Life at the tip of the New Media Branch


Astronomers are simple creatures – when someone makes a simple log-log plot with some interesting data, that’s usually enough to excite us.  There’s only two ways it gets better:

1. The log-log plot has your data on it.

2. YOU are on it.

A little history first.  The Hertzprung Russell Diagram (or HR diagram for the hip) is a spotter’s guide to stars.

We compare the “surface temperature” of a star (we do this by looking at where its radiation peaks – the higher the frequency of the peak, the hotter the star) with its luminosity (how bright it is).  Stars come in a variety of flavours, but there are patterns that emerge very quickly.  The biggest pattern is the Main Sequence – a fuzzy line that links stars across an impressive range of mass (low mass stars are on the right, high mass stars are on the left).  These are stars in the most typical phase of their life – burning hydrogen at their cores by nuclear fusion, these are the common vanilla variety of superhot gasball.  Our Sun is about halfway through its Main Sequence lifetime – meaning we have 5 billion more years of business as usual.

When the hydrogen runs out, the stars evolve off the Main Sequence into the Giant Branch, even becoming Supergiants.  At the very final stage of a low mass star’s life, the giants throw off their upper layers, leaving the compact white dwarfs, which exist thanks to the bizarreness of quantum mechanics.  High mass stars explode as supernovae, which may leave behind a neutron star (which aren’t really on the plot).

This diagram is a who’s who of stars – it tells you about where a star is in its life, how massive it is, etc.  What if you could make a diagram that’s a who’s who of astronomers?  Well, now there is a Astronomer HR diagram.

Astronomers aren’t exactly superheated gasballs, but they do produce output.  The main output is peer-reviewed published journal articles – the more articles you’ve published, the more “heat” you’ve generated and the better recognition you’ll get from your peers.  But of course, the advent of the Internet has given astronomers new routes to global recognition, via social media and blogging.  A quick Google of yourself is enough to gauge your fame (or infamy).  And hey presto! New patterns emerge.

Most astronomers will follow the main career sequence (starting off in the bottom right as proto-astronomers), with the number of Google hits being linked to the number of papers they publish, the number of papers they are cited in, and the number of conferences they attend – all three have web presence, so Google will flag them up.

In some rare cases, the web presence is very low, and you get dark astronomers – I suspect that they started their careers some time before the Internet began, so Google missed their original contributions.  People at the leftmost tip of the main career sequence have had a full, influential career.

Those which burn brightest in the political firmament will become academic giants (Lord Martin Rees’ appointment to President of the Royal Society will have helped him there).  If they are really famous (publishing several popular books like Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, or incredibly successful bloggers like Phil Plait), then they become media giants.

What about me? I have 9 published papers and around 60,000 hits on Google, so that puts me right at the top tip of the New Media Branch, a relatively new development which exists thanks to social networking sites and brief flurries of media coverage.  I got there thanks to my research on SETI, and I could identify a few others who got there with other media-friendly topics (planet-hunting, etc).  From the looks of it, members of this branch are on the way to becoming media stars, if they can keep up their rise to fame (like Chris Lintott of The Sky at Night and Galaxy Zoo).

This figure has been going round most astronomy departments, and it’s quite fun to place yourself on it.  It’s an incredibly shrewd observation by the people at Astronomy Blog, and it’s probably a goldmine for social scientists, who are using our web presence to attempt precision sociology.  It’s kind of ironic that astronomers are just like stars in a lot of respects – I wonder if Hertzprung and Russell ever anticipated that their diagram might have such esoteric uses.

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