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,

Wednesday 31 July 2013

A Voyage To Snake Island And The Forest Of Unpleasant Pain

Firstly, whatever anyone else tells you, no matter how appealing the prospect of saving $100 on the plane tickets might be, do not, I repeat, do not, under any circumstances,


There are two ways to get to Culebra ("Snake Island" in Spanish, which probably lacks a certain tourist appeal), a tiny island about 10 miles across just 17 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico proper. One is to catch a tiny, 10-seater plane which is adorable, takes about twenty minutes and is a lot of fun. The other is to catch a ferry. That's at least as much fun as being eaten by a snake.

Enjoy your stay.
The first rule of getting to Snake Island is : do not take the ferry. Seriously, don't.
The second rule of getting to Snake Island is : FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T TAKE THE FERRY.
The third rule of getting to Snake Island is : WTF ? Weren't you listening ?!? I SAID DON'T TAKE THE GODDAMNED FERRY !

The ferry mistake (I wouldn't deign to call it an option) involves waiting in line for around 8 hours, starting from 2am. This means actually getting to the island (the ferry takes 1.5 hours) takes longer than a transatlantic trip. The first half of this gruelling task consists of waiting in line to buy the tickets. The line is very long and is entirely outside, and of course there's nothing open at 2am (there aren't even vending machines). Theoretically, you may be able to get on a 4am ferry this way. But would you want to ? When you get there you'll be exhausted and nothing will be open, so don't do that.

If you have a large group, don't think you can get away with having one person take one for the team and wait in line all night. That's not how it doesn't work. How it doesn't work is that everyone in your group has to wait, otherwise you might not all get on (I'm saying "doesn't work" because this is not a system, this is not even organised chaos, this is just chaos).

The second half of the experience happens when you've bought the tickets. This part is inside, technically. The building is well-ventilated, but open to the air and so doesn't have air conditioning. There are vending machines and a small shop that opens at some ungodly hour, but there aren't anywhere near enough seats. For reasons best known to themselves, the staff insist on grouping everyone in tight, claustrophobic lines about 3 hours before the ferry is due to depart. This does absolutely nothing except annoy people.

In short, getting the ferry to Culebra is not so much a public service as a cruel psychological experiment studying the combined effects of massive sleep deprivation and overcrowding.

Once you get to Culebra though, it's quite nice.

You have to go through hell to get to paradise. This might have some profound meaning,
but another, better option is to just take the freakin' plane.
Last time we went we got trapped by a hurricane so were the only people mad enough to stay. This meant we had Flameno Beach all to ourselves. All four of us. On one of the world's best beaches. This time we went during the peak of peak season during a four-day weekend so it was slightly busier, but still frankly deserted by the standards of most British beaches during summer.

Even better than Swansea.
Flamenco Beach is popular not only because it looks quite pretty, but also because the soft fluffy sand isn't too hot to walk on yet the crystal-clear water is so warm that, if somehow stranded in it, you'd probably die of starvation before dying of exposure. It's just lovely. And also it has those bizarre tanks, left over from the times when the place was used as a military testing ground. While bombing the heck out of a tropical paradise might not be the greatest example of military stratagems, I have to admit that the end result - 30 years later - is really quite nice.

Our second adventure on Snake Island involved hiring a couple of kayaks and hunting for sea turtles. We didn't find any, but that was OK because the snorkelling was still up to nature documentary standards. At this point the Forest of Unpleasant Pain makes an appearance (to cut a short story even shorter, Sondy stood on something and went, "ow").

We took the kayaks to the ferry dock and I sat on the unpleasantly rocky (if you don't have footwear; note to self, always bring flip-flops) coast, guarding the boats from chupacabras (who knows, maybe they enjoy kayaking),  while everyone else investigated town. It was happy hour. I had no shoes, no shirt and no money, so people brought the drinks to me instead. Must be doing something right.

