Roses are red, blue supergiants are blue

What is a blue supergiant? (Part I)

Typically people think of blue being cold, and red being hot. In reality, when it comes to turning the tap, astrophysics doesn’t apply; blue stars are actually hotter than red stars! Looking at the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. the light we can detect with our eyes) red and blue are at opposite ends of the scale. You can think of the colours of the rainbow, which are the colours you get when shining white light through a prism (thanks Newton).

Red light has a longer wavelength than blue light, which also means that it has a lower frequency than light in the blue. The higher the frequency the little packets of light have (called photons) the more energy they carry. So there we have it, stars in the sky that appear bluer are in fact hotter!

So what is a blue supergiant? They are the hottest stars in the universe: between 12,000 and 50,000 degrees Celsius (the Sun is around 6,000 °C). They are also phenomenally large. If you were to look up at the night sky in winter and see the constellation Orion, you would notice the brightest star Rigel, Orion’s left foot. Or looking towards Cygnus, the swan in the Milky Way, you would see his tail Deneb. With a radius of 140 million km, Deneb would engulf Mercury and Venus, and Earth would be a very different place indeed! (Earth is around 150 million km from the Sun.)

“Sirius was rising in the east;
And, slow ascending one by one,
The kindling constellations shone.
Begirt with many a blazing star,
Stood the great giant Algebar,
Orion, hunter of the beast!
His sword hung gleaming by his side,
And, on his arm, the lion’s hide
Scattered across the midnight air
The golden radiance of its hair
.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(‘Begirt’ and ‘Algebar’ are Arabic for Orion and Rigel)

Blue supergiants are short-lived, as they burn through the hydrogen in their core much more quickly than any other star. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Our Sun is a ripe old age of 4.6 billion years old (the universe is 13.7 billion years old, to put that into perspective). After another 5 billion years the hydrogen will run out. Yet a blue supergiant will die long before one billion years. In only a few million years all of the hydrogen will be fused into helium, and the elements beyond. The burning stops when it reaches iron, since fusing elements heavier than that would no longer be energy efficient. Soon after, the blue supergiant goes supernova, like SN 1987A. New stars are reborn out of the ashes (i.e. the dust and gas), and the cycle continues.

eso0728c_lowres

Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram (Credit: ESO)

To see how blue supergiants compare to all the other stars, we can look at the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram. It is a useful map that can show the lifecycles of many different kinds of stars in one single snapshot. The key components of the diagram are the temperature and luminosity (in other words brightness) of the star. You can see Rigel and Deneb right up at the top, which tells us that they are around a million times brighter than the Sun.

Blue supergiants and the distance ladder (Part II)

But what can we learn from blue supergiants? Astronomers want to work out accurate distances to objects (e.g. stars and galaxies) in the universe. The more accurately we know these distances, the better we can determine Hubble’s constant. This is the number that tells us how fast the universe is expanding, and we still can’t decide on a value. Hubble’s constant relates to the universe in more ways than one: we can work out when the universe came into existence; and how much dark matter and dark energy the universe is really made up of.

At the moment Hubble’s constant is somewhere between 67 and 73 km/s/Mpc (a Megaparsec is the same as 3.26 million light years). This means that at a distance of one Mpc (a bit further away than Andromeda – which can be seen with the naked eye), a galaxy would be travelling away from us at about 70 km/s.

The more accurately we know the distances to stars in our local environment, the better we can work out distances to objects even further away (as this video excellently explains). Standard candles, used to determine distance, tend to be either supernovae or a type of star called a Cepheid. But blue supergiants are perfectly capable of being used as a standard candle too. They are extremely bright, allowing us to observe them up to 10 Mpc away with the telescopes available to us now. By adding blue supergiants into the picture we have a new and independent way to determine distance to nearby galaxies. As we improve the distances to galaxies further away, we ultimately improve upon the value of Hubble’s constant.

But how do we work out the distance? Blue supergiants evolve very rapidly, and because of this their brightness and mass doesn’t really change over a short space of time. Rolf Kudritzki plotted the magnitude (i.e. brightness) and gravity (related to mass) of 24 blue supergiants in the Sculptor Galaxy. He found that a straight line can be fit to the data, showing a relation between brightness and mass. Since the Sculptor Galaxy is very close, we have a good idea of its distance already. Because of this, we can fix this relation and then apply it to blue supergiants in other galaxies to work out their distance. (I did this for my Master thesis, for which I worked out the distance to Barnard’s Galaxy – feel free to ask me questions!)

Currently, work is being done to improve upon this relation using the Large Magellanic Cloud, another nearby galaxy for which the distance is well known. This will improve the distance calculations made using blue supergiants in the future. Stars (especially the big ones) are the most fundamental objects in the universe; they process the elements needed to create life as we know it, and provide the radiation needed to sustain that life so that we may be sitting here today pondering about the meaning of it all.

