Category Archives: Other Topics

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!

World’s Longest Zip-Line at Icy Strait Point, Alaska

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“Just think of it like a really long roller coaster,” I advised.  My parents and I were spending the day at Icy Strait Point near the tiny town of Hoonah, Alaska.  It’s a privately owned place and run by native Tlingits in an old cannery area converted for tourism.  There isn’t much to Icy Strait Point (or Hoonah for that matter) except the world’s longest zip-line which towers from the mountain above town.

Now I suspect anyone who’s read this blog over the years knows what happened next, because I am not a woman who can turn down something like a zip-line that is over a mile long (officially it’s 5,330 feet, with a 1,300 foot vertical drop).  But I suppose after years of reading of his daughter’s exploits in various corners my dad felt the urge to join in too, and my mother decided to establish which side of the family the adrenaline junkie stuff comes from by staying at the bottom.

And hey, on the scale of adrenaline-y things to do, it turns out this zip-line isn’t too hard- not like you need to jump into the abyss yourself.  But that didn’t mean my father wasn’t going to have to endure some cheery speculation on maintenance standards in the Alaskan wilderness and the like on the ride up in a refurbished school bus from his daughter.

But anyway, the ride up takes about 45 minutes, and the ride down takes about 90 seconds.  And if a picture is worth a thousand words than who knows what a video makes, so here’s the entire experience!

Altogether not a bad experience at all!  And then we spent the rest of the day wandering around a bit.  It’s certainly a nice corner of the world when you have sunshine to enjoy and sea stars to spot in the water.

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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.