Why is the Green Party targeting Sheffield Central?

As I threatened to do in my last post, I’m going to use this blog space for a bit of politics. Thanks internet for providing me the opportunity! Even if you read no further, please make sure you’re registered to vote, and that you do in fact then vote on June 8th.


Recently I’ve been hearing a lot from political adversaries, colleagues, friends, and even family, about how confused, disappointed, or unhappy they are about Natalie Bennett standing in Sheffield Central in the coming General Election. This in turn gave me feelings of confusion, disappointment and frustration. So here are my corresponding thoughts in response.

Why have you parachuted Natalie in to Sheffield? 
That’s simply not what happened. Natalie chose to move to Sheffield after her time as leader of the Greens. She was selected as our prospective candidate after moving to Norfolk Park in Sheffield Central.

Why are you targeting a Labour seat?
Greens came second in Sheffield Central in 2015, with the third best result in the country. It’s a natural target for us, as a seat we could actually win. We desperately need more Green voices in parliament. Just look at the amazing work Caroline Lucas has been doing. Natalie would at least double our ability to put fresh, Green ideas on the table. In our deeply outdated and broken electoral system, smaller parties must target winnable seats to make any progress and have their voices heard.
If you don’t think the Green Party and our ideals should exist at all, well, fine. But
I hope you are willing to accept that we do have a place in UK politics, whether it’s calling for an end to NHS privatisation, putting climate change on the agenda, standing up against a hard Brexit, campaigning for women’s equality, a universal citizens income, or an economy that works for everyone and our environment. With the political discourse shifting evermore rightwards and towards authoritarianism in recent decades, it’s vitally important that we continue to promote Green ideas and values. For me it’s the only way of pulling the conversation back towards the things that really, really matter. If you accept that the Green Party has a right to exist, and provides an important aspect of modern, pluralist politics, then you have to accept our attempts to win seats in parliament, even if that means targeting Labour seats. If we don’t stand up for these values, I have no faith that the Labour Party will instead.

Why not send Natalie to target a Tory seat instead? 
This one is a favourite of those who feel Labour is entitled to all left-of-centre votes. Would they rather Natalie stood in a Labour/Tory marginal? Of course not. Perhaps they mean a safe Tory seat? Well, that’s not going to get us anywhere is it? Alright, they must mean a winnable Tory seat! Yes, there is one, possibly two seats in the entire UK where the Greens have a chance of beating the incumbent Tories. That’s Bath, where the Lib Dems are working hard to take the seat back from the Tories, and more excitingly, the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight has been Tory/Lib Dem forever, but in 2015 there was a huge swing to the Greens, who beat both Labour and the Lib Dems. Since then, lots of work has gone into electing our first Green local councillor on the island, and there is a real possibility that the great Green candidate Vix Lowthion might have a chance of winning, with the homophobic, misogynist Andrew Turner stepping down. (I’ve met him – he told me that Westminster doesn’t need more women, minorities or working class people as those sorts aren’t as good at politics). As an island community and with a great candidate already in place, it would make no sense at all for Natalie to stand there.

What about the progressive alliance
The Greens have stood down in 20+ seats in the hope that by backing the Labour or Lib Dem candidates there, they might help beat the Tories. The Lib Dems have stood down in Brighton to support Caroline Lucas (thanks!), but Labour have categorically refused to back any other anti-Tory candidate, and even expelled their own members for working at a grassroots level to oust the odious Jeremy Hunt. An alliance doesn’t just mean Greens abandoning all their principles and joining the fractious and stubborn Labour Party. No-one has a monopoly on political ideas, nor a divine right to all left-leaning voters. Labour’s extreme tribalism and total lack of forward thinking has effectively sealed their fate.
Plus, in Sheffield we’re actually very lucky in that the Tories are absolutely nowhere to be seen. They have no councillors, no activists, and no chance of winning. This means there’s no need for a progressive alliance here. Voters can have the full choice of parties, and we can have really great, constructive conversations on the doorstep and elsewhere (as I have been having), about progressive ideas and ways forward towards a better future.

But why Sheffield Central? The incumbent Labour MP is a good guy, and we should be fighting the Tories.
I’ve met Paul Blomfield (the Labour candidate) on several occasions, and he does talk a lot about his progressive ideas. But he’s still a middle-of-the-road Labour MP, who campaigned against Corbyn in both leadership elections, and has always voted with the party line. I’ve been disappointed with his voting record on numerous occasions, and he’s been known to tell his constituents that he believes one thing, and then vote the opposite way when the Labour whip tells him to. After this election, if Labour lose a lot of seats (as I fear is likely), what direction will they take then? Will they successfully oust Corbyn and drag themselves back towards the ‘centre’ (which we used to call ‘right-wing’)? If they do, you can be sure that Blomfield will follow the party wherever it goes. At least with the Greens you know exactly what you’re getting, now and in the future.
And yes, Paul does good constituency work, but with 4 paid-up staff on his team, that’s the least we should expect. Natalie would work even harder, because we Greens know that no vote should be taken for granted, and every constituent deserves the support they need.

