Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday 30 June 2012

How I Became Louis Theroux and Wished I Hadn't (Part II)

They're not wrong. Immediately following the Socorro trip (read this first if you haven't already), I went directly to Anchorage, de facto captial of the great state of Alaska, or at least tried to. What actually happened was that I got stuck circling Dallas before the plane was finally diverted to Austin, owing to a storm. It then sat there for about an hour before flying back to Dallas, by which point, again, all of the flights to my next destination were not running.

Quick ! Someone call Bill Murray !

Here it gets slightly worse than before, because this time I was sent to Seattle to await an early morning flight. The flight arrived at 2am with the next one leaving at 5:30, so I had to hang around in the airport drinking strong, revolting coffee. And, since for no good reason I'd gotten very little sleep the night before, I reckon I spent about 48 hours awake.



Eventually I stumbled off the plane having no more than a few brief, mild flirtations with unconsciousness and miraculously arrived at my hotel. Of course, my luggage didn't. So after about 5 hours of glorious unawareness, I made a sojourn of Anchorage wearing only the shorts and T-shirt I arrived in. At 14 C, the weather was a tad brisk for shorts, especially considering the 20 degree difference with Socorro. Mercifully my luggage arrived intact and unharmed a few hours later.

I then proceeded to find a random bar to drink in, whereupon I at once resumed my unwilling role of imitating Louis Theroux. This time the guy was neither particularly crazy nor gay (but don't worry, dear readers, much more of them to come). He just decided for no particular reason to recommend me the best strip clubs in town. Which I think I could be bloomin' well forgiven for visiting given the previous week's escapades, but I didn't.

You may think the above an unremarkable tale. Just you wait.

The next day I explored Anchorage properly attired. Personally, I really like the place. Anywhere where you can see snow-covered mountains in June is a good place in my book. And compared to Arecibo it's a cultural mecca. You can walk to places. You can catch a bus. Heck, you can buy a life-sized model of a bear, although if you do you'd better really like bears, 'cos they cost $5,000.

There being a full two days before the AAS started, I booked some tours and visited the museum. It's pretty good, but Alaskan history is somewhat... uncomplicated by European standards. From what I learned, it was a two-stage process :
1) The Russians found it
2) The Americans bought it off them
You can see why there's not a lot of material for a museum to work with. As for the native tribes, as far as I can tell all they've done is quietly mind their own business for ten thousand years, which is wonderful but not exactly material for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Actually, I do have one idea for exhibits. Republicans. The state is full of them. You could put them in a display case with a button that offers them a beer if they'll say something right-wing. I met a bona fide, died-in-the-wool Republican in a bar that night, the kind that says things like, "I'm not a birther, but I don't think Obama was born in this country." Riiiight. He wasn't a racist as far as I could tell, just reeeeally anti-socialist. As in, the kind who feels the need to state entirely randomly : "Obama's a COMMUNIST !" (yes, he literally did that). Perhaps more surprisingly, he was also firmly against W's war's in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I actually saw this stuck to the back of a car.
Having nothing better do that evening, I threw myself into the role and pointed out that America is only 200 years old, so why does it matter where Obama was born ? His defence was the Constitution, though no-one trusts medical textbooks from 200 years ago so I'm not sure why old political documents are held in such high esteem. So I asked him if someone who has become an American citizen later in life has any more claim to be American than one by birth, to which he didn't really have an answer.

That brings me to the tours. Surprisingly, this is firmly in-keeping with the mad Republican theme. The first tour was a day cruise to see 26 glaciers, which was spectacular but I suspect readers will care far more about the second day. This involved a tram ride up Mt Alyeska, a short boat trip where we smashed through ice to try to reach Portage glacier, and a trip to a wildlife refuge. Our tour guide for the day was Sarah Palin's older sister.

No, it wasn't a different Sarah Palin. Yes, it really was her older sister, I looked her up on the internet afterwards. Regardless of whether Sarah Palin is truly as insane as the creature portrayed in media myth, her older sister is outright lovely, and a damn fine tour guide too. I'd recommend her, but I'm sure she'd rather get on with her job and doesn't want to be defined by being someone else's relative. I only found out about this rather remarkable genealogy as the discussion came around to the fact that you really can see parts of Russia from parts of Alaska :

ME : "So, Sarah Palin wasn't lying then ?"
GUIDE : "No she wasn't, and she's my younger sister. But she never actually said that..."

