Astrobites at AAS 240: Day 1

Welcome to the summer American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Pasadena, CA, and online! Astrobites is attending the conference as usual, and we will report highlights from each day here. If you’d like to see more timely updates during the day, we encourage you to search the #AAS240 hashtag on Twitter. We’ll be posting once a day during the meeting, so be sure to visit the site often to catch all the news!

Young stars flare into life in dusty recesses of the Cygnus X star-forming complex. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Hora (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

Table of Contents:

Fred Kavli Plenary Lecture: Phosphine in the Atmosphere of Venus, Jane Greaves (by Briley Lewis)

AAS 240 started off today with a hot topic: possible detections of alien life. (More specifically, phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere!) 

In 2020, Professor Jane Greaves and collaborators released a paper that became headline news and claimed a detection of phosphine on Venus, which could be a possible sign of extraterrestrial life. Venus, though, has long been thought of as quite an inhospitable place. Early missions like Mariner 2 and Venera 14 revealed a dried-out surface with a sweltering temperature of 900°F, the result of a “runaway greenhouse effect.” Yet, some scientists think that microorganisms from a previously lush surface could have taken refuge in Venus’s thick clouds, where they may still reside today. 

the rocky dry surface of venus with a bit of the venera lander at the bottom of the image
Venera’s view of the Venusian surface. Image Credits: NASA / Russian Academy of Sciences / Venera 14

These microbes, if they existed, probably wouldn’t use oxygen since there’s little of it in the Venusian atmosphere, and we know that anaerobic (not using oxygen) microbes on Earth can produce phosphine (PH3). Phosphine is also produced by industrial processes on Earth and even in the guts of penguins! But we don’t know of a way to make lots of phosphine just through photochemistry in an atmosphere. This means that if we were to observe phosphine on Venus, it could be taken as a likely sign of anaerobic life.

Greaves had the idea to investigate this in what she calls a “blue skies” project — something that was a bit of a long shot and would only take a few hours of observing time, but could be revolutionary if it worked. She used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Mauna Kea to observe Venus at millimeter wavelengths, peering into a “temperate” layer of clouds on Venus to search for spectral signatures of phosphine’s J=1-0 line. Much to her surprise, the spectra showed a detection! To be sure of what she was seeing, Greaves spent nearly three years looking at the data set and analyzing it before publishing her landmark research. Now, there are three epochs of data — two from JCMT and one from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — showing a detection of this phosphine spectral line.

three plots of spectra, all showing the phosphine line. JCMT 2017, ALMA 2019, JCMT 2020
Greaves’ three observations of the phosphine line on Venus from JCMT and ALMA. Image Credits: Jane Greaves

The article prompted significant discussion and debate, as any potential detection of life should. In her talk today, she explored the question of why there was so much debate and why this is such a hard detection to make. The answer is actually pretty simple: interferometry is hard! ALMA’s phase errors are symmetric, which leads to ripples in the spectra that need to be removed. For JCMT, signals that are delayed by bouncing off the parts of the radio antenna can be misinterpreted as different frequencies, again leading to ripples. These ripples are usually removed by fitting a polynomial and subtracting it away. Some have pushed back on this method, saying you could create a false signal with that method, but Greaves assured people today that this is a very standard practice in radio astronomy and, if done carefully and properly, cannot produce false signals as claimed. She has also recently reduced data from JCMT with an alternate method, removing the ripples in Fourier space, to reduce any bias in the reduction — and the signal is still present! 

Greaves addressed a few other criticisms as well. First, some have suggested that the phosphine line is actually just a line of sulfur dioxide that’s been shifted over. According to her model fits to the data, it’s a low probability that could be the case. Plus, sulfur dioxide could only mimic phosphine if its abundance had increased by a factor of 10 within a week — something that’s never been seen in millimeter monitoring of Venus! Others have speculated that volcanoes could explain the presence of phosphine, but today Greaves made “a case against volcanism.” The idea is that phosphides from deep in the mantle could explosively erupt into the atmosphere and then react to create phosphine. After talks with geochemists, Greaves determined that’s an unlikely scenario. Plus, explosive eruptions need water — something Venus is notoriously lacking!

Despite this, Greaves isn’t wholly convinced it’s life, either. The clouds are acidic and lacking in water, making it hard even for something microscopic to live there. But the conditions in the clouds aren’t uniform, and they’re always changing — so maybe “microhabitats” of habitable conditions could exist!

