How to disorientate a PhD student

AKA: Thailand Week 1

My first ever solo long haul flight was actually pretty easy, as flights go. I was never painfully uncomfortable, nor bored. I spent most of the flight watching movies, and wishing I was watching the movie people in front of me were watching, instead of mine. I had about one hour to change in Hong Kong, before jumping on a half-empty ‘Dragonair’ flight (coolest airline name ever), almost all three hours of which seemed to be spent filling in their enormous customer feedback form. On stepping out of the doors at Chiang Mai International Airport (probably one of the smallest ‘international’ airports in existence) I was greeted by 25+ degrees of sticky air, and I soon realised that bringing two jumpers was probably unnecessary.

The view from Hong Kong Airport

The view from Hong Kong Airport

After a worrying half an hour waiting outside before finding my friendly Thai contact, I was on the way to a hotel for the first night, where I would catch up with my supervisors Vik and Stu, and the two other ULTRASPEC team members for the first week, Paul and Tom. I was given a swanky room with an enormous bed (see photo – I later discovered this is the norm here), and just about had time to brush my teeth before we were whisked out for dinner at a posh restaurant next to the river.

Easily enough space for three in standard Thai 'double beds'

Easily enough space for three in standard Thai ‘double beds’. They are also rock solid. I’m not sure I will ever be able to sleep on a soft bed again.

This was my first encounter with real Thai food, and I had been nervous about it for months, knowing that eggs, fish and peanuts were an integral part of Thai cooking. Unfortunately, my worries were fairly appropriate, as Vik and the others quickly agreed to order a number of plates to share, almost all of which had some form of fish or seafood involved. I managed to find a fairly harmless looking grilled beef dish, but quickly became aware of the normal sort of restrictions I would face at most restaurants here – approximately 75% of most menus are off-limits, unless I can convince the chef to leave out eggs in the frying process, which is tricky with my very limited ability to speak Thai.

Dinner on the first night with other ULTRASPEC team members

Dinner on the first night with other ULTRASPEC team members

After dinner some of us headed into the Old City to explore the Sunday Night Market, also known as ‘Sunday Walking Street’, a famous weekly event in Chiang Mai. The first stall we came to was selling some kind of bracelets, which were currently housing a possum! The stall owner was quite upset when I took a photo, forgetting to turn off the flash, though, so we quickly moved on. This first encounter did a good job of setting the scene for the rest of the market. There were stalls selling anything from bizarre smelling foods to dodgy electronic gadgets, touristy t-shirts, mango wood bowls, decorated notebooks and freshly fried bugs, including crickets, giant water bugs, and what I can only describe as maggots (we were later told these taste quite like chips, but for obvious reasons I wasn’t keen to test this claim).

Possum relaxing in a box of beads.

Possum relaxing in a box of bracelets.

It took at least an hour or two to slowly meander through the entire market, and having missed an entire night’s sleep, I was very pleased when it was time to head back to the hotel. What better way to make the trek back across the city then in the traditional tuk tuk? The four of us split between two, and paid 100 Thai Baht for each (around £2) for the ten minute journey.

After nowhere near enough sleep, and a slightly sickening breakfast of plastic toast and pork pasta bake, we found ourselves in a minivan heading straight over to the Doi Inthanon national park, and the home of the Thai National Observatory. It took around 2 hours to get there. Apparently it was then already lunch time (Thais like to eat early, it seems), and after much deliberation I managed to order something sensible, if tasteless (watery chicken soup with garlic and noodles). This restaurant (next to our mountain lodgings) was to be my main source of food for the next 10 days, and by the end I had studied the menu so carefully I could probably recite most of it. I soon discovered a number of fairly tasty variants, and now have a favourite standard breakfast: khao pad gai mai sai kai (chicken fried rice without egg). I’m not sure why the restaurant staff always laugh when I ask for it. Perhaps it’s my pronunciation, though I’m 100% certain I’m saying it exactly the same as the Thai people say it. In any case, 90% of the food here is fried, so it took a few days to get used to the heavy feeling in my stomach.

