Last week I attended a summer school for new astronomy PhD students at Queen Mary University of London. You may wonder why I went to a school for new PhD students when I started my PhD five months ago. The simple answer is that my department told me to. Obviously I wanted to go too, but having missed the school last year, I thought I’d missed my chance. Especially as the school is organised primarily for students funded by STFC, and my funding comes directly from the university.
Despite all that, the department insisted I went, and agreed to pay the £550 participation fee. So on the Sunday evening I found myself in a single en-suite room of the Queen Mary student accommodation, admiring the cleaning schedule and taking advantage of the free shampoo and shower gel. Like most student rooms, it was small and full of harshly worded signs regarding property damage and fire safety. But other than the shower being scarcely more than a dribble yet still managing to soak the entire bathroom, it was pretty nice.
On the first night we were invited to a welcome dinner in ‘The Octagon’. Though we were asked to arrive at 6pm, we were left waiting outside the hall for 15 minutes whilst they finalised preparations. This allowed all ~90 of us to continue having awkward, stunted conversations with each other for a lot longer than most would have liked.
As if 90 fresh-faced astronomy students in a room wasn’t awkward enough, we were provided with name tags and not enough tables to sit at. This ensured that everyone spent 10 seconds after they collected their plate scanning the room, deciding which side to sit on and who to sit with. The food was actually pretty tasty (I had chicken and mushroom stroganoff with lots of salad), and the conversation near me wasn’t too cringe-worthy (though it quickly descended in video gaming, which was slightly disappointing). After half an hour or so, the course director wandered round encouraging people to mingle further, which was a great excuse to abandon my ignorant part in a conversation about Skyrim, and introduce myself, where I studied, “where I’m going”, and “what I’ll be studying” to other people.
After the conference dinner, I soon discovered that astronomers who are about to embark on 3 years of postgraduate study can behave much the same as 18 year-olds who are about to embark on 3 years of undergraduate study. Most of us filtered our way through the local Sainsbury’s to buy drinks, then piled into the communal kitchen of one of the flats for a sweaty, noisy, social gathering. Much like Fresher’s Week at university, everyone was keen to make new friends and get to know each other, and for a while I felt awkward and unsure of myself. Also much like Fresher’s Week, there was the obvious presence of an overly drunk Scotsman, singing at the top of his voice. After not very long at all, the “party” spilled out on to the staircase (also a very studenty thing, I think), and I found myself finally enjoying a more meaningful conversation about renewable energy and other interesting but related topics. Overall a rather entertaining and interesting introduction to the week, which left me wondering how many people would manage to make the 9am start the following morning.
My worries were unfounded, though. It turns out astronomy students are very good at late nights and early starts, with what looked like everyone turning up for 9am, even though we later learnt that it was a “flexible” start (some people were annoyed about this). Anyway, the first day consisted of two somewhat hard-to-follow lectures on cosmology and gravitational lensing, a neat talk about the highest redshift galaxies (there are tentative claims we’ve found a galaxy at z~11.9… wow), a long and in-depth description of the infra-red space telescope Herschel, and further awkward conversations in the long queue for tea/coffee and lunch. Having not had to sit through hour-long lectures in over two years, it was a bit of a shock to the system, but I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling to stay awake! Dinner (veggie pasta bake in the Queen Mary food bar “The Curve”) was followed by a cheese and wine evening organised by the local PhD students. This involved lots of good cheese, and lots of bad wine (apparently, I didn’t try it), which again helped get everyone chatting, and again proved that astronomers know very well how to drink free wine.
On paper, Day 2 looked like it would be the most interesting, and it didn’t disappoint. Stephen Smartt of Queens University Belfast opened up with a nice introduction of transient surveys, describing in detail the 1.8m PAN-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. The most interesting recent result was the discovery of a “kilonova” (bigger than a nova, smaller than a supernova), suspected to be the explosion which follows the merging of two neutron stars. This could be a great source of gravitational waves (the existence of which is what many Physicists are currently trying to prove) , so is very exciting indeed.
