An interview with PASP Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Mangum

24 Nov 2015Bristol, UK

Earlier this year we announced a new partnership with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) to publish their journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP).

With IOP Publishing (IOP) now accepting submissions for PASP and in advance of us publishing the first issue in January 2016, we talk to Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Jeff Mangum.

IOP: Please can you tell us a bit about PASP and the scope of the journal?

Jeff: PASP is one of the top journals in astronomy that researchers look to for peer-reviewed research in astrophysics and other fields of interest. The journal was established in 1889, as part of the ASP's mission to advance the science of astronomy and disseminate astronomical research results. And as part of this, we try to be more educational in nature and provide supplementary content in addition to standard research articles in PASP.

For example, we publish articles that are called tutorials that allow researchers to do a “deep dive” into a particular subject. Tutorials not only allow students and seasoned researchers to grasp a particular subject, but also provide a reference document for the subject. We also publish dissertation summaries submitted by recent PhD awardees and conference summaries submitted by organizers of recent scientific research conferences. These three paper types are unique in the astronomical publishing arena. 

PASP is regarded in the astronomical community as the “go to” journal for instrumentation and software articles. These are articles that describe new instrumentation that has been installed on a telescope. The instrumentation articles published in PASP often become a standard reference for other researchers who are interested in using the instrument described. Similarly, anyone that has produced a software package that uses an interesting algorithm can publish this information in PASP, thus providing access to this software or algorithm to a wider audience in the astrophysical research community. PASP has been publishing instrumentation and software articles for its entire existence.

IOP: We’re excited to be the new publishing partner for PASP with the first issue available in the New Year – can you tell us what developments in the journal researchers can expect to see?

Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Jeff: I’m really hoping that authors will take advantage of the video abstract functionality that will now be available in the journal since moving over to being published by IOP. This is an interesting channel that authors can use to broaden the visibility of their work beyond the article PDF and is additional content that PASP readers will have access to when accessing the journal through IOP’s website, IOPscience. A video abstract is also a really great way to do some self-advertising, for free.

I am really excited about the potential impact that video abstracts could have toward improving communication of scientific research. I also hope to be able to produce my own video abstracts to associate with my research in PASP. I held a talk a couple of months ago at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) where I work, and is where I introduced my colleagues to the video abstracts associated with another of IOP’s journals, New Journal of Physics (NJP), which was really fun. (See NJP’s video abstracts.)

IOP: Can you tell us a bit more about the research you do?

Jeff: I’m a scientist at the NRAO and wear a number of different hats in addition to being the PASP Editor-in-Chief. I started out about 30 years ago, studying the star formation in our own galaxy and in the last 10 years I have focussed more on star formation in other galaxies outside of our own.

Our instrumentation capabilities have got to the point where we can measure other galaxies, and actually galaxies that are pretty far away, with our radio telescopes. We can detect the dust emission or the emission from molecules in these other galaxies and study the star formation process. By studying the star formation process in other galaxies, we can get a sense of how the evolution of a galaxy is intertwined with the scale of the star formation process in that galaxy – is it a whole bunch of stars forming really fast and if it is, why? If it is a loser, in terms of producing a star here and there, why? How is that associated with the evolution of that galaxy or the type of galaxy it is?

In addition to research at NRAO, we work on the design, installation, and further development of radio telescope facilities. The latest one that we’ve opened up in the last couple of years is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). It is an international project with an array of 66 antennas located in Northern Chile at an elevation of about 5000 metres on a high plain in the Andes mountains.

IOP: Can you tell us more about your work on the ALMA?

The Atacama Compact Array (ACA) – a subsystem
of the ALMA telescope. Credit: ALMA

Jeff: My involvement in ALMA began early on when it was a very different project called the Millimeter Array. We started designing the Millimeter Array in 1982 and that eventually morphed into this much bigger project, the ALMA. I was actually a student at NRAO when it was first being developed.

More recently, in the last 10 years, my involvement has been focussed on the performance specifications for, and then characterizing, the performance of the antennas that are used in the array.

Over the years, I guess I’ve done a lot of work on the characterization of radio telescope antennas. What that involves is doing things like characterizing how well the antenna surfaces hold their paraboloidal shape and how well they hold their position toward a point in the sky. Just like using a normal telescope or binoculars, we need to be able to hold the radio telescope still and get a really good visual picture. We need to be able to position the antennas very accurately in the sky as well as use materials in the antenna’s construction that will allow them to maintain their shape under a wide range of environmental conditions.

We’re working to tiny scales too. We have techniques that allow us to measure the quality of the radio telescope surface that approaches an accuracy of about 5 microns. Keep in mind too that the ALMA antennas, which range in diameter from 7 to 12 metres, need to operate on a cold and windy high Chilean plateau. The environmental conditions really push the limits of how well antennas can perform when doing astronomical measurements.

IOP: Does this type of work lend itself well to collaboration? How can researchers expand their networks and become involved in different research projects?

Jeff: In astronomy, it tends to be the case that you can work with whoever you like with very few, if any, barriers. I have collaborators all over the world, working on a variety of different projects. When we want to write a proposal to do a particular research project, I think to myself: “Well you know this person did similar research on the same area at some point recently and they had some really interesting ideas on how to attack the problem, so I’ll see if they’re interested in my little project and try to learn something from them.” In astronomy it is more about individuals getting together after deciding we’re interested in a problem – let’s work on it together.

Most people are happy to get involved with a project. My research focuses on observations rather than theory, which means that I have to write research proposals for observing time on telescopes. It is usually at this observing time proposal that collaborations form.

Conferences continue to be a fantastic way to develop relationships with peers and discover new research. For example, I have been fortunate to go to a regular conference in Zermatt, Switzerland, that is organized by the astronomy group at the University of Cologne, over the last several decades.

This personal interaction that you have with colleagues at conferences is fundamentally necessary in order to be an active researcher in astronomy. It adds so many other dimensions to your research and how it connects to the research that other astronomers are doing. It goes well beyond just sitting in your office submitting articles to journals like PASP and having your peers read those articles. Interaction with colleagues at meetings is always extremely invigorating and exhausting at the same time. You might think that you will go to a meeting to discuss a simple topic and then you end up spending hours or maybe days diving into aspects of that research topic that you hadn’t even previously understood or thought about. It is very invigorating.

Thanks to Jeff for speaking to us about PASP and his research.

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