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Snapshots from 25 years of publicizing astronomy

1:15pm, October 23, 2009
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Astronomer and author Stephen P. Maran recently retired from 25 years as press officer for the American Astronomical Society. He also worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., for more than 35 years. Known for his Einsteinian hair, along with his quips and insightful comments at press briefings that drew record crowds, Maran spoke with Science News writer Ron Cowen about his experiences in astronomy and public outreach.

How can NASA and astronomers better communicate discoveries?

There should be more conference calls, more use of Skype and webcasting for press briefings and at meetings. These electronic means of communication have a big following among science buffs. It also makes the news more accessible for reporters.

For years I was firm in keeping [a tight lid on] all the press-related material at meetings, such that it was hard for reporters to get them if they weren’t at the astronomy meeting where news was announced. Those days are gone. Not only are there fewer reporters, but they have less travel money.

On a positive note, scientists are much more willing to communicate about their work. It’s viewed as almost a professional responsibility to publicize your research — rather than as something that could hurt your career. In the past, it was the old Carl Sagan effect. Sagan was voted down for membership in the National Academy of Sciences. I had it from an insider that Sagan’s extensive publicity worked against him.

In the 1990s, NASA and National Science Foundation leaders were going around to scientific meetings, saying: “You must get the word out to the public about your work. You can’t expect agencies to just increase your funding if the public isn’t letting their elected representatives know they’re excited about the research.”

You’ve presided over hundreds of press briefings. Which were the most interesting and which astronomy discoveries do you consider the most important?

In January 1990, John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center got a standing ovation from colleagues when he unveiled data from NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite showing that the radiation left over from the Big Bang perfectly matched that of a blackbody with a temperature of 2.72 kelvins, as had been predicted. Everyone applauded because the errors in the data were smaller than the thickness of the curve. Mather would later share the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics.

In 1994, Holland Ford of Johns Hopkins University announced the discovery of a supermassive back hole at the center of the galaxy M87. He used the Hubble Space Telescope after astronauts installed corrective optics for its famously flawed mirror. The finding confirmed that the repaired Hubble was a world-class telescope.

For several years, researchers announced what turned out to be incorrect claims of finding planets around sunlike stars. Then January 1996 began the Marcy-Butler era. Geoff Marcy, now of the University of California, Berkeley, and Paul Butler, now at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., announced the discovery of the second and third known planets to orbit a sunlike star beyond the solar system, both of which might contain water. The astronomers were just as interested as the press, and the briefing had to be held in a large lecture hall.

Other briefings during that meeting, held in San Antonio, included new results on distant galaxies. Those discoveries were based on 10 days of observations with Hubble of a tiny patch of sky known as the Hubble Deep Field, along with new findings about dark matter.

I called that meeting “the Super Bowl of astronomy,” a phrase many reporters ended up citing. Newspapers ran editorials noting that discoveries announced at that meeting had made the front page of The New York Times three days in a row.

During one of the smaller meetings of the American Astronomical Society, in Rochester, N.Y., in June 2000, John Kormendy of the University of Texas at Austin announced for the first time that galaxies and their central, supermassive black holes grow in lockstep, a finding that still puzzles astronomers.

One of the biggest stories in terms of news coverage that we put almost no effort into was on the color of the universe. At a 2002 meeting, researchers working on a large-scale survey of galaxies realized that they had determined the average color of the universe — a pale green. There was no time for a press briefing, but I told them, on your poster paper and in the press release, put a little color tile.

That story turned out to have unbelievable legs. But a few weeks later, the researchers announced that they had made a mistake. The true color of the universe, they said, is beige.

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