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Saturday 15 July 2017

Cake, Science, And Very Large Rocks

The European Week of Astronomy and Space Science conference has a big problem : how do you pronounce the acronym ? E-wass ? Ewe-ass ? Eh-wass ? E.W.A.S.S. ? Nobody knows. The American equivalent, the American Astronomical Society meeting, has no such difficulty, being universally accepted practise to call it the "double A S".

Anyway the two meetings are pretty much the same thing : an enormous travelling circus that meets once (twice for the AAS) per year in order to squash as many astronomers as possible into a small room, in the hope that they'll somehow merge and form a single, gigantic super-astronomer that will wander around the place, crushing small buildings beneath its mighty feet and making witty remarks about astronomy. Something like that, anyway.

What EWASS actually is, or was this year, is 1200 astronomers wandering around the Charles University Faculty of Law building eating lots of cake and wondering which session they should go to.

Like most buildings in Prague, it's quite an impressive place from the outside. Inside it's nice enough, but certainly showing its age.

I found a kindred spirit at the SKA booth, complete with an etched glass cube of the antennas and
a Google Cardboard display of the telescope site.
The main foyer and many lecture rooms are fine, but some of the others have wooden desks which look like they haven't been replaced since the 1940s. As a conference venue it was functional - plenty of space - but not especially comfortable. Most of the time this wouldn't matter, but temperatures were generally 27 - 33 C and the humidity was high. There were no ceiling fans, let alone air conditioning, so it wasn't always particularly pleasant.

Fortunately the conference freebie was a hand fan, which was even more practical and useful than the USB fan at the ALMA meeting last year. Without it I might have collapsed. As it was, I only left one session because the heat was unbearable (and it wasn't especially interesting anyway).

For a large conference the schedule was pretty good, with two half-hour coffee breaks and 90 minutes for lunch. That's about what you get as standard in a regular working university day, maybe even more. Of course the penalty is that for the rest of the time you're listening to so many talks you can practically feel your head expanding and have to continuously fight the fear that it might become too heavy and fall off. Conferences are draining. Unfortunately, the coffee "breaks"* were really only coffee - the tea being so undrinkable that I couldn't drink it - though they did provide a tremendous amount of (mostly very good) cake. Lunch, alas, was something to be endured rather than enjoyed, so a diet of mainly sugary carbohydrate for a week (in mostly > 30 C heat) is not all that brilliant.

* They're breaks from the talks, but often this is when the most important discussions happen.

At some point the heat and humidity exploded in a respectable-sized thunderstorm, which freshened things up considerably.

In terms of the conference itself, the content was of a high standard. There was nothing Earth-shattering, but there were very few low-quality talks. There were hundred and hundreds of posters - too many, really, and they didn't seem to be particularly well-organised so I didn't pay them much attention.

The highlight was definitely a prize lecture by a certain Bengt Gustafsson on "Looking in other directions". Mainly it was focused on the importance of risky projects and the need to avoid the "publish or perish" culture which prevents more controversial research from being funded, but he introduced it with a wonderful story of an early Danish expedition to observe a transit of Venus. Delivered with an upper-class English accent with a tinge of Danish, and a palpable sense of gleeful enthusiasm, it featured the wonderful little section : "And what did they see coming over the horizon ?  [Dramatic pause, eyes widen] English pirates !". It was wonderful, like listening to someone who could be a professional narrator on children's storytime programmes.

This is not that prize talk, it's the opening ceremony, but it's the same room.
I gave a short talk on the usual dark galaxy stuff, plus those hydrogen streams I've been on about occasionally. It seemed to go pretty well, it had a few questions and I'm told I'm been headhunted for a collaboration with someone in the audience I didn't meet. So that's nice. Academically it was a decent conference, though it would have been better if there are been less overlap between sessions on similar topics.

Socially the conference had an unusual number of planned events, many of them being weirdly timed to occur during the conference itself. That's very strange. Although many people often tack on a few days of holiday to conferences in nice locations, it's very strange indeed for conference organisers to plan social trips that occur at the same time as the talks. People generally like to at least pretend they're going for the conference rather than a trip at the university's expense. If you're going to skip a talk, at least admit you're being a naughty little astronomer, you rascal.