I then kept very quiet indeed for the next 30 minutes.

She then proceeded to complain about the famous Tina Fey impersonation and the whole media coverage of Sarah Palin, which is perfectly understandable given that it's her sister. To her huge credit, this small incident didn't affect the rest of the day at all. Wonderful lady.

Thence we arrive at the conference, which as conferences go was not all that great. However, the now established process of meeting weirdos in bars was about to reach its zenith, veering from the politically insane to the downright baffling with a man now known forever as Fractal Metaphors Guy.

Sadly, this man was not related in any way to Benoit B. Mandelbrot.
We had chosen to eat in a bar called Humpy's, which should have sounded alarm bells by itself. Alas, it didn't. This random guy approaches us and makes evident his lifelong desire to talk to astronomers, having also an ability to smell them out. I have only blurred memories of the evening, although a few choice phrases are burned indelibly into my brain :

"I don't believe in statistics. I mean, if something's already happened, then the chance it would happen must have been One Hundred Per Cent, right ?"
Yes, actually, he did pronounce the capital letters, somehow. And I pointed out that you can't predict the probability of something having already happened if you already know full well that it did, but this didn't seem to perturb him in any way.

".... fractal metaphors."
I deeply regret not remembering the context of this phrase. Their followed a discussion wherein we tried to understand what the hell it meant. Sadly, all we came up with is : ' a self-similar comparison that doesn't use 'like' or 'as'. '

"One day, you're gonna be soliloquising your wife's clitoris."
This was addressed directly at me while slapping me heartily on the back, a grim portent of the following evening. I guess he had apparently mistaken me for Al Swearengen, which is not an easy mistake to make. He knew an awful lot of long words, but didn't have much of a clue as to what most of them meant.

The next evening, annoyingly, the timeloop in which I had become entombed continued unabated. At every AAS there's a big unofficial party to which everyone (including the upper echelons, such as the AAS President) attends. For some reason, they're usually held in gay bars. Ah. One can see why this might cause me problems, though at the time I put down the previous week's incident to being no more than a surreal fluke.

Not so. Apparently, I'm an irresistible gay magnet. Not long after entering, despite talking to a girl at the time, two men in their 40's approach and use the old classic chat-up line of, "You are so HOT !". One of them  proceeds to try the other classic approach of the arm-around-the-shoulder technique, which proceeds for a few deeply disturbing moments into something approaching a back rub.

"How many drinks have you had ? TWO ?!? Ah, no wonder you're still straight."

With this declaration they left me alone with said girl, which, of course, resulted in a nothing, Which was still infinitely preferable to the alternative.

Two days later I went hiking on a 15,000 year old glacier, which was just about one of the best things I've ever done. And then I returned to Puerto Rico, via another 3 flights spread over 20 hours which I fear has permanently damaged me. Though not quite as much as the back rub. 

So, that's it. I lived for a week on top of a magma plume, hiked 7 miles up a mountain, saw bald eagles and humpback whales and Sarah Palin's sister, conversed with alien conspiracy theorists and ultra-Republicans, discovered I have worryingly strong gay sex appeal, and walked on a glacier. Oh, and I learned something about science too. Probably.

Monday 18 June 2012

How I Became Louis Theroux and Wished I Hadn't (Part I)

I've just returned from a trip positively bursting with superlatives. I'd travelled to places hotter, drier, colder, higher and further than I've ever been before. The round trip was about 10,000 miles, involved 9 flights (arguably more), a lot of science and an awful lot more drinking.

We begin with a jaunt to NRAO's 13th Synthesis Imaging Summer School. This is a 9-day workshop in Socorro, New Mexico where they teach everyone how to do radio interferometry - basically, how to use multiple telescopes to give the resolution of a freakin' massive one. Even though the maths involved is remarkably ugly, it wasn't as bad as getting to Socorro in the first place.

The journey was ever destined to be a very unpleasant affair, involving 3 flights with a 4-hour layover in Miami. That would have been fine, except that just as the plane was about to leave an oil leak from the engine was discovered. So everyone was loaded onto a shiny new and presumably more well-sealed plane, which took off about 2 hours after the original scheduled time. Then, after about 3 hours of flying, it was diverted from Dallas to Austin just as it was about to begin its descent.