Now, Greaves and her collaborators are following up, looking for ways to make this detection clearer and understand what exactly is going on in Venus’s clouds. Using data from JCMT, they’re looking for phosphine, semi-heavy water (HDO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) all at the same time to see how they vary together. They also want to see if these lines shift with Venus’s velocity, which would confirm they’re not just artifacts in the data. Plus, Greaves’ collaborators have used data from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to search for phosphine lines, and found a hint that there’s something there! Further observations could be useful, and Greaves gave “a plea from me to keep this wonderful observatory [SOFIA] flying” despite its planned cancellation at the end of the summer.

Greaves' slide showing the tentative SOFIA detection of phosphine
Greaves’ AAS slide on SOFIA observations, showing the spectrum of a different PH3 line (4-3) and her plea to keep the observatory running. Image Credits: Jane Greaves / NASA / Cordiner et al.

The debate about life on Venus is nowhere near settled, but we can thank Jane Greaves for starting this incredible discussion. There’s much to look forward to, especially as new missions like DAVINCI+, VERITAS, EnVision, and more launch to our neighboring planet in the coming decade!

See live-tweets of this session here, by Briley Lewis.

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Press Conference: Deciphering Dust, Analyzing Andromeda & Evolving/Ending Exoplanets (by Pratik Gandhi)

The first press conference of AAS240 was also the first-ever attempt at a fully hybrid one! We had three in-person presenters (Dr. Angela Speck, Dr. Jeonghee Rho, and Dr. Ivanna Escala) and two joining remotely (graduate students Jacob Hamer and Ricardo Yarza).

Dr. Speck (University of Texas San Antonio) kicked us off with her talk “Spontaneous Reheating during Crystallization of Stardust: Resolution of an ISM Paradox”: “there is dust in space everywhere — it’s important for how stars form and die, and for molecule formation and dynamics. So understanding dust is really important!” The key question is whether dust is usually amorphous or crystalline, and using lab techniques, Dr. Speck’s group found that during crystallization by cooling, the material can often spontaneously heat up for a short period of time, which means that crystallizing dust can briefly glow really bright, while amorphous dust won’t glow as brightly. They also found that dust forming around stars will show crystalline structure, but cool dust in the ISM is usually amorphous.

Second, Dr. Rho (SETI Institute), talked about the polarization and dust properties of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Since one of the theoretical pathways for dust formation is via supernovae, supernova remnants are great places in which to study dust. The polarization of light coming from the remnant can give us a wealth of information about the dust grain sizes, dust composition, and magnetic fields. Dr. Rho’s team discovered high polarization in the Cass A remnant, which could mean that the dust present is composed of large grains and mostly made of silicates, rather than carbon. Their work also indicates that supernovae are one of the main sources of dust in the early Universe!

Next, Dr. Ivanna Escala (Carnegie Observatories) discussed the chemistry and dynamics of ‘tidal shells’ in the Andromeda galaxy. Tidal shells are thought to form by the destruction of low-mass satellite galaxies falling into a more massive host galaxy on highly radial orbits, resulting in stars getting stripped from the satellite due to tidal forces. Studying tidal shells can tell you about both the properties of the original satellite galaxies that merged in, as well as the dark matter in the massive host galaxy. Dr. Escala reported spectroscopic confirmation of a tidal shell system in Andromeda, which is also the first-ever observation of a multi-shell system! Andromeda is great for studying such features because it’s the closest Milky Way-like galaxy, allowing for exquisite observations. The simplest explanation for the multiple-shell system is that all of the shells have a common origin and resulted from a single merger, because they have very similar chemical compositions.

The first of the remote presenters, PhD student Jacob Hamer (Johns Hopkins University) talked about his use of data from the Gaia mission to study Hot Jupiter exoplanets. However, many exoplanets we observe are nothing like the ones in our solar system, because they are massive yet orbit really close to their stars; these are called Hot Jupiters! One of the key questions about their origin is: do Hot Jupiters form with their orbits misaligned with the star and then align over time? Using Gaia data, they found that aligned Hot Jupiters arrived at their current orbits early on, while mis-aligned ones arrive at their current orbits late, after the protoplanetary disk would have dissipated.