Why should I support Natalie?
Natalie is incredibly hard-working, and a very experienced campaigner. She appeared on the 2015 televised leaders debates, and is deeply passionate and enthusiastic about working for the people of Sheffield, and bringing Greens principles and ideas to parliament. She would make a fantastic MP, put Sheffield on the national agenda, and do a great job of holding the Tories and Labour to account for their promises, and their mistakes. One more or one less Tory or Labour MP won’t make a difference to the final outcome of this General Election, but one more Green MP would be a massive win, a huge story, and a brilliant opportunity for progressive change. Please help me to help Natalie to win.


They think it’s all over…

Actually, it is. The PhD anyway.

I can only apologise to myself for not updating this blog for such a long time. My last post was a whole year ago. Last winter I was struggling through writing up a big paper on eclipsing CVs, and then as soon as that was finished, I was writing my thesis. Updating this blog has always been on my mind, but I’ve always found more important things to do. Let’s see if I can put together a short and coherent story for 2016…

OK, aside from the endless list of celebrity deaths (sad face), outrageous political turmoil (angry face), and hottest year (again) on record (depressed face), 2016 has been a big year for me.

I spent the first six months writing my thesis, getting wearier and wearier, and becoming an ever-more-depressing burden on my friends and girlfriend. I was writing a PhD thesis on a topic I wasn’t very enthusiastic about, on work I wasn’t particularly proud of, and I had a deeply uninspired outlook on life. I had a pretty awful time of it, but I survived, and I would say that actually it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Every doctor I knew told me that the write up was going to be hell, and so I was mentally prepared for torture. It was tortuous at times, but now it’s done I feel comfortable saying to others “You’ll be alright”.


My printed PhD thesis

I had to move out of my flat in early June, and worked out a lodging with some friends over the summer. I handed in my thesis at the end of June, just in time to go to work at Glastonbury festival, and have an awful time of that too (mud, rain and loneliness make festivals rather disagreeable). Nevertheless, it was done! I had finished it! To be honest, it was something of an anti-climax. Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU in the same week, and so my achievements suddenly felt unimportant.

The rest of the summer was a mix of existential crises, preparing for my viva voce, and, with a very heavy heart, parting ways with Emily, my girlfriend of two and a half years and someone without whom I’m certain I would never have finished the PhD. I took a few summery days off to go cycling, but instead of being a joyous time, it was rather a dark and directionless few months.


Chris and I in the beautiful hilltop town of Sousceyrac

However, I have so far missed out two key events. Towards the end of August, my best friend Chris and I embarked on a 10-day cycling tour of France, from Dieppe to Carmaux, covering 850km in sweltering heat. Along the way we learned a lot about ourselves and our tolerance for French summer heat, French pastries, and the trustworthiness of Google Maps. We met with good friends Rosie and Dan in Sousceyrac, and ended at the beautiful farmhouse Os Figueiros for a week of wwoofing. This was by far the highlight of my summer, and I’ll happily recount the entertaining tales of our wild-camping endeavours to anyone who cares to ask.


At Os Figueiros, the end of our 10-day, 850km cycle tour.

The second key event begins the round up of my year and brings me to my current situation (and excuse for not writing anything all autumn). In August I applied for a job as a fixed-term lecturer (read: substitute teacher) in astrophysics here in Sheffield. One of the Professors had acquired sufficient funding to allow him to take a research sabbatical and pay for a 12-month lectureship to fill in his teaching. Although I took the application seriously, I had absolutely no expectation of success, and treated the whole thing as an exercise in gaining experience. You can imagine my disbelief and nerves when I discovered, on the day of my interview (which also included giving a 25-minute lecture on the Saha & Boltzmann equations), that the other candidates had dropped out and that I was the only interviewee. I got the call later that evening (which as it happened was the night before I left for France on my bike), offering me the job, along with the hefty salary, and a long list of the teaching duties I would take on.

