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!

An Impromptu Dinner Party

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So.  Earlier tonight I was working rather late- I typically meet with my adviser Tuesday mornings, so Mondays never seem to end when I want them to- so by the time I cycled home via the grocery store it was 8:45pm.  As I was gathering my things a young Dutchman approached me and said something I didn’t catch, I responded with my best “sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goot,” and he switched to English with one of the more unusual things I’ve been asked lately.

“Sorry, but my friends and I are at the restaurant next door, and we’ve ordered too much food.  So we were looking for someone to join us for dinner to share it- might you be interested in joining us?”

Now when getting home from work near 9pm on Monday night things in my world are often more uninteresting than I’d prefer, and the following came to my mind:

1) Said Dutchman did not appear, at first glance, to be a serial killer,

2) I know the restaurant in question- it’s a few doors down, so nothing crazy is going to happen there, and

3) Most important, it is 8:45pm and I have yet to start making dinner and have nothing else going on besides catching up on TV shows, so why not say yes anyway?

“Give me ten minutes,” I promised- I had ice cream to put in the freezer and flowers to put into water first- and then headed down to the cafe to meet Stijn, Liz, and Mihkel for the first time and have dinner with them.  They were students who worked in the cafe part-time, and what a dinner it was: samples of the kitchen’s best, from venison steak to salmon quiche to horsemeat brisket, with several matching beers to each little sample, all while discussing our various travels and studies and adventures.  They were delighted because they had someone new to hear their stories and had always wanted to try randomly inviting someone to dinner, I was delighted because a lonely late night had turned into something extraordinary, and we all parted with exchanged hugs and phone numbers and promises to do it again in the future. (It’s funny, I think, how this will be a good memory even if it ends with an “and then we never met again” or an “and then we stayed friends for decades in the future.”)

Cheers to ordinary nights becoming extraordinary ones- and may I never become a woman whose first reaction to such an invitation is to turn it down.

So, tell me: would you have said yes to an impromptu dinner party like I did?  Or invited someone like this yourself?

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.

That time I saw a Protester Climb the Eiffel Tower Lattice

Now picture this: it is a weekend trip to Paris (because if Paris was only three hours on the train from where you live you’d keep feeling like you ought to go more often too), and the weather is rather sunny for November so it seems an excellent idea to cycle past the Eiffel Tower.  Like many others I am a fan- it’s essentially a structure that serves no purpose other than to show what cool things people can build, and I get to practice my memory of French mathematicians/scientists by looking at the names on it, so what’s not to like?  Seems like a good day to take in the view, so I join the tourist queues to tackle the steps.IMG_1420

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I last tackled the steps by the way in 1998 on a family vacation when I was 12 years old, and I distinctly recall thinking of the entire endeavor as something akin to a death march… meaning I was rather surprised to bound up the steps in half the estimated time, passing many a tourist group along the way.  I then remember that I was a bit of a wimp at age 12, and take solace in how I’ve left behind a large fraction of that in the intervening years…

Anyway, touristy moments done it was time to find lunch, when I took one last glance up and noticed a fellow on the outer scaffolding on the Eiffel Tower.  He was pretty high up on one of the legs and I confess at first I thought he was a cleaner (I’d just admired a postcard of a precariously perched one) until I realized wait, this was not normal, not normal at all…IMG_1427

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He was a protester of some sort, who had somehow managed to climb up on the leg and up on the framework quite a ways, and was now busily trying to tie a banner onto the iron struts. (He was not, however, thinking far enough ahead to make the banner or lettering big enough to be seen from the ground, so he gets an A for effort but F in execution for getting his message out.) I and the two other tourists were in fact getting really nervous watching him move around so high up with nothing to secure him whatsoever, and we realized this was kind of weird that no one in a position of authority was paying any attention.

I looked around, and saw three French police officers busily chatting with each other not fifty feet away.  This seemed odd in itself so I went over to say excuse me, but don’t they see the man up there…?  The annoyed looks at my interruption turned to a look of horror as they saw where my finger was pointing, and minor pandemonium broke out as they ran off to their positions shouting into their walkie-talkies.  Ah, the French!

Now that my civic duty was done I had no real interest in watching a man accidentally fall to his death should it happen, and more importantly I was pretty hungry, so I went off to a corner cafe nearby.  Ended up having a rather nice chat with my cafe neighbors as the police, fire, and medic cars kept turning the corner where we were sitting while heading towards the tower- it turned out they were American expatriates who lived in the neighborhood.

“Does this happen often?” I asked, as they were only mildly interested in the uproar.

“Oh yes!” the woman told me.  “It’s an internationally recognized monument, of course, so I’d say the Eiffel Tower has something like this happen every few weeks.  They shut it down a few times a year for bomb threats too, of course.”

Some onion soup, foie gras, and wine later I headed back to the Eiffel Tower where the fire department was packing up, and they told me they got the protester down without incident.  Paris, as she has for centuries when the politics of her people unfold, shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

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