Category Archives: Other Topics

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

2013 in Review

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I found a neat website that lets you map out your travels as you can see above, and I put in everywhere I have spent a night in the past year to see how it looked.  Ye gods, I am tired just looking at it, but you don’t exactly know how things will turn out when they start…

A few notes:

– Most of my farthest-flung travels to the US were dictated in some part by my sister’s wedding this past summer.  Presumably she will only ever do this once, so I was more than happy to earn an elite airline status for this!

– If this year had a travel theme, it is somehow this year evolved into a year of exploring the Mediterranean.  I wasn’t planning on it, but I can pinpoint exactly when this happened: back in February I went to Lisbon on a cheap weekend fare after a breakup, and it turned out despite the dreary northern winter in the Netherlands it was sunny and 15C (~50s F) in Portugal.  Sunshine and scenery is good medicine for a soul trying to sort itself out, and it occurred to me then that southern Europe is a rather nice place to get to know. A combination of a godawful spring and work commitments finally ensured I kept going back to the Mare Nostrum.  Can’t complain!

– Similarly, as the Artie Aardvark posts show, it turns out astronomers travel a fair bit and this year work sent me to Belgium, Greece, the Canary Islands, and within the Netherlands.  It’s really hard to complain when your job decides to give you essentially a tour of European vacation spots for a decent part of the fall, but not all locations were equally exciting and it starts to get tiring when you’re away for the third week within two months (for a slog to the northern Netherlands in November, no less- vacation tours only last so long).

To writ, travel for work is almost always more interesting than working where you normally do, but it should not be confused with an actual holiday because you tend to arrive home exhausted.  Especially when your schedule is suddenly on a 7am-4pm sleep cycle during an observing run!

– Also, I should mention that back in the very first days of 2013 I went for a wonderful few days down to Moab, where I began collecting US National Park stamps (because this is clearly a good hobby to start when you no longer live in the US).  Despite a locational handicap I managed to get 29 stamps in four regions of the US this year, which sounds really impressive until you visit Washington DC and realize 16 of those stamps are from all the various memorials (and 6 from the various Boston National Historical sites).  Still, on the list of “incredibly geeky travel hobbies” I’d say I’m doing pretty well there!

So, what’s next?  Well I took the liberty of filling out the rest of the year’s route back to the US for Christmas (NPS stamp #30 should be picked up within the week at Cape Canaveral!)- a country that I’ve noticed somehow slid into more “a place I used to live” status than “home” when I wasn’t paying attention, but that sentiment is complex and outside the realm of this post.  Beyond that, well, nothing’s booked yet.  I have some checks from recent writing that I’m determined to spend on a nice spring break scuba diving because it’s really awesome to realize you made enough money writing to go on a diving trip.  I have realized that the summer after next will not exist for me because my thesis will be due, so I really need to spend some time on a good adventure during this one to someplace and am looking at my options.  And I know a large reason I wanted to live in Europe in the first place is how the list of nice places to visit is never-ending (Krakow! Norway! Porto! Nuremberg!), so no reason to assume that list will not be tackled.

Wishing a wonderful Merry Christmas and Happy 2014 to all who stumble across this corner of cyberspace.  Adventures are never as fun when you keep them to yourself, and it has been wonderful to share mine with you!

When it Rains, it Pours

If things are quiet here lately it probably correlates with how the off-blog writing is going well lately, and I have two things to announce:

1) I have a new monthly gig over at Astrobites, which is a site run by astronomy PhD students where we take new astronomy papers off the ArXiv and summarize them at an undergraduate level.  My first summary is up and is about “New Evidence of an Asteroid Encountering a Pulsar,” which is more or less exactly what it sounds like. (Meaning: awesome paper!) So that should be interesting, and we’ll see how it goes- if nothing else, I have a bigger incentive than ever to keep atop the latest literature.

2) The second and perhaps more important one is I’ve just had an article appear in the January 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope titled “Tuning In to Radio Jupiters.”  It’s all about how the race is on to detect the first extrasolar planet via radio, by way of interesting details on things like how Jupiter shoots radio lasers through its magnetic fields and how Nikola Tesla might have detected them.  Trust me, it’s cool and you should read it!

Over, and out.

As Seen in Astronomy Magazine

Working hard lately (Artie Aardvark Goes to Groningen, anyone?), but I wanted to check in and mention that you should go pick up the December 2013 edition of Astronomy to see my latest-and-greatest article.  It’s the one listed on the cover as “Super Graphic: Where are spacecraft now?” which is about, well, where spacecraft are now.  You know how you always hear about space missions like the Voyagers or the Vikings or whatever else, and then never hear about them again once their science results leave the spotlight?  Well this is a summary of humanity crashing spacecraft or flinging them into space or all sorts of things we deliberately or inadvertently do with them- researched by me so you don’t have to! (This is a classic example in science journalism of “if I’m wasting this much time reading up on this I can’t be the only one interested, so why not try to sell the article to someone?”)