 

Advertisements

Israel

These past few weeks my Facebook feed has been inundated with stories involving the ever escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyday there are yet more deaths, and the media happily reports the brutally of it all in whatever biased way they can. What the media repeatedly fails to present however, are those who are paving the way for peace. Those trying desperately to counteract the increasing violence by breaking down the walls of ignorance, whilst risking their lives in doing so. Now seems a better time than any to write about my visit to Israel and the West Bank this Summer most recently past…

I went to Israel on a Birthright trip. Statistically speaking, I am now one of 500,000 others who have participated in the programme since it began in 1999. I was with 30 or so other young, Jewish adults from the UK (i.e Northwest London) all called David, apart from Anna and Shoshanna, with whom I was sharing a room. We’d expected that everyone would be very Jewish, very conservative and very close-minded so we were pleasantly surprised to discover that most of us were in fact the complete opposite. Instead, we identified with being Jew-ish, liberal and open-minded. In fact, it wasn’t only me who thought that we would be brainwashed with rightwing Zionist politics and wooed by Israeli soldiers by coming this trip. It was nice when we realised that the organisers would not attempt to indoctrinate us as we had anticipated, and that none of us would be forced to fall in love with an Israeli soldier and live happily ever after. The trip was relatively neutral, and we were allowed to ask any questions we wanted, no matter how politically or culturally awkward.
Nature and the outdoors was the main focus, so we were always active and always sleep deprived. Never have I done so much in ten days, our activities would commence at 8am and finish at 10pm, often later.

Our journey began in the North, in the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Water hiking was the first activity (i.e. wading waist-deep along a tributary), a perfectly peaceful and relaxing beginning as we became acquainted with one another. Then we visited the Tel Chai college where we made cheese using only milk, lemon and salt accompanied with some local wine. This was followed by water rafting along the Jordan river, visiting the Lebanese border, and eating to our hearts content at the kibbutz in which we were staying that evening. The next 9 days were no less packed.
We stopped by Tzfat, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism. We visited a medical institute, Bar-Ilan, who do phenomenal work with improving the social welfare of the locals. One evening we had a lecture by a woman from the Israeli Intelligence. She explained the intricacies of the surrounding Arab countries and who hates who. It’s not as simple as Jews versus Muslims. There’s the Shias, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, and they all seem to hate each other too. Our exhaustion from the day’s activities didn’t help us in trying to get our heads around it all.

On the hottest days of the trip we were making our way South. The air conditioning on the bus broke down and the itinerary brought us to Masada and the Dead Sea. We climbed Masada at the break of dawn, the air so thick that the Sun looked like the Moon. We shared a special moment as we leant over the edge of the cliff face, simultaneously shrieking into the crevasse and hearing the most spectacular echo. We laughed in childlike awe, as if we had just heard for the first time.
The Dead Sea wasn’t as buoyant as I’d remembered. We were taken to a commercialised part, where they drowned our ears in club music, and replaced the mud with sand so as to reduce the tourist’s discomfort as much as possible. The mud was put into bags for sale, every consumer’s dream.
The nearby oasis Ein Gedi, on the other hand was amazing, we saw all sorts of animals, and had to painfully tear ourselves away from the refreshing pool and plummeting waterfall. The variety of scenery never ends, for we also walked through the Ein Avdat canyon, encapsulated by serene stillness.

In the South we stayed for a night with the Bedouins in the Negev desert. This was the highlight of my trip, the evening I had been waiting for. We rode camels into the sunset and I couldn’t help but imagine a scene from Star Wars. The food was by far the best we’d had, I couldn’t stop myself from eating more.
The Bedouins taught us that strangers may have up to three cups of coffee (no milk, no sugar) and that as a Bedouin you may have up to four wives. Woman can only have one husband, in order to know who the father is. I was surprised to learn that many of the Bedouins volunteer to join the Israeli army, for they have excellent tracking skills. Arabs do not face conscription like the other Israelis do, and in general they typically don’t volunteer.
We were near the Gaza Strip when the dust came, visiting an educational farm by the name of the Salad Trail. Being outside was like being in a sauna, every time we left the coach we couldn’t wait to return again to the air conditioned haven (once it had been fixed). Our tour guide at the farm was British, thrilled to have us because British Birthright groups are few and far between, and we could understand her references. For days we were enshrouded by dust, obscuring all of the views from the typical tourist lookouts for last few days of the trip. At the farm we learnt that Israel had invented drip irrigation, and we got to make pita with za’atar, try every variety of tomato (Israelis also invented cherry tomatoes), search for passion fruits in the maze and throw homing pigeons into the air.

Our stay in Tel Aviv involved relaxing on the beach, where we sang and played guitar in the sand and the particularly pale folk got hideously sunburnt. We were also fortunate enough to go to an awful, hideously overpriced bar. The music had started off well but it rapidly went so far down the drain there was no hope for redemption. Instead, we went to play on the swings in the neighbouring park and had our own party on the bus on the way back to the hotel.
Before arriving at the Independence Hall the following day, we met the Israeli soldiers would be joining us for half of the trip, telling us everything about what it’s like to be Israeli and be in the army. Men have to serve for three years, and women for two. We shared many memories with them, from boogying in the aisles of the bus to the times most sombre at the Holocaust Memorial.
At what was once Dizengoff’s house, there was more information than I could absorb. It made sense to start with Meir Dizengoff who moved to Jaffa in 1905, in what was then Ottoman Palestine. He had the vision of Altneuland in mind, a utopian novel written by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Many others also immigrating to Palestine at that time had a similar vision. Jews had been coming to Palestine some decades prior, and although most didn’t stay, those who did lived peacefully with the Arabs. Despite their often highly educated backgrounds, the Jews set to work in agriculture, often completely clueless, and with their communist ideals the kibbutz movement was born.
The Independence Hall, in which we were sitting, had been where Israel’s Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1948. Tension had been building between the Arabs and the Jews since the Balfour Declaration in 1917; as usual, the Brits were getting involved and screwing everything up. The very next day after the declaration had been signed and Ben-Gurion had announced independence, the War of Independence began with the neighbouring Arab states attacking from all directions. Thousands were killed, with thousands more in the wars to come: the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, not forgetting the First Intifada from 1987-1993 and the Second Intifada from 2000-2005. It seems that not a decade goes by without a war or something or other.