Finally, we had PhD student Ricardo Yarza (UC Santa Cruz), who works on the fluid dynamics of planetary engulfment, which is the process by which old stars engulf planets into their outer layers when they expand into giants. Yarza’s group uses simulations to study planetary engulfment, but this is difficult because giant stars and planets have very different radii, and the simulations cannot resolve such different scales simultaneously. Their group’s solution was to simulate just the zoomed-in region of the planet and its immediate surroundings within the stars as it gets engulfed; they found that engulfment could significantly boost the star’s brightness over short periods of time!

See live-tweets of this press conference here, by Pratik Gandhi.

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Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal Lecturer: Jocelyn Bell Burnell (University of Oxford) (by Katya Gozman)

This morning’s plenary session was probably one that many people have been waiting for, since the speaker was none other than Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of the most well-known women of astrophysics in the last century. Dr. Bell Burnell is the recipient of the Royal Astronomical Society’s (RAS) Gold Medal, which is the highest honor awarded by the society. A winner of multiple prestigious awards over her distinguished career, Bell Burnell is also a big advocate for budding astronomers and donated most of the prize money she received from the Special Breakthrough Prize to fund underrepresented minorities and refugees. While Dr. Bell Burnell is most well known for her groundbreaking discovery of radio pulsars in 1967, her talk was on the more human side of science — today she discussed women in astrophysics.

The main focus of her talk was her exploration of membership data for the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU is the “king” of all astronomical societies, and many regional groups such as the American Astronomical Society fall under the umbrella of the IAU. The IAU is unique in that unlike other professional societies in STEM fields, such as math or physics, it offers memberships to both organizations such as AAS as well as individual memberships, making it a unique treasure trove of demographic data. This data set is also freely available online, and the IAU has published membership data segregated by gender since the late 1990s. Dr. Bell Burnell has taken this opportunity to print out the membership statistics over the last few years to examine the trends in women’s membership across different countries over time.

The statistics paint a picture of a slow rise in women’s membership over the last 15 years. In 2005, 12.8% of the IAU’s total members identified as female. In 2020, this rose to a slightly higher 18.3%. But Dr. Bell Burnell wondered what the statistics would look like if she split these numbers up by country — is there a trend to which countries have the highest or lowest percentage of women’s membership? Looking only at countries that had 100 or more total IAU members, the top three countries with the most female members in 2005 were Argentina, France, and Italy, with Argentina’s membership being 35% women! The IAU average for all countries was 13%, and countries like the US and UK fell below that average at 11% and 10%, respectively. Japan had the least number of women in the IAU — only 4%! In 2010, Argentina still held the #1 position at 37%, with Ukraine coming in 2nd and the US and UK still below average. Burnell noted that this trend continued on until 2020, with southern European and South American countries taking the lead while northern European and English-speaking countries fell consistently below average.

Two countries in particular caught Dr. Bell Burnell’s eye: the Netherlands and Russia. In 2005, the Netherlands was one of the countries with the lowest percentages of women in the IAU — 9%. But in 2020, that statistic rose to 19% — on par with the average world percentage that year. What did they do to drastically increase women’s representation? Dr. Bell Burnell found out that for a few years, the Dutch had certain positions such as professorships that were only open to female applicants, which boosted their IAU membership. Meanwhile Russia’s percentage has always stayed above average, from 18% in 2005 to 21% in 2020. Russia’s success story is attributed to a darker reason — the Soviet Union tragically had a lot of casualties during World War I along with a flu epidemic, and because the state provided nursing and childcare facilities, women in the USSR and Russia have taken on jobs historically reserved for men, leading to a more consistent number of women astronomers.

With all of these numbers swimming around our heads, Dr. Bell Burnell ended her talk by musing on why these participation disparities between countries might exist. She posited a list of possible cultural factors that might influence these statistics, such as men taking on jobs in other subjects that are seen as more prestigious than astronomy or other cultures having a stronger family network to raise children together. She also considered large wealth and class disparities that may make it more common for less wealthy women to work in childcare or housekeeping, leaving more well-off women with time for doing astronomy.

When asked what advice she would give to senior people in positions of power in hopes of increasing representation in astronomy, Dr. Bell Burnell urged them to look at their application and admissions data and look for biases in their hiring. In her words, “data speaks to scientists, so gather the data.” What about people at the opposite end — what should early career women that want success in astronomy do? To this question, Dr. Bell Burnell’s answer was short: “Hang in there!”

If you want to find more information on women who are currently trailblazing in astronomy, check out the Astrobites interview series for Women in Astronomy and other articles related to this topic!

See live-tweets of this session here, by Briley Lewis.

