Yes Virginia, there are two

Passed the oral prelim.

The one this fall was the written, where everyone in the class takes the 8-hour test on all of astronomy. The other half is the oral prelim, where I go into a room with four faculty members, present the research I've been doing for half an hour, then answer questions both about my talk, and about the general topics I covered. So, after two hours, and quite a few pretty tough questions, I managed to impress enough committee members to pass. Which means I've now qualified for a Master's degree, which I guess I get sometime next spring. Woo-hoo.

Anyway, in theory, now I should be getting a lot more science done. Heh, we'll see if that happens anytime soon...

All in

Every week, a bunch of grad students from LPL and Steward get together for a poker tournament. No-limit Texas Hold 'em, 15-20 people, 5 dollar buy-in. Then we go at it until there's one person left standing, and split the money up among the final three or four. I started playing back during spring, when my roommate Shane dragged me along to a tournament. Shane's quite the poker behemoth, having won the tournaments more than anyone else, and usually doing pretty well at various online matches. I, on the other hand, proved to be quite the mediocre player, making every rookie mistake in the book, even inventing a few of my own.

Well, anyway, it's taken me over a dozen tournaments to get here, but I'm finally holding my own. Last week, with about 17 players, and this week, with 10 players, I took first place. So I'm starting to dig myself out of the financial hole poker has been thus far. I think luck's a big factor here (I've hit a lot of straights the last two weeks), but I've also been making smarter bets (thanks to a little studying with "Harrington on Hold 'em"), and those two make for a nice combination.

As an added bonus, last week the last two players left standing were me and Shane (he was the one who lent me the book), so busting him out for the win was especially nice. He wasn't here this week, so it won't be until next week when we see if I can keep up the streak, or if Shane smacks me back down to my place.

Data taken, not reduced, no publication in progress

I suppose at some point I should talk about the other traveling I did last month. And since there's a lot of work I should be doing at the moments, I'll talk about it now. Around the middle of October, I made the big hop from Tucson to Pasadena, for the Michelson Fellow Symposium. This is the first one of these, and I think it went pretty well. Two days of talks, as every one of us grad students and post-docs with a Michelson fellowship (there were only a couple dozen of us there) descended on the Caltech campus, and gave a talk on what we were working on. It was really a nice format, short enough to not break my spirit the way longer conferences can, and small enough to really get to know a lot of the people. My talk was pretty uneventful, though I tried to hide with a joke the fact that I didn't know the answer to one question which, in retrospect, I could have answered easily. It was also good for me, in that I got more of the nuts and bolts of various planet-finding techniques. Even the talks that were repeats of stuff I'd heard in France were useful, since I typically need to hear things a few times for them to sink in.

I also got to catch up with the family a little. My brother lives in San Diego, and my father came down to see the talk (and a good deal of the rest of the conference, surprisingly). It felt a little strange, since this was the first talk with a family member in the audience, but it didn't throw me off too much. After the conference I got to hang around San Diego and catch up with family a little for the weekend, before going to Hawaii on Sunday for Protostars and Planets V.

Going to PPV was a big deal for me, since with the better part of a decade between each PP conference, suspense really builds up. There were over 800 astronomers there, so it seemed a little intimidating. But it turns out I've been in the field long enough, and been to enough conferences to know a lot of the participants. The talks were interesting in that they were geared as reviews of the many subject areas, and most were in fields I didn't know much about. But five straight days of them, just coming off another conference, was a bit much. The poster I presented seemed to be well-received: I'd printed out a bunch of 8.5-by-11 copies, and left them under the poster itself; by the end of the conference, about 35 of these had been taken. Plus I got to talk with a lot of people in the field, which is one of the main points of going to conferences.

Hawaii itself was quite nice. The conference was in the Waikoloa Hilton, a massive resort on the western edge of the big island. It was a gaudy tourist trap, but the location was still pretty nice. Rather than stay in the hotel, and spend too much on food, three of us Steward grads rented a condominium for the week, and bought food at a supermarket to cook for ourselves. The condo was really nice, so I think it was a good decision. Partway through the week we went out to sea (a bit). There was this guy who provided kayaks, had us row out a little bit to an isolated cove, then gave us snorkeling gear to look at the fish around the coral reefs, which was very cool. In addition to all nifty tropical fish, we also saw a few sea turtles (a foot or so in diameter), which are pretty magnificent in the water. We also drove around the island a bit, going to a black sand peach, then to Volcano National Park, where we saw (from very far away) lava flowing down a mountain, and the smoke plume as it went into the ocean. We arrived just at sunset, which was when it was the most spectacular. Then, my last day there, I went with some of the other conference participants up to Mauna Kea, where we got to see Subaru (man, the Japanese build cool telescopes), Gemini north, and the sub-millimeter array. All very cool.

Anyway, hopefully I'll get around to developing my pictures (yes, I'm still analog) soon. But until then, look! Me with a dolphin!. (From Sea World San Diego, courtesy of my dad)

The pen is mightier than the telescope

I came across a fun little paper on astro-ph today, that discusses some of the implications of using historical documents to study nearby supernova from the last few thousand years. Every one hundred years or so, in each galaxy, you get about one supernova. In our case, sadly, since we live in the dusty disk of our galaxy, it's expected that we can't actually see a lot of these, and the last observed galactic supernova was over four hundred years ago. There was a nice supernova in a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way in 1987 (creatively named SN 1987A), but other than that we have to look pretty far off to see these objects. Getting data on supernovae that take place closer to us is pretty interesting, and the best bet there seems to be to rely on what information past astronomers managed to write down.

