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Wednesday 19 October 2016

School's Out For Summer

My goodness me, it's been a long month.

Back in April I was invited to submit a paper on data visualisation. Random email invites to submit papers are common-as-muck meaningless academia spam (I get at least three or four a week), but it's a bit different when you recognise the journal and the editor. So, a few months to submit a short paper ? Sure, no problem ! In fact that one can safely be left to the last minute, because it's really easy. May as well get on with the ongoing much larger, more difficult project, and hopefully get at least two more papers out this year, rather than spending too much time on an easy little write-up.

Which of course meant the paper did indeed get done at the very last minute. Most papers don't have deadlines, but invited papers for special editions do. Unfortunately just about everything else happened at pretty much the same time. Two weeks before that I was tutoring at a summer school near Prague...

Managing three students is hectic enough at the best of times; when you're limited to a few days it quickly reaches "neeeaargh my braaaaaain" level of lack of cope. Because I also had other work-related deadlines to meet I was "only" there for the afternoon sessions, which finished at 7, so generally I was getting home at around 8-8:30 because the public transport to Ondrejov is lousy. Student presentations were on the Saturday morning, which meant a ridiculously early start but it worked out well in the end. One student was even still rendering an animation on her way to the school. They made their final preparations of the slides during the presentation by the first group, yet somehow everything came together very well. Good job people !

Not that that meant I could relax for more than a few days. In the week leading up to the deadline I was generally working 9-7 or even 9-8, including the weekend. Just to keep the pressure up I had a couple of friends visiting from Cardiff for a few days immediately before the submission date.

I did manage to enjoy a nice collapse the day before the deadline. Then after submitting two papers - the first and probably last time I've ever done that - and throwing some clothes into a suitcase, I permitted myself a nice relaxing bath. All well and good except that I also used the tea lights I inherited from the previous occupants. What's wrong with that, you ask ? The problem is that these tea lights don't have the usual little metal holders - they're made from plastic. Flammable plastic, apparently. So rather than snuffing itself out when one of them reached the end, there was an audible whoompf sound as the entire thing turned itself into a giant wick, burned through the plastic corner stand and bits of molten plastic started dripping everywhere. That was an adrenaline-filled and dangerously naked 30 seconds I could have done without.

The next day saw a bright and early 8am departure to the airport for a week-long trip to Lisbon, to be followed immediately by a week in Grenbole. Normally I prepare for any foreign excursion with... well, I prepare for any foreign excursion. No time for that here. "Yeah, sure, that schedule looks fine, whatever." It didn't help that I didn't have to book the hotel in Lisbon because that was done directly by the meeting organisers. So the extent of my research for Lisbon was, "I have heard of Lisbon and suspect it is a nice place". Grenoble was even worse. That one I had to book the hotel for myself but I left it far too late. Oh, didn't that work out ever so well...

Both meetings were work trips which came about because I really wanted to see Lisbon because I'm now part-funded to provide observing support (a.k.a. "contact scientist") for ALMA users. ALMA is a ginagorous, all-powerful telescope in Chile that will make every other telescope obsolete by draining all their funding, or something.

Being a contact scientist for ALMA is a wholly different experience from being a contact scientist at Arecibo. There, I would tell users exactly what they needed to do, 95% of the time without even needing to check with anyone else. Arecibo assigns contact scientists based on area of expertise, so projects about pulsars get sent to a pulsar scientist, projects about hydrogen get sent to specialist in hydrogen, etc. And since it's now over 50 years old, pretty much all the major files needed for many projects are already prepared, so it's really just a matter of telling people what to do.

Well, that and taking them out to dinner on the rare occasions when they visit the site. And then getting them accidentally lost on the way back. And then, a few weeks later, finding out their institution wants to pay for telescope time. Must've been doing something right...

ALMA, on the other hand... well, I know that a) it's a telescope and b) it looks at the sky and not the ground. The role of contact scientist is just to check over the observing files the user's provide and check for obvious errors - and later on to do some basic data reduction to make sure they got what they asked for. Contact scientists are distributed all around the world in a series of ALMA Regional Centres - there's no need for them to be anywhere near the telescope. Once a year, all the European ARC members try and get together to discuss (mostly) fairly tedious but sort-of useful procedures and developments.

Quite honestly I went to that meeting with absolutely zero expectations. There was a smaller version in Prague earlier in the year and it was the single most boring meeting I've ever been to. No science at all, just lots of people getting very angry about stuff I knew nothing about. But... Lisbon ! That probably quite nice place I know nothing about but someone else will pay me to visit ? Sure, why not. Makes perfect sense.

This meeting wasn't exactly thrills and spills, but it was at least better than the last one. ALMA is a billion-dollar international project with a fiendishly complicated management structure that I have absolutely no interest in, but at least this meeting was amicable and informative. It wasn't interesting information, mind you, but information which makes sense and doesn't involve everyone shouting at each other is better than the exact opposite. The worst I could say was how very corporate everything felt. I suppose it's inevitable with projects this large, but it would be dreadful if this "business model" attitude took over science as a whole.