Finally we rowed around the corner to drop the kayaks at a dock near the airport. Except we didn't hear our rental company trying to attract our attention, so we pretty much chose a random plausible-looking docking point and went ashore there. This turned out to be the back of someone's house. One of the kayaks had taken on a lot of water, so we drained it and Sondy attempted to explain to the luckless lady of residence that we just wanted to take them through to the road and that she'd never see us again once we were on our way.

I don't speak Spanish, so I can't vouch for the translation. However, given that the woman's facial expression said something like, "You seem a harmless enough bunch of gibbering idiots", I'm not sure it was entirely successful.

We parked (?) the kayaks in front of Culebra's ecological school and drained the remaining water. Having no phones, minimal clothing and no real amount of currency, we were pretty ill-equipped to deal with any incoming apocalypses, unless they involved kayaking around a small lake and a spot of snorkelling. We got very confused looks from a lot of passers-by driving golf carts, which was curiously satisfying. It's pretty difficult to out-weird a Puerto Rican driver, but on this occasion we succeeded : "Washing your horse in the middle of the street ? Fine, don't mind me, I'm just parking my kayak."

Having learned the lessons of the outward voyage, we took the plane back. We turned up at the airport at around 10am, gave the nice lady at the desk $50, didn't present any form of ID (well  I didn't anyway), and were back on the mainland by 11:20. Keep your bloated Airbus A380's. Tiny 10-seater aircraft are wonderful.

Back on the mainland, a large friendly dog came and supposedly checked our luggage. I'm not at all convinced of the effectiveness of this procedure, as the mental processes of this particular dog probably went something like this :

"I'm at an airport ! Best thing ever !"
"Hey, look, people ! Best thing ever !"
"Wow, an aeroplane ! Best thing ever !"
"Yay, a shoe ! Best thing ever !"

And so on. That about sums up what's probably my last Puerto Rican adventure... leaving aside some crazy scheme to discover the secret of Monkey Island. The hitherto pointless monkey counter on the side of the blog may get an update, as there apparently really is a small island full of monkeys not so very far away. The downside is that the secret of monkey island is that the monkeys all have herpes, and the words, "what could POSSIBLY go wrong" do tend to somewhat leap to mind.

Friday 19 July 2013


Or Why I'm Taking a 75% Pay Cut For Science

You'll note the banner change today as I officially accepted a job offer from the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Physicists of the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences somehow lacks a certain punch, so long-term I'll probably go with Physicists Formerly of the Caribbean. I may or may not keep the Arecibo background, I haven't decided yet.

For those reading this years after the event, here's the temporary banner.
I've been determined to leave Arecibo for some time, having applied for jobs for around the last nine months (it's just a coincidence, I swear !) and received about a dozen rejection letters (which is actually doing pretty well). For the non-scientist readers, a normal academic career path consists of two or three postdoctoral appointments (usually in different institutes) followed eventually by a permanent position - usually lecturing, sometimes pure research.

This expectation that as a postdoc you're supposed to drop everything and start a series of new lives across the world is one of the best, most awful and bizarrely pointless aspects of the typical astronomy career path. All of my family and 90% of my friends (99% of the really important ones) are back in Europe, so why the hell would I want to live over here ? That would make no sense. The situation is made even worse for me because I don't like (read : detest) driving, and since there's no public transport (?!?! seriously, WTF, Puerto Rico !) the sense of isolation can be crushing. I mean, come on, I don't even like the climate.

So new horizons beckoned, and while I applied for a few jobs in the States, Europe was the goal. Being offered a job gave an instant and unbelievable sense of euphoria. This was rapidly tempered by the salary, which is above average in the Czech Republic but not enough to make any meaningful savings that I could use elsewhere (it's lower than what I was earning as a PhD student in the UK). I spent several days thinking very carefully and unusually seriously about whether this was a good idea.

