Manchester Science Festival 2011

The Manchester Science Festival starts in less than two weeks so I thought I should do a post about it. I’m making my Manchester Science Festival debut this year by taking part in two events.

The first event is the Big Bright Club Manchester which is taking place at the Deaf Institute on October 27. For those of you who don’t know about Bright Club, it is the “thinking person’s variety club” or “where funny meets brains”. Basically I’m going to try to make my research funny along with my good friend Mark and a bunch of other lovely people from previous Bright Clubs. It should be fun although I’m slightly nervous because for the first time, a Bright Club Manchester audience might be mostly drunk!

The second event is Spacetacular!, which is part of Out of this world: A spacetacular Manchester adventure. It’s the night after Bright Club (October 28) and it’s at the Museum of Science and Industry. This one’s going to be a little bit different and I’m going to embrace my geekiness and talk about Star Wars. I may or may not turn up in costume!

There’s lots of other good stuff going on which is a shame for me because it probably means I won’t get much thesis work done! Astro-wise there’s Rocket Week at Jodrell Bank, Amazing Astronomy at MOSI on October 28, Science Spectacular at the Whitworth Hall on October 29 and you can even help to stitch the solar system. Other events I know I’m going to are Your Days Are Numbered: The maths of death and the recording of The Infinite Monkey Cage (thanks Reesiepie). Phew, that sounds like a lot. See you there!

Astronomers on the Big Screen

When I did my first Bright Club talk at BCM4 in December 2010, I introduced myself as an astronomer and then showed a few examples of astronomers in movies to get a feel for what people might expect from me. This is a quick post that I’ve put together mainly so that I can easily find this information again! I should probably warn that this post may contains spoilers if you haven’t seen these films.

Paul Bradley (Meteor)

I watched the 1970s masterpiece that is Meteor following a “recommendation” by a Jodcast listener who said that Jodrell Bank fail to save the day and described Sean Connery’s character as a “brooding anti-war astrophysicist hero” or words to that effect. From what I remember, Dr Paul Bradley is brought in by the US government to save the day when they discover a huge meteor heading our way! I won’t go into all the things the film got wrong but basically Dr Bradley single-handedly unites the Americans and Russians so they can all aim their nukes at the meteor and blast it into oblivion! Oh, and he has an awesome moustache.

Ellie Arroway (Contact)

I have to confess that I am yet to watch Contact. However, I think I am entitled to judge! We do NOT sit around listening out for aliens on headphones when we use radio telescopes! Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense!

Update (10 October 2011) – I finally watched Contact. I just can’t get over the headphones!

Robert Capa (Sunshine)

I actually quite enjoyed Sunshine in the moments when I managed to forget that I knew any physics! Cillian Murphy plays Robert Capa, an (astro)physicist turned astronaut (apparently modelled on Professor Brian Cox) who is part of a team sent to chuck a massive bomb into the Sun to restart it. Now I’m not sure how many physicists get to become astronauts (I count one out of the 14 ESA astronauts) but I do like the idea that the physicist saves the day.

Jane Foster (Thor)

This is a new one since my Bright Club talk. In Thor, Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster who has morphed into an astrophysicist (in the comics Jane was a nurse). I’m sure she was meant to be a positive role model for girls and all that but all I remember is that she got into strops and fell in love with a Norse God. Not quite my life plan…

My Research #1: Galaxies and Black Holes

Galaxies come in all shapes and sizes. Some just look like blobs of stars; we call these elliptical galaxies. Others, including our own Milky Way, have a bright centre with arms of stars spiralling out; we call these spiral galaxies. There are also galaxies that don’t fit into either of these categories and these are known as irregular galaxies. Examples of galaxies are shown below in Hubble Space Telescope pictures (credit: ESA/Hubble).

