My Latest Astronomy Writing

ImageIt occurs to me that sometimes I’m not the best when it comes to pointing out my various non-travel articles that I publish, and the best way to fix this is to jot them down in a quick post so you can check them out.  So without much further ado, here we go…

Firstly, as the photo above implies, I have an article in the May 2014 issue of Astronomy- a rather long one too, all about the lives of supermassive stars.  To excerpt the first paragraph,

Supermassive stars are the true rock stars of the universe: they shine bright, live fast, and die young.  Defined as stars with a stellar mass of a hundred times that of our Sun or greater, these stars can be millions of times more luminous than the Sun and burn their fuel several thousand times more quickly.  As most people know, if you have a hundred times more money than your neighbor but spend it several thousand times faster you will run out of it more quickly, and the same happens for stars- while our Sun’s lifetime is about 10 billion years, supermassive stars die in just a few million years in explosions that can be detected more than halfway across the universe.  These are stars that lead unusual stellar lives, from beginning to end.

How could you not want to run to your nearest newsstand and pick up a copy of the magazine after reading that?!

Ok, if you are too cozy in front of your screen to run out into the real world, I just published an article today on Astrobites all about how Arecibo has detected a Fast Radio Burst.  What are they, and why should you care?  All is explained if you follow the link!

(Also, it occurs to me I likely forgot to link one or two Astrobites articles over the past few months.  So if you are particularly interested in them, my author page with all my articles for them is here.)

Over, and out.

Historic Willemstad, Curacao

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One of the odd things about the Dutch is like many small nations they have slight inferiority complexes about some topics, and my experience is colonialism is one of them.  They didn’t manage to grab as big a chunk of the world as England or Spain, so the Dutch spend a surprising amount of time lamenting things like how their ancestors traded Manhattan for Suriname.  I suspect this is all a combination of slight national hubris and wishing their bitterballen were more readily available elsewhere, which they nurse by ensuring you can drink Heineken in ever-more-remote corners of the planet.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is the Dutch have still convinced a few places around the globe to fly the Dutch flag, and one of the ones they have clung to the longest is Curacao.  Curacao has been a “constituent country” for a few years now- they run their own affairs but are still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when it comes to foreign policy and all those things- but more importantly the island is crammed to this very day with Dutch tourists and expats to the point where I practiced my Dutch more here than I normally do in a week in Amsterdam.  Curiously, they only got this island in the first place because no one else wanted it- the Spanish found it in the 1500s but were not impressed due to its lack of gold and much fresh water, so when the Dutch decided to claim it in the 1600s as a base for trade in the area no one really complained or made much fuss over things.  From there they proceeded to build fortifications to defend the port of Willemstad, along with a town with canal houses as only the Dutch can-

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Like many towns in Europe, there is an elaborate set of chimes to ring out the hour and half hour, complete with local wooden figures who march around the clock on the hour.  Except of course we are not in Europe, so the figures are Caribbean!

Willemstad has been a bustling outpost of the Dutch kingdom ever since (excepting a few inevitable fights with the British here and there), first as a center of the slave trade which made them rather wealthy and then when oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early 1900s and a refinery was built over the old slave pens, making the Dutch in Curacao very wealthy again.  The local government now owns the refinery which is in turn leased to the Venezuelans, but what makes Willemstad interesting compared to many other Caribbean towns overrun by tourism is how they still have big ships devoted to industry passing through-

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Whenever the big ships come through, half the town is divided from the other half because it necessitates opening the Swinging Lady bridge, a pontoon bridge that pedestrians use to cross the channel.  It really is something else lit up at night!

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photo (17)Anyway, after mulling it over I decided the Dutch really ought to forgive their ancestors for trading Manhattan for Suriname already- it’s clear they were tired of the weather and decided if they were going to cross the ocean to a colony there’d best be beaches and cocktails waiting there.  And my experience with Dutch is they also love to complain how they just traveled to a new exotic location only to run into fellow Dutchmen there, so this surely would be a greater issue if they’d done colonialism a little more successfully.

That said, to be clear Willemstad is a lovely little town, and a nice break to explore from the beaches of Curacao.  It really is no exaggeration that if you’d told me to imagine a Dutch town in the Caribbean this is pretty much exactly what I would picture it like!

 

Feet in the Sand- Curacao

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Artie Aardvark sits in the shade, adjusting his sunglasses against the glare of the azure ocean.  He sips a mojito, awaiting word on the wire from Havana…

Ok, I did not bring the aardvark- he has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place on holidays, and only comes along for work for some reason- and this is about as far away from work as one can get.  Curacao!  I’m writing this on my balcony looking south over the Caribbean Sea where I’m told Venezuela lies about 60km away (not that you can tell other than the giant oil refinery on the island and the standard beer here being Venezuelan), spending a week with my feet in the sand when not scuba diving.  So a rather nice week getting acquainted with the fishes when not reading an inordinate number of books I never manage to read at home.

Also I will note because I’m proud of it that this trip was made possible thanks to my writing last year.  It is immensely satisfying to ponder the exact shade of blue of the ocean and think of how you’ve graduated to a “nice scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean” level of writer, believe you me!

The aardvark scowls in frustration at the paper delivered by his assistant, and orders another drink.  He ponders the problem facing him in great detail.

“Yes,” he muses, “yes… I would look really good in a Panama hat.”

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How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.

On the Radio Friday March 14!

A quick note to say I’ll be on the radio tomorrow!  For anyone in the Amsterdam area, tune in to 99.4 FM for English Breakfast Radio- I am on from 8am on March 14 discussing radio astronomy.  How do astronomers use radio waves to learn about the universe?  What happens when a black hole eats a star?  And can I explain this well enough at an hour where I’m usually still sleeping?  Listen in to find out!

