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.

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