Quite quickly, though, I realised that it was a damned good idea. I'm not fussed on fine dining or flashy cars (obviously) or palatial houses (though I'd like one with a bath next time, if it's not too much trouble). Really, when you get right down to it, I just want to be able to take my dog for walks. And that doesn't cost a damn thing.

Everybody say "d'aaaawwwwww".
Still, while I don't think I should buy a boat, I am very conscious of the need for financial security. Which makes Prague a risk, but a calculated risk. Not taking any risks at all is for losers. Taking wild, crazy risks ("let's jam the fork in the toaster to see what happens !") is fine if your ambition is to win the Darwin Award.

The risk of Prague is that I won't earn any useful money for the next two years. But the savings I have from Arecibo are such that there would have to be a really spectacular disaster before that became a problem, and the chances of that happening are acceptably low (things might be different if I had zero financial redundancy). In contrast, it's almost a certainty that Prague will be a better place to live, both from a personal and career point of view. So, it's a small risk of utter ruin (no more than normal, really) for a really good shot at living somewhere more awesome. Carpe diem, indeed.

I believe the phrase you're looking for is, "good grief".

Visiting home three of four times a year should be no problem as it's a $300 return flight direct to Cardiff which takes 4 hours. Compare getting home from here, where the total journey time is around 18 hours (more like 24 now there are no direct flights), costs > $1200 and involves getting over significant jet lag -  it really can't be done more than twice a year. That's not enough. I'd have to be some kind of freakin' monster to want to shun my family and friends for the sake of earning money.

The tremendous commitment required to go between Puerto Rico and the UK means I've only had one visitor in the entire two and half years I've been here. Many of my friends can't drive, thus ruling them out entirely. Yes, in principle I could drive them around the island. Realistically, San Juan airport is so far away (and I find the process of driving so intensely stressful) that it might as well be on the Moon, so that doesn't work. In contrast, driving in Prague is unnecessary because of the public transport network. So Europe is by far the best option for beating isolation.

Driving on the Moon is a lot better than driving to the Moon.
Career plans also played no small role in the decision. If the goal is to move to somewhere in Europe permanently, then actually being in Europe is an infinitely better way to make other European collaborations which may eventually lead to jobs. Staying here would mean I would become part of the woodwork - great for keeping the telescope going, but not for doing actual research. And that might be fine (given the... umm.... healthy salary this place pays) if I wanted to stay in Puerto Rico forever, but I don't.

Then, just to make absolutely sure I was subject to the maximum possible emotional g-forces, another institution (which pays far more competitively) that I didn't think I had much of a shot at decided they wanted to interview me. I took the (perhaps crazy) step of declining the interview. Prague required a decision on a much shorter timescale than the interview process, and declining a firm offer for the chance of a better one would be a really bat-shit crazy* risk (especially as I don't have much experience in the most important technical skill required for the other job). Accepting Prague and then accepting the other would be grossly unprofessional and unethical.

* Technical term.

This kind of balance is what got the world in the state it's in today, so no thanks.

Anyway, the AICAS is a research institute, not an observatory - it's within Prague itself and I can generate RFI to my heart's content (i.e. I can have wi-fi and a mobile phone again ! and I can call it a mobile rather than a cellphone ! yay !). It also has a much larger research group (Arecibo has all of 3 massively overworked staff astronomers). Not to mention that living in a city - particularly one as outstandingly beautiful as Prague - is unimaginably appealing after living in the middle of the jungle for two years (most of the buildings in Arecibo's pathetic town center are full of trees*).

*DISCLAIMER: there are some really very nice places indeed in Puerto Rico. Arecibo is not one of them.

The institute also owns an observatory in the nearby countryside, thus getting
the best of both worlds.
So Prague ticks nearly all the boxes. I can go home more often, have visitors, live in a city, never drive anywhere, do exactly the research I want to do (this is pretty uncommon for postdocs, so this is really a major perk) and form more European collaborations. I just won't be earning any (more) more money for the next couple of years. Unlike gap year students, I already have financial backup in case of emergencies. All in all, pretty sweet. Maybe I can finally get off the emotional roller-coaster and on with more important things, like selling my much-hated car. Or possibly burning it.

