Straight in at the deep end

I’ve always been scared of the deep end of the swimming pool. Until last year when I lived on a tiny sub-tropical island, I’d never been a confident swimmer. Any body of water which I couldn’t stand up in was a little frightening. This month it feels like I’ve been dropped in the deep end of the world’s biggest, deepest swimming pool. Except unlike being dropped in the world’s biggest, deepest swimming pool, no matter how much I kick my legs, flail my arms, or thrash around, I’ve no chance of reaching the edge and climbing out again. It seems the only way forwards is to swim down, deep into the darkness, desperately hoping there’s a little door at the bottom I can squeeze through. But, I do have my scuba gear with me (my supervisors know their stuff, and have confidence in me), a full tank of air (I still very much want to be Dr. Hardy), and a big torch with brand new batteries (my new laptop arrived last week!). “Just keep breathing, it’s all in your head.”

These last two weeks have been spent swimming in two potentially opposite directions, and working from 9am-6:30pm most days, which may explain the mild heavy pessimism above. Firstly, I’ve spent plenty of time getting lost in the endless stream of incoming data from the robotic telescope on La Palma, but I hope to really start making sense of this next week. It looks like the work with the ‘pt5m’ will form a major part of my thesis. Hopefully I’ll soon be part of the official team, which will get my name on any papers which are published using pt5m data, although no such papers exist yet.

The other, larger part of my time has been spent in the lab working on ULTRASPEC, which is the refurbished instrument heading to the 2.4m National Thai Telescope in the northern mountains of Thailand sometime this year.  The plan is for the commissioning of this instrument to become a small chapter of my thesis, so I’ve been spending many long hours in the lab, making tests on every parameter under the Sun. For those astro/tech geeks out there, this includes testing read-out noise, gain, flat-field noise, dark current, linearity, clock-induced-charge, avalanche gain, and making a CCD defect mask. The most terrifying thing about this work is that this may be my only chance to conduct the tests in so much detail, and it might actually end up in my thesis. This means I have to be incredibly meticulous and thorough, which I’ve never been good at. I’ve been feeling increasingly scatter-brained over recent months, which is completely incompatible with this sort of work. I guess I’ll need to fix that!

Today I had an official meeting with my supervisor and co-supervisor. This was very useful in clearing up odds and ends, and gave me a slightly clearer idea of what will be happening over the next few months. We decided that the main aim of my PhD will probably be to upgrade, maintain and use the pt5m to follow up transient events. This is an overwhelmingly broad subject at the moment, but hopefully within a year I will be looking at something much more specific, and potentially very exciting, even ground-breaking. However, this is still a big fat unknown variable at this stage. Oh well. What’s life without a little risk anyway?

The meeting also concluded that I won’t really be needed in Thailand until at least October. This is good in some ways, as it means I can concentrate a little more on other things over the summer, but I did quite like the idea of going out to see it all put together. On the plus side, I should be returning to La Palma in July for training with ULTRACAM (the big brother of ULTRASPEC), and hopefully a little scuba diving too. In addition, there’s a 3-day meeting in Paris in June on transient follow-ups, which I hope to go to as well. So it’s certainly not all bad! The only problem now is working out how to pay for everything. I’m now starting to regret spending £700 of my expenses budget on the laptop.

Buddy check anyone? I don’t think my regulator is working.


Getting Started

This week I’ve been doing some real work. Well, apart from the 4 hours I spent looking at laptops, but that was important too!

Monday started with a 4 hour session with my supervisor. I was overwhelmed with an enormous amount of information, and spent the afternoon in a daze, confused about where to start. The rest of the week slipped by quickly, as I got to grips with the toy I’ll be using for the next few years: the pt5m. This 0.5m robotic telescope lives on the roof of the WHT building in La Palma. I used it many times last year for my masters research, but at that time it had to be operated manually. Now it’s completely automated; one can submit jobs to the queue and pick up the resulting data in the morning (weather permitting). The new queue building system was totally new to me, but didn’t take too long to understand. By Thursday I already had 3 new sets of data to play with, so I also spent some time remembering how to reduce raw data – perhaps I’ll write a post another day on what this involves.

Friday saw my first official meeting/seminar related to my PhD. I attended the specialist discussion meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society titled “High Time Resolution Optical Astrophysics”. This is more or less the vague title of my PhD, and was organised by my supervisor, so it really wouldn’t do to miss it. Most of the talks were actually really interesting, educational and inspiring, and a visit to the RAS library was an event in itself. A real Sherlock-esque place, with two floors of bookshelves, complete with spiral staircase. In some ways it’s a shame that people don’t really need libraries like that any more, but I’m quite glad I don’t have to rifle through millions of books to find a meaningful reference. Thanks Internet!

So, thus far I’m still interested in astronomy, I’m still awake when I’m in the office (mostly), and most importantly, I’m still alive. Hopefully next week will involve real lab work with another flashy piece of equipment, and next month may even involve a trip to Thailand. Exciting huh?

One week down, 155 more to go

It’s only been four days, and it still doesn’t feel like my PhD has begun, but I already feel settled and quite comfortable. I still haven’t seen my supervisor yet, and I’ve done nothing but admin, paperwork and health & safety training so far, but I have a desk, a computer, and a Ucard which lets me in to the office.

The office itself is not too bad. A little cold at times, but the other guys in there are nice, and the staff room has an endless biscuit supply for 5p each! (Very dangerous). I had a minor panic when I realised I might be sitting at the same desk, doing more or less the same thing, for the next three years. Three years! That’s longer than I can really imagine, which is why it’s so scary. This will also be the first summer I’ve ever had without an extended holiday period. So this is what real life is like, eh?

On the other hand, I feel like I’m settling back in to Sheffield quite nicely. There’s lots going on, and I’m excited about finding a routine and fitting it all in. Plus, the sun is shining! Perhaps Spring is finally on the way. But best of all, my new housemate plays the accordion. How cool is that?!

A new chapter begins


This excerpt from an old Calvin and Hobbes comic is my current source of inspiration. After six months of time away from studying and astronomy, I had hoped I wouldn’t need a direct source of inspiration, and that I’d simply be passionate and ready to get started with all the eagerness of the next Nobel Prize winner. It turns out taking an extended break doesn’t naturally create enthusiasm. Apparently though, you can buy over 1500 different forms of enthusiasm from Amazon alone, so maybe I shouldn’t worry.

Sometimes I wonder whether Nobel Prize winners and famous scientists were just in the right place at the right time, or if they really had their sights on the top prize from an early age. I suspect the reality requires a bit of both. Regardless, I’m quite sure I’m not Nobel Prize material. I’m not sure I want it enough. Right now I don’t know what I want, but until I work that out, I’m gonna stick with astronomy and see how it pans out. I’m quite sure that wasn’t the attitude that Newton or Einstein had towards science, but it’s all I can give for the moment. Does that worry you? It worries me, but let’s not panic. I’m not a doctor, yet.

So tomorrow is my official first day as a PhD student. I say ‘official’, but it isn’t really. Nobody told me it would be, in fact I told my supervisor (who coincidentally happens to be on holiday this week) that I’ll be starting tomorrow. Somehow it feels like it should all be a little more formal than that. Anyway, whether or not the department is ready for me, and whether or not I’m ready for it myself, tomorrow I’ll be kicking ass when I introduce myself, and wiping the floor with all the paperwork. Or something like that.