I went to my first official astronomy conference a few weeks ago, at the Insitut d’Astrophysique de Paris (IAP). I travelled with my co-supervisor, Stu, down to London and on the Eurostar too. Actually the most exciting part of the trip was couchsurfing with the lovely Judith, who lives in a top-floor apartment in the snazzy ‘Bourse’ area. You can climb up onto the roof and see the entire city from there – it’s beautiful. I genuinely had no love for any big city until we sat on the roof eating dinner and watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. With a view like that, I reckon I could deal with big-city life.
Another thing about big cities which I’ve always found off-putting is the public transport system. To be fair, my opinion of this has always been based around my experiences in London, which can be summed up in three words: stressful, unreliable, expensive. This is another winner for Paris – the bus, metro and RER trains network is extensive, fast, and relatively cheap. I was genuinely impressed, and I actually look forward to the next time I have to travel across Paris.
The conference itself was actually a ‘workshop’. The difference being that after two days of people giving 15-30 minute presentations, we had half a day of discussion and feedback. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, it was very much a conference. Despite being perpetually exhausted, I managed to stay awake and pay attention throughout most of the talks, and really enjoyed some of them. I learnt a lot about how the European Space Agency’s (ESA) upcoming satellite GAIA will play such an important role for astronomy over the next few years, especially in the field of transients. By surveying the entire night sky many times over the mission period of 5 years, countless new and exciting variable objects will be found. Much of the discussion was focussed on how small telescopes (like pt5m) will be able to give rapid feedback about new alerts generated by the GAIA alerts team, and hopefully help them to tailor their alert software as part of the verification phase. This is super exciting and hopefully we can play a big part in it.
The meeting was also an excellent chance to network with other big names in the GAIA project, which really is going to be the biggest thing in European astronomy for the next few years. I also had plenty of opportunity to bond with Stu (my co-supervisor), and very much enjoyed his recounted tales of when he was a PhD student under Vik (my primary supervisor). I’m now quite looking forward to spending 5 nights at the William Herschel Telescope, being trained by Stu on how to use ULTRACAM.
Most importantly though, there was free juice and croissants. Brilliant!