Category Archives: Other Topics

Announcing the Alaska Adventure

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 12.41.51 PMI’ve often told people that one of my hobbies involves planning trips I won’t necessarily take.  (I probably won’t be taking the trans-Siberian imminently, but I know the full details on how to do it and where to stop!) Eventually I will come across someplace so amazing and so spectacular that, well, I have to go.  In a world of incredible places to visit with things to do and see, it’s best to follow the dreams that keep with you.

Anyway, Alaska started like this sometime last year- I was checking out Wikivoyage with the vague idea that it might be nice to visit some new part of the US in my summer that I hadn’t been before (so it feels like going home, while seeing something new), and it should have wilderness because the Netherlands lacks this, and and have an adventure… and, well, if you are an American looking for mountains and wilderness and a grand adventure it turns out we have this place twice the size of Texas apparently devoted to that.  And apparently if the bears don’t eat you it’s quite fantastic!  So the idea for the Alaska trip was born.

And man oh man, it’s hard to believe, but I’m on the plane in a few hours to start the journey!  First going to Vancouver, which is not in Alaska but a rather nice stop along the way (and the only place I have been before on this trip, when I was 11 or so).  I’ll be in Alaska proper by the weekend, heading on the route you see above… where I realize the names of the places themselves are not shown, but includes many a cute town and national park.

With that, not much to say but I’m excited to go, and I intend to track a few numbers for this trip:

Number of days: 26 (alas this is known)
Number of flights:
Number of days with rain:
Number of national parks:
Number of glaciers:
Number of different kinds of beer:
Mammal species seen:
Number that got too close for comfort:
Number of fish types eaten:
Modes of transport:
Miles driven on rental car:
Highest and lowest prices of gas:
Highest and lowest elevations:
Number of geocaches found:
Locations slept:
Number of festivals:
Books read:

Man oh man, this is gonna be great!

Have you been to Alaska, and have a tip to share, or do you have a suggestion for another number to track?  Let me know!

Photo: Fjord in Norway

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Sorry, writing lately has consisted on my end of a research paper rather than a travel blog, as apparently one leads to a doctorate but not the other. (I’m sure you’re all shocked.) Not to say I’ve been still on weekends, it’s just I’m busy having the adventures and not writing about them!

Until I find a few more spare moments though, might I present to you a few photos from a few days I spent in Norway during a long weekend? Which it turns out is a marvelous country and a new favorite of mine? (I mean, just look at that view!)

More later!

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Artie Aardvark Navigates to Noordwijk

Per tradition of this blog, my experiences last week at the Dutch astronomers conference is handed off to the mascot of my project, Artie Aardvark.  Take it away, Artie!

Last week I was very excited, as it was time to meet up with all my good friends in Dutch astronomy at the NAC, the annual Dutch astronomers conference.  Hooray!  NAC is in a different place every year, and this year it was in Noordwijk, which is near Amsterdam in the middle of the area famous for tulip fields in spring.  Because it’s not that far from Yvette’s apartment in Amsterdam- Google Maps said it would take two hours of bicycling- but a bit of a hassle to get to with public transportation, I decided to go to the conference by bicycle.  I hope the Astrobites poster is secure enough for the ride!

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During the ride I discovered this is a very pretty part of Holland, and in fact probably the area people imagine when they think of when they think of the Dutch countryside.  There were lots of bicycle trails everywhere, and canals, and even flower fields!

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There are also a lot of little roadside stands like this in this part of Holland, at the end of the driveways for the farms.  You can buy flowers directly from the farmers by putting money in the little box on the side, which I thought was really cool.

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Finally after two and a half hours of biking- I guess Google Maps doesn’t take into account the fact that aardvarks can’t pedal as fast as humans*- I made it to the conference, poster and all!  Hooray!

* or, you know, Artie’s photographer for the occasion isn’t up for Google Maps estimates when stopping often for photos… -YC

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I must say, the NAC is a very good conference to attend if you are learning all about astronomy like me and are curious about many things.  This is because it is small with about 200 scientists and students this year, and you can learn about a lot of different topics.  My favorite talks were about a young pulsar who had a companion that might be another pulsar, and the discovery of an extrasolar planet with rings over four hundred times bigger than those of Saturn.  That’s more than the distance from the Sun to Venus!  Amazing!

When the talks were done, though, it was time to have fun with all my astronomer friends!  First we found a geocache next to the hotel disguised to look like a log next to a tree…

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And then because we were near the beach, we went there to enjoy the spring sunshine!

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Afterwards, I was really hungry and decided to have a snack…

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And got up my energy for the bowling competition later that night!  My friend Dario even won a prize for having one of the best bowling scores!

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This was also my least favorite part of the conference, though, because while Yvette stopped paying attention to me for a few minutes I was aardvark-napped by some other astronomers!  Luckily I was found and safe the whole time, but it was scary!

Anyway, at the end of the conference, it was time to cycle back to Amsterdam.  This time I took a different route, along the sand dunes by the North Sea.  It’s probably the most isolated area I’ve seen in Holland… and also the hilliest!  It might not look like much, but the bike is a single speed so some of those dunes felt steep!

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I was also surprised at one point to see a lot of antennas poking out of the dunes, and discover a huge radio listening station!  Apparently it was used to receive signals when the Dutch still had colonies in the East Indies and other far away places, and also by the Germans in World War 2 to listen for their U-boats.  You can pick up all sorts of far away signals when next to the ocean due to special conditions there.20140528-113532-41732796.jpg

Finally, after the dunes I turned in towards Haarlem to catch the train home from there- you can bike all the way back to Amsterdam, of course, but that ride is not very interesting and I was getting a little tired by this point.  There was still a lot to see though, because between the North Sea and Haarlem a lot of rich Dutch merchants hundreds of years ago built country houses.  A lot of them look like palaces to me!  This was the view of Elswout, which I found when a little lost on the bicycle path.  It is very neat how in Holland even when you get lost you find the nicest, prettiest places…

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Finally, when I got home, I went straight to my bookshelf for a nice long nap.  NAC is good, but left me NACered by the end of it!

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.

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!

On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

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Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

A Visit to Cape Canaveral

Now before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: I am not a space geek. Space geeks are the sort of people who can tell you all the little details about the Apollo missions to the moon like where they landed and what the goals were of each, how the next generation NASA space launcher is shaping up, and all sorts of minutiae about which rocket is used to launch where. The space geeks and I often hang out in very similar circles so I know a lot more about this stuff than the average person, but I am an astronomy geek at heart who spends her time thinking and talking about what is out there rather than the details of going there. Put it this way: space geeks are engineers and astronomy geeks are scientists.  You can tell which is which when faced with a telescope- astronomy geeks will obsess with looking through it, and space geeks will obsess with setting the tracking and gears correctly.

That said, let us make another thing clear: just because the two terms do not overlap as much as you’d assume doesn’t mean space geeks and astronomy geeks don’t get along well, and we do love to see what the other side is up to.  So with my brother now living in Florida, and some old physics friends scattered in Florida who I hadn’t seen in years up the coast, Cape Kennedy Kennedy Space Center on the island of Cape Canaveral was the perfect meeting spot for us to meet a day, catch up with each other, and see some big rockets!

rocket-garden Continue reading