It would absolutely be worth every penny I paid for it. Tempting.

Monday 8 July 2013

Blue Marbles

So I saw a picture the other day comparing the size of Earth to Jupiter. Maybe it was this one :

... or maybe it wasn't. But it was very similar. Anyway, I immediately decided there must be a more interesting way to compare the sizes of the gas giants. Merely comparing the physical size is one thing, but it doesn't tell you about how massive they are (that is, how much stuff they're made of, which is not quite the same as weight).

Let's start with the least massive of all the outer planets : Uranus (you can do your own hur-hur jokes if you like, I don't mind). There's no getting around it - this is the least interesting-looking world in the Solar System. What can you say about it ? It's... blue. And round. Quite big though - almost 4 times as wide as Earth, with a mass equivalent to 14 Earths.

I am crediting my website much more prominently than usual not because I care about copyright but because I'm sick of it having a mere 3,000 hits.
Uranus may look boring, but.... no, it's no good, it's actually incredibly dull. Apart from the fact it's tilted on its side (possibly due to a massive impact with something billions of years ago) and has wind speeds in excess of 900 km/h (560 mph). Ghastly place, with a temperature of -224 C (the coldest atmosphere in the Solar System), but one could hardly call a world-spanning ice hurricane* boring, in fairness.

* Poetic license.

On then to Neptune. This considerably more interesting-looking world is slightly smaller at 49,224 km across. It's also a bit denser, with as much mass as 17 Earths.

Neptune is an even worse place to live than Uranus. Sure, it's 25 C "warmer" (for want of a better word at -200 C) but the wind chill factor would make even a tauntaun shiver, or, more likely, die, because 2,100 km/h (1,300 mph) winds are generally pretty lethal, really.

Next we take a drastic leap in scale with Saturn. Saturn is a bit wider than 9 Earths, which is not all that much more than Uranus or Neptune. Unless you count the rings, of course, which are over 270,000 km across.

Saturn is bigger and so a lot more massive than the Uranus and Neptune, with as much matter as 95 Earths. But that's not as much as you might expect, given its size. Famously, Saturn is actually less dense than water - so if you could find a large enough ocean it would float. Though one suspects that by putting a gigantic ball of gravitationally-bound freezing gasses (-178 C*) into an offensively large ocean, something more dramatic would probably result than Saturn just quietly bobbing around.

* Things get a lot hotter - many thousands of degrees - in the core, mind you, as they do for the other gas giants.

At last we behold mighty Jupiter, largest and most pompous of all the planets with its colourful swirling gas and giant spot three times the size of Earth. It's not all that much wider than Saturn - about 20% - but it's a whole lot denser with a mass of something like 315 Earths. At a mere -150 C with winds of 600 km/h (370 mph) it's still a worse holiday destination than Port Talbot and doesn't (like the other giant planets) even have a solid surface.

You might wonder why the planets are all so different. So does everyone else. As far as I can make out, there isn't much consensus as to what went on in the early Solar System. A lot of the old theories went belly-up when Jupiter-mass planets were found orbiting much closer to their parent stars than Jupiter does. It's been less than 30 yeas since the first exoplanet was confirmed, which really isn't very long at all if you're trying to understand how the world itself came to be.

Finally, the Sun. It's gassy (plasma if you want to be pedantic, which I don't) and gigantic, so it makes the list. The Sun is only about 10 times wider than Jupiter, but massively more massive... about 1050 times as massive. Although it's somewhat difficult to pin down at exactly what point a planet becomes a brown dwarf and a brown dwarf becomes a star, there's no doubt the Sun has completely crossed that threshold and completely dominates the Solar System.

Still images are nice, but animations are better. I decided to take the "Blue Marble" name literally. Because... well, it's fun to make it rain planets.