In Jerusalem we discovered all of the sights and sounds and smells of the market, and walked through the Roman aqueducts beneath the City of David in complete darkness. We held each others hands in a chain as we felt our way along the claustrophobic tunnels, singing as we trod carefully through the water.
Our time in Jerusalem was the most religious part of the trip. We visited the Western Wall twice, once during the daytime, and again for shabbat. By day it was hot and quiet, people praying, people weeping, but by night everyone was singing, jumping and dancing. The men and the women are segregated: the men sing more loudly and dance more energetically whilst the women are supposed to sing in a more subdued manner. Some of the women can be seen staring solemnly over the divide towards the men having all of the fun. Luckily for us, some of the women weren’t having any of it, and started to clap and raise their voices in defiance as they sang some of the more modern renditions, and began to dance as well. Suddenly a troop appeared and things became even more raucous. An older woman managed to get into the middle of the circle and stop us temporarily, complaining that this is not what we should be doing, and we should stick to the older traditions, but the soldiers ignored her and continued as they were.

We recovered on lost sleep during the rest of shabbat and tried to prepare ourselves mentally for visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Preparing oneself for such an experience is nigh impossible. We were guided by another Brit, who had recently made Aliyah a few years ago (moved to Israel). She relentlessly laid upon us the sufferings of the European Jews during the Holocaust. She emphasised how Hitler had been voted to power, and implored us to realise that the Nazis were human beings too, that somehow people can be capable of such horrific acts. We often hear of the statistics, 11 million deaths, a number unfathomable in its comprehension. We should remember that each and every single person had their own loves, their own passions, their own story to tell.
We saw pictures of the ghettos, Jews enclosed behind walls, yet I couldn’t help but think of the Palestinians enclosed in a barrier of their own. We listened to the tales of those who had to walk for days knee-deep in snow after the war was over, starving and freezing to death. We were told about those who had endangered their lives to help save the Jews, from Danish individuals to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, an entire village. By this point I could no longer hold back the tear that so earnestly wanted to make its passage down my right cheek. I wrote a poem about that tear. When the war was over, the survivors of the Holocaust had little to celebrate. Most of them had lost everyone and everything. They had no home to return to. Where could they go?
At the Holocaust Memorial I was asked to share the story of my brother Rotem. It was in 2004 when his possessions were lost in a fire whilst on holiday in Sinai. He was trying to get new documents when he was denied to use the bathroom where he was, and was told to use the hotel across the road. He never made it out again. Little did I know that I myself had once stayed in that very hotel, at the mere age of 8, until I was told by my sister a couple of months ago. I also can’t help but think of my grandparents, who fled from persecution in Iraq in the 40s, and then think of the refugees today.

The most harrowing experience for me was our visit to the Givat Haviva organisation. We were under the care of a Welsh woman, Lydia Aisenberg, who was surely decades younger than her age given her passion, spirit and energy. She also embraced us for being British, and revelled in being able to swear. We had two precious hours with her. We were inspired immediately. She told it like it is, leaving us thirsty for more, toes twitching wishing that we could do something to help.
She read us the poem of a girl named Bat-Chen, who was celebrating her birthday in Tel Aviv with her friends when a suicide bomber took their lives. One of the girls survived, because she jaywalked. We were brought to tears, weeping for the peace that she so eloquently described in her poetry, at the sincere age of 15. Lydia then took us to see the fence, which looked so plain and simple, decorated with a garnish of barbed wire. She showed us Barta’a, a town divided in two by the Green Line. Countless families have been separated as a result of this. The Palestinians waved at us as we drove past in our big tour coach, how could they wave so cheerfully?

Before I went to Israel I thought that in all I saw I would gain greater understanding and clarity, that everything would now make sense. The complete opposite is true. I spent most of my time feeling confused and conflicted, one of the reasons which drove me to visit Palestine so fervently. Perhaps there I would find my answers. I will try to write about my experience in the West Bank sooner rather than later.

Si va avanti

When I first arrived in Italy I wrote about how I’d missed chaos. I can now say that I have had enough chaos and that I am looking forward to all things orderly. Don’t get me wrong, Italy is a stunningly beautiful country, with cheap, fresh, delicious food and architecture that you can’t get enough of. A wonderful place to visit, but living here gets exhausting (i.e. due to crazy university paperwork bureaucracy). It’s too hot. The humidity is so high that it feels like 40°C and we are rendered incapacitated. All of the time. Never have I wanted the North Sea so much.

Living in Italy does make you popular however. I’ve had at least 6 friends come to visit, as well as my mum, in these past few months. I’ve visited Venice and the beautiful islands of Murano and Burano where the houses are painted like Balamory, and they make garish glass objects that people seem to go crazy for. I saw Trento and it’s Science Museum, where I got to pretend to be a gravitational wave, and I ate pasta in Bologna and was disappointed. (Bologna also has a lot of beautiful construction work on offer right now.)