Elliptical galaxy NGC 1132
Spiral galaxy M101
Irregular galaxy NGC 1427A

It is believed that all galaxies have a “supermassive black hole” (SMBH) at their centres. Supermassive means that these black holes have masses millions or billions of times that of the Sun. In most galaxies, like the Milky Way, this SMBH is pretty boring. The Milky Way’s SMBH is called Sagittarius A* and we can tell that it is there by looking at how stars move around in the very centre of the galaxy (there’s a cool animation of this on the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik website) but apart from this, the SMBH doesn’t do much to announce that it exists. However, there are some galaxies that have centres that are really bright, too bright to be explained by adding up the light from all of the stars in the galaxy. These objects are called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) and it is thought that they are this way because the central SMBH is in a “active” stage, pulling surrounding material into it through gravity and spewing out loads of energy, not just as visible light that we can see, but all across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Hubble Space Telescope image of elliptical galaxy AGN M87 showing bright centre and jet of material extending to the left (credit: ESA/Hubble).

In my next blog post, I will go into the details of AGN – the different types, what we actually see and what we think they look like.

A blog post about not writing blog posts

Ooops, I just realised I haven’t updated this in over a month so sorry to anyone who actually reads this! In my defense I was really busy at the end of April and then May seems to have just sped along and suddendly it’s the middle of the month. At least, I assume it’s the middle of May because we released a Jodcast episode this week! Sometimes I think that without the Jodcast I would have no idea what time of year it was.

So instead of updating this blog I have: presented my work at two conferences (Beamed and unbeamed gamma-rays from galaxies in Muonio, Finland and the National astronomy meeting in Llandudno, Wales); produced the May episode of the Jodcast; finally attended a Space Lecture at Intech; written ~5 more pages of my thesis and most importantly, tried to finish the paper I’ve been working on for months (with my supervisor and Mike Peel). Mike has promised me a present if we submit the paper to a journal by Friday so hopefully then I will blog about it!

Regardless of the fate of my paper, I will have a new science-y blog post written very very soon but I thought I should justify my absence from blogging. June is going to be pretty exciting for me as I’m taking part in I’m a scientist, get me out of here! and helping to organise an evening astronomy event at the Museum of Science and Industry on June 15 based around the lunar eclipse. Hopefully these events will prompt me to blog more, although they might just take up all my free time instead…

Confessions of an Astronomy Grad Student

It seems to be the done thing to blog about how you got into astronomy. A lot of astronomers/astrophysicists that I talk to have a wonderful and touching story about looking through a telescope when they were young and their world changing forever. Lecturers may have been inspired by watching the Moon landings as a child. My story is not quite as moving and I have some confessions to share with you…

Confession #1

This is the big one: I didn’t look at the night sky through a telescope until I was 23. Those of you reading this who know me will realise that this means I was in my second year of my PhD at this point. By this time I had used radio telescopes to take data and looked at hundreds of optical images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey but I didn’t put my eye to the eyepiece and look up until October 2009. I have memories of owning a really bad children’s toy telescope when I was young but all I can remember is that it was completely out of focus and I couldn’t see anything!

Confession #2

I didn’t really know about Jodrell Bank until I applied for University. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know about the observatory until I came to Manchester for my interview. The only reason I even applied for The University of Manchester in the first place was because I could put 6 choices down on my UCAS application and it seemed silly not to. Manchester was then the first good university on the UCAS list that did Astrophysics so it became my 6th choice. The fact that I knew some cool people who were in bands and lived in Manchester, of course, had nothing to do with it! Once I visited Manchester and found out about Jodrell Bank, it then became my first choice of university and the rest (as they apparently say) is history.

Confession #3

I didn’t decided that I actually wanted to study Physics (let alone Astrophysics) until I had to apply for university. When I was in school, I wanted to do everything (except Art and Biology). I definitely wanted to study volcanos at one point in my life. Then I decided that I wanted to go to Imperial so I could do either Chemistry or Physics but also apply for a scholarship to have flute lessons at the Royal College of Music. The flute dream died when I was too slack at practising to go for Grade 8 but the choice between Chemistry and Physics remained. I eventually chose Physics when I realised that organic Chemistry sucks and then picked Physics with Astrophysics because it sounds cool!

Of course, there are moments in my life that, looking back, placed me on the path that brought me here today. A visit to the Kennedy Space Centre aged 14 made me want to become an astronaut (I kind of still do). As NASA astronauts tend to either be military or postdoc researchers, I figured it would be easier to become a researcher than enter into a career where I would potentially have to kill someone. When we did work experience in school, I wanted to apply to the Royal Observatory Greenwich but was beaten to it by a friend (I ended up working at the local vets for 2 weeks and watched them neuter my dog). In college I gave a presentation on star formation and wrote an essay on evidence for and against the Big Bang. But it wasn’t until university that I realised that I wanted to spend my life working in astronomy.