Having seen everything in Prague already, the only social outings I signed up for were the welcoming "cocktail" (it wasn't a cocktail, but it was nice) and the concert/dinner. I got invited to the student event on a boat too, but I couldn't go because I'm not a student (and at the welcoming drink they were being very strict with tickets, so it didn't seem like a good idea to boatcrash it).

The welcoming drink was nice enough, with a riverside view on a sunny evening, but I completely and utterly won the concert seating lottery. Guess who had third row dead centre with no-one in the front two rows ? Yeah bitches, me. That's who.

Taken without zoom.
And it was almost literally a lottery. I found out later that the conference bags were given the tickets before the name badges were distributed, which explains why the great and the good were given seats toward the back and off-centre while muggins here got the best seat in the motherfrakin' Rudolfinium. In your FACE, Martin Rees*.

* Well he was there for part of the conference, but I've no idea if he went to the concert or not.

Afterwards there was a conference buffet dinner, which was extremely nice but I mostly had to stand up for that one, rubbing it in the noses of everyone who would listen about how I'd benefited from this totally chance arrangement.

At most small conferences hardly anyone knows each other, which forces people to mingle. That's OK, because everyone's in the same situation. At large conferences this is unnecessary. In this case there was a large contingent from Cardiff and various other associates, which meant that I was kept busy every evening except one. Unlike visitors, who stay in hotels, this means no chance to do the basic little housekeeping chores that suddenly seem much more important when you can't do them. Little things like washing up, hoovering, buying toilet paper. Couple that with a 12-hour day and by the end of the week things become a little bit Father Jack.

But after the conference ended there wasn't much time to collapse, because I had a friend visiting almost immediately afterwards and a 90-minute public talk on the Wednesday. Since this was almost entirely visual-based, with almost no text on any of the slides, it had to be practised in order to avoid me collapsing into a nervous, quivering wreck and scraped off the floor of the lecture theatre using a very sharp scrapey thing. Spending 1.5-3.0 hours per day loudly telling jokes to an empty room is not much fun at all really. The best I could hope for is that it might annoy my rather irritating neighbours, who have developed the habit of performing very loud sex acts at weird, unpredictable hours.

My friend arrived early on Tuesday morning, and since my talk was scheduled for Wednesday evening, we didn't do very much except walk around Prague for the first couple of days. Ian is currently making a mockery of the notion that technological unemployment will make our lives a dreary misery, currently being between jobs on a mission to explore the entire freakin' world for some reason. Apparently this is a fun thing to do and "better than staying in !_@*ing Cardiff", although I disagree. Having already been to Florence and Luxembourg, Ian's next port of call is 'murica-land. I'll be joining that for the eclipse-based section, but Ian is staying for a full six weeks.

I normally keep other people pretty well anonymous - if they crave internet-based glory they can start their own damn blog - so why am I harping on about Ian ? Because 35.4 seconds after returning to Cardiff from Trumpsville, Ian is off on a sponsored trek to Machu Piccu. He's doing this on account of his sister, who made a very moving (and funny) documentary before succumbing to cancer last year. You can watch the documentary here, but much more importantly, you can sponsor Ian's effort's here. Any doubts about whether you should donate or not ? Let me put those to rest.

On Wednesday the talk proceeded as planned. The last time I gave a seminar at the Charles University, it was a somewhat... trying experience. The most reaction I got from the audience was a light chortle, while the rest of the time it was like talking to a brick wall. It's very hard to remain focused when the audience are barely reacting at all to jokes that every other audience has previously LOLed at. Afterwards I was told - and I quote - that it was "one of the best we've ever had."

People are weird.

Anyway, this talk was largely aimed at participants of a high school Astronomy Olympiad, but also open to the public. So the audience was neither compelled to be there nor feeling constrained by the presence of their lecturers (as I'm told is the case for the university students, for some reason - the Czech Republic is a very hierarchical place). Thankfully, after the weeks of preparation (tens of hours on practise alone) this was a success. People laughed loudly at the correct moments. The 3D movies were a success. The data cube did its thing. A good time was had by all. Hurrah !