I saw the opera, Aida, in the Arena in Verona. An unannounced storm drenched everyone who had arrived early, eager for the best seats. The show started an hour late, after the rain finally stopped and an army branded with kitchen towel mopped everything up. We sat shivering to the bone for the next 3 hours in our fancy attire as dancers and singers appeared in ever increasingly elaborate costumes. The set was also immense, and must have cost an absolute fortune. The girl who played Aida was a phenomenal singer, able to reach every high note both quietly and with such clarity, whilst still managing to fill the arena. In the distance the storm raged on, lightening flashes enticed our eyes away from the opera, demanding attention. And the moon, oh the moon so bright and brilliant as it appeared from behind the clouds whenever it so desired. Afterwards, we found a restaurant for warmth and food until closing time, then sat drinking wine by the river until the first train came to return us to home and to sleep.

I also visited Rome, but it is not the place for me. It is an outrageously big city with buses that never come, or when they do they don’t go anywhere useful. Said buses are also filled with men who like to grope women. I don’t know if I just have bad luck, but it happened to me three times. Some men try and do it more discreetly than others, but we can still tell what you are doing as you shift your crotch further and further into my personal space thinking we won’t notice. We are not stupid. It’s an utterly awful, helpless feeling, because no matter how much you thought you were a strong woman who could simply yell and curse and push such a person away, when the moment comes you’re not who you thought you would be. Instead you just stand there and take it, waiting, hoping, pleading for it to be over, for it to go away. The fact that you couldn’t stand up for yourself makes you feel even worse. I was lucky in that I had friends with me, who realised what was going on and switched places with me. I don’t want to imagine the scenario in which they weren’t there. Groping aside, at least I got to go inside the Colosseum for free.

The AstroMundus retreat was hosted by the Gran Sasso Science Institute this year. We stayed in the town of L’Aquila, known for the earthquake of 2009. We met the students from the year above us, who presented their research and gave us advice for our futures. We discussed with potential supervisors about potential projects for our thesis. Dinner consisted of red wine, a starter, 2 main courses (the first is pasta, the second, meat), then dessert. We couldn’t breathe. All in all our days started at 8am and finished at 10pm; we had lectures and a tour of the Gran Sasso lab, deep in the mountain. It was cold, and we were unprepared. There are several experiments going on, mostly trying to find evidence of Dark Matter. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if we never find it, what if it doesn’t even exist? Or at least in the way that we think it might… We hiked up to the top of Gran Sasso, all the more rewarding after a very late night and basically no sleep. A captivating view, even more so with the accompanying cool breeze.

My favourite place in Italy is Bassano del Grappa. Yes, it’s where grappa comes from, although I don’t go there to drink grappa. Instead they have a drink called mezzo e mezzo (half and half), which I simply cannot get enough of. It’s their equivalent of aperol spritz in Padova, or campari spritz in Venice, but with rhubarb! Maybe I love Bassano so much because of the mountains, so close in the distance. The river, still retaining some of the vivid teal colour it had back in Innsbruck. The best of Austria (nature) and the best of Italy (food and architecture) combined.

The following is somewhat a rant about exams, so you’ll probably want to stop reading now.

The hardest thing to adjust to has been the style of education, it’s like nothing I have ever encountered. We haven’t had any tutorials, no homework problems, and my poor calculator is feeling very lonely. I can’t remember how to differentiate or integrate. Instead we learn all of the theory. We learn and we learn and we learn, every little detail, off by heart, and then we regurgitate. I failed my first exam. And then I failed my second one too. I began to wonder if I’d ever pass an exam again.

Then help came to the rescue! Help was offered and I accepted with the uttermost gratitude. My friend coached me for hours and hours, before each exam. I got full marks. I almost burst into tears in front of the lecturer when she told me, so she offered me a lower grade out of concern. I kindly accepted the former. The next few exams I also passed, things were looking up. Not that grades really account for much, I feel like the grades are based entirely on intuition, there’s no marking scheme.

For the first time in my life I’ve had oral exams, I had no idea what to expect, and I still don’t because every exam has been so different. Often we give the exam in front of the whole class. The worst part is being in the audience, when you know the answer, and all you want to do is scream it out, while you watch the person suffering and stumbling and struggling through the one of the worst halves of an hour of their lives.

One exam, by the name of Galaxy Dynamics, will probably go down as being the hardest exam in history. I took the exam four times until I eventually passed. And by the fourth time I really knew everything there was to know, from Euler’s equation to violent relaxation to Clausius’ virial, all derivations included. And yet he still always managed to ask me what I didn’t know, in some cruel twist of fate. But I scraped a pass and was happy to have it done with. Hopefully my last two exams won’t be as bad.

So what can I take from all of this? A lot. AstroMundus teaches us to be resilient, adaptable, forgiving, and many other adjectives. But that doesn’t stop me from counting down the days for exams to be over – forever – so that I can finally do some research.

Women in Physics

Last weekend was overwhelmingly inspirational. I attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) which was held in my hometown, Oxford. Not only was I dealing with how surreal it was being back in the city I was born and raised, a long 8 years since I departed, but little did I remember how utterly beautiful it is there. It was the perfect setting for such a conference, the first of its kind in the UK, and possibly even Europe.