My final confession is that I’m a bit nervous about posting this entry. I’m more than a little scared that people will realise that I’m a fraud and that I’ll be kicked out of astronomy! Seriously though, I think that it’s important for people to realise that not every professional astronomer/astrophysicist has always known they wanted to do this. It’s just that those people tend to be vocal about it and people like me hide away and hope they’re never found out. Also, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but waited until I was out of the country to post it so that I could avoid any backlash!

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

The Jodcast is a big part of my life right now. It’s a bimonthly audio astronomy podcast that we do here at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and I am currently in charge of it (insofar as anyone can be in charge of a collaborative project). I became involved in mid-April 2009 and one of the highlights for me was the April Fool episode last year (2010) where we recorded the episode pretending that it was 1990. At that point Stuart was still in charge and we had a lot of fun (and put in a lot of effort!) trying to figure out what the astronomical world was like 20 years in the past. The episode was, I think it’s safe to say, extremely well received but left me wondering how on Earth we would beat it this year.

Enter Liz Guzman and her team of Spanish-speaking Jodrell astronomers! Liz is a PhD student from Mexico who translates the Jodcast news into Spanish as and when she has time to do so. We’d been throwing around the idea of a full episode in Spanish for a while so the April Fool episode seemed to be the ideal opportunity to finally do it. Liz was fantastic and organised the entire thing, sending an email round Jodrell Bank in Spanish basically saying “if you understand this, we need you!” and then recording and editing nearly everything. The Spanish episode follows the same format as the normal on-the-month show with the latest news (by Liz), interviews with researchers (3 Jodrell post-docs and 1 PhD student), a night sky guide (by Dave Jones, now a post-doc at ESO in Chile) and some lovely presenting by Liz, Dave, Adam Avison and Paul Woods (now at UCL). The episode was released at 11pm BST (midnight in Spain) complete with a Spanish front page and Spanish tweets. We spent the day pretending that we had no idea what was going on (Stuart blamed the new Google Translate module) and, apart from a few concerned emails, I think the majority of listeners got the joke. The English version of the show was released yesterday and now we can relax for the next 11 months until we have to think of a way to better this year’s April Fool!

By a happy coincidence, April is also Global Astronomy Month. There seem to be a lot of events going on across the world as part of this but I was rather surprised to see that their website only seems to be in English. At least we are unintentionally doing our bit with the Jodcast! The episode may have been conceived and released as an April Fool but everything within the show is correct/factual/real and I hope that the show is passed on and found by Spanish-speaking astronomy fans, so if you know any, please spread the word. It would be a shame if all of the hard work of the “El Jodcast team” was just for one (albeit awesome) prank.

The Invisible Universe in Shillong

10 days ago I was at my Aunt’s house in Shillong trying to get some sleep before my first ever astronomy talk at a school. Shillong is the state capital of Meghalaya in north-east India, located some 5000 feet above sea level. The city itself is chaotic and overcrowded, with houses springing up anywhere they can be squeezed in and traffic jams like you’ve never seen. Leave the city though, and you can see some spectacular sights. My highlights include bridges made from living tree roots (as seen recently on the BBC’s Human Planet rivers episode), rhinos and tigers in the Kaziranga National Park and breathtaking waterfalls in the wettest place on Earth. However this is a blog about astronomy, and therefore is not the place for me to be sharing my holiday snaps!

This holiday was planned and booked around the time that I signed up to be a STEMNET School’s Ambassador and, full of new-found confidence, I mentioned to my Mum in passing that it might be nice to go into one of the schools while we were in Shillong to talk a bit about astronomy. I soon realised that this was probably a foolish idea, given that I was yet to even give a talk at a school in the UK. However by then it was too late – my Aunt had enlisted the help of a teacher friend and organised for me to go into their old school, St Mary’s, to talk to a group of 14 – 16 year olds. As is usually the case with me when faced with a daunting task, I then proceeded to pretend it wasn’t happening, somehow assuming that my talk would write itself! And so I found myself, in the last hour before we left for the airport, frantically saving any and all pictures I thought I might need from the internet, and trying to get Chromoscope to work on my laptop, with the intention to write the talk on the flight.