Also featuring Grumpy Cat, Captain Picard memes, Monty Python, Star Wars, James Bond and a wizard. But not necessarily in that order.
But enough about that. We stayed up until sometime after 1am having a celebratory drink, then got up at 6am (or something) in order to catch the train to the interesting rock formations at Cesky Raj. Apparently it's important to go early in case the rocks decide not to show up as they're nervous around people. That stage of the proceedings wasn't as bad as you might think. For me, the worst part by far was the second part of the train ride.

The first part was an uneventful couple of hours to Turnov; the second part a horrendous 15 minutes to the park itself. The second train is somewhat infrequent, but saves you about an hour of walking. Consequently it's rammed. And then more people get on. More and more crowd on, even if there's no room and they have dogs the size of horses and /or bicycles (also the size of horses), giving them plenty of options to get to Cesky Raj using their own vehicles but nooo, let's ram everyone on, even if that means putting the bikes in the toilet. Oh how wonderful. And they were loud people. By far and away the loudest Czechs I've ever heard, especially one rather large man who thought that deodorant was something that happened to other people. So I spent most of that short but horrible period trying to figure out where my feet should go with a fat man's armpit waving dangerously close to my face while he shouted very loudly to everyone nearby something incomprehensible but apparently related to cucumbers, which he was passing around from a large blue bucket together with salt and pepper. People ate them raw, salted to taste.

I swear I'm not making this up. I'd have taken a photograph, except a) I do not deal well with large smelly shouty crowds in cramped conditions early in the morning and b) it was impractical to fumble in my bag for the camera.

Once we finally escaped this mobile hell-hole, almost the first thing we saw were fields of wheat. Cue Theresa May jokes.

The next thing we saw was lots and lots of trees.

We were wandering more or less and random with no map to speak of save Google, which isn't good in forests, but as we kept wandering we started to see more rocks and less trees.

Eventually we wandered back on to the main path and soon we saw some proper rocks.

The weird rocks are impressive enough that you can spend long minutes just staring at them and imagining what would happen if you pushed your worst enemy of the top... err, anyway, we spent a long time looking at the weird tall rocks. They're well worth a visit, even if they take about 2 hours from Prague. But don't set off at 6am, because that's very silly. We didn't see all the rocks by a long shot, but we spent pretty much the whole day wandering around. And unlike just about everything in Prague, rocks are free to look at and don't incur an extra fee for photographs.

Then we stopped looking at the rocks and went back to Prague where we found an amusing bar with worried-looking beer tanks.

The next day we'd originally intended as a trip to the Punka caves, where you can take an underground boat ride. But we couldn't do that because it was fully booked a week ahead of time, so we went to some other caves in Hranice instead.

We decided to leave at like 5am* because Hranice is such a well-known popular tourist destination* that we desperately wanted to beat the crowds*. When we arrived, we were somewhat disappointed to find that the town was a bit of a dump*.

This is NOT the train station we arrived at, which was much larger.

This run-down, post-Soviet locale had clearly seen better days. Gangs of violent youth roamed the streets* molesting old ladies* while feral cats hissed at us in a menacing fashion.*

Actually it was quite nice. There's not much to see in the town, though its main square is pleasant enough (except for the temperature, which was so high that the entire town burned down*).

* The authenticity of these statements is somewhat open to dispute.

The caves were good, though I don't have any photographs. Unusually they were formed partly through hydrothermal processes, and contain many hydrothermal stalagmites that look like little volcanoes. Some of the caves contain lethal levels of CO2 - one of them is even called the Cave of Death. And they're not fooling around either - a candle, descending on a wire, is snuffed out just a few feet below the level of the visitor path. This is definitely not somewhere you want to ignore the no entry signs.

(I've tried Googling to find out what would happen if you did breathe in concentrated CO2 - the most common answer seems to be that you'd die a horrible death in a few breaths, though a few misguided individuals seem to think it would just make you cough.)

