Emily LakdawallaMar 06, 2013

Meteor showers on Titan: an example of why Twitter is awesome for scientists and the public

I use a variety of social networking tools to perform my job, but there's one that's more important and valuable to me than all the rest combined: Twitter. When I first started using Twitter I saw it only as a means to put information out, kind of like my blog only very much shorter. But over time I've come to rely upon it as my single source of news, whether it be space news or Earth news. Through my carefully cultivated and pruned list of people and organizations that I follow, Twitter is where I hear about press releases, new images from Mars, space news like the Russian meteor, world news like earthquakes and the deaths of political leaders, and local news like wildfires.

And Twitter is, more and more, the place where I interact with readers, fellow journalists, and scientists. Through Twitter I watch and, often, participate in ongoing discussions about journalism, space policy, and science. When I have a question, I ask it on Twitter and I get answers within minutes (sometimes, seconds). When I attend a conference, I can discuss the news and science with my peers through Twitter. Since the discussion is public, anyone can jump in to the conversation, and if their contribution is valuable, it will be amplified through retweets. Sometimes the discussion can get snarky but several studies have shown that on Twitter, a positive attitude has much more traction than a negative one, and that's definitely true on my feed; I routinely trim the list of people that I follow to remove people who get me down.

Yesterday afternoon there was a discussion on Twitter that exemplifies its value and fun, and I thought that I'd reproduce it here for the benefit of readers who have yet to be convinced that Twitter is anything but people posting photos of their dinners. One important Twitter convention to be aware of here is that when you begin a tweet with the "@" symbol and the Twitter username of another person, that's called a "mention" and it's a way of directing your statement or question at a specific person. But it's a conversation that's taking place out in public, which means that other people can jump in and join the conversation, as several do here.

It all began with me posting a link to my blog entry about a potential meteor shower on Mars. A reader (who goes by @BadPhysics on Twitter; I don't know their actual identity) had a question, and two scientists (asteroid astronomer Andy Rivkin and planetary rings guy Luke Dones) stepped in with answers to the question. Which was cool and very helpful of them, but the best was yet to come.

One thing that's happening here is that although the statements of each person are individually quite brief, there is a TON of substance in this conversation in the form of four links to authoritative articles: one an online FAQ about fireballs, one a transcript of a NASA podcast on lunar impact flashes, and two peer-reviewed papers about meteor flashes in the Martian atmosphere: one on a flash observed by Spirit and the other on a proposed wide-angle meteor-flash-hunting camera for a Martian orbiter. I had seen the first two links before but had been unaware of the two papers, which were fascinating.

A little later, a third scientist, Titan-atmosphere-making Sarah Horst, said this: 

(Note: Sarah's unusual "I had a sad" syntax here is LOLspeak, an Internet lingo. As with other slang, linguistics researchers have described LOLspeak as "a form of language play that serves in-group cohesion: if you’re in on the joke, you’re part of the community.")

Sarah's comment inspired a lot of responses.

The conversation turned from science to wonder with the arrival of a new conversation participant, Rachel Klippenstein (@tunglere) -- someone who is not a space scientist, but rather a grad student in linguistics. Yet, through the medium of Twitter, here we all are, inspiring and learning from each other. Sarah may even have hit upon the idea for a new scientific paper (her comment "Where's Ralph?" refers to Titan scientist Ralph Lorenz, who has a history of thinking about and publishing papers on wonderful, out-there ideas). Like 95% of anybody's ideas for papers, this one likely won't actually go anywhere, but random "I wonder...." thoughts and conversations do wind up inspiring a large amount of scientific research.

Anyway, scientific discussion continued:

The conversation continued beyond this, late into the evening, bringing in more participants, further discussion of whether there might be meteors visible in other places (like Triton), and mentions of martinis and mojitos. It seemed pretty clear that human eyes wouldn't likely see many meteors on Titan from Titan's surface, but the discussion of what native Titan life could see was, of course, unresolved. Discussions wind up feeling like the discussions we have over drinks after scientific conferences, except that non-space-scientists can join in, too, bringing in their richness of knowledge and experience; and there are many, many more people eavesdropping, watching and learning about things that it hadn't occured to them before to be curious about. These kinds of conversations happen all the time on Twitter, and I certainly feel richer for having the chance to observe them.

So, if you don't already, follow me on Twitter; I think you'll be glad you did! For ideas on whom to follow you can look at my list, but one of the great things about Twitter is that you are responsible for curating your own list of follows, things that are meaningful and useful specifically to you. If you follow too many people and your stream gets overwhelming, just prune it. I routinely unfollow people that I like and who tweet interesting things in an effort to keep my stream volume manageable; it's of no use to you if it's too overwhelming to read. Unlike on Facebook, where "unfriending" carries so much emotional baggage, unfollowing someone on Twitter is not considered (by most people) an insult. I know that people unfollow me episodically because when I attend conferences or press briefings I tweet at a very high volume that some find overwhelming. If you unfollow me for this reason, I don't take it personally; I hope you will follow The Planetary Society's official Twitter stream, @exploreplanets, which has much lower volume.

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