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Sunday 11 November 2018

Now Entering A Seminar-Free Zone

It never rains but it pours ? I seem to have a year's worth of talks compressed into a three-week period, which makes my head hurt.

Last time I went briefly gallivanting around the mean streets of Strasbourg. Exactly one week later I had to repeat the seminar in Ondřejov, because the theoretical physics institute have an annual field trip there. Ondřejov is a small village about half an hour's drive outside of Prague and is home to a pizzeria and the bigger half of the Astronomical Institute but nothing much else. This, as you might guess, is due to the same reason astronomers have a backwards way of measuring brightness and a spectral classification scheme that goes OBAFGKMRN : history.

Ondřejov  (last year) in winter is a bleak place.

A hundred years ago, if you were a Czech looking to set up an observatory, Ondřejov looked like a decent spot. Prague was still small and distant enough to limit light pollution, but close enough to have access to the infrastructure of a large city. You didn't need the kind of massive facilities of today to do valuable science, much less have to set up your telescope at the top of a Chilean mountain to minimise atmospheric effects. So if you were a rich Czech noble (who'd made a fortune making optical instruments to measure the alcoholic content of beer) with a penchant for astronomy, it wasn't a bad place at all. And as it happened that's exactly what Jan Frič was, so he built a small observatory there.

This turned out to be an astute move and the institute grew over the years, eventually transitioning from the old mode of gentleman science into administration by the Czech Academy of Sciences. And since the political forces of history are just as inviolable as the laws of physics, in 1967 the observatory gained a 2m telescope - at the time, the 7th largest optical telescope in the world.

A 2m telescope is not terribly impressive by today's standards, but it's not to be sniffed at either. You can still do perfectly good research with such an instrument. Still, nobody in their right mind would put such an expensive piece of kit somewhere that only gets 60 clear nights a clear. Astronomy, let's face it, is generally something you put money in and astronomy comes out, but 60 nights a year means your money isn't going to get you much scientific bang for your Czech buck*. But history has declared that's what we've got, and arguing against history is largely hopeless. Fortunately, the telescope is facing renewed efforts to maximise the possible scientific returns thanks to the still-youthful field of exoplanets.

* The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is one of the most important surveys of modern times, and that only has a 2m telescope as well, but it's in a much better location with more modern equipment.

Anyway, Ondřejov is a nice place and I figured it would be worth repeating the Strasbourg seminar to a brand new audience and get double the use out of the not-inconsiderable preparation time. Adapting it was more work than I thought : it had to be five minutes shorter, but then I realised there would be undergraduates present as well as academics, so I had to make it simpler too. Which meant a lot more of me giving preliminary practise seminars to empty rooms to get the timing right.

Before the afternoon seminars kicked off, we had a tour of the historic part of the observatory - from the director, no less. Which was very nice, especially because a) I'd never been in any of the old buildings before and b) practically nothing is in English. I still don't know what everything is, but mechanical computers and other instruments from a bygone era are always fun to look at. Here's a bunch of pictures with close-ups of the description panels for enthusiasts.

An early Occulus Rift, which wasn't even in colour.

I want one. Dunno what I'd do with it, but who cares ? I'd look cool doing it.

We should revert to this style because it was the best one, dammit.

Again I've got no clue what this is but it looks nice.

This one I do know : it's a Frič polarimeter, used for measuring the alcohol content of beer. The Czechs still express alcohol content as a polarisation rather than a percentage.
Then there was a seminar by someone else, which was very good, and then there was mine, about which I make no claims. It's always fun to get a large audience to wear 3D glasses and the physical data cube is always a hit. Which is good, because seminar preparation is pretty draining for me. Two in a week would have been a healthy limit really.

By this point I was pretty tired, but prepared to sit through another talk or two. I'd aimed mine specifically at people who might not be observational astronomers by training, as had the first guy, but the others... hadn't. First there was one on relativity, which was very clearly targeted at a highly specialised audience. Which to be fair constituted most of the group but I understood practically none of it. It didn't help that the speaker seemed to be monumentally unenthusiastic, a widespread phenomena that I simply don't understand.

Then there was a break, followed by more talks. I don't even remember what the next one was about at all. Then another talk started, something about molecular physics which looked much more interesting but I was already bored half to death. Mercifully I managed to escape with some other people who were being evacuated back to Prague.

On the train, the relativity dude turned out to be a normal person who just seemed completely exhausted. Fair enough. Our other companion, however, was one of those people you meet in science - someone who's clearly a space alien. In this case he mostly sat in brooding silence, but would occasionally and without any provocation or context start blurting out his hobbies for no reason whatsoever. First we got to hear about rollerblading, which you can at least make some pathetic small talk about, "I suppose it's good exercise"; "not much fun in winter"; that kind of abysmally boring "conversation" that does nothing except expend time and further the progress of the Heat Death of the Universe.

His second unprovoked meanderings were about his efforts to write a novel. Something about a physics lecturer who meets a piano teacher who teaches him the true meaning of Christmas, or to see beyond the equations and how to become socially acceptable. Some pointless nonsense like that. I forget exactly, because it was such a "the hell am I listening to ?" moment that my brain was fighting to decide if that was really what he was saying, whether I might be missing something essential, or if it was just too dang tired and would prefer to just shut down down now if that's not too much trouble.

