Two months of silence

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. 

Ironically this is the second article I've written that will never in the end be published.

Ironically this is the second article I’ve written that will never in the end be published.

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.

Astronomy Picture of the Day, 2014-Jun-24. All-sky image from the ALMA observatory.

Astronomy Picture of the Day, 2014-Jun-24. All-sky image from the ALMA observatory.


Ideas, confidence boosts, postcards and hugs welcomed.

The worst effects of plagiarism in science

Today I came across the story of the Daily Mail clearly plagiarising science articles, and changing the message to something “more exciting”.

As a green activist and campaigner, I’m already sick of the UK’s unbelievably awful media coverage, which is continuously biased on climate change, social justice, equal rights, and even politics. I shouldn’t be surprised to find national media screwing up science as well. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen something like this, and it won’t be the last, but having written my literature review on the exact same topic, it was distressing to see the coverage by the DM. 

The original article was written on 14th May, and within two days the Daily Mail had managed to interview a quacky UFO hunter and turn the whole point of the article into the horrible question “Could it be aliens?“. If anyone is wondering by the way, no, it couldn’t be aliens. 

The Daily Mail is probably one of the biggest, most evil companies in the UK, who care for nothing more than how to make the most money. I hope they’re found guilty of copyright infringement and end up paying lots of compensation. 

In other news, I had an epic meeting with my supervisor on Wednesday, in which he gave me lots of comments and corrections on my two big pieces of work. Thankfully, my first year report needed only minor changes, and this afternoon I managed to submit a final draft – hurray! Only two months late, and with a draft paper attached, I feel pretty pleased to have that out of the way. My fellow student Martin had a read through and said he was quite impressed, so I’m happy and relieved to not be worrying about it any more. 

The comments on my draft paper were a bit more substantial, but I’m still hoping to get the work done by the end of next week. After that I need to finally get around to analysing the data from the ULTRASPEC commissioning run (in November!), then really get started with the CV follow up project. More news as it comes in, hopefully!

Officially behind schedule

I’ll try to keep this quick.

  1. Why haven’t I posted anything in ages? Because I haven’t had any enthusiasm to do so. Sorry! I’ve not done anything hugely exciting, and I haven’t felt like sharing what I have done.
  2. Why am I posting now? Because I’m still here! And I’ve been feeling guilty about not writing anything in ages. This won’t make me feel better, but it might help me get over the imagined mountain of starting to write again.
  3. What’s happening this week? This week I’m progressing very little. I have two substantial pieces of work awaiting feedback from my supervisor, who is currently at a conference in Galway. One is the draft journal paper about the mystery transient we saw in October, and the other is my first year report, which is already 6 weeks late. The report is supposed to show my understanding of the field of research (huh?), my progress so far (not very much) and what I’ll do next (ideas, anyone?). So with Vik away, I’m doing more thumb twiddling than cutting edge research.
  4. What’s next? Holidays! I’m going on a relaxing week in France, starting at 6am on Saturday morning. I’ll be doing my very best to forget all about the PhD, but when I come back I’ll need to shift up a gear. The report and paper need to be finished ASAP, followed by the data reduction of the ULTRASPEC commissioning tests from November(!).
  5. What am I most frustrated with at the moment? Marking undergraduate homework scripts.
  6. What am I happiest about at the moment? Friends and acquaintances taking the current political situation seriously.
  7. When is the next meteor shower? There’s actually potentially quite a big meteor storm coming up on 24th May.

Working abroad: Wonders and Woes

I’m back at the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope in La Palma for more ULTRACAM observing. This time I’m on the island for a whole 3 weeks (2 on the mountain, 1 at sea-level), with two separate ULTRACAM runs. When I get back, I’ll have 5 days before leaving again for 2 weeks in Thailand. 5 out of 6 weeks is a long time to be away from home, and I’m starting to feel the pressure on work levels a bit. All these ULTRACAM observations are for other people, with no scientific benefit to me or my PhD, just the experience. So why am I here?

Well, for one thing, I’ll never get bored of the view.

Looking South from the Roque.

Looking South from the Roque.

But the night shifts can get a little dull…

At the end of the day, I’m still learning things every time I come here, so it’s good for me in that sense. The travel can be exhausting, but catching up with old friends here, and taking advantage of the food, sea, sunshine and diving makes it worth it. I’ll be at sea-level for a few days between the two observing runs, and if I can finally shake off this blasted cold, I’ll be spending most of that time underwater.

For this current run, I’m the most experienced ULTRACAM observer, which puts me in charge of overseeing the mounting, problem solving, and observations. It’s pretty empowering being the go-to-guy (remember I’m still technically a 1st year PhD student!), but it’s also rather nerve-wracking. I can’t stop thinking I’ve been forgetting to do something really important!