Before arriving I was in fact a little skeptical – a women only conference – will it be filled with self-righteous, narrow-minded, claw-grabbing individuals who are condescending, only hoping to network and get ahead in their careers? I could not have been more wrong. Actually, how could I ever have even thought these thoughts in the first place? Instead I met women from all over the world, studying at institutions from all across the UK (myself being the exception). Women who were shy, women who were mature students with children, women who had no idea what to do with their lives… One woman is a science fiction writer, she enrolled with the Open University immediately after a male writer had told her that women can’t write scifi because they’re not interested in science. All in all we all had one resounding thing in common: every woman wanted to help each other, bonding over breakfast, humbly sharing experiences of our lives, and becoming fully saturated in enthusiasm; and it was terribly infectious.

Just shy of 100 students attending, we all participated in panels, workshops, and lectures together. The opening lecture enlightened us with the knowledge that both men and women are biased against women. The majority of students had never heard of this study before, where two identical C.V.s were sent to employers; one C.V. had the name John, the other Jennifer. John was considered to be more competent and hireable, and was offered a higher salary, despite being exactly the same as Jennifer. Everyone was both shocked and appalled, and led to reflect on whether or not we also suffer from the same bias, why it exists in the first place, and what we can do to change it. We were also given the information that only 20% of pupils taking Physics at A-Level are girls, less than the U.S. equivalent! Inevitably these figures get worse the further you progress through academia. It was even more astounding to meet students who are one of only two or three females in a lecture of one hundred or so males. I had never considered how fortunate I was to attend a university where the ratio is almost even.

After this striking introduction, we meandered outside to observe the solar eclipse. It was already fully underway, a good sized chunk of the Sun obscured by the Moon, and unfortunately somewhat by the clouds as well. Luckily the clouds weren’t too thick, and we were able to see enough, basking in this glorious and rare moment. We were quickly whisked away in coaches to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), practically a town in itself, comprised of particle accelerators, extremely high-class lasers, and thousands of people excited about science. Before getting to the knitty-gritty details of what goes on at RAL, we were presented with a careers panel, and a fascinating collection of women from all walks of life. The resounding message from them all was to not give into pressure, if you want to do something that is different and unusual, then do it. It doesn’t matter if women aren’t supposed to go into this or that field, or if you are supposed to study and excel from the youngest age possible. Following quirky and unexpected paths that interest you and spark your imagination can only add to your wholeness!

One of the woman on the panel had gotten a 2:2 from Oxford, and had felt impending doom as her life was seemingly collapsing around her, but work experience and hard work landed her a job at RAL and later the opportunity to do a PhD. This led to a student summoning the courage to ask about imposter syndrome and what can be done to alleviate it. The panel were resoundingly supportive, jumping in to tell us that they had all at some point suffered in its symptoms. For example, one can feel like an imposter, incapable, that there must have been a mistake, that they’re never good enough and are undeserving of all achievements, despite a huge amount of evidence which says otherwise. By the end of the morning we were so moved and touched by everyone’s positivity and willingness to share, one student felt it necessary to tell us just how inspired she felt; thanks had to be made known. My eyes welled up and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.

As the weekend progressed we inevitably strengthened our bonds, a deep-rooted connection instilled from the onset. Imposter syndrome repeatedly came up throughout the conference, every lecturer told us about their failures, and how they overcame the endless challenges they had faced within science, from wanting to study something unconventional, within a male dominated field, or wanting to work/research and have a family simultaneously (heaven forfend!). Dame Jocelyn Bell failed the 11+ exam and struggled for decades as a result. She was the only female student in her Undergraduate Physics degree at Glasgow, and every single day the boys would thunder down upon the desks and goad her. In her words, she become an expert in not blushing. She had no friends to study with and whenever she came top of the class her peers only became more scornful and aggressive. We listened in complete admiration, to the woman who had discovered pulsars but whose supervisor was given the Noble Prize for a woman couldn’t have possibly received such an honour. It’s funny how hearing about the failures of other prolific scientists can really inspire you… Thankfully, things are somewhat better today, and we were comforted with the knowledge that we can actually do this, one just needs to not be afraid to ask for help when they require it. There are many people out there eager to support in whatever way they can.

On the Physics side of things, I had never actually been all that interested in lasers, medical physics, or particle physics before, but exploring RAL and listening to an endless array of fascinating talks ensured that I could never see those topics as boring again. In particular, I couldn’t get over one particular discovery, that there is a field called Laboratory Astrophysics which involves simulating supernova with the use of lasers! I am still in awe just thinking about it.

I have been humbled by everyone I have met, constantly increasing in admiration and awe of those around me, and I cannot wait for the positive changes that are to come. I loved seeing everyone’s self-doubts shatter around me, replaced by this glowing, contagious excitement and thirst for knowledge. A passion for science was reignited where it had been lost, with many students now determined in doing a PhD where imposter syndrome had been holding them back. If before we had ever felt intimidated by PhD students, postdocs, professors etc. all traces of inadequacies were extinguished. If anyone had thought that a 3 day conference couldn’t achieve anything or change anyone’s lives, they were proved wrong. Instead, many new doors have been opened, women have grown and flourished, friendships were fostered, and I have no doubts that we will all go on to accomplish something incredible. Eternal thanks to all of the organisers and volunteers who made this happen.

