Writing Papers, Making Videos: OSU Astronomy “Coffee Briefs”

by Guest on February 11, 2013

This is a guest post by Prof. Kris Stanek, an astronomy professor at The Ohio State University (OSU). Kris works on a wide range of topics including stellar explosions (GRBs, SNe), transiting planets, and other variable objects.

I am on a much-needed sabbatical at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii Manoa, and I recently gave a short talk promoting the idea of OSU Astronomy “Coffee Briefs”. The idea seemed well received, and Jessica Lu suggested that I write something about it for AstroBetter.

OSU “Coffee Briefs” are relatively short (3 to 5 minutes) videos posted on the OSU Department of Astronomy YouTube channel to explain and disseminate papers written by the members of our department. When a new paper is posted on astro-ph (see example), the archive posting includes a link to the video. What is new here is that this is done for all the papers, not just for an occasional press release.

The first “Coffee Brief” video was made in August 2011 by Jennifer van Saders, an OSU graduate student, and has been followed by many others. As of January 2013, 31 such videos have been posted (with a combined length of 2+ hours), made by 20 different OSU students, including one by an OSU undergrad.  The response of the astronomical community to this idea has been positive, but it has not yet been adopted by other astronomy departments. I hope to change that, hence my IfA talk and this post.

When the idea first emerged, I spent a few hundred dollars to buy a decent HD video camera, a tripod and an external mike. Since then, by popular demand I have also bought some lights, a better tripod and a lapel mike (but I have refused to buy a teleprompter). Students tape and edit their own videos, using public video editing software. After “vetting” them, we (one of OSU faculty members in charge of the YouTube channel) post them on YouTube, and while they have not been going viral yet, they usually get few hundred views, roughly half of them generated by the astro-ph link (the most viewed video has close to 2,000 views).

I asked Ben Shappee, a graduate student at OSU who made three “Coffee Briefs” so far, to share some of his video-making experience. Here are his thoughts:

“Making a video is generally a one person job that takes ~2 days the first time around.  After becoming familiar with script writing, filming, and editing, a video can usually be completed in a single day.  The keys to creating a successful video are to write a script broken into manageable bits, to include many diagrams and pretty pictures to accompany your monologue, and to use many arrows and other accents on diagrams to emphasize important features.  Finally, to enliven the brief, one can film the introduction and conclusions somewhere outside on campus.

The only significant investment needed to begin creating quality coffee briefs is the purchase of a suitable video camera and camera stand.  The additional equipment and software needed are minimal. There are even free video editors available on Windows, Mac, and Linux (Windows Movie Maker, Apple iMovie, and Kdenlive) that are all user friendly.  I personally recommend the open source video editor Kdenlive because of its balance between usability and functionality. Adding arrows and other accents to plots is easily accomplished in PowerPoint or Open Office, saved as individual images, and then imported into a video editor.  The only additional pieces of hardware I would recommend are a lapel microphone and a camera remote control. Creating a polished video is easier than one might think.”

So why would you adopt and then adapt this idea? I think there are at least three reasons to make these videos. One, in astronomy, it is an essential skill to be able to explain your science well, and to be concise about it.  This is what AAS five minute talks are all about, but here you get to edit and tape again and again, as much as needed. Second, these videos are also a good astronomy popularization tools, and of the 100+ people who have subscribed to our YouTube channel so far, only relatively few are professional astronomers (as far as I can tell). Third, and as important, doing this gets your name and face “out there”: you are no longer just “student of Professor so and so”, you are now a researcher with a name and a face. Of course there is no reason faculty members and other senior researchers could not do one as well, but at OSU, at least so far, only students have been receptive enough to actually make a video.

“First, do no harm” applies to astronomy as well, so you do not want to post a poorly executed and badly edited video. Make sure your adviser and/or co-authors see the video in advance, so you do not say something that makes them upset or something that will be out there to embarrass you forever.

If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me (kstanek *at* astronomy.ohio-state.edu), or post a comment/question and I will try to answer it. I am looking forward to seeing many astronomy “Coffee Briefs” (or whatever you will call them in your institution) for years to come.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 joequant March 4, 2013 at 10:18 pm

I’m wondering if there is a “quick and dirty guide to making a youtube video” that covers the technical aspects of doing this. One thing that I’ve found about podcasts is that they are often done by people within the entertainment industry that aren’t big stars, but they have a lot of technical knowledge. I’ve noticed in looking at youtube, that there is a big difference in quality.

One other thing that someone might do is a podcast with just talking about the latest arxiv papers.


2 joequant March 4, 2013 at 10:28 pm

A message to the young’uns out there….

One thing that graduate students and post-doc need to realize is that you are much better placed to do innovative and new stuff than us old geezers. For two reasons

1) you all have lots of time. I have a day job, I have a family. That and sleep takes up 95% of my energy, so that I can’t do as much astronomy as I want
2) you all have lots of freedom. You can make mistakes and mess up, and no one will care. If a big name professor makes a youtube video and it blows up, then he looks bad. If a graduate student makes a youtube video and it blows up, that graduate student will look bad but there are no consequences.
3) you have nothing to lose. You do something stupid, it blows up. So what?

I came of age when the web was a new thing, and I always wondered why older professors didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that it provided. The good news is that it has nothing to do with mental ability or attitudes. I don’t think that my brain has changed that much, but it has a lot to do with social structure. People in their 20’s can do stupid things and make mistakes (and so can retirees in their 60’s and 70’s). People in between have a lot to lose, but without doing stupid things and making mistakes, things won’t advance.


3 joequant March 4, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Something that I’d like to do is a “theory comment” video. It’s like a cooking show, only you take a run of some theoretical code (like Mesa), and then talk though it.


4 Johan Hidding March 12, 2013 at 12:30 pm


I made an video accompanying an as of yet unpublished paper on the formation of the Cosmic Web. It can be seen on Youtube: http://youtu.be/wI12X2zczqI
This was actually presented as a peer-reviewed publication on a conference on Computational Geometry (SoCG’12). However, this video took a bit more than 2 days to create, more like 2 months. I had to code all of it in Python + cairo, as there are no freely available packages to create this sort of animation efficiently. In the end it was really worth the effort. Some people are now using it as course material in teaching Large Scale Structure formation!

Creating it took some basic steps:
– sketch an overview of the video
– write python code to create the graphics dynamically (say from a time parameter)
– record the spoken text (I bought a $100 microphone to do this, and asked a native US colleague to do the vocals)
– edit the audio in Audacity, it allows for tagging the file with labels on key words
– sync the video with the audio by plugging the tags with time signature into python code
– wait a day for rendering everything

With all this experience I could do my next video like this inside two weeks, with the advantage that it really adds to what you can do using a live presentation with slides. Doing any video presentation in 1 day I find rather optimistic. I’m aware that this video is taking it a bit further than a “Coffee brief”, but it will be interesting to see how far we can take the art of video-publishing.

Cheers, Johan


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