A fair chunk of the weekend was spent preparing the third talk, a much shorter one at the IT4I supercomputing centre in Ostrava. This one had to be prepared largely from scratch, since it was aimed at an almost entirely non-astronomy audience. It consisted largely of infographics from my last science post, which I think was a good idea. This mini-conference was a one-day event aimed at bringing together users of the powerful computing facilities at Ostrava. This mostly seems to be researchers of the very small : quantum physics and genetics, that sort of thing. So keeping things ultra-basic and simplified is the only realistic way to explain what we did with the ~400,000 core hours in 12 minutes or less.

(The other talks were a mixed bag. Some were good, some were awful, one was clearly intended to be 45 minutes long but the session chair said nope. There was a lot of terminology I didn't understand and some I suspect to be typos : antiferromagnetic, radio zebras, health breast phantoms. Regular physics is weird.)

Preparing the presentation didn't take all that much time, and the nice thing about 12 minute talks is they don't take long to practise. But because the conference was one full day, and Ostrava is 3 hours away from Prague by train, we went there the evening beforehand and left the following morning. The hotel was none too glamorous either.

As for the interior, it looked nothing so much like a badly-converted hospital or dormitory.

The shower refused to point anywhere except at the wall and there were too many noisy students outside to keep the windows open. But it was functional, clean, and I survived.

All this tiring travel and repeated presentation preparation came with a perk : a tour of the supercomputing facilities. These are a very far cry from the mechanical museum pieces at Ondřejov with their punch cards : it still ranks respectably high in terms of modern global performance capabilities and is well-maintained and continuously upgraded. The tour (again by the director !) was excellent. We started with a look at the machines from inside a showroom :

It looks very science-fictiony : kept in darkness behind glass, with enough LEDs to cover a street's worth of Christmas trees.

We spent quite a while looking at it like this, with the director turning on spotlights to highlight specific parts of the machines. Eventually he admitted that these are only for show and turned the lights on properly.

The computer produces so much waste heat that they don't need a dedicated heating facility to keep the staff warm : they just use the water-cooling system that stops the processors from melting. When there's downtime - and as far as I can tell the director was being sincere - they genuinely get cold. The last time they tried to use the more usual radiators they ended up with a minor flooding problem.

The computers also consume a crazy amount of power. To prevent damage or data loss by power interruptions, they have two backup diesel generators. But these take about 30 seconds to start. The gap is filled by a 9 tonne flywheel rotating at 2000 rpm, which, if you've ever seen Robot Wars, you'll know is downright terrifying.

We didn't get to see the generators, but we need see the cooling systems. Unlike astronomical facilities, these are a testament to neatness and good order. Think Half Life 2 if everyone was insanely tidy.

The computer itself is behind glass for a very good reason - the air is hypoxic, with an oxygen content of just 15% compared to the normal 21%. This, apparently, is the sweet spot that makes it difficult for fire to spread but is still enough to work normally. At 13%, on the other hand, you'd pass out. It's roughly equivalent to being at the top of a 2,700m mountain : you notice it, but it's not awful.

You can't help but admire the neatness of the whole thing.

And so then we went back to Prague, leaving the hospotel at a bracing 6:30am.

Could I relax ? Nope, because I had more preparations and only two days to do them in : a public talk at our institute's open day and an escape room. The public talk I simply recycled from a previous one because there simply wasn't time to do anything other than minor modifications and figure out what the hell I was supposed to say. Only the title slide contained any text since that would require additional translation, so I had to re-invent the speech based on the images and movies. It seemed to work though, and 3D movies and props almost always help.

The escape room was a completely new idea that a few of us came up with some months back. Since we're probably going to re-use it, I don't think I should give away too much. It's slightly different from the usual escape room concept where you've got an hour or so to figure out how to escape a locked room (typically themed, with various puzzles to undo locks in a particular sequence). We'd tried one where you have to escape a plane, which was quite fun but the puzzles didn't seem to have much relation to aircraft or the story. We wanted to fix that and make it at least related to astronomy (if not genuinely educational, which would be asking a bit much).

What we eventually came up with was a story of a scientist who's made some major breakthrough but been abducted. The players have the role of his students who come to wait in his office. Instruction by telephone from another scientist tell you that someone's just come to his house and are now heading towards the university. Players get 45 minutes to discover his secret research and email the results (an alien signal) to the outside world before the evil corporation come along to suppress it. The puzzles are astronomy based, including the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, exoplanet radial velocities and cross-matching galaxy catalogues. And there are also simpler puzzles involving astronomy-themed chocolate. Since this was in Czech, my role was limited to making some of the documents the player's need, including a Pioneer-style plaque identifying where the aliens are from.

I decided the aliens should be like the aliens in Commander Keen but happier.
Which was a lot of fun even to test. The puzzles were more difficult than we anticipated (one test group found an important prop but insisted on putting it back where they found it before using it properly...) but eventually, with enough hints, we got it down to being solvable. The fastest group did it in 30 minutes.

And then I went home and collapsed.

(Normal blog services of extended rants will be resumed shortly)