If I could give one piece of advice to my former self, and to anyone else who happens to have just submitted their PhD thesis and been offered a lecturing position, I would say this: it may be the hardest thing you ever do in your entire life. There’s a good reason why people don’t tend to go straight from doing a PhD to teaching two and a half lecture courses, taking on two tutor groups, supervising a weekly lab session, and running a bunch of 3rd-year projects. It’s flippin’ tough. If I’d known how hard it would be, and how it would affect my mental health, there’s a good chance I would never have applied in the first place.

Anyway, this explains why I haven’t blogged all year. I’ve been drowning in stress, anxiety and vector calculus. I haven’t even started giving the lectures yet, so 2017 is going to be one hell of a ride.

My final PhD blog entry wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my viva, which took place in mid-September, just after I came back from France. Most people say their vivas are reasonably enjoyable, and they happen so fast you barely notice it. I’m not going to lie, mine was horrible. At no point did I feel relaxed or on the ball, and even at the end I still wasn’t confident I had passed. I started off getting easy questions wrong, and although I must have gotten a lot more right, I never felt good. Clearly, my perceptions have never been more wrong, because I passed with minor corrections. I was so relieved, I could’ve kissed the examiners. Afterwards I skipped along the corridor punching the air in a rare display of emotion. It was all worth it.

As well as working on teaching, I’ve also spent many hours this autumn finalising my thesis corrections, and re-writing the paper on eclipsing CVs, after it was essentially rejected in August (adding extra stress to my PhD viva, of course, since it formed an entire chapter of the thesis). I’m pleased to say that after major revisions the paper was accepted and will be published very soon. I can also happily announce that my thesis corrections were completed and accepted, and I’m expecting to receive the paperwork confirming completion of the PhD any day now.

What a year, huh? Ups and downs and lots of stress, but I can now finally call myself Dr. Hardy. It remains to be seen if it was worth it, but for now I’ll do all I can to flaunt my achievements and hold on to any pride I can muster. This will likely be my last entry to this PhD blog, but who knows? Perhaps in future I’ll write some more, about teaching, astronomy, cycling, politics, or whatever I end up doing with the rest of my life. For now I’ll say one huge and truly heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way. You know who you are.

Time is ticking

It’s the middle of January. My PhD funding officially runs out in 11 weeks time. And I haven’t started writing a thesis yet.

OK, so January is a typically depressing month every year, but this year will probably be my worst ever. I took a total of 4 days off over Christmas and New Year, and have been spending long hours in the office. I feel like I’m working a lot, but I don’t always feel like I’m getting much done. Let’s say this is my excuse for not writing a blog post in so long…

At the moment I’m trying to finish an enormous paper on eclipsing cataclysmic variables – the possible progenitors to Type Ia supernovae, which are used to measure cosmological parameters. The paper is huge because it currently includes all the CVs I’ve been studying with pt5m which turned out to be eclipsing (around 10), all the CVs which turned out not to be eclipsing (around 30), and all the CVs which we’ve known have been eclipsing for ages, and have been observed by our high speed instruments ULTRACAM and ULTRASPEC over the past 10 years (about 40). Some of these objects have been observed on 10 or more different occasions, with up to 6 different telescopes. Each object requires careful data reduction, analysis, plotting a light curve, and a short discussion. The observing log alone could end up being ten pages long.


This paper already has 57 figures, with about 30 more to come.

I’m definitely past half way, but putting this paper together is hellishly boring, so it’s not going particularly quickly. I’m still hoping to finish it before the end of January, but that’s going to be tough.

As I’m sure is natural for all PhD students, I’ve found myself questioning my choices quite often in recent months. Why am I doing this? What will I do next? Does anyone really care? I haven’t found the answers. Instead I’ve simply found a dull, aching necessity to get this damn thing finished.

Doing a PhD feels like taking the great ring to Mordor. You spend two and a half years wandering around the foothills, getting lost, turning back, meeting great friends and enemies, battling your own self-determination. At the end you find yourself climbing a mountain. A bloody big mountain, made of sand. All you want to do is turn around and slide back down and go home. And all everyone around you wants you to do is keep going and meet them at the top. But with every step the sand gets softer and you sink deeper, making the next step harder than the last. To top things off, there’s a black rider (end of scholarship) snapping at your heels, and you’re running out of time.

At a particularly depressing moment this week, Emily helped me turn this analogy into motivation. The view from the top will be incredible, and life on the other side will be worth it. Now I just have to keep going.

However, I would offer a word of caution to anyone else who might be considering doing a PhD. If you’re not really certain you want to do it, if the foothills feel like mountains from the very beginning, or if the sand is so sticky you’re not moving at all – don’t do it. Turn around and stay in the Shire – it’s much safer there and your mental health isn’t at risk. Also the world won’t end because Sauron isn’t real and you’re not a hobbit.

