I’m working hard, honest!

I started my PhD 10 months ago. Soon I will be a second year PhD student. I’ll have two years of funding left, and realistically not much to show for the year behind me. Am I worried? Well, no actually. Even though I still don’t have a definite subject for my thesis, I’m feeling pretty good.

Over the last three weeks I’ve been working on a literature review that was officially due in October. The main reason why I’ve been putting it off is because I couldn’t decide what to review. With a PhD subject as vague as “transients and high-time resolution astronomy”, I could have been reading and writing for years. But, after Vik tried and failed to convince the head of the astronomy group that I shouldn’t really need to do one, it became obvious that I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was my top priority for the new year.

I chose to write a review on the Fast Radio Bursts that I mentioned in a previous post. This was a good choice because this is a new, very exciting, and little understood topic, so there are relatively few papers to read, and not much to write about. This was a bad choice because I have no background understanding of radio astronomy.

Thankfully, the positive points outweighed the negative ones, and two weeks of reading fascinating papers seemed to fly by. I usually absolutely despise reading the literature. It’s by far my least favourite part of science, and yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it this time round. If that doesn’t convince you of how cool these bursts are, maybe this cat will.

"Fast Radio Bursts? Oh yeah they're cool..."

“Fast Radio Bursts? Oh yeah they’re cool…”

The review was supposed to be 3000 words, but of course I pushed that to something like 4700. It took two further days to write the essay, and one last day to make the corrections that Vik advised. I submitted it this afternoon, and now have at least one piece of work I can show to say I haven’t been watching YouTube all year. 

With new FRBs being discovered regularly, focus is beginning to shift to optical wavelengths, and the hope of seeing these bursts as they occur. I’m really hoping this might become my main PhD project, as we aim to start following up discoveries, or even schedule simultaneous observations, with the pt5m in La Palma and ULTRASPEC in Thailand. If so, the literature review will be an integral part of the introduction chapter of my thesis. If not, it will be somewhat of a wasted exercise.

Speaking of La Palma and Thailand, I will of course be heading out there again soon. This time I’m scheduled for two separate ULTRACAM runs at the WHT, which have a gap of about 5 days between them (more hiking and diving I hope). I’ll also be back at the Thai National Observatory for a week of observations at the end of March, followed by a week of diving in the South. This means another 40 days away from home (with a week’s gap in the middle) for more observing experience and holiday, but dire prospects for progress with the PhD. Not that I’m complaining of course! It just means I really ought to start working a bit harder.

On that note, it’s 6pm on Friday evening – home time!

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The perils of observational astronomy

Last night we lost the entire night due to technical problems at the WHT. The telescope control system (or TCS) crashed multiple times, and eventually conked out altogether. Despite James’ best efforts, we were unable to recover the systems, and gave up at around midnight. This was particularly disappointing for Stu, as it was the clearest, calmest and final night of his CV follow-up program. The nature of the observations mean that if we’d manage to collect a night-ful of good data last night, the scientific outcome of the 2-night program would have more than tripled. Bummer.

James fiddling with ancient hardware, trying to fix the TCS problems.

James fiddling with ancient hardware, trying to fix the TCS problems.

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Really ancient hardware. This one is definitely older than I am.

Obviously, we were very disappointed not to observe, but the silver lining was that we could start packing up ULTRACAM early, and even get some sleep. With Stu leaving at 10:30am to catch his flight, we were going to be rushing to get everything dismounted and packed away, especially as the last stage requires help from the telescope engineers, who don’t start work until 9:30am. But, with an extra 8 hours of time to kill, we were able to take off all the cables and have ULTRACAM ready for the engineers by 2am. This allowed us to get a few hours sleep before the final dismount, and Stu was able to leave with plenty of time to catch his flight.

Tonight I’m at the INT, catching up with a friend who’s here for 8 nights. His original proposal was to look at the famous Comet C/2012 S1 ISON, but as you must surely already know, ISON didn’t survive its close approach to the Sun at the end of November. This left Yudish with 8 x 13 hours of observing time to fill, so he’s been busy observing lots of different objects, from other comets, to asteroids, and even Jupiter’s moon Europa.

When I lived in La Palma whilst completing my Masters year, most of my observatory duties were at the INT. It’s the student-run telescope, with four student support astronomers working here each year. The main task is to train visiting observers on how to use the telescope, which doesn’t come complete with a dedicated telescope operator like at the WHT. Other important jobs are helping to improve the telescope and instrumentation facilities, and carrying out night time tests and observations on technical nights. The INT was the first British telescope on La Palma, and moved here in the early 80’s from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. It’s even older than the WHT, and can get really creepy at night, so I’m quite happy to keep Yudish company.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading down to Santa Cruz, and the rest of my time here will be spent hiking, diving, and of course eating. I’m feeling much better than the other night, so all I have to hope for now is good weather and warm water.

The view towards Tenerife and La Gomera from the INT.

The view towards Tenerife (left) and La Gomera (right) from the INT.

Sunset from the INT.

Sunset from the INT.