Needless to say, that plan failed and, to cut a long story short, I only finished the slides the night before the talk. The next day, armed with my laptop and a cheerleading team consisting of Mum, Aunt and sister, I found myself in the auditorium in front of 160 schoolgirls, being introduced by the school’s Vice-Principal. A little different from my assumption that I would be in a classroom with maybe 50 students! I then spent the next half an hour telling them as much as I could about the Invisible (multiwavelength) Universe, finishing with a bit about the Square Kilometre Array, trying to inspire them by explaining how they could be be the PhD students and post-docs working on the project by the time it’s (hopefully) completed in 2024.

Apparently I gesture a lot when giving talks. Photo by K. Gupta

After the talk, as to be expected, there were a lot of questions. I got the usuals about 2012 and the demotion of Pluto, but there were some other great ones such as why do galaxies have supermassive black holes in their centres and what would happen to life on planets when their star dies. The questions kept coming until the girls had to go to their next class but I could have stayed there all day. My feelings were echoed by one of the science teachers who fed my ego by saying she could have listened to me all day! The obligatory cup of tea followed (I really should learn to like the stuff!) and I left the school with the biggest grin on my face.

Overall I think it went pretty well. Yes I could have been more prepared. Yes I could have spent more time making my slides looking pretty (and getting Chromoscope to work instead of having to show screen shots). I probably could have spoken slower and refined some of my explanations (I’m not sure that spinning round with my arms out to illustrate a pulsar was the best idea) but I hope that my enthusiasm and love for astrophysics shone through and at least one of the girls looked up at the sky that night and understood a little bit more about our Universe.

Oh, and did I mention we saw a tiger?

A tiger in the Kaziranga National Park. I’m in the jeep at the back. Photo by A. J. Gupta

Songs in the Key of Astronomy

Anyone who is writing or has written a PhD thesis knows that finding suitable quotes for the beginning of the thesis (and possibly the start of each chapter) is an important and time-consuming part of the process. Classic quotes found in many astronomy/astrophysics PhD theses include “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars” from the Oscar Wilde play Lady Windermere’s Fan, “The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible” by Albert Einstein and the favourite of many a Jodrell-ite, “At Jodrell Bank, someone decided it was time for a nice cup of tea” courtesy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

When I started writing my thesis a couple of months ago, I thought I would try to find relevant song lyrics to include in my thesis. Surprisingly, I quickly realised that the bands I listen to don’t tend to write songs about galaxies and black holes! The quote at the beginning of my thesis is currently “I like the Universe, but she messes with my words” from Resolution by Motion City Soundtrack, which I find quite appropriate given the difficulty encountered during the thesis-writing process. I have however come across lyrics that could have been suitable had I chosen a different area of astrophysics for my PhD:

  • “Constants aren’t so constant anymore” – Valentine by The Get Up Kids. Appropriate for a thesis that looks at the Hubble Constant (which isn’t actually a constant)
  • “That orange ball, that burning orb of fire in the sky is gonna explode and we’re all gonna die!” – Side Projects Are Never Successful by Bomb the Music Industry! A little morbid but could work if your research involved supernovae.
  • “Stars are out tonight, and you’re the brightest one shining in my sky” – IOU one galaxy by The Ataris. An obvious one for anyone studying stars.

Anyone else out there got some suggestions?

New Year’s Resolution

I know I’m more than a month and a half late but part of my new year’s resolution this year was to start blogging so here I am (finally). Hopefully this will become a place where I will ramble on about astronomy in more than 140 characters. And in case anyone is wondering, the main reason I chose blogger over wordpress is that I couldn’t get!

I’ve been wanting to start blogging for a while now but the final push for me was that I’ve started to properly write my thesis. I need to explain a lot of different astrophysics in my thesis, and I figured that if I could explain these concepts to a general audience through a blog, I would understand them better myself. That’s the theory anyway. Ask me in September if it worked! Plus I tend to spend 7 hours on a train nearly every other weekend so I thought I could put this time to better use than trying to get through Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series for a second time.

I imagine that it will be a few days before my first proper post as I try to make this blog look a bit more like my website. In the mean time, if you are desperate to know what I’m thinking, head over to twitter.