Thankfully my supervisor is chasing up possible options for extra funding. In the meantime, I’ve blocked Facebook from my work computer, and will be saying ‘no’ to most of the social or activism invites that come my way for a while.

Plus points for astronomy

I now have 9 months left until my PhD funding runs out, and I start paying additional fees to the University. My plan is to have submitted a thesis by then, but that will require a colossal shift in work habits and a drastic reduction in distractions. If anyone has any tips for increasing productivity please feel free to send them my way!

Sunset beside the WHT dome

Sunset beside the WHT dome

Right now I’m in La Palma, at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos. It’s night 4 of 7 at the WHT, observing a bunch of other people’s science with ULTRACAM. I’m here with my co-supervisor Stuart, who is humorous on good days and grumpy when everything breaks.

So far it’s been a good chance to fix a few bugs with the pt5m, which have held me back from finishing the instrumental paper about it. It’s also given me a helpful dose of motivation to get on and work a bit harder when I get back to Sheffield. Just being out here in the stunning landscapes is a good start, but recalling the exciting parts of astronomy – data collection, problem solving, networking, and looking at Jupiter and its moons, is helpful too.

Jupiter and Io through the eyepiece on pt5m

Jupiter and Io through the eyepiece on pt5m

We’ve been observing an exciting transient this week – the black hole candidate V404 Cyg. The system is thought to comprise a black hole and a solar-type star in a close binary orbit. The black hole is accreting gas from the donor star, and has entered a bright outbursting phase. The outburst has been seen at all wavelengths, from gamma-rays, through x-rays and optical to radio emission. We’ve been monitoring it with pt5m (see my first ever first-authorship: ATel #7681), and also with ULTRACAM, whenever the schedule allows (see ATel #7686). I don’t claim to understand the physics of what’s going on here, but it’s certainly an interesting outburst, being much brighter and more variable than ever before.

pt5m observations of the outbursting black hole binary V404 Cyg

pt5m observations of the outbursting black hole binary V404 Cyg

After we dismount ULTRACAM on Friday, I’ll be staying in La Palma for a week’s holiday. I’m looking forward to some hiking, diving, beach trips and good food. When I get back to Sheffield I’ll need to really knuckle down, finish off the pt5m paper and get a move on with the eclipsing CVs paper too.

Until the next time, hasta la proxima.

Why tactical voting is a terrible idea

In a departure from my usual focus on my PhD in astrophysics, I wanted to write down my thoughts on tactical voting. Please note that I’m not a political commentator, nor was I ever trained in politics. This is my opinion, based on my new and strong engagement in politics over the last few years. My arguments focus on Green supporters voting tactically for Labour, but could just as easily apply to similar situations across the political spectrum.

Part of my political awakening was my involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Part of my political awakening was my involvement in the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Anyone I’ve ever spoken to about tactical voting agrees that it’s a shame that people feel the need to vote tactically. This, I think, transcribes into a relatively uniform agreement that our current electoral system in the UK is not fit for purpose. A system that sees some parties gain 5 times less seats than they win votes (e.g. Greens), and others gain twice as many seats as votes (e.g. DUP), can’t be right, can it? Many will say “Oh but you can’t have proportional representation – then you lose the local representative – an MP who can express your local views”. What utter rubbish. If you think your local MP represents you and your fellow constituents over their party whip, you’re sadly misguided. They represent their party, and if they want to keep their job, they’ll follow the party line, regardless of what’s best for their constituency.

Anyway, so long as people keep voting tactically, we’ve very little chance of seeing anyone other than David Cameron or Ed Miliband as PM after 7th May. Both of them have ruled out electoral reform, which means we’re stuck with the current system for the foreseeable future. What to do then? The answer is to vote for whoever you believe represents your values the most. The answer is certainly not to be coerced into sticking with the two and a half main parties, who have broadened their policies to encompass as much of the electorate as possible. This is how New Labour won in 1997. Unless of course they somehow still represent you, in which case, vote away! The trouble is that whilst Labour and the Conservatives still occupy different spaces on the political spectrum, and do have different policies in a many areas, they have become so broad in their ideals that they can’t fully represent anyone. A true socialist couldn’t stomach Ed Balls’ planned austerity cuts, nor could a neo-liberal centrist sit calmly and listen to Glenda Jackson’s rousing anti-Thatcherism speeches.

