet—and the largest camera ever built, the size of a small car. Inside the camera will be a detector with 3.2 gigapixels. That’s like several hundred iPhones in every snapshot.

When LSST comes online in 2022, it will begin mapping the entire southern sky. Every three nights, it will take one all-sky image. Then, over the course of a decade, it will stitch them together into the highest resolution movie of the night sky ever made. And, it’ll be in full color, because LSST will use six different color filters!

LSST is going to revolutionize pretty much every area of astrophysics. Everything from finding asteroids moving in our own Solar System, to observing stars explode as supernovae in distant galaxies.

But to do this, we recognize that the software is at least as important as the science. My team at the University of Washington is writing software to process the images that come from the LSST in real time. We’re talking 15 terabytes of data every night—that’s more than you can fit on your computer’s hard drive. And we have to process every image within 60 seconds of the shutter closing. Our software will take new images from the telescope, compare them to older images, and find anything that has changed. Those changes will then be broadcast in a public alert stream so that scientists can filter and search to find the targets they’re most interested in. All of our work is open and public, because we want scientists and folks like you to be able to use our tools.

So, in 2022, the movie begins! I am incredibly excited to share the ever-changing, dynamic cosmos with you. We’re going to find new kinds of variable and moving sources we didn’t even know to look for! Coming soon to a night sky near you: everyone’s new favorite space picture. LSST—it’s actually a movie.


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