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Addressing the Impact of Satellite Constellations on Astronomy: The Pathway Forward (by Isabella Trierweiler)

At this splinter meeting, a panel of astronomers outlined current efforts for mitigating the effects of satellite constellations in telescope observations. The appeal of using constellations of many small satellites for communication has led to thousands of these satellites being deployed in orbit, with thousands more on their way. These small satellites already show up in astronomical images as long streaks, so the goal of the AAS Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference and Space Debris is to figure out how to minimize their impact on current and upcoming telescopes. In addition to visible trails in images, which are a big worry for upcoming survey telescopes such as the Vera Rubin Observatory, the transmissions from satellites may overflow into radio bands used by astronomers.  

To address all of these issues, the International Astronomical Union formed the Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference (CPS), a joint program with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory and the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab). The idea is that the Centre would bring together everyone who has a stake in keeping skies dark, and tackle the mitigation of satellite constellations simultaneously through multiple avenues. Their plans include developing a worldwide network to carefully track the satellites that are already in orbit, creating the software and hardware needed to remove satellite signals from data, and working with policy makers and satellite companies to make future constellations as astro-friendly as possible. 

See live-tweets of this session here, by Isabella Trierweiler.

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Press Conference: Magnetic Fields & Galaxies (by Katya Gozman)

One of the quintessential questions that gets thrown in after a discussion in astronomy is “What about magnetic fields?” This afternoon’s press conference speakers dared to address this question while also making us hungry for Italian food, letting the (magnetic) force be with us on Tatooine, and talking about (mind) bending jets in galaxies.

Our first speaker was Dan Clemens from Boston University, who introduced us to a region called Cygnus-X, a radio source in its namesake constellation. This region has a long history of star formation and one of the big questions that astronomers have asked is whether magnetic fields are a “friend or foe” for star formation — do they let dense gas condense further and start star formation, or do they hinder gas flow and quench it? Cygnus-X also has an interesting structure: with its massive star forming zones, it has multiple individual clouds we can see — but are these filaments of star formation tangled up like a bowl of spaghetti or arranged in flat, uniform layers like lasagna?

In order to answer this question, Dan looked at the structure of gas velocity using observations of 13CO gas and made maps color-coded by velocity. Then they identified zones that had only a single velocity component and used data from Gaia to determine distances to these single velocity clouds. Combining this with polarization and stellar color data, Dan was able to determine that Cygnus-X is a delicious lasagna — they found that these different star forming zones were well separated at different distances and likely did not collide to trigger star formation. These results forge the path for using Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera Plus (HAWC+) data to look closer at the magnetic fields of these single velocity clouds and interpret polarization maps across the entire Cygnus-X field.

Our second speaker was Erin Cox from Northwestern University. While Dan told us about larger scale structures, Erin zoomed in to studying systems that are just beginning star formation — molecular clouds at the point of collapse with two stars orbiting each other that we call protobinary systems. If you’ve ever seen Star Wars, you might recognize the planet Tatooine, which orbits around a binary star system. When molecular clouds accumulate material, this creates a disk around the protostar system, as well as outflows that we can observe. Binaries come in two different flavors — close binaries (<500 AU separation) and wide binaries.

But simulations throw us a curveball: they show us that some binaries can actually be born as wide binaries and then migrate inward to transform into a close binary. Since planets and stars form at the same time, understanding how binaries form and evolve сan also teach us about these “Tatooine” planets that orbit binaries. This is also an asset for learning about stars in general, since over half of stars are in binary pairs. Erin looked at the magnetic fields of a nearby star called L483 using three telescopes: Pico Dos Días, SOFIA, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). They found that its protostellar envelope actually hosts twisted magnetic fields, with a close binary whose stars orbit at the distance between the Sun and Neptune. They believe that L483 is an example of a star that formed as a wide binary whose stars have migrated inward and changed their dynamics, causing the system’s magnetic fields to twist around.

The last speaker, Melissa Morris of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looked at magnetic fields in a different light by studying the environments of radio galaxies that host bent jets. Lots of radio galaxies we also call active galactic nuclei (AGN) have very straight, collimated jets like Cygnus A, but many galaxies aren’t straight: their jets are bent like an antennae on the top of a fast-moving car. Melissa used a catalog of 175 bent and 187 straight jet galaxies and used a friends of friends algorithm with DECaLS data to find other members of the galaxy group or cluster they are part of in order to study the environments these two kinds of AGN are found.

