So, you’re an instrument specialist now?

Big news this week is that my supervisor wants me to hang around in Thailand for a month after we install ULTRASPEC, in case the Thai users have any questions about how it works, or come across any problems. This is super exciting (long weekend trips in the jungle/scuba diving/in Bangkok are on the cards), and very flattering, but feels a lot like a terrible idea. I am very much not an instrument specialist.

The reasoning behind it is simply that the people who actually know what they’re doing will be too busy teaching undergrads during that time (the month of November). This leaves me being the “next best option”. However, when a brand new PhD student who still walks into the office everyday expecting to be turfed out for being a fraud is considered the “next best option”, alarm bells should be ringing. I did mention this (not quite in those words, mind), but Vik seems to think I’ll cope.

Of course, I won’t complain. Travel and accommodation should be paid for, and it sounds like the local Thai astronomers and engineers are lovely people, who organise spontaneous fun stuff all the time (See this picture of my supervisor and our head engineer riding an elephant). But I am definitely wary of the possibility of me sitting there for 4 weeks being completely unable to answer any questions or fix any problems without phoning home for help. Oh well – I’d better swot up on everything before I leave, I suppose!

In other news, it’s looking increasingly likely that I’ll be going back to La Palma again for the ULTRACAM observations around New Year. I’m definitely looking forward to going back, and hopefully this time I can arrange for a bit more of a holiday while I’m there, too. It’s a shame it’s over New Year though – it’ll be the third year in a row I’ll be spending it outside of the UK, and La Palma is notoriously disappointing when it comes to celebrating it. Again, no real complaints from me, though!

On top of this, the department seems keen for me to attend the upcoming STFC summer school at Queen Mary’s University in London. I missed out on this last year because I wasn’t starting until April, and thought I wouldn’t have the chance this year because I’d already started, and also I’m not funded by SFTC. However, the astronomy group thinks it will be beneficial for me to go. Hurray! The programme actually looks really interesting, and apparently it’s an excellent opportunity to network with fellow PhD students across the country. I’m quite looking forward to it now!

Last week I spent 3 nights at the Woodcraft Folk‘s triennial national youth camp for 13-15 year olds, in Derbyshire. It’s actually the fourth one I’ve been to, the first being “my camp”, in 2005 where I turned 15. I helped organise parts of the following two in 2008 and 2010, but haven’t been much involved in recent years. However, I was asked to come along and run a few astronomy based workshops. After a well-attended afternoon workshop on Monday, introducing modern astronomy and distance scales, we were very lucky to have the clouds clear away for an evening of stargazing. I’d borrowed the University’s 5-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector to play with, and we managed to see some nice double stars. Unfortunately, the sky wasn’t quite dark enough and the telescope’s small aperture prevented us from seeing much else (read: my amateur astronomy skills are awful). Nevertheless, people seemed quite entertained, and I was glad I could impart some of my (limited) knowledge on to the children and adults alike.

Recently I’ve been brushing up on my Python programming, using four nice online courses (1, 2, 3, 4), all of which I’d recommend to anyone who’s just starting out with Python. The last one in particular is very good. I’m now working on the software which will hopefully turn p5tm into a fully automated robotic transient follow-up telescope. This means enabling it to listen for event alerts, make decisions about which alerts are worth following up, decide how best to follow them up, submit jobs for observation, reduce the images, and feed back to the alert network any notable analysis, all without human interaction.

Any programming gurus out there will be thinking “Pfft – piece of cake!”, whilst code-o-phobes like myself are sat shivering and trying not to be sick at the thought of how complicated that is. It is indeed mighty complicated, but as with any programming project, the key is to break it down into little jobs. So far (with lots of help and building blocks from Stu) we’ve managed to nail the job submission, and image reduction sections. Today I managed a first draft of all the decision making code which works out how to deal with each alert, and Stu already has a few modules which can listen for alerts and download any new ones. The last and most difficult stage will be building and managing a database which stores all the alerts we process, so that we can keep an eye on what’s happening. This involves getting Python to interact with an SQL server, so if any experts out there want to teach me how to do that, please do!

This week also marked the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. This happens at about the same time every year, as the Earth passes through a patch of it’s orbit which is heavily populated with rubble from the break-up of comet Swift-Tuttle. Most of the meteors are essentially tiny grains of sand, burning brightly as they are incinerated when entering the atmosphere. Anyway, they put on a great show for us on Monday night, with some of the biggest ones arcing across the entire sky.

And finally…. the most exciting news of the week is totally unrelated to astronomy (surprised?). I’ll be working at Leeds Festival next weekend, and though it will be full of bands I don’t care about, and swarming with intoxicated morons, I’m really looking forward to it. Why? Because I’m due to work as deputy bar manager in the biggest bar on site. Cool huh? Terrifying too, but I’m excited to see how it goes.


2 thoughts on “So, you’re an instrument specialist now?

  1. For getting Python to work nicely with MySQL and other SQL-based database engines, have a read of this section:

    Also, you should consider releasing your code under a free software licence, so that other users can benefit from your work. (See and for more comprehensive discussions.) My recommendation would be the GPL.

    Finally, may I have a look at your decision-making code? It’d be interesting to see what kind of algorithm you are using. I don’t know if you’re aware (I might be being really patronising here), but things like this are a really interesting subfield of AI, and I could lend you a textbook when I get back from Spain if you like.

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