New Science in the Age of Twitter

In the fall of 2015, the Internet was set abuzz by news of a star that seemed to dim without warning – an event heralded as the discovery of “alien megastructures” across the news. While the initial excitement has disappeared from news outlets, the research of this “most mysterious star” has not. Scientists have continued to use better telescopes and improved statistical analysis to understand this scientific puzzle. Now, researchers at the Louisiana State University has uncovered another clue in this mystery, discovering that the star has been dimming over the past several decades. This news has led to not only fascinating astronomical research, but also an amazing collaborative discussion on new digital platforms.

The original spark for these discoveries came from Tabetha Boyajian, a Yale researcher who first discovered the unprecedented dimming of the star last summer.Using the Kepler Space Telescope, she discovered a star with a remarkable light curve, a graph that displays an object’s brightness over time. As large planets pass in front of stars, the stars dim by a tiny but measurable amount; thus by observing those light curves, astronomers are able to discover new exoplanets. This is the method that the Kepler Spacecraft has used to detect 1,013 new exoplanets over the last five years.

Passing exoplanets are not the only event that causes a star to dim. There are many different astronomical phenomena, from Cepheid variable stars with internal nuclear reactions causing periodic dimming and brightening, to binary star systems, where multiple stars orbit each other and cause different phenomena. In addition, stellar evolution plays a large role; as stars burn through their fuel supply, they change over time and form different kinds of stars, from red supergiants to white dwarfs. Although we have many understood methods for fluctuations in a star’s brightness, the recent data disagrees with all our known models.

Abel Mendez, professor of astronomy at the Louisiana State University, analyzed previously unused light measurements of the star taken between 1890 and 1989 taken at the Harvard College Observatory,. One of the unique resources are collections of astronomical “plates”, or old pictures of the sky. Back in a time without cameras and digital technologies, astronomers would expose a chemical plate to the light collected from a telescope and study the brightness of the resulting dots. While this may seem primitive compared to present day technology, the “plates” hold treasure trove of information, especially with the long time span that the data covers. Mendez’s analyzed our mysterious star in these plates, finding even more mystery than previously expected. The “plates” showed that the star would rapidly dim and brighten over a few days; the new data shows that the star has been slowly dimming over the past few decades.

What does this data mean? It is important to remember that the timescale of stars is very different from the timescale of humans. While humans live to around 100 years, stars can live anywhere from a few million years and a few trillion years. Rapid luminosity change within several decades would be like a friend’s sudden growth spurt of two feet over a few days.

Immediately, the astronomy community was abuzz about the new dimming effects of the star. However, before they got too excited, they needed to verify that the paper was error-free. Astronomer Jason Wright of Penn State University, a researcher who helped publicize the first round of discussions on Tabetha’s star, commented, “There’s a little bit of breath holding … you’re worried that someone will point out a mistake, saying ‘wait, we know what is happening’. But that didn’t happen”, Soon after publication, Wright and other astronomers began to communicate, not at astronomy conferences or through private messages, but via social media on possible explanations. It sparked a tweetstorm: astronomers rapidly traded ideas about Tabetha’s star, all in 140 characters or less.

As of today, there are no dominant theories for why this dimming has occurred, but certainly not due to a lack of effort. However, it is certain that the way that these new discoveries get shared has drastically changed in the last twenty years. Just as digital mass media has changed the circulation of news amongst the general public, so have digital platforms changed the circulation of scientific breakthroughs. Instead of waiting for annual conferences or monthly journals to deliver the latest news, scientists are able to immediately connect to the Internet and share their findings. Perhaps the greatest consequence is that it gives people from different fields the chance to apply their own knowledge. What may have only been of interest to exoplanet researchers in the past is now approached by researchers working in fields like stellar evolution, galaxy formation.

While there are challenges in adopting new forms of communication, there are also many benefits. Past Twitter announcements have been flooded by discouraging comments on the wastefulness of NASA or other non-relevant topics. Likewise, on this Twitter thread, there were indeed some off-topic remarks about Star Wars and science fiction. But in the context of the thread, it was taken more as light humor than as a crank disrupting the conversation. These discoveries ought to prompt the public imagination. The fact that this serious science discussion happened on Twitter, a remarkably public and open domain, only serves to show the increasing democratization of scientific thought. Of course, Twitter isn’t the only meeting place of researchers; private groups on Facebook and discussion threads on small forums allow for more in-depth thought to be given to the new discoveries.

Twitter is not a perfect platform for scientists. Just this past week, the news of the discovery of gravitational waves was slightly dampened by a leak of the story, barely 15 minutes before the official announcement. The culprit? A single scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who tweeted a picture of a cake with the words “Here’s to the first direct detection of Gravitational Waves!” written in delicious green frosting. This certainly annoyed several news organizations but delighted scientists, who retweeted and retweeted the cake. Twitter and Facebook has the possibility of spreading misinformation and creating unbased rumors, but so far, it seems like it is doing more good than harm. Today, there are over 200 professional astronomers on Twitter, each with over 1000 followers, and many more scientists in other disciplines speaking directly to a large public base.

Breaking discoveries of this nature are generating more and more collaborative projects aided by new digital communications. Gone are the days of sitting by the mailbox, waiting for the next journal to provide news. It means that research can be done in a wide horizontal method, connecting ideas that might have seemed too far flung a few decades ago. New analysis is able to be immediately folded into the larger canon of research and closely scrutinized to prevent mistakes, while rich educational resources become increasingly public. Says Wright, “[The internet] is a new communication avenue; it makes the astronomy world a little smaller.”

Chunny Ding is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at chunyang.ding@yale.edu.

(Featured image courtesy of NASA.gov.)