So why are so many people still stuck with voting Labour or Tory, or sometimes Lib Dem to “soften the blow”? Because people fear that voting any other way would let the other side back in. How ghastly it would be to see the ‘enemy’ in power! Much better to have our team in charge, even if we don’t quite agree on everything, or many things in fact. And even if we really would like to see an entirely different team have a chance. We can’t risk upsetting the status quo; the to-ing and fro-ing, school yard politics of blue vs red. That’s how it’s always been and now’s not the time to try and change it. The enemy might get in! Yes, another Tory government would be bad news for many vulnerable people. A Labour government would be a moderate relief, for a fixed period. Then in another 5 or 10 years the right-wing ideology will take over again, and screw over the lower classes. We go in circles, with permanent and extended suffering. We need to break that cycle, and now feels like the best time in recent history to start on the road to progress. If not now, when?

I say it’s time for a change. I’ll be voting Green. I’ll not be voting Green because I think they’ll win – that’s not the point of voting (it’s not betting on a horse race). I’ll not be voting Green to keep the Tories, or the Lib Dems, or Labour out of government – that’s not the point of voting. I’ll not be voting Green because they’re the least worst of the options, but because in my opinion they’re by far the best option. There’s absolutely no way my voice could get confused with any other voice. I want Green policies enacted, so I’ll vote for them. If I vote Labour my voice will be confused with those who vote Labour to keep the Tories out, and those who vote Labour to keep the Lib Dems out, and those who vote Labour because they always have done, and those who vote Labour because their parents did, and even those who vote Labour because they genuinely agree with most of their policies. How could anyone possibly know what I want?

We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a pseudo-democracy in which we’re told there’s only really two options, but neither of them are great or much different from each other. Well, yes, you could vote for a different party, “but they won’t win!” If there’s one political tactic that I hate above anything else, it’s the concept of telling people not to vote for who they believe in, because they won’t win. Of course they won’t win if you don’t vote for them, but if everybody voted, and everybody voted for who they truly supported, imagine what would happen! People say “a Green vote is a wasted vote”, but I think a vote for anything other than what you believe in is a wasted vote. The biggest flaw here is that one’s “chance of winning” is entirely skewed by the previous election, by the amount of money spent in the constituency, and by the media spin. If people voted for policies, Greens would have the best chance of winning in most constituencies. So why are we stuck with Tory or New Labour? Because that’s what the Tories and Labour want you to think.

What pains me almost as much is the concept that your voting location can dictate how you vote. If you live in a marginal seat, it’s much harder to vote for a smaller party, than in a safe seat. Why should your neighbours politics affect yours? They shouldn’t, but they do. How can that be considered democratic?

What about the idea that your vote doesn’t affect the outcome? That’s a valid point too. Even the closest constituency battles in 2010 had over 40 votes between them. Unless you’re planning on convincing everybody you work with, catch the bus with, and live near to, to vote with you and in the same way, then your vote really doesn’t make a huge difference to the election of your MP. It does however, make a difference to the total numbers from across the country, and every vote for minor parties is counted and noted. When the Tories see votes slipping over to UKIP, they follow right-wards with their policies. Exactly the same happens with Labour when they see surges in support for the Greens, or TUSC. Only weeks after slagging off Green education policies as “madness”, Labour’s spokesperson for education announced new policies that sounded suspiciously similar to what the Greens were proposing. So, show your support for what you believe, and it might happen anyway even if that party isn’t in power.

What about when your vote does make a difference to the election of your MP? Let’s say you pulled out all the stops, and managed to convince every single person you know in your constituency to vote with you. If you elected another Labour MP, even a progressive, positive, great Labour MP, would you be proud? You’ve added another to a list of around 300. You might even have swayed the balance of power in government, though most likely this swing will be counter-acted in some other constituency. In any case you’re unlikely to be any closer to the kind of government you actually truly want. But just imagine the difference it would make if you’d elected another Green MP, or Plaid Cymru, or even UKIP, if you’re so inclined. The difference in the House of Commons, and the overall governance of the UK, would be really notable.

And even if you pulled out all the stops, and didn’t see your favourite candidate elected. Have you lost? Is this election the end of politics for you, your family and your future? Hell no it isn’t. Every vote counts, and sadly with this broken system, future elections depend massively on previous election results. We’ve seen how it affected the TV debates, and how it affects major and minor party status. It affects whether constituencies are considered marginal, or safe, and thus it affects how much money and effort is spent on winning your vote, and listening to your voice. If your party comes second, you lost, but you’re certainly in a better position for the future than if you’d come last. Yes it’s unlikely that the Green Party will win this election out right, but that won’t stop me voting for them, campaigning for them, and urging others to vote, regardless of whether or not we’ll win. In the absence of electoral reform, we have to play the long game. We need to reconcile short term suffering with long term ambitions, otherwise we’ll be in ever deeper trouble. (This is the same message we plug as environmentalists – what good is a strong economy today if tomorrow looks like the apocalypse?)

