Friday, August 21, 2009

Waiting for Colbert

This week I finally succeeded at getting some media attention for a fundraising project that I have volunteered for during the past two years. The basic idea is to take the 100,000 stars that NASA's Kepler satellite will search for planets, and allow anyone to adopt one of them for a $10 donation. Donors receive a certificate of adoption by email, and updates when any planets are discovered around the star they adopted. Unlike the many "name a star" scams on the Internet, no two people can select the same star and all of the proceeds go to support scientific research on the target stars. The program hasn't been without its challenges, and the exposure this week has certainly pushed it forward -- but to meet our fundraising goal, we need a Colbert bump.

After all of the news about the first science results from Kepler two weeks ago, I decided to try and ride the tail of the wave of coverage by issuing my own press release. I had tried press releases before without success, but this time it sparked the interest of reporters at both and New Scientist. From there, the story was picked up and translated for articles in Russia, China, and Brazil. By the end of the week the coverage had driven more than 4000 visitors to our website, and inspired star adoptions by more than 250 new donors. It generated as much funding in a few days as the website normally attracts in 5 months! But we are still far from attracting the millions of visitors that we need to adopt thousands of stars.

Along the road, there have been additional challenges aside from the difficulty of getting our message heard. Last summer, after the first successful fundraising from a short post to slashdot, NASA became aware of the program. They expressed some concern that donors might mistakenly believe the project was sponsored by NASA, or maybe they would think that the donor name would be officially assigned to the Kepler target stars. To appease NASA, we added a disclaimer at the bottom of every page. After the news coverage this week we were contacted by the estate of Carl Sagan, who believed that calling our adopt-a-star program the "Pale Blue Dot" project constituted unauthorized use of their copyright from his 1994 book. They were concerned that the name might lead donors to assume some kind of endorsement by Carl Sagan. Whatever the legal status of their copyright, our non-profit educational use of the phrase clearly falls within the "fair use" exception -- but to alleviate their concerns we added "the estate of Carl Sagan" to our disclaimer. Who knew there could be such a disconnect between the good intentions of scientists and the nervous deliberations of managers and lawyers?

The biggest lesson of the week is that we will need exposure to a much larger audience than we can possibly reach on the web or in print. We need television, and who would be better than Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert? He loves outer space, and his character is obsessed with having things named after him. Although our program doesn't actually name the stars, we did reserve the few stars with previously known planets just for such an opportunity. So we adopted a planet-hosting star for Stephen Colbert, and we even set up a special page for his fans. He's our first genuine pale blue dot! Best of all, one of our early adopters has a connection at the show, and offered to pitch the idea for us. Now we're just waiting for Colbert. Will he invite me to come on the show and present him with a Certificate of Adoption? If so, I'm certain that the "Pale Blue Dot" project will finally reach its goal.