In the words of Dame Jocelyn Bell, “Just go for it! Don’t think!”

Toscana

With two weeks to go before the start of lectures, I had the perfect opportunity to explore Italy! I perused the new trustroots.org site to see what interesting people and places I could find, and what a treasure I found! A remote little village by the name of Trassilico, located in the Apuan Alps. To get there I found a car share from Venice to Lucca (a rather peculiar city entirely enclosed by a great big wall), took the train north to Gallicano for an hour. Next was a drive along the winding route up and up and up to the mountain tops for another half hour, swaying from side to side, the view increasing in spectacularity. In close proximity were even greater mountains, capped with snow. Sound familiar? And little did I know that the couple I was staying with had only moved to this haven at the beginning of the year, from Innsbruck! It was almost as if I was still in Austria, hearing German again and minding my steps in the snow and ice. Not only that, but by night I could see the lights of Barga, a not so far away town, “the most Scottish town in Italy”.

Trassilico is incredibly peaceful, with alleys too small for cars to drive down, and houses hobbled on top of each other. 1000 or more people used to live there, but now only 70 or so remain, the young leaving the old behind, and a lot of empty and ruined homes which are possibly owned by your uncle’s cousin’s neighbour’s nephew. For some, the perfect opportunity to buy a piece of land and a house, and live the sustainable dream. There was a tranquility about Trassilico, sitting up high ever so still and peaceful, especially at the summit where the fortress lies. Dramatic sunrises and sunsets are the norm in Tuscany, pink and velvet, red and velour, and at the right time of year the sun sets through a perfect hole carved into of one of the mountains. Taking a shower involved looking over terracotta tiles and mountaintops. I didn’t have any idea of the time, most of the time. I simply slept, helped with errands like log piling and gardening, went for walks and read. I finished Amanda Palmer’s book, The Act of Asking, and I want to give and love and hug everyone. (Would anyone like to Ask me for it?) I learnt so much from my very generous hosts, especially in knowledge, from thoughts on GM crops to making art out of money. In the past they had created rather striking artwork with a variety of different valued notes, and watched the people all stare and gather around their work, simply because people are drawn to money, whether they like it or not. On another occasion they gave out doodled and cut up €5 notes in return for €3 entry. They inevitably made a loss. They didn’t mind.

South to Batignano was the next port of call. Getting there involved a 2 hour hike down a mountain bike route, uncertain if I was going the right way but presuming that as long as I kept going downwards I’d eventually end up somewhere. Technically I suppose I didn’t, because all that I found was two dead ends, daunting private signs and weird industrial looking plants next to a river. I scrambled my way up a hill and came to a main road, and a lucky guess led me to Gallicano and the train station beyond. I reached Grosseto a few hours later, via a change in Pisa, unfortunately not long enough for me to hunt down the tower that leans. Knowing that the bus to Batignano leaves a few minutes after the train arrives I quickly figured out how to use the ticket machine and jumped onto the bus, rather impressed with myself. But suddenly a familiar face appeared and it took me more than a moment to realise it was my friend! I shouldn’t have gotten on the bus at all, but I had no internet all day to check my email. We dashed off to arrive in another stunning setting, this time a home that had originally been a convent. The Sun had just set and I had foolishly assumed that the brightest object in the sky must be Jupiter. I was immediately corrected, for it was Venus, with the distinctly red Mars directly above. Yet Jupiter was in fact up there, behind me, with Saturn too. Four planets at once, seen all with the naked eye! Never have I seen such a thing.

The following week was filled with eating beautiful food, drinking an unlimited supply of wine and helping with things like weeding, olive tree pruning, and mending a torn up quilt. By day the convent revealed itself to me in a completely new light. My friend is apprentice to a sculptor, thus pieces of stone are found dotted around the place in every form, from rough and ginormous to chiselled and fine. More dramatic sunsets. I found myself standing by the window one evening for about half an hour, unable to avert my gaze. The heavens just wouldn’t stop giving. I cut my hair, all but one dread, and I still can’t stop running my fingers across my scalp. In fact, nobody even noticed that I had done such a thing, until I couldn’t take it more and finally announced at lunch time, “has nobody noticed that I cut my dreads!?!” The winds came, la tramontana, greeting us all the way from Serbia. As the winds crescendoed I did more sewing and as they diminuendoed I did more weeding. The conversation was nothing less than stimulating; we discussed evolution, psychology, Buddhism, the history of the convent (involving Napoleon and potentially Galileo)… all in great depth. There wasn’t a topic that one of us knew nothing about.

Auf Wiedersehen

I seem to not have the greatest track record for actually performing in choir concerts. I can go to rehearsals no problem, but as soon as the day of the concert arrives I either come down with a plague, almost fainting mid-performance, or sprain my ankle the night before the ball. Here’s hoping to having better luck in Padova.