Tonight’s big challenge is getting the best out of our observations of a transiting exoplanet, HAT-P-44b. The conditions aren’t perfect (variable seeing, a bit of cloud) and the object is so bright that we have to purposefully de-focus the telescope. This makes the auto-guiding less accurate, and the targets are jumping around a lot. We could reduce the exposure times, and improve the focus to improve the guiding, but the downside of this is that with the targets spread over less pixels, any errors we do have in position will have a greater effect. Tricky decisions! This is definitely my weakest skill in observing – making the scientific decisions about how to get the best data.

As I write this, the clouds are steadily creeping in, and any amount of cloud cover is really bad news for exoplanet transits. It could be a long, boring night!

Observations of HAT-P-44 so far tonight. For any non-experts, wobbly scatter is bad, and there's getting to be more and more of it...

Observations of HAT-P-44 so far tonight. For any non-experts, wobbly scatter is bad, a straight line would be ideal. Damn clouds!

Non-work work-related stuff

WordPress has just congratulated me on having joined a whole year ago. Happy Birthday silly PhD blog, I guess. This is blog post number 35.

A week ago I was feeling great. By the end of last week I was feeling pretty awful. I’d lost all motivation at work, had been hugely unproductive, and had a sore throat that made me feel like I’d been eating rocks for a week. Today I feel OK, but I am sick of this lousy weather! It’s hard to go out riding when you’re not feeling 100%, but when it’s wet and windy 6 days a week, it’s almost impossible. I’ve recently been doing a lot of stuff which is vaguely related to work, but not really work. Here’s a quick overview.

A week ago on Friday Chris and I organised an open evening at the University observatory, for friends, colleagues and members of the public. We prepared a talk, and arranged a tour of the two telescopes on the roof of the Hicks Building. We had hoped to let people use the telescopes to look at the galaxy M82, with its recent supernova bringing it to the top of astronomy news feeds. Sadly, the weather did not play ball, and we couldn’t even see the moon, let alone a faint, smudgy galaxy through the thick cloud (and eventual rain). Aside from that, the evening went very well, with about 50 people turning up over the course of the evening, and most people being impressed by the talk and the tour alone. The organisation took most of Thursday and Friday, so my thesis obviously didn’t progress much that week, but the outreach event experience is definitely important, I think. Thanks to Patricia, Saida, and especially Pablo for helping on the night.

Our advertising poster for the observatory open evening.

Our advertising poster for the observatory open evening. Sadly, it was a little misleading.

I also organised a departmental walk in the Peak District last Saturday. For a while I’d been thinking of doing something that aims to bring members from different groups in the department a bit closer socially, and a walk seemed like a good medium to do so. Quite a few people expressed interest, but many couldn’t make it on the day. Nevertheless, 12.5 of us made it up to Win Hill from Bamford station on the bright and windy morning. After almost being blown off the top, we descended down into Hope, and had a lovely meal in the pub before getting the train home. It was definitely a success, and I’ll be starting up an email list of interested walkers from the department for future events.

Team photo at the very windy summit of Win Hill.

Team photo at the very windy summit of Win Hill.

I’ve also been pretty busy keeping on top of stuff at the juggling club, with plenty of help from Ed. We’ve got quite a few small events coming up, but there’s some genuine interest from the undergrad members about taking over the committee positions next year, which is a huge relief. I can’t imagine myself staying on top of PhD work and running a society for another year!

Finally, it’s been a busy week for the People and Planet society, and the national “Go Green Week”ended yesterday. We managed to get 80 Valentine’s cards asking the vice chancellor to divest from fossil fuels signed by students and staff. Our petition is gaining momentum, and we’re hoping the campaign will really get rolling over the next few weeks. Plus even the Guardian seems to be on our side!

Returning to the topic of work, I’m currently working on what might become my first peer-reviewed paper, if things go well. It’s a write up about the mystery transient we discovered in October, which basically consists of a long list of possibilities for the nature of the source, testing those ideas, and concluding that we have no idea what it is. Fun. I managed to knock out a first draft of the short paper in about a week, but Vik very quickly came back saying I probably needed to start again. Good job I only wasted a week on it! It’s obviously going to take a bit longer to get it sorted, and it’s such an obscure piece of research, it may well never be published. In any case, it should form another short chapter of my final thesis, so I need to write it anyway. It would be great if I can finish it before I go away to La Palma and Thailand, but that seems ambitious. Let’s see.

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!

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.

2014-01-02 20.48.41

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.


