The life of a travelling astronomy student

On Monday my two supervisors and I travelled down to Oxford University for a meeting with some of the big UK names in the LOFAR transient team. Folks there were keen to progress a collaboration and for us to use the pt5m to follow-up some of their transient projects, and we also talked about having the pt5m simultaneously observe the same patch of sky that the Janksy Very Large Array will be monitoring over the next few months. The hope here is that if any transient events occur we might be able to get simultaneous radio and optical data. 

Other work is really busy at the moment: I’m still trying to work out what the fast transient was that we saw two weeks ago, as well as complete finishing touches to the automatic transient follow-up pipelines, keep up to date with nightly data reduction, start a new project gathering new data on a catalog of Cataclysmic Variables, and prepare for Thailand! I’m flying in 9 days, and still don’t have insect repellent, a place to stay, any grasp on how to pronounce “I’m allergic to…” in Thai, or any Thai currency. 

On top of all the work above, and the preparation list for Thailand, I also need to make sure I get out on my bike at least one more time before I leave. How will I ever find time to sleep, eat, wash or shop for cereal?

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Why doing a PhD sucks -or- Why doing a PhD is great

A week ago I started drafting a post to explain that I was having a really rough time staying positive and motivated regarding my PhD. I was feeling lost. I hadn’t really spoken to my supervisor in weeks as he’d been away, and I had very little idea on what I was doing. I was leaving the office at the end of every day having achieved nothing at all, and having done about as much work as I could have done in 20 minutes, if I’d put my mind to it. I was trying to do some background reading for a literature review, but I didn’t know exactly what it was I was reviewing, so I wasn’t getting anywhere. Even in the broadest sense, I couldn’t pick out anything in the subject area (optical transient science) which stood out for me as something I found interesting. This, if it wasn’t clear already, is a gravely worrying place to be, 6 months into your PhD.

Adding to my feeling of uselessness, we had a hectic few days as the PhD office was shaken up with the imminent arrival of two new students. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to have some new faces around, but it meant the re-organisation of most desks, computers, and inhabitants in our 7-desk office. Two of the old faces moved out, two intermediates moved around, and the two new chaps moved in. Whilst this wasn’t overly disruptive, it didn’t really help my already exhausted concentration levels, and the end result was that 6 of the 7 desks finished the week looking sparkly clean and tidy. Mine was (and still is) an absolute tip. This made me feel even worse about my failure to make any progress, and added the small but constant stress of the voice in my head which said “Tidy this shit up!” every time I sat down.

My painfully messy desk, after *some* tidying

My painfully messy desk, after some tidying

So as you can hopefully tell, I wasn’t feeling good about work. Nor was I feeling great about non-work stuff either (I obviously hadn’t been out on my new bike enough). Thankfully though, last week things turned around rather dramatically. In the space of 24 hours I’d had a good talk with my supervisor about where I was going and what I should be reading about for my lit. review, a further discussion with him regarding a sub-project with well-defined aims and targets (gathering light curves of new cataclysmic variables, looking for eclipses and determining system parameters), which should add a considerable chapter to my final thesis, and most exciting of all, I accidentally discovered a bizarre, bright, fast transient event in images from the pt5m.

Fast optical transient serendipitously detected by the pt5m

*Click Image to See Animation* Fast optical transient serendipitously detected by the pt5m. The object is just below and left of centre, and fades within 10 minutes! Note that these images were taken in different colours, so some other stars appear to brighten and fade on smaller scales.

Though we still don’t know exactly what it is (ideas include flare star, orphan GRB afterglow or ‘unknown’), it is quite exciting. I haven’t managed to find a quiescent (background, quiet, non-erupting) source in any known catalogue or image, and combining all previous images of this field together shows no background source either. Once I’ve calculated a detection limit, we can then give a minimum amplitude for the brightness of the transient. The object appeared in the first image taken that night, so we don’t know how bright it might have been before this, or for how long it lasted, but it was only seen in our images for about 10 minutes. Although it was a found completely by accident, this will hopefully attach my name to real astronomy (even if only by way of an Astronomer’s Telegram), and may even be worthy of another chapter in my thesis, if it turns out to be something unusual.

Other things of note:

  • The pt5m automatic transient follow-up programs are almost, almost working properly now. I hope that by the end of the week the pt5m will be a fully functioning transient follow-up machine. Hurray! There will still be lots of little bits to tinker with it, but hopefully not too much.
  • I went down to London last week to get a visa for the Thailand trip. Since I’m staying out there longer than a month I needed to get one. The whole thing is suddenly very real, and somewhat scary. I’m no longer sure I want to spend 6 weeks in a country where they eat lots of fish and peanuts (two of my three food allergies), working on my own with lots of responsibility, and miss out on all the things going on back here. I’m sure it will all be great, but I can’t help feeling nervous about it too.
  • Comet ISON is coming – follow the Twitter page for news and cool pictures.
  • I’ll be helping teach a problems class on Thursday – yikes! I’m quite excited for this, and sad that I can’t teach the classes all semester, being in Thailand for most of it. Hopefully I’ll have time to look through the questions before the day!

There might be some other stuff, but I’m in a rush now. I’ll try to write again soon.