Yes, as of two days ago I have now moved to Padova, my second destination of the AstroMundus programme. I am already madly in love with Italy, never having been here before (Südtirol doesn’t count). I could immediately sense the chaos in the air, something which Austria certainly lacks, and I hadn’t realised I’d missed. Cars speeding down cobbled streets, swerving around corners whether or not a Homo sapien might be trying to get to the other side. The little alleyways, set up in a confusing maze like structure, vintage lamps and cobbles distinctly remind me of Oxford and make me feel strangely at home. There was a mixup concerning when I was supposed to be arriving at my new abode, so no one was expecting me when I turned up on the doorstep, luckily someone was in! I’ve instantaneously fallen in love with my new housemates, who are eager to learn and practice their English, and happy to teach me Italian in return. They have no problem with having random guests appear (hint hint wink wink) and they are creative, love music, love food, and of course Italian coffee. They also organise a festival every year, taking place in May. I feel like I have struck gold!

Since it is currently Carnival, it seemed only probable to go to Venice and explore. As I had been warned, if you go to Venice during Carnival, you are not going to see Venice, but you are going to see a hell of a lot of people. Never have I seen so many: traffic jams and bottlenecks of tourists as they tried to cram across bridges, slowing down to take selfies – with their newly bought selfie sticks – of yet another canal. The masks make people seem strangely lifeless, devoid of emotion, some dressed in garishly gold polyester capes, others covered head to toe in red velvet and jewels, and everything in between. Gondolas with men in black and white striped shirts and an occasional extra singing with an accompanying accordionist. Occasionally I’d happen upon a square, whilst meandering aimlessly without a map, containing vastly intricate structures that are ever so aesthetically pleasing. I cannot wait to return on a day when there are less people, preferably coinciding on a day when the sun successfully manages to appear from behind the clouds.

My goodbye to Innsbruck was to go sledding. I always thought that sledding involved getting a bin bag, or a plastic tray, and going up and down a little hill multiple times. But oh no, us Brits have been doing it oh so wrong all along. The proper way to do it is to hike up a mountain for about 2 and a half hours, whilst trying to defend oneself from snowball attacks from friends. Such a hike concludes in collapsing at the top of the magnificent mountain, surrounded my more peaks all around, where there is a guesthouse providing an assortment of knödels and beer. When satisfied, one has a choice of two options. Either walk down, or rent a toboggan sledding all the way down the mountain, crashing ever so dramatically and getting snow in every nook and cranny. Presumably one does the latter. It’s kind of like a real life mario cart. All in all a phenomenal experience, and as well as feeling somewhat initiated into the Alpine culture, I simultaneously felt like I had permission to leave.

In between Krampus and Carnival I went to London for an Astronomy Camp reunion; went home to Hawick for my birthday and Christmas for which I brought back a gift of stollen with me, which actually turned out to be the worst, driest stollen ever, having spent an hour trying to find it, paying for it with an arm and a leg, however it did make great French toast, I suppose they call it “lost bread” for a reason; experienced New Year in the Basque Country, Spain, with friends; unexpectedly met a friend of my Grandmothers on my dormitory doorstep, whom she met around 60 years ago(!); celebrated Ukrainian Christmas; saw Don Quixote in German at the Landestheater; went bowling then dancing in a gay club; went Swing Dancing; had unexpected coffees with friends from Vienna; went for snowy walks along the river; became obsessed with the Green Party; saw Birdman; and studied for endless exams whilst procrastinating by trying to compile the most comprehensive list of astronomical opportunities ever…

The Basque Country deserves a paragraph (or several) of its own. Vitoria is the capital, in which I stayed, where we went on a fantastic tour of the Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, unlike any other tour I have ever come across. We had to don hard hats (it is currently under renovation) as we explored underground and over. The tour began with a video explaining some of the history, with heavy metal music playing in the background (an inherent part of their culture). We also visited the card museum, i.e. playing cards, which was surprisingly fascinating! Particularly the British cards depicting countries from all over the world with quintessential British comments from centuries of old.
What sticks most in my mind is the avalanche of food, every seafood you could ever imagine, from squid cooked in its own ink to octopus and eel. We also ate our way through an entire kid (no, not a child, a baby goat). It was all incredibly tasty, and I felt like I had pretty much acquired a permanent food baby. At New Year there is a tradition to invite a homeless man for dinner, we first met him at a bar before the festivities began, and were warned that we should make sure the doors were all closed in the apartment, just to be on the safe side. He had a suitcase wrapped in bin liners and scraggly stubble. We were very confused when my friends Aunt started flirting with him, saying that he had nice eyes, making him blush. A few more glasses of wine and she kissed him! We were astonished! Apparently the look on our faces was priceless, for it turned out that they were actually married and had planned the entire event just to fool us. The Spanish (sorry, Basque) are crazy, and I love them all! Another tradition involves eating 12 grapes, one grape for each dong of the bell leading up to midnight. It’s much harder than it sounds, I almost gagged, but I managed! Afterwards we experienced everything from cheesy pop clubs to heavy metal pubs until 6am, enjoying it all immensely.
We also went on an excursion to San Sebastian by the sea, reminding me of St Andrews. We went up the funicular, enjoyed the views and went back down again in search of pintxos, the equivalent of Spanish tapas. We also dressed up in traditional Basque clothing and took silly photos! For our final farewell to the Basque Country – and because we clearly hadn’t eaten enough yet – we went to a cidery where we could have died and went to heaven. Pâté, omelette, steak (oh my goodness the best steak I’ve ever eaten, covered in salt flakes!), crème brûlée, cheese, wine, cider cider cider…

Traditions of the Tirol

The Austrians really know how to make Christmas beautiful. Humongous evergreen trees are dotted about the city, decorated in warm glowing ambers, like the rest of the city. No garish colours whatsoever, like the British would tend to go for. The Christmas market never ends, selling everything from gingerbread to pony rides. On every corner one can buy Glühwein (i.e. mulled wine), in all kinds and varieties, in cute little Innsbruck mugs offered in more colours than the rainbow. I have yet to buy any stollen, for fear of inevitably drowning in an abyss of delightful marzipan addiction.