Geek: [noun] a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialised subject or activity

Why would anyone volunteer to spend 4 nights over New Year halfway around the world from home, at the top of a mountain, staring at computer screens all night?

This is the best question I’ve heard all year. When I signed up for this observing trip 4 months ago I thought it would be fantastic. I could get completely comfortable with mounting and using ULTRACAM, gain more valuable observing experience, and enjoy a warmer winter holiday with a bit of diving, hiking and general beaching. Obviously I didn’t anticipate how tough it might be.

I arrived in La Palma on Sunday evening, just before 9pm, having left home over 12 hours earlier. The journey wasn’t particularly worse than usual, but I’d definitely forgotten how unpleasant it can be. I’m certain that Ryanair are constantly installing more and more uncomfortable seats on their planes, but I must admit that the customer service has become less grumpy. This time I changed in Lanzarote and Tenerife North, before finally touching down in La Palma. It was my first ever time in Lanzarote – it was rather windy, but there’s really not much else to say about that. I did enjoy sharing some time in the airport with some cheery local musicians who sang the entire time they were waiting to board their flight.

The transit to Tenerife North was the only time I’ve ever been genuinely frightened in an aeroplane. Coming down to land through extreme turbulence had everyone on the flight sat in silence with nervous smiles on their faces. Even the cabin crew looked worried. Knowing that Tenerife North is statistically one of the most dangerous airports in the world didn’t help me much. It was the location of the worst accidental aviation disaster in history, and recently saw an inter-island Binter flight (very much like the one I was on) skid off the runway in high winds. Of course, the landing was totally fine, if a little delayed, and I was quickly off the plane and in the transfer terminal. Less than a minute after entering the terminal, my connecting flight to La Palma was called, and I went back out onto the runway and straight back into the plane I’d just disembarked. I spotted my luggage on the ground below the plane, having obviously just been taken off, only to be put straight back on again. I was even greeted by the same cabin crew. The flight to La Palma was even shorter, and less scary, and I was soon boarding the familiar bus to Santa Cruz, with the same old bus driver as always, enjoying being back on my favourite Canary island. I had just enough energy to enjoy dinner and a good catch up with a few old friends, before going to sleep in the same room I’d spent 8 months living in when I was here in 2011/12.

The following morning I was up early (again), and shared a taxi with Stu up to the observatory. On arrival we didn’t even have time to check-in to the residencia before rushing up to the WHT to begin mounting ULTRACAM for the coming night. We’d both been under the impression that we wouldn’t actually be observing until the following night, but had just learnt that we might well be working that night too. The scheduled observations, using the adaptive optics instrument OASIS, would only be carried out if the seeing was below 1.1 arcseconds. It turns out that the back-up observations were to be done by ULTRACAM, which meant we had an entire 24 hours less time to prepare and sleep before starting the “real work”.

ULTRACAM almost ready to go.

ULTRACAM almost ready to go.

We had the instrument installed and cabled up in good time, but quickly encountered a serious issue with the instrument control system as soon as we tried to power up. We spent the remainder of the afternoon/evening running around trying out every spare piece of hardware available, with no success. We eventually managed to get the system working after replacing the GPS antenna interrupt cable with a spare one, even though we couldn’t come up with a good explanation for why this might have been causing the issue. This afternoon when we had a bit more time, we tried the old cable again to try to work out what had happened, and the system started perfectly. So we’re still unsure as to exactly why we were having problems, but hopefully if it happens again we can get straight to fiddling with the GPS cable without having to take out all the spare parts!

Whilst the seeing for most of the night was actually quite good, there was some high cloud around that meant the OASIS observations were completely impossible, and we had to stay up and observe with ULTRACAM for the whole night. This was particularly painful not only because we’d started work at 10am that day (making it a 22 hour shift by the time we got to bed at 8am the following morning), but also because the high clouds meant that most of the data we collected was fairly useless anyway. I accidentally had a 2.5 hour nap on the sofa and missed the only exciting part of the night – searching for lightning storms on Jupiter in H-alpha. Great. To make matters worse, my slowly developing cough/cold progressed to include a headache and a sore throat, so any plans for diving and hiking next week are now in jeopardy.

Tonight is New Years Eve, and after a slightly posher than normal dinner at the residencia, we were offered a glass of champagne before heading up to the telescope for what looks to be a nice, clear night. I could list many places I’d rather be this evening, but with Stu’s cynical but amusing sense of humour, some pretty-looking eclipses to observe and a box of Christmas chocolates to look forward to, it certainly could be worse.

Residencia champagne.

Residencia champagne.

The last La Palma sunset of 2013.

Sun sets over La Palma for the last time in 2013.