The cheapest and easiest attack on voting for a smaller party is that in the current climate, the danger is to let the enemy into power. Particularly in 2015, the prospect of a hung parliament brings together all sorts of arguments for tactical voting. For example: if you want to see Greens in government, you should elect Labour MPs, as Labour are more likely to deal with the Greens than the Tories would be. This sounds valid at first, but it doesn’t work if there aren’t any Green MPs to do a deal with! In any case it shows a short-sighted take on the problem. We need to focus on the future of politics, not this and only this upcoming election.

If you agree that tactical voting is an unfortunate consequence of a broken system, then please don’t perpetuate it. If you agree that the voting system needs major reform, then please, don’t vote for a party that isn’t offering it. I’d love to see a system in which you could vote for who you truly supported, without fear of who you hated most being elected instead. I’d love to see a system where second and third preferences were accounted for. I’d love to see a system that returned a representative number of MPs to parliament based on the number of votes cast. How do we get there? We must campaign with a united voice for electoral reform, but we must also vote for what we want, and expose the injustice of the current system.

Democracy doesn’t work unless people are engaged, and vote for what they want. Don’t make the tactical error.

2 down, 1 to go

Last week marked the end of my second year, and the start of my third and final year doing a PhD. That’s if all goes to plan.

No one else seemed to notice, and I wasn’t prompted to write my second year report until I asked about it on Thursday. So that will be a tad late, just like everything else I’ve submitted so far. It shouldn’t take too long though.

At this point I’m busy reflecting carefully on what I’ve achieved so far, and trying to pick out all the useful bits ready for a thesis, so that I look like I’ve achieved something. I’m also thinking ahead, looking to wrap up the many loose ends before I’m due to start writing the thesis in about 6 months time.

It feels very, very strange to be looking back over the last two years and thinking about how I felt at the beginning of this challenge. Returning to my very first blog post, it was clear from the start that doing a PhD in astronomy probably wasn’t the best thing I could be doing. I’ve always had doubts, but it also always felt like a reasonably solid and sensible thing to do. I’m now very much fed up of learning, in an academic sense, and quite certain I don’t want to be an astronomer. But I’ve still got a year left, and I’m damn sure I’m going to finish it now.

Here’s to the final year of pretending to be fascinated by astronomy, plenty of distractions, painful Python programming, and saving the world.

Papers that might actually be published

Quick update: I’m still alive, still doing astronomy, and still not working hard enough.

I’m working harder though, and feeling slightly better about everything because of that. A week or so ago it dawned on me just how much I wasn’t working hard enough, and tried to channel that fear into a metaphorical kick up the backside. It’s working, kind of…

In the last two weeks I’ve started drafting two academic papers – one about my cataclysmic variable follow-up and eclipse hunting project, and the other will be an instrumental paper describing our robotic telescope in La Palma, pt5m. The former is turning out to be a mammoth task, as others in our research cohort are pushing for this to include all known eclipsing systems that we have data on, including ULTRACAM and ULTRASPEC studies. This means a target list of 50-100 objects, all of which will need to be briefly described, along with a light curve plot, and observing details. I spent about a week perfecting some code to produce the light curve plots in the most appropriate way, so this shouldn’t take too long now. The main bulk will be checking that the light curve data I have is the best available (and therefore re-reducing many, many, many hours of telescope data), and incorporating all the observing information into a table. This is going to be a fairly long term project.

Conversely, the pt5m paper is a newer development, but one that should hopefully take only a couple of weeks to produce. The original idea was for a collaborator at Durham to write the paper, with others contributing different sections – e.g. me writing about my transient follow up scripts. Unfortunately, he’s too busy with other things now, and no-one else wants to write it, so Vik brought it to my desk this week, and left me with the task of drafting it. I’ve already started a couple of paragraphs, but it will take a good few days of hard work to make real progress. Having another first author paper to connect my thesis with will be very helpful though, so there’s no question about it being the right thing to do. Let’s hope that these two papers are eventually published, unlike my previous two attempts at writing a paper.

The entire Hicks Building (home to Physics and Maths departments) is being refurbished at the moment, and our office’s turn is fast approaching. We’re going to be moved to temporary office spaces for about 2 weeks, during which time we might not be able to use our work computers. Argh! Maybe it’s time for a holiday? Actually it shouldn’t be too bad, because I can use my laptop to keep on top of pt5m data, and other work. However, I’ll need to make sure the software running on my work computer that helps pt5m listen for transients, and observe my objects, is transferred smoothly to somewhere else, that will keep running during this period of upheaval. The upside is that this has forced me to make sure my transient follow up scripts are now fully operational on the machine in La Palma which controls the telescope. Sometimes you need a real deadline in order to actually get on and do something.