Across the river from the caves lies the Hranice Abyss (cue Nietzsche and Brexit references, there helpfully being another field of wheat nearby), one of the deepest known underwater caves in the world. Just how deep it is, nobody knows. Robots have gone down 400 m from the surface of the water, which is about 70 m below where visitors can stand. Rather satisfyingly, it's possible to throw a rock from the viewing platform and have it hit the surface of the water.

Continuing the rather steep ascent upwards leads to a nice viewing point overlooking the river, where you can sit on an odd-looking statue and watch the world go by.

Then we went back to Prague and spent the next day being extremely lazy.

The day after that, we planned to go to Cesky Krumlov ("the jewel in the south-western Bohemian spa triangle" - how's that for a claim to fame !) but the rather strange man at the bus depot told us this wasn't possible, at least not if we wanted to get back the same day. Which we did. This was because there was a major film festival happening, but I suppose that's what one should expect for the jewel of the south-western Bohemian spa triangle. I imagine the situation in the north-western Bohemian spa triangle must be even worse.

A hasty rethink and we zipped off to Kutna Hora. Since I've been there before, there's no need to describe it again. Though it was good to see the town in sunny weather this time, even if it was once again so hot that birds were dropping out of the sky on account of having caught fire. The little feathery meteors don't show up well in the photographs, but they were definitely there.

It should also be noted that inside the cathedral are statues of St Wenceslas and St Ludmilla apparently having a dance-off. Kutna Hora's Got Talent !

Then we went back to Prague and continued being lazy until Ian left at 3am on Tuesday morning, because Ryan Air sucks donkeys. And then I collapsed, which is more or less what I've been doing ever since.


  1. It's taken me an unreasonable amount of time to get around to reading this, but found it sitting lonely in it's forgotten chrome tab this morning.
    Astronomy conferences sound/look a lot more formal than IT Security conferences, where everyone wanders around in t-shirts and jeans, and the people wearing suits are clearly there to try to sell you shit you don't need. That's the big difference. Vendor types loitering in the hope for budget hardly anyone has any control over. It's very rewarding to tell a vendor after 15 minutes of being talked at, that the last time I tried to get petty cash to pay for two AA batteries I was turned down.
    The odd rock park reminds me of odd rocks near Sydney, named the 3 sisters. Because there's only 3 odd rocks, because Australia can only afford so much landscape that isn't flat. Having spent 99.9% of our landscape budget on sweeping (boring) plains.
    And CO2. It's great(tm)! I have it on good authority (someone doing a thesis on CO2 20 years ago, not someone daft enough to inhale huge amounts of it) that it slowly suffocates you, but also triggers the body's hyperventilating response. So, you generally suffocate faster and faster while hyperventilating. Best treatment seems to be getting the f*ck away from the CO2.

    1. :)

      Astronomy conferences tend not to be formal. The great and the good wear suits (no-one knows why) as do usually one or two other idiots who for some reason like wearing suits. Though at the opening ceremony the deputy PM of the Czech Republic was present (far right in the photo). Pretty sure I must have covered other conferences but I can't be bothered to search right now... for example, the policy of the AAS is that the official party must take place in a gay bar. Definitely not formal ! :)

      There weren't many vendors at this EWASS, don't know if this is typical. At the AAS it's usually them who want to give you stuff rather than hoping for money (asking astronomers for donations is very nearly like asking artists for a loan...). Best freebie I ever got was a polystyrene rubber band-powered rocket. Flew probably 50m across the hall, no problem.

      Yorkshire, of all places, also has its own collection of weird rocks. Much smaller than the Czech or Australian rocks, but also much stranger.

    2. I must have got confused with the concert photos. Now I look back over, there's shots of attendees wearing suitably casual attire. Maybe I should have said "cultured". But that may just be Prague. For entertainment at the last AUSCERT thing there was a C-list comedian, which is fairly normal. Sometimes it's a B-list.
      There are freebies at the IT conferences, but, as a public servant, it's not worth the paper work to get them unless they're trivial, and then they're kinda useless. But I do have a nice plastic pen.

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