They found that AGN with bent jets occur more often in larger and denser environments than straight jet galaxies. They also looked at the magnitude gap in these different galaxy groups and clusters — basically the difference in brightness between the brightest and second brightest galaxy. The reason this metric is useful is from the way galaxies evolve: in a galaxy cluster, two biggest galaxies will merge and consume other galaxies, getting brighter and brighter. So if the magnitude gap is small, that means the group is dynamically young — it didn’t have as much time to have many mergers and grow much brighter than other galaxies. Melissa found that AGN with bent jets are also more likely to occur in these dynamically young environments that didn’t have time to grow one enormously bright galaxy. From these findings she infers that it’s possible all the intracluster gas and dust that are dispersed within galaxy groups and clusters act as a medium to bend AGN jets as they move through space. Armed with this information, she can now use these bent jet AGNs as tracers of dense environments, measure that density, and study how galaxies in such environments evolve over time.

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Plenary Lecture: Héctor Arce (Yale University) (by Mike Foley)

Proceeding the afternoon talks, we turned to a simultaneously heartbreaking and empowering topic: Arecibo Observatory. For nearly 70 years, Arecibo served as one of the foremost radio observatories in the world until it collapsed in December of 2020. Dr. Héctor Arce was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and he was inspired to pursue astronomy by both his grandfather and Arecibo. Now a professor of astronomy at Yale University, he charted out the history of this great observatory and prospects for rebuilding.

An aerial image of the large primary dish for Arecibo Observatory
Arecibo Observatory. Credit: University of Central Florida

Arecibo Observatory was originally conceived in the late 1950s. Since then, it has remained a fixture in public perception of astronomy, immortalized in pop culture through scenes in movies like “Contact” and “GoldenEye”. Until 2020, Arecibo was making groundbreaking discoveries across all areas of astronomy, including the discoveries of the first binary pulsar, the first exoplanet and exoplanetary system, and the first fast radio burst. One of the major surveys conducted at Arecibo — the Galactic Arecibo L-Band Feed Array HI Survey (GALFA-HI) — was instrumental in mapping our interstellar medium and studying star formation in the Milky Way. 

Furthermore, the observatory was key for planetary science, making the first maps of the surface of Venus and discovering its retrograde rotation, suggesting ice poles on Mercury, and identifying near-earth asteroids. The number of near-earth asteroids discovered is projected to advance drastically beyond existing planetary radars in the next decade, so Arecibo and other radio observatories will be crucial to keeping tabs on these interstellar neighbors! 

The observatory went through two major upgrades, the most recent of which happened in the 1990s. However, the 2020 Decadal Survey identified Arecibo as a critical avenue for future radio science. At the time of collapse, a number of improvements were already planned and funded for the observatory. Indeed, the observatory grew to represent more than just astronomical research interests. “Arecibo is more than an icon in Puerto Rico, it is a part of our culture… A symbol of inspiration,” writes Dr. Ed Rivera-Valentín in Physics World. It is so beloved that, a year after the collapse, a US Senate resolution passed unanimously in support of Arecibo that encouraged the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies to study the ways that the observatory might be rebuilt. Next-generation ideas are already rolling in, from an improved dish design to the introduction of a robotic collimator that can drive around the primary dish. In these new designs, it will be important to keep alive the universal legacy of Arecibo — the observatory worked for all astronomical fields of research, and the rebuilt observatory should strive to do the same. Arce closes with a firm call to action: “Congress and federal agencies, let’s find the money to make this a reality!”

See live-tweets of this session here, by Mike Foley.

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Heineman Prize Talk: Robert Lupton (Princeton University) & David Weinberg Ohio State University (by Mike Foley)

While the next few decades will feature incredible advancements in survey astronomy, astronomers are still actively using data from many surveys that began back in the late 20th century. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) was one of the most significant of these surveys, and it is still going strong over 20 years later with SDSS-V! Robert Lupton and David Weinberg have been key players in SDSS, and they told us all about the significant successes of the survey and what may come next.

One of the main early goals of SDSS was conducting a redshift survey to chart the 3D structure of the universe. With the most recent data release from SDSS-V in 2020, astronomers were able to produce the largest 3D map of the universe to date, covering nearly 11 billion years of expansion history. They have also produced large databases of stellar spectra, mapped out baryon acoustic oscillations, and explored the internal structure of thousands of galaxies. 