Next up was a talk from Andy Lawrence from Edinburgh on the Virtual Observatory. This is a movement of astronomers and astro-engineers which is slowly developing in order to tackle the need for interoperability between the vast numbers of sources of data now available to astronomers. With new sky surveys on their way (e.g. LSST, expecting to create 100 Tb of data every night), it is imperative that astronomy evolves to handle large amounts of data in a way that allows all users to access it in a standard form. This felt like a really important but challenging task, and one which I fully support. Simply being aware of the hundreds of different user-modified programs in use in astronomy is enough to boggle my mind.
The final talk of the morning came from Rob Fender, who is in the process of moving from Southampton to Oxford University. This lecture on high energy astrophysics in radio astronomy was a great overview of the LOFAR project, the upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the exciting science which radio astronomy contributes to. I also managed to have a good chat with him after about how the pt5m can help follow-up transients from LOFAR and also hopefully the Very Large Array in New Mexico.
After lunch we split into three groups to discuss the 4 big upcoming projects which European astronomy is funding over the next decade or two. Our task was to determine which of the four missions should be scrapped if hypothetical belts had to be tightened. The missions (SKA, E-ELT, JWST and JUICE) are all of great importance to the next generation of astrophysical understanding, so it would always be a tough choice. Our group was further split into 4 teams who would present the case for why their mission should not be scrapped. I was fighting for the E-ELT, and although our group lost the vote, I learnt a lot about the different projects, and realised there’s a huge amount of exciting things coming up in astronomy over the next few years. Thankfully at this stage there are no plans to pull out of any of the missions!
After dinner (more veggie pasta bake – it was yummy!) the local post-grads had arranged an indoor 5-a-side football tournament for us. Even though we could only entice enough people to make up four teams, and somehow one team ended up with possibly the top 5 players in the group, it was still great fun. It was really good to expend some of the energy that builds up throughout an entire day of sitting in lectures, and our team came second (hurray!).
Wednesday was another (mostly) fun day, starting with Marek Kukula from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, talking about public engagement. By explaining all the fun things he’s done within his public engagement work, and drawing our attention to the exciting impacts of society and economy due to the progress of astronomical research (see this publication from the Royal Astronomical Society), he was able to get most (if not all) of us excited about engaging non-astronomers in astronomy. He then described the current exhibition he was curating at the National Maritime Museum called “Visions of the Universe” (#spaceisawesome <- I think this should be used more generally and more often), which many of us went to visit that afternoon.
The following talk from Chris Lintott (Oxford University) was also very cool. He explained how to get 800,000 people to help with a research project using the citizen science project Zooniverse. This fascinating idea to use excited and engaged members of the public to help identify galaxies, find planets, and count penguins was very inspiring, and followed on nicely from the ideas of public engagement we heard about earlier. These morning talks reminded me a lot about the work that videojournalist Brady Haran does with science outreach, including Deep Sky Videos (a few of which I starred in). If you’ve not looked him up before, do so. His stuff is brilliant.
After a rather heavy and uninteresting talk about simulating star formation, we were each given a day travel card and let loose on the city of London. While some chose to stay at home and relax, some headed into the city to go shopping, and some just enjoyed riding the tube. Most of us however, headed South on the DLR to Greenwich. Here we visited the Visions of the Universe exhibition, which I highly recommend as a thoroughly awesome and inspiring experience. Sadly it’s only running until September 15th, so do get in there while you still can! I also enjoyed seeing the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich line of zero longitude, and the impressive view over the city from the top of the hill. Back on campus dinner was a slightly disappointing curry and rice dish, which we followed with a fun game of frisbee in the park on the other side of the canal.
