On occasion, my day job is going to interfere with finding the time to write these columns. For an astronomer, there are things like Jupiter season and the seasons of the moon, but there is also proposal season. And proposal season starts now.
For almost every telescope that I ever use I have to write a proposal convincing another group of astronomers that the project that I have in mind is worthy. Depending on the telescope involved and precisely when you want to use that telescope, the competition to be one of the people selected ranges from moderate to extreme. The proposal that is current occupying my time is one to use the Hubble Space Telescope. Even after 16 years in space, the Hubble is still one of the most sought after telescopes around. One of the reasons it continues to be so good is that every few years the Space Shuttle goes to the Hubble, fixes anything that may have broken, and installs newer more modern cameras. The last of these Shuttle refurbishments is slated to take place this summer, and afterward the Hubble will be equipped with the last ultimate cameras to scan the cosmos.
I am salivating to use these new cameras, and so are most of the other astronomers around. Who gets to use them and who doesn't will all be decided on the basis of proposals being written right now. Only about one in five will have a proposal accepted. I want to be one of them.
How to do it? How do you write a proposal that will be accepted? It's probably not unlike many other businesses. You need two key things: a great idea and a great sales pitch. Scientists often forget about the sales pitch part. After all, a strong scientific idea should be able to stand on its own, right? No chance. I have seen proposals with solid scientific ideas presented poorly, and they rarely even get looked at twice. Occasionally I've seen it the other way around: great sales pitch for a mediocre idea. To their credit, I think that scientists rarely fall for that, either. You really need both.
For the proposal I am currently working on I think I have a great idea to work with. I hope to do a large scale survey to understand the different types of objects in the region of space beyond Neptune. The proposal nicely builds on years of preliminary work we've done with telescopes here on earth, and it uses the Hubble study many more of these objects which are too faint to see from the earth.
It's a good scientific project. There are things that we know we will find, but there is also much room for unanticipated discovery.
But it's going to need a good sales pitch. Just like in every other profession, there are specialities that are trendy and those that are not. In astronomy, distant galaxies and supernovae and the earliest phases of the universe are trendy. Our solar system -- even the distant edge of our solar system -- is decidedly not. It's too small; it's too close; it's too specific. Why worry about the details of what happened in one insignificant corner of one insignificant galaxy when instead you could be studying the formation of the universe itself? I think there are good answers to this question. I think that without studying the details we will never know if our more general ideas are correct. And I think that the significance of our corner of the galaxy is vastly increased by the fact that is our corner.
But will I be able to sell it? I cannot predict, but decision will be announced on June 15th. Stay tuned. In the meantime, do not be surprised if proposal season takes its toll on these pages. But don't give up all hope. As can be seen even right now, writing these pages fullfills one important need without which no proposal could ever be completed: procrastination.