After dropping our bags off at the lodge, we then headed further up the mountain. The telescope is located 15km further along the road, and 1000m higher than the lodge, just 3km before the summit of Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand (around 2500m). On the way we passed a truck full of monks, some of whom had ipod headphones in. I found this highly amusing. We were soon at the Thai National Observatory, and were quickly at work testing systems and preparing ULTRASPEC for its first astronomical observations in Thailand.

Hi-tech Monks

Hi-tech Monks

TNT

2.4m Thai National Telescope

Getting going in the TNT control room

Getting going in the TNT control room

After two full days of preparations, we began our first night-time observations with probably the best observing conditions I’ve seen since arriving. We managed to complete almost all of the on-sky commissioning tests, as well as some nice PR shots, in the first two nights. This was incredibly lucky, because after this we were sitting in a pile of cloud for almost the entirety of the rest of our observing time. The following day Vik was keen to go walking in the afternoon, but having missed two whole nights of sleep within a week, it would have taken a lot to get me to wake up earlier than necessary. It took two or three nights to finally start to feel ‘normal’ again.

Stuart prettifying our PR shot of the Nautilus Galaxy

Stuart prettifying our PR shot of the Nautilus Galaxy

On the last afternoon of Vik, Stu and Paul’s time at the telescope, we did manage a walk along a nature trail through the jungle. It was very beautiful, and near the end the jungle opened up to alpine grassland and a great view (when the clouds offered the occasional gap). Thanks to Nu for showing us!

Start of the Nature Trail

Start of the Nature Trail

CIMG7771 CIMG7832

Just to prove I was there

Just to prove I was there

Finishing with a nice glimpse of the Royal Pagodas

Finishing with a nice glimpse of the Royal Pagodas

That will do for now. More photos and stories next time.

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Excitement, despair, and how to tell the difference

EDIT: This post was mostly written a week ago on the train down to London. I’ll try to catch up with everything in the meantime as soon as I can.

FYI: This is likely to the be the first in a number of posts as I try to catch you up with my hectic life over the last few weeks.
Since my last post about the meeting in Oxford, there’s been a huge amount of activity and emotion (chiefly excitement and despair, in approximately equal measure). You may recall my post a few weeks ago about the mysterious fast transient we serendipitously discovered with the pt5m. I’d decided it wasn’t moving, and that the intrinsic colour of the flash was quite blue, so our favourite theory back then was that it was a very bright stellar flare from a dim M-dwarf star. The problem was, we couldn’t identify a quiescent counterpart in any available catalogue (see image below), meaning that if this was an M-dwarf flare, the star itself must be very faint, and the amplitude of the flare must have been enormous. We could set a minimum flare amplitude of 6-7 magnitudes, which means an increase in brightness of 1000 times the normal level, at least. This is a rather rare occurrence, and so would be very interesting in itself.

This screenshot shows the position of our transient source (purple cross) with a wide gap around it. There are no sources in *any* astronomical catalogue at any wavelength at this position

This screenshot shows the position of our transient source (purple cross) with a wide gap around it. There are no sources in any astronomical catalogue in any wavelength at this position.

The big news on the day after the Oxford meeting was that whilst looking over the images of the same field from the weekend, I spotted another fast transient event! Even more incredible though, was that this one was clearly a diffuse source, showing a kind of dumbbell shape, like two sources, just touching, fading in unison (later we noticed a third little blob right next to the others, also fading at the same rate, thus presumably of the same origin). This new event was not quite as bright as the previous one, and some 13 days later, but was very nearly in the same place in the sky (about 15 arcseconds away). This was wonderfully exciting, and had both my supervisors grinning and celebrating with a trip out to get “posh coffee”. I use this situation to define ‘excitement’.
These two events could of course have been completely coincidental and unrelated, but after ruling out all the “dull” explanations (reflective glints from satellites, comets and ghosts in the telescope optics) we came up with a plausible (though unlikely) explanation. We proposed that the original flash was indeed a very bright stellar flare from an incredibly faint dwarf or young star, perhaps shrouded in clouds of gas and dust some 300 light years away. The second, diffuse flare could then be a reflection of the original flash by a surrounding gas cloud, at a distance of 13 light days (about 10 times the size of Pluto’s orbit). This was a very interesting idea, and one that could hopefully be proved by the discovery of the faint quiescent source.
Both Vik and Stu set about contacting their buddies at big telescopes (Stu had a friend working at the UK Infra-Red Telescope in Hawaii – infra-red observations are useful for probing through thick gas or dust clouds, and Vik had a number of contacts at the Gran Telescopio Canarias on La Palma – the biggest telescope in the world!), and both managed to persuade the top dogs of each telescope to take some deep images to try to find a background source. By lunchtime on Monday, just 6 months into my PhD, I had my hands on data from the world’s biggest telescope. This was amazing, but does highlight the still prominent issues with modern astronomy; if you’re close to the right people, you have a much better chance at finding a back-door route to otherwise very competitive telescope time. Anyway, that’s an entire discussion in itself, which I won’t go in to now.