Also, for those of you who are from further afield than Amsterdam or missed it- that is to say, most of you- you can follow the link above where you can find live streaming and an archive of the show.

And finally, for a full dose of astronomy, I still regularly contribute to Astrobites where I summarize an astronomical paper every month or so.  Do take a look there if you are at all interested in mysterious fast radio bursts, or how the galaxy formed, or whatever else papers seem interesting around when I am facing a deadline.

Over, and out.

The Time I Skied to Switzerland

Sorry, it’s been rather quiet around here lately.  Please direct all complaints to the Astronomical Institute Anton Pannekoek at he University of Amsterdam.

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There comes a special moment in every young woman’s life who skis when you are struck by the urge to ski to Switzerland.  This moment is roughly defined by the moment you first hear this is possible, and it is if you head for a weekend to the Portes du Soleil just south of Lake Geneva.  It is the second largest ski area in the world, with 650km of ski pistes, on both the French and Swiss sides of the border, and this massive network has a circuit that goes through all the main areas.  Sure it’s 20 miles (32km) of skiing, and sure it takes a full, long day to complete, but there was the urgent matter of deciding which side had superior fondue and scouting out the route in case enemies attacked Europe again (be they Nazis or Tripods…).IMG_1584

Now it turns out it is rather easy to ski to Switzerland from France and vice versa- I was based in Morzine, the biggest village in the Portes du Soleil, and you just follow the signs pointing to Switzerland once you get onto the mountain.  Eventually you reach a chairlift that grandly says it goes to Switzerland (the one in the lower left of the above image- the French-Swiss border follows the ridge line in the first picture of this post) and admonishes skiers to make sure they have photo ID to enter Switzerland at the top.  Turns out you aren’t checked at all, just deposited by a rest house at the summit with a cheery red Swiss flag flapping in the wind, but that’s just the letdown nature of most border crossings in Europe.  You sorta expect a pat on the back or at least a stamp to show your efforts, but instead just admire the view and press onwards.

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Of course, border crossings might be more low-key these days in Europe (there wasn’t even a sign when returning later in the day to France!), but that doesn’t mean you don’t spot differences even in a few miles.  Geographically, the view changes to mountains towering above green valley floors in Switzerland, and the little villages you traverse have buildings exclusively made out of wood (the French villages are almost all wooden, but the French still use stonework for their churches and chimneys).  If you are curious about any differences in the skiing itself, there is one- for whatever reason, the Swiss side has several T-bar lifts in places that these days would be replaced by chairlifts elsewhere, which can take several minutes to go up very steep slopes and require an effort of concentration to manage without incident. (I fell once the entire day… while trying to grab a T-bar.) Maybe the Swiss just assume everyone knows how to ski?  Either way, it’s impossible to complete the circuit without them!IMG_1593

Now here’s something also worth noting about the Portes du Soleil circuit- it is exhausting.  Not because it’s technically difficult, mind- at no point do you need to do any expert runs, and most are fairly flat pistes cutting across mountainsides… but when it’s 3pm and you realize you still have a few hillsides to traverse before the chairlifts stop, and the runs are rather icy with inadequate snow cover, well let’s just say you stop noticing the scenery around you so much as concentrating on not falling.  And, of course, pondering just what sort of dinner you’ll have in between your plans for a long soak in the tub and sleeping like the dead.IMG_1596

All told, though, it was a very epic journey that I’m glad I did, involving 2 gondolas, 12 chairlifts, three t-bar lifts, and two short little bus transfers to get from one side of a picturesque village to the other (and Alpine Replay tells me was 19.4 miles and 18.9k vertical feet of skiing).  Just what you’d expect from something as crazy as skiing to another country for the day!

Maps from Parts Unknown

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that a geek who loves to travel also has a fondness for maps. I’ve had them on my walls for years and years, first to mark all the shortwave radio stations I’d heard and contacted and then to mark where I’ve been once I started visiting them.  I think being a map person is one of those things you either are or you aren’t- upon renting a car you either study the random free map they give you in great interest at some point during the journey, or only bother to grab it when vainly trying to figure out where you got lost.

Anyway, last June I happened to be in London the same weekend as the London Map Fair held for a weekend at the Royal Geographical Society.  It is the largest antique map fair in Europe (I knew- who thought there’d be competition for a thing like that?) and while I usually hate shopping the idea of pawing over various maps throughout history sounded like a really fun thing to do.  Throw in the fact that it was held in the building of the same society where Charles Darwin and David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton would discuss their explorations over cigars and brandy and I was sold!

It turns out the Royal Geographical Society building itself wasn’t that interesting- it was rebuilt as one of those boring modern places, so Shackleton certainly never visited it- but the map festival itself was wonderful with prints and sketches and globes of all corners of the world stretching back hundreds of years.  You certainly wouldn’t be allowed to handle centuries-old art and take a few home for a reasonable price to boot, but apparently this does not apply for maps.

Now if I am anything I am a geek first and a romantic second, so after looking around I knew what sort I wanted- a map where eventually the borders end, and a cartographer filled in the blank space with an intriguing “parts unknown.”  I know we lucky to live in an era where seeing the entire world is possible in a way unimaginable to previous generations, but I still feel a slight twinge at being a few centuries too late to be a proper explorer.

Anyway, the reason you’re hearing all this now is while I visited the fair many moons ago is I finally got around to framing what I bought there!  To start with the pièce de résistance, this is a map of North America from 1759-

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