Category Archives: United Kingdom

Artie Aardvark Goes to Greenwich

Artie Aardvark told me to stop working so hard on revising my paper to post about his adventures in Greenwich already.  So here you go! 

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What an exciting day- I am in London, and off to see the Royal Observatory in Greenwich!  This might be the most famous observatory in the world because the prime meridian runs through here- the line that all the countries agreed to use when it comes to measuring locations on Earth from East to West.  It’s also the place from where people define Greenwich Mean Time, which is the global standard for time in the world.  It sounds like a really important place to visit! Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Jaunts to Jodrell Bank

 

Last weekend I had my 15 minutes of Internet fame with a front page AMA about astronomy on Reddit.  Exciting times!  So in honor of that I decided to skip ahead and hand the mic off to Artie Aardvark, who’s been bursting to tell us all about his adventures in England a few weeks ago.

If you’re new to this blog, yes, Artie is an aardvark, and my group’s project mascot.  He comes with my on astronomy adventures, as he can explain what he sees far better than I could.  Enjoy!

Today is an exciting day: I am off to Jodrell Bank Observatory in England to see all the radio telescopes!  Jodrell Bank is one of the most important radio observatories in the world, with some of the biggest radio telescopes you can find anywhere.  It is south of Manchester in the country, with a lot of sheep and cows all around.  Look there in the distance- is that a radio telescope?

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Time to turn off cell phones so they don’t interfere with the sensitive radio telescopes- we must be getting close!

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Of course, once we get to the observatory it’s pretty obvious!

This is the Lovell telescope, which is the third biggest steerable radio telescope in the world.  Wow!  The dish is 250 feet across at the top, and they use it for a lot of research things like pulsars, which are the spinning cores of stars that exploded in what is called a supernova.  Astronomers study the neatest things!

Unfortunately I couldn’t see the telescope in action, as it was undergoing maintenance and it was stowed pointing straight up for this.  But I did find a model in the observatory showing just what the telescope would look like if you could see the top part.

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Then I got to work, keeping an eye on some data coming in to the observatory…

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Be careful though not to get too curious and be stuck behind this door in the control center!  This giant door looked like a safe to me, but was actually where a lot of equipment like the computer servers for the observatory are kept.  This is because they give off a lot of radiation in radio frequencies the astronomers are studying, so they have to be kept in a special vault to make sure the signals from them don’t get out.  Jodrell Bank still worries about a lot of things like that- the astronomers are forever complaining that you can’t have a wifi network for example!

(Editor’s note: the SKA office is next door to the observatory building though, and they have wifi. Conclude what you will!)

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Here’s the observatory building from the outside- that “little” radio telescope isn’t all that little at all, as it’s 42 feet across!  Astronomers use it to monitor the Crab Pulsar, which is left over from a supernova explosion about a thousand years ago.  In fact, people all over Earth recorded seeing this explosion as there was a “guest star” in the sky!  The Crab Pulsar gives of all kinds of radiation to this day, and astronomers are studying the system constantly in order to learn more about young pulsars.

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I also went for a walk towards the back of the building and saw radio telescopes everywhere!  This telescope is called Mark II, and was being repainted by workers when I visited. All telescopes have to be painted in England else they’ll rust, and astronomers choose white to reflect as much of the sun as possible from the dish.  Mark II isn’t actually used on its own much like the other telescopes, and instead is usually used with a bunch of other radio telescopes around the world networked together- a trick astronomers use to get more detailed images called interferometry.  Jodrell Bank is a huge center for a place to process all these signals.

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There are all sorts of other telescopes to explore at Jodrell Bank though!  This one looked pretty crazy to me- it’s a test project to have a student telescope for students from the University of Manchester.  It’s hard for me to believe that radio telescopes can look like this, but they were in fact testing it when I visited by listening to radio signals from the sun!

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All told, I had a really fun time visiting Jodrell Bank and seeing what radio astronomers do!  But all too soon it was time to go, and catch a train to London- Yvette promised to take me to the Greenwich Observatory next!  Oh boy!

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.

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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Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Studies Southampton

Continuing our series of our lovable scamp exploring various interesting astronomical locations, Artie Aardvark has graciously agreed to cover a recent visit of mine to University of Southampton.  Take it away, Artie!

I was very excited to go to Southampton!  People told me it would be rainy in England, but the weather was actually very nice.  Here I am making friends with the ducks in Southampton Common on my way to the university.

Once I arrived, it was time to help with work.  Most astronomers these days do not work at their observatories most of the time but instead get their observations and spend months or even years analyzing them.  I suppose this is nice because then you don’t have to spend all of your time in the middle of nowhere anymore!  Here I am working on the code for a particularly troublesome data set.

Later in the afternoon, however, it was time for a break to explore the University of Southampton campus!  We of course first stopped at the LOFAR antenna next to the physics building- it’s not a real antenna, but a pretend one to show you what they look like.  It is kind of funny to think that a metal pole in the ground is a radio astronomy antenna because I thought they looked more like the Westerbork ones I visited once, but it turns out what really matters is what wavelength you are looking at.  Radio frequencies all have a matching wavelength that can be anywhere from sub-millimeter to longer than a football field from their peak to trough, similar to how waves in the ocean can sometimes be very tiny and sometimes very giant.  The wavelengths LOFAR is interested in are about as long as this pole, so that’s how big the antennas are- the fact that they are cheap to build helps too!

After that, I also enjoyed exploring the Southampton campus because it was very green like a giant park.  In fact, it was quite the jungle in some places!

It was really fun to explore all the plant life and clamber around for tasty bugs, and… oh no!  I’m stuck!  Yvette, help!!!!

Whew, I got saved!  To regale those who missed my adventure, after work the astronomers were nice enough to take me to The Crown Inn, a very cozy pub just down the road from the uni.  Where I got a nice big pint all to myself, and Yvette told me to take it slow but it was so tasty I didn’t and why did she say that anyway…

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When I woke up later I’d missed out on a lot, and boy did I learn my lesson!  So even though there was real Duff beer to be had during the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror marathon on Halloween I didn’t have very much of it.

Thanks to everyone in Southampton who helped me with the pictures!

Bonfire Night in Winchester

It is a curious general rule of the world that every nation I’ve ever heard of has a special holiday dedicated to fire and blowing things up.  I’m not sure why this is, but my best theory is that most people are closet pyromaniacs and it’s best we indulge in this bit of fun on a regular basis lest we snap and set fire to something that actually matters.

The most popular such holiday in the United Kingdom is Guy Fawkes Night, usually known as Bonfire Night or “the 5th of November thing in V for Vendetta” depending on your knowledge of Britain.  Usually this is celebrated by a torchlight procession to a giant bonfire followed by a fireworks display, and because I was in southern England this year we decided to head for Winchester, the ancient capital of England that hosts a rather nice Bonfire Night every year. Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Observes Oxford

Once again we turn to the lovely Artie Aardvark for his observations, this time for the LOFAR TKP meeting that took place in Oxford earlier this month. Take it away, Artie!

I was very excited to visit Oxford ever since I first heard that there was going to be a meeting here about transient observations using LOFAR! Oxford is a very special, very old place, and the university has been here since the 12th century. While in Oxford I even got to stay at one of the old colleges where students still study and live today, called Keble College. It was very pretty! Continue reading