Pretty, flickery eclipse of a CV.

Pretty, flickery eclipse of a CV.

Tomorrow will mark 9 months since I started my PhD, though it feels like a lot longer. I’ve made a lot of progress already, but I know there’s still a lot to come, and I’m very keen to improve my work ethic. This is no “new years resolution”, because I don’t subscribe to that rubbish, but I will be trying harder to work more efficiently and productively. Weaning myself off of social media during work hours will be the first major hurdle, and shifting the hours a little earlier in the day will probably be helpful too.

It’s been a turbulent year, and although I spent several weeks wondering what the point of everything was, I’m heading into 2014 with a reasonably positive outlook. I’d say I feel 70% good about what I’m doing, and I’m 60% confident I’ll finish on time. Here’s to a scientifically and personally productive and enjoyable year.

¡Prospero Año Nuevo!

Wrapped up for Christmas…almost

My one and only week back in Sheffield before Christmas was reasonably relaxed, though the first night back was tough. After having been awake for 40 hours already, I had to drag myself out to the Astronomy Group Christmas meal. I spent the evening fluctuating between being quite awake and having a really fun time, and feeling seriously zombie-fied and desperate for sleep. Overall though it was a really great evening, so thanks are due to Chris for organising it.

The rest of the week went pretty quickly. I was in the office everyday, but rarely for longer than a couple of hours, and most of my self-appointed tasks for the week were simple and quick. The most important was of course to claim back for all my expenses in Thailand, which all told only came to around £300. On the Friday I had an excellent meeting with Vik, discussing my progress so far, and prioritising plans for next year. We also spent some time organising for some exciting follow-up time at the telescope in Thailand. Vik had been contacted by radio astronomers in Australia who are using the 64m Parkes Radio Telescope to search for a relatively new transient of unknown origin, the Fast Radio Bursts, or ‘Lorimer’ Bursts. These are very short, strong pulses of radio emission which have so far only ever been discovered in archival data. However, now the clever folks in Australia are able to detect these events in real-time, so we might have the chance to follow them up immediately at optical wavelengths. At the moment we really have no idea what they are, so a detection in the visible would be hugely exciting indeed. Thus I have (and I’m sure Vik and Stu have also) been subconsciously hoping to receive an international phone call all week, as this would be the trigger for follow-up observations.

Unfortunately our robotic telescope on La Palma, the pt5m, is out of action until at the least the end of January with a broken mount. The new, superior mount will be delivered in the new year, and we hope to have it up and running as soon as possible. With Gaia launching successfully last week, it’s only a matter of months before it starts spitting out alerts for new transient sources, and we want to be ready to follow them up.

Stu and I will be returning to La Palma this weekend, ready to start a 3-night observing run with ULTRACAM at the WHT on New Year’s Eve. It’ll be the third year in a row I’ll be out of the UK for NYE, which is a little bit sad. I can’t really complain though, as I’ll be taking a week off immediately after the observing to enjoy the diving, hiking and beautiful scenery of La Palma (so long as the weather behaves nicely).

I'm looking forward to views like this.

I’m looking forward to views like this.

I also found time to fix my bike and get out into the peaks. I was joined by the new astro research fellow, and a chilly headwind, but it was so good to be out there.

Brief breather in Bamford.

Last week in Thailand

This week I’ve been tweeting as @shefunilife on Twitter to over 3000 followers. The account is taken over by different members of the Sheffield University community each week. It’s been great fun trying to tell the world about my life as a PhD student, my work, and of course my time in Thailand, but it’s hard to know if anyone is really listening. Anyway, I hope I’ve inspired a few people to learn more about astronomy, or maybe take up cycling, or become more aware of climate change. If nothing else, I enjoyed it, so that will do for me.

On Sunday I took Nu’s bike out again with the aim of climbing higher and further into the Doi Suthep mountains. I was clearly still exhausted from the night shifts earlier in the week, because I was definitely slower and struggled even to reach the temple again. But I pushed on, realising only near the top that I’d managed to disconnect a spring on the read brake pad, meaning I’d climbed 1300m and rode nearly 20km with the back brake locked on. Yes, I am an idiot, but it only made the accomplishment more rewarding. I reached the King’s “Phuphing Palace” after almost 2 hours.

A little sweaty after climbing 1300m

A little sweaty after climbing 1300m.

View over the city from about halfway up.

View over the city from about halfway up.

Having lost my Friday and Saturday to work at the telescope, I felt justified taking Monday morning to go for another ride. This time I fancied something a little flatter, so I headed north along the highway to Huay Tung Tao lake. I managed to sweet-talk the checkpoint guard to let me in without paying the 20 Baht fee (who carries money with them on a bike ride?), and enjoyed a beautiful loop around the serene lake. Very peaceful, with a great view of Doi Suthep in the morning sunshine.