With all of this success, it was surprising to hear that there was a lot of early skepticism surrounding SDSS. However, SDSS broke the redshift detection record in 1999, observing the farthest object ever discovered at the time. This convinced the astronomical community that SDSS could be a major player. The speakers noted that CCDs — charged coupled devices, which are essentially cameras for a telescope — were what set SDSS apart. The survey uses a telescope with 2.4-meter mirrors, 120 Megapixel cameras, and exposures that last for 54 seconds. Many new telescopes and upcoming surveys will beat that, so we can only imagine what the generation of survey astronomy will look like! 

In closing, Lupton and Weinberg offer advice for running a successful survey:

  1. Design for big technical advantage on one or more axes.
  2. Don’t fret too much about competition.
  3. Think deeply about the data. Maximize quality and usefulness.
  4. Value technical contributors!
  5. Recruit and value good leadership.
  6. Create coherent data sets that support a wide range of science.
  7. Make data public.
  8. Foster collaboration, diverse science, individual initiative, and creativity.
  9. Build and sustain a multi-generational collaboration.
  10. Have fun!

See live-tweets of this session here, by Mike Foley.

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Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy Activities in the Context of the Astro2020 Decadal (by Isabella Trierweiler)

The evening splinter meeting was hosted by the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) to present their strategic plan and its importance to the Astro2020 Decadal Survey. Their plan has four main focus-points, including addressing harassment and bullying, creating inclusive and ethical workspaces, and interactions with AAS. Much of the work includes collaboration with other AAS committees, including demographics, employment, and minority identity committees. A full list of their plans can be found here. After introducing the committee, the session then broke out into small groups to brainstorm additional ideas. Check out their website for advice and a database of their previous departmental surveys!

See live-tweets of this session here, by Isabella Trierweiler.

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After the 2020 World-Wide Protests: Progress and Failures of Implementing Substantial Change in Astronomy (by Sabina Sagynbayeva)

The panel for this town hall was moderated by Howard University graduate student and #BlackInAstro founder Ashley Walker and Vanderbilt University graduate student KeShawn Ivory. The panel included Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar, Dr. Ron Gamble, Pratik Gandhi, Yoni Brande, and three “ghost” panelists who couldn’t be present but answered the questions: Dr. Mia de los Reyes, Dr. Gourav Khullar, and Huei Sears. 

First, Ashley Walker explained to the audience the context for the town halls like this: social unrest during Summer 2020 led to the #Strike4BlackLives and #BlackInAstro. After the protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, major institutions like the AAS and the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) created letters of support for #BlackInAstro. There were also some concrete institutional changes like removing Physics GRE requirements and sending out climate surveys to help students from marginalized groups. Other than that, however, Ashley acknowledges that almost nothing has changed.

Astrobites’ posts about these issues served as additional inspiration behind this panel. Therefore, the first part of the discussion was about these posts. Dr. Mia de los Reyes shared how she got the idea to write those posts: Kate Storey-Fisher pointed out to her that astro departments had made a lot of statements in support of Black scientists in 2020, but it hadn’t been clear what actions had actually been taken.

The next part of the discussion was about structural committees that a lot of institutions created after the 2020 protests. Dr. Gamble and Dr. Cabrera Salazar pointed out the main problem with these committees: not enough people who do actual work. The departments create different Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committees, but the members either have no expertise in the subject of matter or do not care about the issues. As a result, most of the work falls onto junior scientists’ shoulders, but junior scientists often don’t have the institutional power or emotional bandwidth to deal with the systemic problems. “It is like you need tragedy to have triumph,” says Dr. Gamble, emphasizing the fact that people tend to start caring about these issues in the wake of a tragedy. In order to make DEI committees function successfully, Dr. Cabrera Salazar says that we need to learn to ask Black people what they actually need. 

Another important issue that was discussed was the system that hires faculty or accepts applicants, and what needs to be done to make the system more inclusive and equitable. The whole problem is with people in power. People in positions of power in an academic department need to be mindful of the struggles Black students face prior to entering the department. However, once Black folks are accepted to the department, they should feel that they’re valued, like any other student, so they won’t leave the field due to toxic environments or a lack of support.

Though everyone pointed out that even in two years after the George Floyd protests not a lot has been done, Dr. Cabrera Salazar acknowledges that there’s still hope because “she has seen the willingness to do the emotional work to help them, but it is a collective work, not something done by individuals only.”

See live-tweets of this session here, by Sabina Sagynbayeva.

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