By Thursday I think most of us were starting to struggle with fatigue. This is obviously something we’ll all need to work on for night time observations and future conferences. It definitely helped that most of the talks on this day were about things I already knew lots about, or find fascinating. I won’t go in to too much detail, because I realise this post is already longer than most essays, but the talks covered planetary exploration, astrobiology, extra-solar planets and planetary formation. I managed to chat with one of the speakers, Peter Wheatley of the University of Warwick, who regularly collaborates with my supervisors. We spoke about my Master’s project, his current work, and the possibility of using the pt5m to help immediately follow-up transients from SuperWASP. This will be pretty cool if we can get it working, and Vik was very excited by the idea, so “networking” can be useful sometimes it seems. At the end of the session, we were given the opportunity to meet in groups relevant to our expected research subjects, in case we hadn’t already found our future colleagues (which seemed likely, as I was still meeting new people right up until the end of the week). This led me to the discovery that very few new PhD-ers are studying transients, and there were none that I could find that will be doing optical photometric follow-up of transient events. This was a little disappointing, and surprising too, as my supervisor had assured me that transients was the next big thing. Oh well!
That evening we had a conference dinner, which meant posh cutlery, waiters in white jackets, and a three course meal. The food itself was only slightly above average, but the conversation was interesting, and it was great to see everyone enjoying themselves. Afterwards a large group headed to the nearest pub, for more drinks and more chatter, where we stayed until the pub threw us out at closing time. At this point there were a few who were ready for bed, but enough noisy folk to keep the party going, unfortunately in the kitchen of my flat. This involved the hilarious but deafeningly loud singing Scotsman again, and other Fresher-like behaviour. Thankfully the party moved on by 2am, and I was able to get some sleep.
Needless to say, the final day of lectures was poorly attended, with many who did make it in moaning and groaning at every opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two lectures though (involving quasars, AGN and gamma ray bursts), with the second one including a number of cringe-worthy animations, but also some great anecdotes and tips for doing a PhD. The final lecture, on the formation of galaxies and large scale structure, was very dry, and I think everyone was glad when the end finally came around. Most of us happily took advantage of the last free lunch, and people slowly drifted away to pack up their things and head home, unsure of who to say goodbye to and how to say it.
Overall I very much enjoyed myself, despite the lack of meeting many other people in my field, and the lack of sleep. I think the course was definitely a success, was genuinely really fun, and is certainly something I’d be keen to help out with in future, if it ever came to Sheffield. It’s hard to say how much I (and indeed science in general) gained from the week, but it was enjoyable, and you can’t put a price on the power of “networking”. However, you may, like others already, have noticed that all the speakers during the school were male. This was apparently an oversight on behalf of the organisers, and almost certainly not intentional. Nevertheless it does highlight the glaring gender imbalance in astronomy, and in physics in general. I don’t know what the solution to this is, but if anyone else does, do let me know. At least we’re thinking about it, I suppose. Anyway, I do hope to keep in touch with the people I met, and I wish them all the best of luck with their research.
Here is a list of the most interesting facts (truth not guaranteed) I learnt during the week:
- Most massive stars don’t actually go supernova
- The 40m E-ELT will collect as much light as 100 million human eyes
- The total yearly funding budget from STFC for astronomy in the UK is about the same all the arts council funding put together – this is roughly the same as the annual cost of one fighter jet, or one big mac meal for each UK citizen per year
- Astronomers invented WiFi when trying to find a new way to pass data over short distances
- The GPS software on your smartphone was developed by astronomers
- It’s estimated that there are two free-floating, ejected planets wandering around the galaxy for every star
- Icy particles are more sticky than silicate particles
- Black holes don’t have a solid surface
- Gamma Ray Bursts were originally discovered by military satellites checking for nuclear weapon tests in the Cold War
- Dropping a pea onto a neutron star would give off an atomic bomb’s worth of energy
- There are proteins inside human cells which literally walk around dragging cell building blocks behind them
- 16 years worth of human productivity is lost to Angry Birds, every hour
P.S. Congratulations to me on writing my 20th blog post. Yay! Sorry it’s so long. It’s more of a journal entry for me to help remember what I did, rather than anything interesting for you, I imagine.