Huay Tung Tao lake.

Huay Tung Tao lake.

This week also saw my last two nights at the observatory, for this trip at least. We were trying to observe a number of under-studied eclipsing binary systems, hoping to accurately measure the times of minima. The timings would help long term studies of the systems, with the ultimate goal of searching for additional bodies by their effect on the times of eclipse. Sadly, the weather, as usual, would not cooperate. This time the humidity wasn’t so bad, but high cloud meant we could rarely see any stars at all, let alone collect accurate eclipse data.

We did however manage to use ULTRASPEC on sky enough to cover most aspects of the training. I finished the two nights feeling quite relieved to see at least one of the local astronomers being at ease with the instrument. With only 4 days left before my flight home, it really was the last chance to directly pass on my knowledge, and I’m very glad we managed it. I’m under no false impressions though – I know we’ll still be flooded with questions and queries over the next few weeks, but at least they should be minor and easy to answer, rather than “Err… how do we turn it on again?”. It definitely helps when the observer is familiar with the Linux command line. I’ve been trying to encourage everyone here to start using it, but as usual with people who are used to Windows, people are hesitant. I was exactly the same before being forced to work with it at ING, so I know how they feel. All I can do is give them a few good tutorials (one, two) to get going, and hope they see the potential before they get fed up with it. [EDIT: Actually I’ve already had two night time queries from the observers with fairly minor problems. Let’s hope it settles down quickly after I leave!]

On Friday I gave a presentation to NARIT astronomers and technical staff about ULTRASPEC. Originally I’d felt the need to try harder to transfer as much knowledge as possible, since we’d struggled to get on-sky and complete the training. The closer it got to the day, the more I realised that this talk wouldn’t really be of much use. Anyone who had never used ULTRASPEC before would not learn enough to be able to use it, and anyone who had used it already wouldn’t learn anything new. Still, I hope it might have helped cement some concepts into people’s heads, and supplement the training sessions we’d already given. For the first time I used the online presentation software, Prezi. It’s actually really easy to use, and very stylish. I’ll be doing all my presentations this way from now on I think, I can definitely recommend it.

On Saturday I went for a final bike ride. I went further and faster up the mountain, past the temple, past the palace, and up to what I think was the summit of Doi Pui. I reach the Doi Pui viewpoint at least, where I found a terrible view and two bright green exotic birds chained to posts. I kept going, up the single-lane track through dense jungle and fog. There was no sign of an official summit or peak, so I simply turned around when the road started going definitely down again.

View into the fog at Doi Pui viewpoint.

View into the fog at Doi Pui viewpoint.

Chained up birds. Put money in the box and feed it seemed to be the idea. Quite sad actually.

Chained up birds. Put money in the box and feed it seemed to be the idea. Quite sad actually.

This seemed to be the top...

This seemed to be the top…

Today I have to return Nu’s bike and pack up all my stuff, somehow squeezing it all into my backpack. I’m not sure what I will do when it doesn’t all fit in. Last thing will be to check out of the apartment and take a “red bus” to the airport. I definitely have mixed feelings about leaving. There will be many things I will miss (the weather, the fresh fruit smoothies, the cheap food, the swimming pool) and it’s been a really important and fruitful experience for me, both personally and academically. But at the same time I can’t wait to get back to friends and family at home, my own bike, guitar and bed, pasta bolognese etc. It might sound strange, but I’m also looking forward to catching up on work and making some more progress with my thesis. It feels like it’s been put on hold whilst I’ve been out here, and there’s lots of work to be done when I’m back in the office.

Before I leave I thought I’d try to estimate and share the kind of things I’ve eaten since arriving in Thailand, just for fun. Numbers are very approximate.

  • 15 x bowls of cereal
  • (only) 7 x instant noodles
  • 15 x chicken fried rice
  • 5 x french fries
  • 5 x mixed fruit dish
  • 10 x fresh fruit smoothie
  • 10 x stir-fried chicken and cashews with rice
  • 3 x indescribably disgusting meals
  • 5 x vegetable tempura
  • 5 x Japanese salted roast chicken with rice
  • 5 x home-made veg (and tofu) stir fry with noodles
  • 3 x pasta and pesto
  • 10 x Chocolate Brownie Magnum ice creams
  • 15 x missed meals

I’m excited/nervous to get home and find out if I’ve managed to not lose any weight… Anyway, time to sign off from Thailand for the final time. Sheffield, here I come!