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Mercury magazine

Summer 2012 - Volume 41, Number 3

Summer 2012 - Volume 41, Number 3

Table of Contents



[15] Give Yourself Tenure, Andrea Schweitzer
Following my PhD, I transitioned into an industry cubicle. Fifteen years later, I call myself a “scientist entrepreneur,” having spent a decade working as a freelance project manager. I’ve got tenure; it’s just different from a tenured position at a university.

[21] Restoring an Old Beauty, Mary Ann Upton
This is the story of how a century-old observatory at Whitin College, Massachusetts, was transformed into a modern teaching center while preserving its historical character.

[37] Reflections: Science Fare, Phil Plait
The Bad Astronomer (a.k.a. Phil Plait) gives a short speech to students who participated in a science fair. “Welcome to science. You’re gonna like it here.”

[25] Astronomy in the News
A volcanic history of Mars, changes in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, and an upcoming collision with the Andromeda Galaxy — these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[4] Editorial, Paul Deans
A Busy 18 Days

[5] First Word, James G. Manning
In Transit

[6] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
100 Years Ago: Cluster-type Variable Stars

[7] Annals of Astronomy, Clifford J. Cunningham
Beyond Einstein

[8] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Exoplanets in the Habitable Zone

[9] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
Scaling the Solar System

[10] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Black Hole Roundup

[11] Education Matters, David Bruning
The Future of Education and Digital Texts

[12] Reaching Out, Bethany Cobb
A Transit of Clouds

[13] Societal Impact, Helen Barker and Jason Pittman
Astronautical Engineering and Cyber Security: An Educational Partnership

[30] Society Scope/ASP Supporters
ASP Award Winners

[34] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Perseid Meteor Shower

[37] Reflections, Phil Plait
Science Fare

Give Yourself Tenure

by Andrea Schweitzer

I began my career as most young scientists do, going to graduate school, enjoying interesting research, and planning a career as a tenured academic. Then I changed tracks after receiving my PhD and transitioned into an industry cubicle, which I described in “Living the Dilbert Life” (Mercury, Sept-Oct 1997).

Fifteen years later, I call myself a “scientist entrepreneur,” having spent a decade working as a freelance project manager. During my eighth year freelancing, I was even able to give myself a sabbatical year off! The path I choose isn’t easy, but it’s an option to the equally challenging academic track.

Because tenure-track jobs are so competitive, you must stay on a focused career path within academia. If you don’t eventually land a tenure-track job, the conventional wisdom is to expand your job options by considering opportunities in industry, government, teaching at non-research institutions, science writing, etc. Often this takes place after the first or second postdoc position. This is an inefficient career path — not to mention very stressful, disheartening, and financially unwise for young scientists.

Restoring an Old Beauty

by Mary Ann Upton

Whitin Observatory has served the students of Wellesley College (Wellesley, Massachusetts) for more than 100 years. In 2010, after years of planning, it received a much needed renovation and expansion, reinforcing its reputation as a teaching observatory of unsurpassed quality. This is the story of its legacy and transformation.

The first astronomy course -- Applied Physics -- was offered to the women of Wellesley in 1879. Twenty years later, a fortunate opportunity propelled it from a single class to a formidable astronomy program. A Fitz/Clark 12-inch refractor, in use in Brooklyn at the time, became available for purchase at a bargain price. Inspired by her friend, Professor Sarah Whiting, the newly elected trustee Mrs. J. C. Whitin gave the gift of the powerful telescope and a modest, neoclassical building clad in white marble to house the instrument. According to college historians:

This work was done in the spirit of the founder of the College, who believed that beauty is essential to the highest development of the student…. Mrs. Whitin expressed the same idea when she said, in answer to a remark that a rug would not be necessary in a laboratory: “You and Miss Hayes can attend to the science; it will be good for the girls to put their feet on an India rug.”

Reflections: Science Fare

by Phil Plait

In April 2012, I was asked to give a short speech to a group of local students who participated in a science fair. I wasn’t sure what to say to them, until I saw a newscast the night before the fair. The story was some typically inaccurate fluff piece giving antiscience boneheads “equal time” with science, as if any ridiculous theory should have equal time against the truth.

I sat down with a pad of paper and a pencil and scribbled down this speech. I gave it almost exactly as I wrote it.

Astronomy in the News
First Mars Express Gravity Results Plot Volcanic History

European Space Agency

Five years of Mars Express gravity mapping data are providing unique insights into what lies beneath the Red Planet’s largest volcanoes. The results show that the lava grew denser over time and that the thickness of the planet’s rigid outer layers varies across the Tharsis region.

The measurements were made while Mars Express was at altitudes between 275 and 330 km above the Tharsis volcanic ‘bulge’ during the closest points of its eccentric orbit, and were combined with data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The Tharsis bulge includes Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system, at 21 km, and the three smaller Tharsis Montes that are evenly spaced in a row.

The region is thought to have been volcanically active until 100-250 million years ago, relatively recent on a geological timescale.

The large mass of the volcanoes caused tiny ‘wobbles’ in the trajectory of Mars Express as it flew overhead; these were measured from Earth via radio tracking and translated into measurements of density variations below the surface.

The new data also reveal how the lava density changed during the construction of the three Tharsis Montes volcanoes. They started with a lighter andesitic lava that can form in the presence of water, and were then overlaid with heavier basaltic lava that makes up the visible surface of the Martian crust.

“Combined with the varying height of the volcanoes, we can say that Arsia Mons is the oldest, then Pavonis Mons formed and finally Ascraeus Mons,” says Mikael Beuthe of the Royal Observatory of Belgium.