The downside to working harder on PhD stuff is that I’m not managing to do as much campaigning stuff. That said, I did manage to talk about it on local radio the other day, as well as beginning to engage in local Green Party events. I also managed to squeeze in a quick play with the snowboard in the park on Friday!

Kat taking a quick breather after climbing up the hill. Obviously Bingham Park isn't quite as good as Chamonix or Tignes.

Kat taking a quick breather after climbing up the hill. Obviously Bingham Park isn’t quite as good as Chamonix or Tignes. No ski lifts here!

One last thing: This album is keeping me going right now. Thanks to Chris for the tip off.


I haven’t written a PhD blog post in 3 months. Why is that?

I’m too busy

Nope. I’ve had plenty of time to arse around the internet, engage in productive and unproductive discussions, watch TV, and play games. I have been very busy, but if I’d really wanted to write, I could have.

I haven’t thought about writing

Nope. I’ve thought about this blog pretty much every week. Each time I’d think through things I might want to write about, how to phrase things, what photos and links to include.

I’m not working enough

Tough one. I’m definitely not spending as much of my days on PhD work as I should be, but I’m still working hard. I’ve spent every weekday in the office since the end of August (and some weekends too), on average from 10am – 6pm. Admittedly, a not-insignificant fraction of that time is spent maintaining a connection with the outside world, reading the news, organising my social life, and saving the world. But I’m working too.

I’m not making progress

Again, not true (I hope). Since my last post I’ve discovered 2 (possibly 3) new eclipsing cataclysmic variables, written two pieces of software to help with my data reduction work, progressed with the AMI transient alerts software, spent a productive week in Warsaw at the Gaia transients workshop, observed a new eclipsing AM CVn variable discovered by Gaia/ASASSN, and led a successful 7-night observing run at the 2.4m Thai National Telescope with ULTRASPEC. That’s where I am now, bored out of my mind because it’s 3:30am and we haven’t opened yet due to high humidity (5 of the 7 nights have been successful).

I’m not motivated

Yeah, okay, this could be it. Every time I think about the future I’m filled with despair. Mostly the future of our planet (it’s badbad, bad, bad, bad, really bad), actually, and of our so called ‘civilised society’. But also my own personal future. I’m yet to find a branch of astronomy I find fascinating enough to make me want to be an astronomer. There are some really enjoyable, fun and engaging aspects to my work as a research student, but overall I’m not enthusiastic enough about it. My peers are so engaged in their work that a bad day, or even a bad week, couldn’t throw them of course. They love what they do, and they want to do it. I can’t say the same. I like some bits of what I do, but overall I’m just looking ahead to the end of the PhD, and moving on to something else. Astronomy is fascinating, complicated and sexy, and I love sharing what I’ve learned with others, but I feel like I care too much about the world to sit and stare at the stars.

High time resolution light curve of a newly discovered eclipsing CV, taken with ULTRASPEC at the TNT

High time resolution light curve of a newly discovered eclipsing CV, taken with ULTRASPEC at the TNT

Progress, of sorts

In the last post I explained that things were looking up. I’d found a new eclipsing cataclysmic variable – hopefully the first of many. Unfortunately, the discovery wasn’t quite as brilliant as I had first thought. It turns out that during the observations I had made, the CV must have been in a mild outburst state, significantly brighter than its normal quiescent state. The data from just a few night’s later looked like this:

Noisy eclipse

Noisy eclipse

The system was obviously much fainter than in the previous observations, and the eclipse is very difficult to spot. It’s still there, thankfully, but with a much fainter target it will be more difficult to determine an orbital period. It will still be useful of course, just a bit more challenging to assess.

Yesterday I found another eclipser. This one has a much shorter period, so it should be easy to accurately measure it for future study, even though it’s also quite faint.

Regular eclipses with period around 100 minutes

Regular eclipses with period around 100 minutes

Aside from the eclipse hunting, I’ve also been busy with the ULTRASPEC commissioning work. One of the most important tests when commissioning a new instrument is to check that it performs as well as expected. The main thing here is to compare the observed throughput of the instrument with a theoretical throughput based on a model of system. As you can imagine, the model of the system is where the hard work comes in. 

I spent several slow and tedious days working on a spreadsheet which modelled the throughput of every component in the system, as a function of wavelength. This included the atmosphere, the telescope mirrors, 11 lenses of different thicknesses and compositions, filters, adhesives, and the efficiency of the actual detector. I had to be very careful running anything else on my computer at the same time, as it really struggled to manage such a hefty amount of data. The results however, do look rather pretty.