The weather has still been rather pathetic, occasionally the mountain tops get blanketed with a thick white mass which creeps ever so slowly down the mountainside but never quite reaches us in the valley. The cloud clears to reveal beautiful snowcapped peaks, which only last a matter of days until the temperature rises again. The Austrians are feeling rather dismayed that they cannot go skiing yet.

When I haven’t been studying I’ve been going to the cinema, or enjoying a coffee in Die Bäckerei (The Bakery) and writing postcards. This is my favourite place in the city, a community space which puts on gigs, yoga, meditation, bike mending workshops, poetry slams, literally anything that you can think of. Every city should have a place like this. I even saw a band from Huddersfield perform there. The nightlife isn’t as great as people say it is, I miss cheesy clubs which play 90s tunes! But there are lots of fantastically quirky live bands instead which makes up for it.

I also managed to escape one day to go to the Achensee, a scenic lake which almost reaches Germany. I decided that I would go swimming and the only other person who had the guts to join me was a girl from Ukraine. It was very cold, but that didn’t stop us from going in three times on a cold November day! We hiked around afterwards to warm up, and enjoyed the stark contrasts of the golden hues against the shadows upon the mountains as the sun set.

So far, there have been two main events in the Tirolean calendar: Törggelen and Krampusnacht. The former is an event which involves copious amounts of home-grown wine and equal measures of food and chestnuts. The Astro department all got onto a coach and drove south, to Südtirol (technically Italy). My first time in Italy and unfortunately it was completely dark. But I suppose that wasn’t the purpose of our visit: we ate, and we ate, and we ate some more. I opted for the vegetarian dishes, delicious Knödel for starters, and a block of cheese for the main! Luckily there were also some potatoes, sauerkraut and beef to steal from the meat eaters. Utterly moreish desert; deep fried batter stuffed with jam and dusted with icing sugar. Meanwhile, we drank, and we drank, and we drank some more. Then we clambered back onto the bus and made our way home.

Krampusnacht occurs on the 5th of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day. Krampus is a beast/devil/demon creature adorned with horns and cow bells, existing to frighten children who have been bad, whipping them with branches and covering them in black soot/paint/tar/I-have-no-idea-what. Krampus is terrifying. And for some reason we thought it would be a good idea to go back to Südtirol to experience the whole thing properly. We went to a picturesque, quaint little town called Sterzing, this time before it got dark. The first time we saw a Krampus, we heard the children screaming first. A mass of little people came running at us, away from the Krampusse who were chasing them. Inevitably we started screaming and running too, unable to stop our hearts from being pumped with adrenaline! We soon found our way to the town centre, cobbled streets galore. And the same warm glowing amber lights adorned on every tree and every surface. One’s eye can’t fail to notice a great big tower, known as the Zwölferturm, which divides the old from the new. Whilst waiting for the evening’s entertainment to begin, we wondered about the Christmas market, drinking Glühwein and eating doughnuts. The atmosphere kept building as Krampusse kept appearing and attacking people who had let their guard down for only a moment. At one point they all turned up in a Krampusmobile, horns squawking! It is indeed great fun to feel like a child again; exhilarating to suddenly be attacked by a demon who plasters black grime all over your face when you weren’t looking. It happened to me. I got Krampused. I screamed like an annoying teenage girl, but it was worth every moment.

Eventually people started gathering on the main path, near the tower. We waited for what felt like forever, as people kept channeling through in both directions, leaving us with no clue as to where we were supposed to be. Occasionally we caught glimpses of a Krampus in the window of the tower, and the tension grew and grew. Suddenly the Krampus climbed out of the window, donning a pair of great big black wings. Surely he wasn’t going to climb down the tower? He was facing the wrong direction to abseil! Well, that obviously doesn’t matter for Krampusse, for he started walking down the tower, forwards. Meanwhile flares were going off in the distance behind us, and we were getting more and more crammed together. Some people had managed to escape the wrath of the black paint, but most had not. Something was coming towards us, slowly down the street, lighting up the surrounding buildings in a dark, bloody red. There would be no barriers between us, and whatever was coming. Fireworks were being set off from the window of the tower as Krampus continued to walk down perpendicularly. Health and safety definitely does not exist in this part of the world. More Krampusse appeared, pushing us back to make way, beating people with sticks and yelling in their faces. There were also little kids dressed up as Krampusse, equally formidable. Out of the blue Father Christmas appeared, handing out sweets, and a guy with a donkey. Then “it” was here! Lots and lots of Krampusmobiles. Some had trees attached onto them, decorated in red. Another had a Krampus stood hitting an anvil with a hammer. There were fires blazing on most of the rusty vehicles, but scariest of all was a great big cage filled with women and children, crying and screaming and being rocked from side to side by a Krampus. At one point the cage had gained enough momentum that it stopped in midair and we thought that it was going to fall on top of us!