Category Archives: Science!

La Palma- On The Roof of the World


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!


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

Photo: New Hampshire… Rocks!!!

Madison Boulder

huge glacial erraticIn the “list of odd things I’ve seen but never expected to” category, I am now including this rock.  It is the Madison Boulder, located innocuously off a stretch of road and hidden in the forest so you don’t really see the thing until you suddenly find yourself almost right in front of it.  And when you do it seems a bit crazy that something so very big and impressive could be hiding out in the forest without you knowing about it.  What is the biggest rock I’ve ever seen doing in the middle of the woods?

It turns out the Madison Boulder is a glacial erratic- one of the biggest in the world, in fact, with an estimated weight of 4,662 tons (though- warning, geek joke- such a precise number made me question the sign maker’s significant figure usage…).  About 25,000 years ago during the last Ice Age the entire region was covered in a giant sheet of ice more than a mile thick, which carried along boulders big and small which were made smooth by the constant pressures, but as anyone who has visited the area knows many of these were then left behind during the glacial retreat (along with a few thousand glacial lakes).  The Madison Boulder just happens to be the very biggest in all of New England.

And I know I must say this a lot guys, but science is so cool.  For thousands of years after the Ice Ages people surely stumbled across this rock wondering what on Earth it was doing hiding in the middle of the forest, but we are lucky enough to not have to wonder!  And frankly a giant sheet of ice a mile high stretching thousands of miles is probably way cooler than anything you could think up as a credible answer anyway…

Artie Aardvark’s Belgian Beer Adventure Continues

Artie is my super curious little aardvark friend who comes along on adventures where astronomers go, like our brewery weekend in Belgium.  Part 1 of his adventure can be found here.

The last day of the Belgian weekend I was super-duper excited in the morning cause we were going to visit a famous Trappist brewery called Westvleteren.  Westvleteren monks only sell enough beer to cover the costs of the monastery so even though some people call it “the best beer in the world” it is super-duper hard to get your paws on some.  But it turns out not to be so hard if you go to the monastery and buy some at the tasting room!

IMG_1086IMG_0780 Continue reading

Artie Aardvark’s Belgian Beer Adventure- Part 1

Whenever I go on any astronomical adventures, or adventures with astronomers, our group’s mascot Artie Aardvark seems to tag along.  And it’s time for Artie to tell you all about a recent weekend we had in Belgium- take it away, Artie!

I really enjoyed my short trip to Belgium for the NAC, so a week later when I heard a bunch of astronomers were planning a weekend trip to Belgium to visit trappist breweries I begged them to go along.  After all, what if they needed an extra driver?  What if they needed the services of an attack aardvark?  And most important, I was very curious to see what the fuss was about when it came to trappist beers!

Luckily they let me come so we set off on Friday after work for an adventure!  Though our first stop was before the Belgian border, in the Netherlands, at the La Trappe near Tilburg in the southern Netherlands-
IMG_0744IMG_0745 Continue reading

Artie Aardvark Looks into Lommel

For those who don’t remember him, Artie Aardvark is my research group’s mascot.  He’s a curious fellow who likes to tag along to astronomical conferences and the like, so it was only natural that he tagged along with me last week.  I’ll let him tell you all about it!
IMG_0709Last week was super-duper exciting, as Yvette finally took me on a new adventure!  We were off to Lommel, Belgium for the annual Dutch astronomers’ conference which is known as the NAC.  I was a little confused on the train ride over why were going to Belgium for a Dutch astronomers’ conference, but the astronomers told me that northern Belgium is an area called Flanders where they speak Dutch with a funny accent. (I guess some of them claim Flemish is a separate language but don’t ask me for details- I’m an aardvark, not a language expert!) This year they were organizing the conference, so we took a train and bus to Lommel just across the border. Continue reading

So my article made the cover of Astronomy Magazine…


While I do a PhD in astronomy
And I write about what I know
I write about beauty, I write about truth
At a couple cents a word each go
But I’ve got all kinds of chills and all kinds of thrills
From what I just got to see:
That thrill that’ll greet ya when you see your feature
On the cover of Astronomy!

(Astronomy) Yep that’s my feature on the cover
(Astronomy) Gonna buy five copies for my mother
(Astronomy) Cause that’s my article
On the cover of Astronomy!

Ok, forgive me, because unlike other teenagers who dreamed about being on the cover of the Rolling Stone I happened to dream about writing for Astronomy.  So Almost Famous for geeks, but unlike most people my dream came true!

One gets a touch philosophical when achieving such dreams, but I will refrain from sharing them all here except to say that I wonder if I’m a writer now.  My conclusion is I think so, though certainly an astronomer first, so for now I will settle for being an astronomer-writer like a six-year-old who says she will be a rock star and the president and a pony.  It’s just like then, who’s going to tell you no?

Oh and of course, as you can all imagine from such a lovely cover the article inside is even better, so you should all go check it out in the March 2013 edition of Astronomy.  The article is about cosmic rays and the Pierre Auger Observatory which I visited two years ago while working on my master’s thesis- a nice souvenir from that time of my life!- and seems to be nicely received on social media and the like.  And hey, what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t encourage everyone I know to go and check it out?!

Photo: Upheval Dome Meteor Crater


Most of Canyonlands National Park (an hour’s drive from Moab) is filled with lovely canyon vistas as you’d expect, but there is one other major geological feature there that surprised be because I so totally did not expect it.  The feature is known as Upheval Dome, a dome of rocks surrounded by a jumble of others in a wall known as a synhline.  For decades scientists theorized that Upheval Dome was created by the world’s largest salt dome, where a bubble of salt under pressure deforms the surrounding rock, but that was back in the days when people assumed no traces of asteroids hitting the Earth really existed.  These days, however, we know better: Upheval Dome is, very very likely, a meteor crater.

The story here is that around 60 million years ago, around the time of the first primates on Earth, an asteroid about a third of a mile in diameter slammed into this area and created an unstable crater that partially collapsed (and the middle dome is from underground rocks pushing up after impact).  Erosion did the rest and washed away the meteorite debris, but shocked quartz which is created under extreme pressure (such as in a nuclear bomb blast, or a giant meteor) has been discovered on the site.  I’ve got to hand it to geologists: what they do is pretty cool!

Upheval Dome is a pretty easy hike from the parking lot, but Canyonlands was so very empty in early January that during my 20 minutes of sitting and pondering the crater I never saw a soul.  And it is quite something to sit on the edge of a giant meteor crater all alone and ponder creation.

Photo: Double Arch, Arches National Park


Continuing a series about the various arches in Arches National Park, Utah…

Double Arch ended up being one of my favorite arches for the simple reason that unlike many of the other ones it was very easy to climb into and was an amazing place to clamber around (once again, look carefully for people in the picture to scale).  In fact I later learned that this is where they filmed the opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Cruscade– the one where the Boy Scouts are wandering around- and even though the cave in the movie isn’t here it certainly has that adventurous feel to it!  Great view too…


The other interesting thing to note here if you’re a geek like me is Double Arch was formed differently than most of the other arches in the park, which were primarily created through wind and water erosion from fins of sandstone.  Instead these are what are called “pothole arches,” where a basin near a cliff face gets eroded away from the water captured within it.  Which is very clearly something you can imagine after looking at the first picture.  Go science!