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One Week

March 2, 2015 — 1 Comment

Yesterday marked 5 years since I joined the Zooniverse team in Oxford, straight out of my PhD at Cardiff. It’s weird to say it but this week will be my final week here before I start a new role at Google, in London.

When I arrived at Zooniverse there were only two people here: Arfon Smith and Chris Lintott. Though there has always been a cloud of other researchers around the Zooniverse – they were the only only full time Zooniverse team. That changed a lot in the next 5 years!

The Zooniverse Team, May 2014

(Most of the) The Zooniverse Team, May 2014

 

I’ve never been one to fit in other peoples’ boxes, so Zooniverse suited me from the start. Unconventional, yet accessible; research, but not as we knew it. The Zooniverse has been a fantastic place to work. Indeed it still is. I’ve had the pleasure of building unique projects that have benefited astronomy and science. I’ve worked with remarkable researchers, developers, educators, and herders. It has been a lot of fun and I’ve been able to be part of its growth and evolution.

Over the years I have read many blogs and articles, usually written by someone leaving research, about how academia has a brain drain problem, or lacks a family-friendly environment, or can’t compete with industry. I have sometimes agreed, though usually quietly. Most of these pieces are dismissed by those left in academia, even if they are shared widely by them at the same time. I won’t be writing such a post Do I think academia is perfect? No. But no job suits everyone. Do I think that academia could do more for minorities, women, and families? Yes. But all jobs probably could. Being a postdoc has afforded me great flexibility with my time, and also given me the chance to travel and engage in awesome new ideas. It hasn’t given me stability though, and since I don’t want to be a professor, I’m not sure where it takes me as a career. I’d recommend it to everyone and noone at the same time. I’ve had a great time, but now it’s time to go. I’m terrified of course, but sometimes you have the make a giant leap when the opportunity presents itself.

Recycled Electrons and The Rewatch will both continue. The Rewatch will remain mostly unchanged, but you will hear less of me on Recycled Electrons – simply the result of time contraints. .Astronomy is also being taken care of, and I’ll blog about that separately. Rest assured though that #dotastro 7 and 8 are in hand.

It will be so sad to leave the Zooniverse, but I’m incredibly excited about Google. I’ll probably go quiet here for a while as I start my new job. I’m not gone though – just throwing myself into the new role, and meeting an exciting challenge head on. See you on the other side.

Warning: 400 words of geekery ahead!

I’ve embarked on an extremely nerdy and wonderful new project: a podcast about rewatching Star Trek. Each week we encourage listeners to watch the same episode we have, and then we’ll dissect and discuss it in deliciously geeky detail.

My cohost in this trek beyond the podcasting frontier is friend and fellow Zooniverse workhorse Grant Miller. Grant sometimes fills in for Chris Lintott on our regular astronomy/science series Recycled Electrons. The other week myself and Grant ended up talking about Star Trek on the show, and a friend remarked that they’d totally listen to us doing a podcast about Star Trek. We’re easily persuaded by flattery and so ‘Star Trek: The Rewatch’ was born.

The Rewatch

Our first episode is now up, in which we discuss Encounter at Farpoint – the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We’re hoping that re-watching the show, in order, will make us appreciate it all over again. When you a TV show like this, you get to enjoy each episode in the context of knowing the series and characters really well, and there’s loads of interesting trivia and back-story that is great to explore. Grant and I are both astrophysics PhDs, so we’re also hoping to bring some serious science talk to the show from time to time. We know lots of experts in various fields from around the University (of Oxford) who we hope can pop in and comment every now and then.

Although I’m obviously looking forward to some of my favourite episodes (e.g. Best of Both Worlds, Tapestry) I’m also keen to see how some of the older, or more obscure, episodes hold up to the ensuing decades and changes in the way we enjoy Sci Fi, and TV in general. This is a podcast that I would totally have listened to – so it’s going to be fun to record it. To be honest, even if no one listens, this is going to be awesome! That’s how geeky I am.

If you loved the adventures of Captain Picard and co. – and want to watch them all over again – then join us! Check out startrek.therewatch.com or find us on iTunes. We’re also to be found on Twitter @StarTrekRewatch and on Facebook too.

Engage!

I’ve just hit ‘publish’ on the latest episode of Recycled Electrons, my (almost) weekly podcast with friend and Zooniverse colleague Chris Lintott. We started podcasting to ‘The Listener’ in September 2011. This was episode 87 – ‘Very Nice Equipment’ – and since it’s now two years that Chris and I have been producing this weekly dose of news, I’m feeling reflective.

