A slightly depressing track feels appropriate here:
I haven’t blogged anything in the last two months. There are two reasons for this, which can be helpfully broken down by the month. In June I was pretty busy. In July I was pretty unhappy.
Throughout June I had plenty of work to get through – not just keeping up to date with observations made by the pt5m, but also doing the final work on my paper about the mysterious transient we saw in October. This turned out to be an extensive task, as every draft I sent to my supervisor came back with more ideas for possible sources which needed investigating. On top of this, I also had to prepare a talk on my first year progress, and give a “caper” (Cake+Paper) talk about an interesting article of my choice. If anyone is interested, I chose this article, and my presentations can be seen here and here.
Aside from work, I was also busy volunteering for the university Waste Busters scheme, leafleting with Frack Free South Yorkshire, attending & chairing meetings of the Sheffield Climate Alliance, attending an evidence session with MPs about poor voter turnout, supporting Emily through her exams (i.e. making dinner and cheesecake), helping my friend with M.E. with meals and getting out of bed (you can see her blog here), starting a working group calling on the university to commit to being carbon neutral by 2030, organising the juggling club in helping at the local Peace in the Park festival, hosting my sister, and moving house. Is this a good enough excuse yet?
I’ve been almost as busy through July (holidays in Scotland, cycling trips, and working at Latitude), but more importantly, my PhD has taken a serious blow. Late on a Sunday evening I received an email from my supervisor, who was working on the pt5m with some undergrad students. It started with “I’ve got some really, really bad news”. I immediately regretted reading my emails on a Sunday evening, and I will never do that again! Continuing with “Damn, damn, damn” and “Gutted“, it’s fair to say this was probably the worst email I’ve ever received.
The email explained that Vik had discovered a rare phenomenon in optical CCDs, which is present in the camera we are using with the pt5m. Just like when you stare at a light for too long and can still see the image when you close your eyes or look away, our CCD appears to show residual images of bright stars for up to 10 minutes after the original observation. This ‘ghosting’ is common in infra-red detectors, but much less known in optical ones (though not completely unknown, e.g. see here).
After some careful checking, it became very clear that the mysterious transient we had seen in October was simply the residual image of a bright star used for focussing only minutes earlier. It was not an exciting extragalactic transient. It was not a comet or asteroid. It was not an unknown military satellite on a strange elliptical orbit. It was a CCD glitch, and nothing more.
I’d probably spent about half of my time over the last 8 months working on this, learning a lot about comets and asteroids, satellites, and other terrestrial phenomena, and writing a sizeable article for publication. This was all turned to junk with a single email.
Worse than the disappointment of being so close to finally entering the astronomy community as a first author scientist, was the effect this had on my PhD. This became even more apparent only last week, when I had my viva on my first year report. This 1-hour oral exam is the final step before one is allowed to progress to full PhD status (if you fail, you’re forced to become an MPhil student, and have only one more year to submit a shorter thesis). Thankfully, I did pass, and I am allowed to continue, but the gruelling hour with Vik and another academic was deeply distressing.
I’ve lost one big science chapter of the final thesis, and the other science chapter is still just getting started (following up new CVs). The two instrumentation chapters (commissioning ULTRASPEC, and automation of transient follow up with the pt5m) didn’t come across as very convincing for the other academic, though Vik is confident they will provide enough of an original contribution to form part of the thesis. Our final hope is that some other interesting transient will come along and form another chapter, if we can supply detailed follow up observations. The risk of course, is that perhaps nothing will come up – especially with no transients coming from LOFAR, and the Gaia transients feed already delayed by at least 3 months.
So, here I am, feeling quite lost. I am working hard on the CV follow up project now, and I have plenty of other little bits to finish off, but with no guarantee of a second science chapter at this stage, the whole thing is rather worrying.
On the plus side, today’s Astronomy Picture Of the Day is awesome.
Ideas, confidence boosts, postcards and hugs welcomed.