Trust me, it’s cool, and in large part because the graphics are incredible– imagine the Solar System over several pages, with little planets and space missions and text placed where appropriate.  There is no way I am talented enough to do that part because my creativity does not go that way- Astronomy just has a wonderfully talented graphics guy- but I must say, it’s lovely when you have a vision for something and convince someone to make said vision despite your lack of talent to make it happen on your own.  Teamwork at its best!

So anyway, get yourself a copy of the December 2013 Astronomy if you’re interested, whether digital or print- it’s a good one!

Artie Aardvark Looks at La Palma

For those who don’t know him, Artie Aardvark is my little friend who is very curious and likes to visit various astronomy sites. Naturally when he heard about the La Palma observing run, he was begging to go…
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I am so excited, I get to visit La Palma and see what astronomers do!  La Palma is an island in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco where a lot of Europeans come for vacation, and here I am relaxing with them on the beach a little before heading up to the observatory on the summit.  I am worried though- it’s cloudy!  Won’t the clouds make observing stars hard?IMG_1253

IMG_1260I soon learn the secret of La Palma though is the mountain is so tall and steep that we are above the clouds here!  Wow!  I can’t wait to visit all the telescopes! Continue reading

La Palma- On The Roof of the World

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IMG_1282These shots were taken at sunset a few hours ago, in the sort of sunset and circumstance that makes you think if this really is all there is, well, you’re pretty ok with that.

I am on La Palma in the Canary Islands for a week-long observing run.  Normally coming up to this sort of place isn’t the astronomy I do (I play with a radio telescope in the Netherlands, which I’ve never seen as I download the data form a supercomputer, meaning not too many exotic observing trips), but we have a course at the University of Amsterdam for our M.Sc. astronomy students where we have them write proposals and take data and write it up on a proper big telescope down here in La Palma.  They take a TA too- a PhD student who is the teaching assistant- so upon realizing I had to TA anyway I asked just what someone had to do to TA the La Palma course.

“You have to ask, and you’re the first one to ask” was the answer, so here I am, adapting to a week of nocturnal existence where one typically sleeps from 8am-4pm.  Something else I never really do normally by the way, as radio waves don’t care if it’s day or night when you observe them.

More later, probably from a furry little aardvark friend of mine who loves exploring all things astronomy.  But it was just too glorious a sunset tonight to not share it.

Artie Aardvark Sees Santorini

For those of you who don’t know him, Artie Aardvark is my curious little aardvark friend who is the mascot for our radio astronomy group.  He likes to tag along on astronomy adventures and write about them in a far cuter way than I ever could.  Take it away, Artie!

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Wow it’s a good life being an astronomy project’s mascot- the astronomers had a conference here in Santorini and they brought be along!  This is the view from the conference center.  I think it might be the prettiest place in the world to have a conference. Continue reading

Amsterdam, Two Years In

amsterdam-canal-viewIt is a rather incredible thing to stop and think how I moved to Amsterdam two years ago.  In many ways two years is a long time: long enough to graduate from a beginning PhD student in your department to a senior one, to learn the rhythm of the seasons at a European latitude where sunset times range from 4pm to 11pm, to master the chaotic intimacy of an Amsterdam bicycle commute.  Two years of living somewhere is plenty of time to move twice, try a long distance relationship, learn enough Dutch to realize you know what people are discussing at the next table, learn how to do improv comedy, learn all the shortcuts and secret haunts, know the one place in town that sells chocolate syrup, and a myriad of other things you deal with in daily life but only learn with experience.

In the past two years I have visited about 20 countries.  How, dear reader, did that happen? (Ok, there is an answer: mainly weekends and an expert manipulation of short distances and cheap fares from a major center of European transport. But geez, that’s quite a few.)

But anyway.  Since most of you likely don’t know, the reason two years is a particularly noteworthy thing to mention is it means I am halfway through my time in Amsterdam because my contract is for four years total, and they are fairly strict about making you graduate on time in the Netherlands (you might extend a few months, but that’s it).  If I can tell you anything about the coming two years compared to the last two it’s it will be dominated less by exploring life abroad and more with “OMG I need to write a thesis,” as my friends who have done it seem to all disappear for at least six months when preparing to submit.  But there’s a reason getting a doctorate in astrophysics is supposed to be hard, right? As a final note, in honor of this halfway through my time in Amsterdam occasion, I thought I’d take a moment to answer the three most common questions I get from people who want to know how things are going.  In no particular order: Continue reading