Throughputs of different components, as a function of wavelength.

Throughputs of different components, as a function of wavelength.

Code enthusiasts will lambaste me for abandoning programming in favour of the ugly spreadsheet. I am sorry, I really am, but ultimately I think it was easier this way. It was important to be able to visualise each component individually, and I think it would definitely have taken me a lot longer in Python. Plus, my supervisor encouraged me to use a spreadsheet, as they are much more transferable to other users. The second part of this webpage shows my recent work.

The final numbers show a noticeable under-performance when compared with observed data. It’s not disastrous, but it is annoying. We could attribute it to any number of other factors apart from the instrument optics themselves (e.g. under predicted atmospheric extinction, over predicted mirror or CCD quality), but ultimately it’s likely that the lenses are performing slightly worse than expected. 

In other news, I’m heading to Poland on Tuesday morning for a workshop/conference, in Warsaw. I’m a bit apprehensive, mostly because I won’t really know anyone there, and the journey is a pain in the arse (overnight in East Midlands Airport before a 7am flight). I’ll be giving a short talk which you can see here, but the main reason for me going will be to find out how our robotic telescope can help get the transients phase of the new Gaia satellite project up and running. Here’s hoping it’s a productive week! 

Finally, some good news

Today I discovered what I think (and hope) is a new eclipsing cataclysmic variable (CV). Here is the light curve.

New eclipsing CV

New eclipsing CV?

I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts that searching for new eclipsing CVs would be my next substantial science project for my PhD. After the loss of the mystery transient paper (and corresponding thesis chapter), this project became the top priority, and at the moment is the only science contribution to my thesis plan.

So, this discovery is very exciting news, as it now feels like the project is going somewhere. Until now, I’d studied tens of known CV systems and found no eclipses. This is hopefully the first of many to come.

But what are cataclysmic variables? Well, the wikipedia page is a bit rubbish on this particular astro topic, but there are a few more detailed explanations online, e.g. this one. For those too lazy to click, here’s a brief explanation…

Cataclysmic variable systems consist of two stars orbiting each other in a close binary. One of the stars, originally of higher mass than the other, has evolved to become a white dwarf (having stopped burning hydrogen and lost it’s outer envelope, it becomes a hot, dense, degenerate star). Our Sun will become one of these in around 5 billion years time. The other star in the binary could be anything of significantly less mass than the other star was originally, but the most common are cool M-dwarf stars.

In CV systems, the stars are so close that the white dwarf is literally stealing gas from the companion star. Even though it has lost it’s envelope, the white dwarf is still more massive than the companion, and so it pulls gas away from the lighter star with gravity alone. The gas moves in a stream towards the white dwarf, and enters an accretion disk – a wide disk of hot gas orbiting the white dwarf. The gas slowly makes its way through the disk and accretes onto the white dwarf.

Artistic graphic of a CV system

Artistic graphic of a CV system

These systems were all the rage in the 1990’s, but seem to be much less of interest to most astronomers these days. However, they are particularly interesting because they are thought to perhaps be the progenitors of Type-Ia supernovae (SNe-Ia). It’s still unclear whether or not they could actually accrete enough mass to explode in a supernova, which is why they are interesting! SNe-Ia are extensively used to measure distances to far away galaxies in cosmological studies. The better we understand them, the more accurately we can understand the fundamental physics in the early universe, so they are pretty important!

Why are eclipsing systems important? My fellow PhD student Martin is conducting in depth studies of eclipsing systems. Using complex models for the two stars, the accretion disk and the bright spot (where the in-falling gas hits the disk), he can determine the masses of the two stars. A fundamental question for the theory of CVs becoming SNe-Ia would be solved if we could measure an overall increase in mass as systems evolve. He is studying a range of systems at different stages of evolution, and searching for a statistically significant difference in mass. The problem is, there aren’t quite enough long-period systems known yet, so he needs some more.

The plan is for me to study many more recently discovered CV systems, and search for eclipses. If I can find 10 or more over the next year, I should have a solid science chapter for my thesis, and at least one published paper. So far I’ve only been studying systems that have been discovered this year, via what are known as ‘dwarf novae outbursts’ (this is how most CVs are discovered). I’m now beginning to go back through the records to pick out systems which were discovered in the last 5 years, and following up any which don’t appear to have been studied yet. Hopefully this growing database of systems will provide me with plenty of targets over the next year, and I can discover more eclipsing systems. I’ll keep you posted!