The plane then sat there on the tarmac being refuelled until the storm over Dallas cleared and we went back. By which time there were no more flights going to Albuquerque, so I got put in a hotel for the night without any luggage. I arrived in Socorro the next morning several hours late, having missed the opening lectures. My luggage turned up though, which was nice.

I found Socorro to be a wonderful, glorious travel-shock after Puerto Rico. Whereas Arecibo typically experiences 90% humidity, in Socorro it's more like 5%. Unlike Arizona, it has a lot more interesting plants than Arizona's ubiquitous and surprisingly boring Saguaro cactus. Although it's vastly smaller than Arecibo (population 8,000 in Socorro, 100,000 (supposedly) in Arecibo), about half of those are students. Even better, those are largely split between geology and astronomy, which as everyone knows are the subjects all the really cool people take. Plus, you can walk across the whole town in about 30 minutes.

Socorro is slightly hotter than Puerto Rico, but the almost complete lack of humidity makes it precisely 516 times more bearable. That means that a 7-mile hike up a mountain doesn't feel like a death march to a gulag. Not until you gain a few thousand feet in elevation, anyway. The summit of this particular mountain is at 3,287m, way higher than anywhere in Britain. By the end, going upwards more than a few steps is like Frodo's final ascent up Mt Doom. Fortunately, when perseverance, determination and physical fitness have long since given up in disgust, sheer bloody-mindedness keeps going.

Look, it's a bloody great mountain. I can look as ridiculous as I damn well please.
On the summit of this mountain is an optical observatory which has a parking space for the disabled (a wonderful example of the long arm of bureaucracy given that it's about 50 miles from anywhere at all and there's not exactly a shortage of space), and what is surely the world's most scenic fire hydrant.

The fire hydrant is not as ludicrous as it may appear. The haze in the photographs is due to an area the size of Chicago being on fire about a hundred miles way. So, if it helps prevents mountains from burning down, I'm all in favour of scenic fire hydrants.

The next day we were treated to a tour of the adorable little VLA telescopes. Bless 'em, they're only 25m across, the same size as Arecibo's secondary reflector, but they do let you walk around inside them which is pretty cool. 

Listening pose ! Now mandatory at ALL TELESCOPES.

The evenings were spent in BOTH of the town's bars. Yup, it has just the two, but given the town's pretty awesome populace, that's not so bad. There's no air hockey but they do have pool and shuffleboard, which as far as I can tell is the pub equivalent of curling. And it's in the bars, of course, where I seem to have become an unwitting and unwilling junior Louis Theroux, attracting America's hardened crazies to me like - err, well, you'll see.

First, we have the alien conspiracy theorist, convinced that aliens abducted humans from Earth 10 and 20,000 years ago. Also that religion is intolerant and should not be tolerated. Oh yes, and a firm believer in eugenics, on the grounds that some people are clearly just better than others, and quite certain that genetic manipulation in Columbia is already starting to produce a master race. And a thoroughly well-meaning and really nice guy, to boot.

Then a wholly new experience befalls me. A ludicrously overtly gay older man decides I have an adorable accent and spends the next few hours in a really weird attempt to charm me. Apparently, he's posted photos of me on Facebook to try and make his ex jealous. Never before have I been so incredibly glad that I'm not on Facebook. Although I have seen at least one of the pictures, and it's not a pretty sight.

This is turn causes other uncharacteristic behaviour on my part, namely, to as quickly as possible find the nearest attractive girl and talk to her at length about absolutely anything. Which, somehow, proved very simple, and I spent the remainder of the evening learning all about geology (did you know there's a 25-mile wide magma plume underneath Socorro ? See, I was listening !), life, and for some reason cats. Fine by me. And then, possibly because of the sheer surreality of the evening, I simply said, "Well, it was very nice talking to you !" and went back to my hotel. Which is very probably the stupidest thing I've ever done.

That about sums it up for Socorro. Tune in soon for Part 2, where I describe my surprisingly similar yet remarkably different adventures in Alaska. Actually, the similarities are so uncanny that it's possible I'm stuck in a closed timelike curve and might never escape, but I live in hope.