After spending almost an entire day fighting with IRAF (astronomy’s most widely used yet still very user-unfriendly software), I was able to combine the GTC images (which gave a limiting g-band magnitude of 28 – astro geeks will appreciate that this is outrageously deep) to find… well, nothing. Apparently the UKIRT images showed nothing either. At this point my hourly use of the word “mystery” began an exponential increase, and my supervisors and I were thoroughly stumped.

When I came into the office the following day, I had a strange urge to re-check the original data for movement, just in case I’d missed something. It turns out I had, and that day soon developed without question into the worst day of the PhD so far. I hadn’t watched closely enough when I was checking if the original transient was moving with respect to the other stars in the field. It was a very subtle, minor movement, but it was definitely present when studied very closely. This was a terrible mistake to have made. Something moving, even as slowly as this was, could not be at a cosmological or even galactic distance. It must be relatively nearby (within half a light year, I later calculated), and thus probably much, much less interesting. With this single mistake, I’d managed to waste well over a week of both my supervisors’ time, my own time, and about 3 hours of observations on the biggest telescope in the world (this costs around 10,000€ a night, so let’s say I wasted over 2,000€). To say I was annoyed at myself would be the understatement of the year. I was devastated, angry at myself, and felt like the biggest idiot ever to be invited to undertake a PhD in science. The look of disappointment on my supervisor’s face when I told him crippled any sense of purpose I had left, and I went home mentally drafting a letter of resignation. I use this situation to define ‘despair’.

After pep talks from my lovely housemates, I did come back in to the office for the rest of the week, and tried to focus on other projects as best I could. Despite trying hard to avoid my supervisors, we still ended up discussing what this event could actually be. The leading theory for a couple of days, proposed by Vik, was that the flash was simply the glint of a slowly rotating satellite, perhaps in a geosynchronous orbit (where it stays above the same spot on the surface of the Earth at all times). After sitting and thinking about it for long enough, I had a revelation: this object couldn’t be a satellite. In fact, it couldn’t be anything orbiting Earth. Though it was moving too quickly to be anything further away than the nearest star, it was moving too slowly to be in an orbit around the Earth (it would have a distance of 5 million km – that’s 13 times the distance to the moon!). Sadly, this epiphany occurred late on Thursday evening, when most people had left the office, and both my supervisors had gone home to pack for the upcoming trip to Thailand, so I had no-one to celebrate/ponder with. This couldn’t be a satellite (nor could it be an asteroid, as the fading brightness was too fast) and must be something at least mildly interesting, or some bizarre technical glitch (and therefore still something useful for other people to know about). This was enough to lift my spirits, and felt like a relief. Partly because what we’d discovered was still of interest and could perhaps form a chapter in my thesis, but mostly because I’d managed to disprove my supervisor’s satellite theory (with a little help from office-mate Chris). I felt less of an idiot, though no less confused about what to do. On a related note, an interesting article was recently published discussing ‘Imposter Syndrome‘, which is relevant here I think. The mystery remains unsolved, but the experience will hopefully prove useful to others working in transient astronomy, so there’s a chance it will still be publishable. More on this later, I imagine.

After a roller-coaster month of October, it was time to head out to Thailand for 6 weeks to commission ULTRASPEC and support the local astronomers in its use. I hope the next post will be shorter and sooner, but right now we’re heading to bed – it’s 4am and the weather has been terrible all night. Goodnight!