In particular, the four-page paper considers the many historical accounts of a supernova that was observed around 1054, which was the exploding star that produced the Crab Pulsar, a neutron star about the mass of our sun but only about as large as your typical city, which rotates 30 times every second. I was kind of interested in the ways 1000-year-old data were combined with the latest observations to really get a full pictures of these objects, plus it's fun to reflect on the fact that there are some astronomical data reduction techniques that require a calibration for the internal politics of the Chinese court.

Ou est les planetes?

And back from France (though it took me almost a week to blog about it), with a brief respite before I go traveling again (later this week, to Pasadena, San Diego, and Hawaii). The conference went well, and the location was very beautiful. The theme of the conference was the science and techniques of directly imaging extrasolar planets, which, which I find that extremely interesting, is probably insanely boring to most people, so I'll spare you the details, unless you really want to know.Collapse )

Just like a kidney stone, only more painful

I passed the prelim. A week after all us third-years took the two day, four-hours-a-day test on all of astronomy (well, most of astronomy..."stars" and "galaxies" were conspicuously absent on the test), we get a nondescript email telling us we'd all passed. I can't tell you how much of a relief that is.

Now all I have left is to take my oral prelim this december, where I present a paper I've written (ie, the AB Dor conference proceeding), talk about it for half an hour, then field general questions for a couple hours from a few faculty members about areas of astronomy covered by the paper. Sadly, said paper covers a lot of astronomy, so most of November will involve me hitting the books again.

As for now, I go to France at the end of the week, meaning I have to put together a presentation on some of the other work I've been doing the last couple of years. I think around Christmas, I'll be able to finally rest a little. Maybe.

Escape from the et al. jungle

It's a couple years overdue, but at long last I've put out a first-author paper. I almost feel like a real astronomer. Sure, it's a conference proceeding, but it still counts as "Nielsen et al. 2005," which is good enough for me. Just minutes ago it appeared on the recent abstracts page of astro-ph, sitting there waiting for attention. Ah, 0509400, my new favorite number.

Other than that, I'm less than a week away from my written prelim, 8 hours of tests taken over two days, testing me on my knowledge of all of astronomy. I found out only recently that apparently "all of astronomy" covers a lot more than just "Knowing a thing or two about planets," so I'm in the expected panic mode trying to learn the rest. Still, once that's over, I should be able to relax a little more, and return to my normal, frequent posting schedule...you know, once a month or so. Maybe twice if I actually have something to say.

A post without images? Madness.

So, today's interstellar medium final was the last, meaning I've finished 12 of the 13 classes required for the astronomy Ph.D. It was really brutal, even for only two hours of test, but I felt I was pretty well-prepared for most of it, so hopefully I can walk away with a B in my classes, which is all I need. This means I can go into total research-mode, without all the classwork distracting me. That's a pretty nice feeling.

The rest of the year looks to be pretty hectic. This fall is the written prelim, a day-long test on everything I was supposed to have learned from the eight core classes I've taken. In other words, today's final, only multiplied by eight. Then sometime in December I do my oral prelim, where I present whatever research result I have from work I'll do this summer, and get grilled by a triumvirate of faculty for a couple hours. After that, it's smooth sailing until my thesis defense ('cause we all know researching and writing a thesis is such an easy thing). Add to that the conferences. I've already presented our results this year at the Aspen Winter Conference in Astrophysics (Aspen, CO). At the end of June I'll be giving a similar talk on AB Dor at the Ultra-low Mass Star Formation Workshop (Canary Islands). Then November is just plain crazy, when I go to the High Contrast Imaging Conference (Nice, France), the Michelson Fellow Symposium (Pasadena), and Protostars and Planets V (Hawaii).

Looking back, I got some more pictures developed. And since the last bunch were greeted with such fanfare, I figured I'd plug these, two. There are still more from our recent MMT runs, as well as a bunch from the afore-mentioned Aspen Conference.

Now, to catch up with my long-neglected anime collection...

May the Farce...etc

So my office is in the old telescope dome of Steward Observatory, the university's astronomy department. We have a long-running rivalry with the planetary science department, LPL. (See this pivotal review paper on the subject for more details)

At any rate, this is what greeted us as we came into work today (or in my case, in to take my ISM final).

I'll flatfield them later, I promise

Well, since we're starting to get good science results from the MMT, I figure it's only fair I start drawing attention to my badly-composed pictures of the place. Especially for those of you who prefer a couple pictures over many lines of verbosity.



That's me in front of the MMT enclosure; the whole building rotates around that circular platform as we track stars through the night. The shadow to my left is Laird taking the picture, and the mountain peak further to my left is Mt. Wrightson. The rest of the set mostly involve Laird giving a tour of the place to a new hire, and me tagging along with a camera. The first five were from a run last year, while numbers 6-29 were from our January run, where we didn't get a chance to do much beyond taking pictures. And to answer lonita's question, that purple thing hanging from the telescope in pictures 9,10, and 12 is the ARIES camera, a nifty infrared detector that has our SDI optics crammed into it. So run, don't walk (unless you're in a library, in which case you should walk carefully while keeping your voice down), over here to see the rest.