The two-year podversary prompted me to check out our iTunes reviews and they’re marvellous! This one is a particular highlight because it sums up what I think we’re aiming for:

I find the discussion on this podcast to be both accessible to a non-expert, but not oversimplified to the point of “oh god, another Discover magazine-level discussion.” Its like science for scientists, without assumption that The Listener is a deep expert in the topic, other than having some background in science in general. Well done on science accessibility guys. – sfnm77 on iTunes

People sometimes ask how we have the time to do the podcast, but the truth is that it’s pretty easy. One reason that the podcast is still going after two years is that it was designed from the outset to be the lowest-effort it could be.

We use Tumblr and Dropbox (both free) and keep the website simple and structured. We try to keep recording, processing and uploading to a total of about an hour each week. We are lucky enough to have a free-to-use studio across the street from our offices thanks to the University of Oxford Press Office, and we use Audacity and GarageBand for editing (also free). We keep a rolling, weekly Google Doc of things we might discuss. Every week we try to find a time to record and then we just go for it. Note that this was episode 87 but it’s been going over 100 weeks, so we don’t always manage it, and that’s fine.

Before we started Chris was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough to talk about each week but I listen to enough podcasts where people talk at each constantly (TWiT, Back to Work, The Talk Show, etc) to know that there’s always more to say. Once Chris was in the studio, he was his usual self and time flew by. We can talk forever anyway, and so I just see Recycled Electrons as a slightly more formal version of our usual wittering. It’s ended up being a bit like listening in on the coffee time chat of astronomers at work, and I like that.

Recycled Electrons

It only took a few weeks to start getting tweets and Tumblr messages from The Listener with feedback. Sometimes it was about the audio quality or download link, but soon it was about topics for discussion and questions they always wanted answered. The power of podcasting was suddenly obvious and it has been fun to learn how to handle the sort of back-and-forth the medium provides.

It’s an excellent way of figuring out what does and doesn’t work in science communication. With a podcast as niche as ours, you really start to get a feel for the topics that general astronomy doesn’t hit on or discuss. Podcasting empowers the podcaster to go super-niche if they wish and I think we have done. We are able to talk about peer-reviewed research and not just headlines. We can talk about grants and telescopes and politics and the working lifestyle of our field. This felt a bit odd at first but it gets great feedback and was clearly something people wanted to hear.

It became apparent early on that lots of people listen to us in bed! It turns out that this isn’t just us, but rather bedtime listening may be a common podcast phenomenon (citation needed). I have to be honest and say that learning this totally changed the way I thought about the podcast. It suddenly felt far more intimate and it meant that I realised not everyone listens half-distracted on a bus or train. It also meant that they likely didn’t get to the end, so we started trying to wake them up.

Very entertaining podcast where Chris and Rob cover the latest astronomy and general science news mixed with funny banter and anecdotes. Warning, don’t listen to this in bed as they will usually try to wake you up halfway through the podcast. – H.Kramer on iTunes

We don’t rehearse – I hope that’s obvious – and we don’t normally edit. I once edited out a very loud cough. The only other edits I can recall were forced upon me. On one occasion the fire alarm went off and I really did my best to keep recording but had to edit eventually and another time a phone began ringing in the recording studio, that we didn’t even know was there, and one of the Press Office staff had to come and answer it.

We’ve had bad episodes and we are pretty harsh critics of our own work. We’ve had some great episodes too. Weirdly I’m having trouble coming up with any particularly good or bad episodes. The titles are all just quotes from the show and I rarely recall anything that’s been said once I’ve posted it online. I rarely listen to episodes unless I think they were particularly high/low quality and I rely on The Listener to let me know if the audio quality is a problem – and it was in the early days. In fact getting things wrong and being low-budget is, I hope, quite endearing.

Affable co-hosts Chris and Rob talk about the latest developments in astronomy and space news, while frequently digressing, getting things wrong, arguing, forgetting people’s names, ranting vociferously, and occasionally giving a running commentary on what they can see out of the window. One day all podcasts will be this good. – Keithlard on iTunes

So here’s to the last two years, which have been fun and informative and at the very least have meant that that the spiders in the Oxford University Press Office have had some company, even if they never say much when we’re recording.

At the end of the month I’m going to an event at MIT all about science communication and I hope to hear from others who are doing something a bit different. The web is such a wonderfully diverse place for talking about anything and with science there is so much to say. More please!

All Hail Sir Patrick Moore