More, err, exciting than the meeting was having my extreme smugness at having submitted two papers dealt a swift kick to the back of the knees.

On the first day of the meeting I got an email from a co-author asking to be removed from the author list. That's new for me. It's usually an option of last resort : I disagree so strongly with your conclusions that I don't want to be associated with this work. Which came as a nasty surprise indeed, since the paper had been in draft for a while, and the basic method and conclusions were unchanged from the last paper, which said co-author had no objections to. This particular co-author's suggested changes on this occasion (we'd had some discussion, it wasn't like I just submitted it without telling anyone !) were seemingly very minor, so there didn't seem to be any need to send around an updated version to get final approval.


A frantic series of emails ensued, just to ensure I didn't sleep through the meeting or go off exploring Lisbon, I suppose. Fortunately, we were both at fault so the situation has been resolved happily. There'll be a few re-arrangements to the paper at the first referee's report even if the referee doesn't ask for them, but only minor changes to substance - mostly points of clarification. But more on that when it's published, because I don't like discussing research before it's been peer reviewed.

Lisbon itself is a lovely place, although packing bathers was on the optimistic side. Someone described the sea as, "fresh". "Bracing" would be more accurate, with sea temperatures being several degrees below that of Cardiff. So that experiment didn't last long, although it was nice to spend a few days at the seaside after being landlocked in Prague.

The meeting's social outing was a trip to a gigantic yet oddly proportioned statue of Jesus, who casts an uninterested gaze across the city in imitation of the even bigger statue of Rio. From the top of the pedestal there's a great view of Lisbon's version of the Golden Gate bridge, which isn't quite as big as the real one but is a heck of a lot closer.

My favourite part of these trips is to recharge my introvert juices by finding a good excuse to avoid absolutely everyone and stare into space for a while. In this case that was on a breakwater one moonlit night, watching the waves breaking on either side stretching across the whole field of view. Until some idiot decided they wanted to do exactly the same thing, on my breakwater. What a colossal jerk.

Having a spare day after the meeting but before running off to Grenoble, I managed to see a fair chunk of the older part of Lisbon. I could certainly have taken a couple more days quite easily had that been an option. Though it must be said that Lisbon's public transport service leaves much to be desired, with the busses running at basically random times, with the displayed schedules being more like an Amazon wish list than anything anyone actually orders. The metro ? I've no idea - both ticket machines were broken, forcing us back onto the bus. On the way back to the hotel we opted for a taxi instead, which are reliable, hassle-free and relatively inexpensive by taxi standards.

Getting to Grenoble the next day meant another early start and the closest I've ever come to missing a flight. The airport design in Lisbon is lousy and hugely inefficient. Checking baggage was closed (!) a full hour before boarding, the security was about half a mile from the kiosks and the gates another half mile from that. And all of the lines were very, very slow, which meant a lot of running and asking people for cuts. Lisbon, you're lovely, but you gotta get your transport organisation together cos you're looking a bit silly.

Still, we arrived in Grenoble with plenty of time to take a trip up to the castle via cable car, which offered the best mountain view I've seen since Switzerland.

The Grenoble meeting was actually a "summer" school on interferometry. Funnily enough, the last time I went to such a school I stayed in a lousy hotel, but at least it was only ~$20 a night. That hotel had broken air conditioning, ants in the bath and a non-functional TV. The Grenoble hotel was not only 2-3 times more expensive, but worse in absolutely every single way. Not a single thing about it was even close to optimum. Here's the review I gave to :

One other review describes it as "clearly a former brothel". If so I can't say I'm surprised they had to downgrade it to a hotel.

Trust me, it was worse than it looks.
But while the "hotel" was the worst I've ever stayed in, bar none, the interferometry school was easily ten times more useful than the one in Socorro. Sorry NRAO, but the IRAM team have got you thoroughly licked when it comes to teaching interferometry. Although the process as a whole is fiendishly complex - with one lecturer admitting that after 25 years they still didn't understand everything* - each individual step was explained in a such a clear way that even I could follow it. That's saying something, because my maths has degenerated massively since undergraduate. Even their software was great, being super-easy to install on Windows (in astronomy this is very rare) and quite straightforward to use. Learning interferometry is never going to be easy, but this at least made the process as painless as it's possible to be.

* I always find this very reassuring. When people explain things with great confidence and no sign of confusion and I don't understand something, it makes me think I must be stupid. So when they make a mistake I realise that nope, it's actually just as complicated as it appears.

So that was the last month. I caught a cold at the very end of the trip, but after a nice view of the Alps from the plane I'm safely ensconced back in Prague. And I categorically refuse to leave this house or talk to anyone at all for the next two weeks, except to procure whatever's necessary for binge-watching Netflix.

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