I feel like writing again

It’s been some very busy months lately. Since I started my Master’s degree, I’ve been working hard on my research and on publications based on it. I am happy to announce that the first draft of my first first author paper is done, and now I wait for the comments of other authors. Also, in December I became a rotation author on Astrobites, which is pretty cool. I’m also working on an extra project (which I can’t talk much about right now) and doing other science stuff on the side when there’s free time.

So, as you can imagine, there hasn’t been much room for writing non-scientific articles. Even gaming (my cup of tea when it comes to cheap entertainment) is set to background lately. The posts here in this blog are actually a repost from my previous website, so that is why there is some weird stuff like missing images and so on. Additionally, they reflect opinions that I had at the time of writing, and they probably changed a lot since. I don’t wanna erase these posts though. In fact, I want to go back to writing again.

Since I stopped blogging, I feel like there’s this hairball of ideas inside my stomach that can’t find its way out. Things like the current state of science in Brazil, where things are going, the situation of diversity in all kinds of fields, personal life strife that’s been going on, and even some experiences that I think worth of writing about.

I’ve been actively tweeting these issues, but it just doesn’t feel the same. For instance, how is it possible to regurgitate all my opinions on, say, the directions that the skeptical and atheist movements are taking at the moment (which, by the way, are thoughtfully explored on the blog Skepchick) in just 140 characters? The answer is: it is not. Also, I feel that tweeting doesn’t click the same skill buttons as does full-fledged blogging: it seems like I’m rusty on the non-scientific writing, which is really bad.

In conclusion: yes, I do intend on getting back to writing again. I might as well start making this blog a bit more public if that happens, since I’ve kept it behind the curtains for too long of a time now. Posts will generally be shorter too, because that is in vogue at the moment. I think 500 words limit is a good choice. Don’t wanna ramble too much. Also, no more obligatory featured image: it just gets in the way of writing. No more eye-candy for the readers, I guess.

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I feel like writing again

Reflections on the #TimHunt case

Some days ago, the #TimHunt case exploded on the internet. There was a main report by the journalist Connie St Louis that showed extremely sexist remarks by the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt during a closed conference about the importance of women in science, which happened in Korea. Following that report, a wave of protesters took on social media and started showing their grief about the remarks, some more direct, others with humor (just check #TimHunt on Twitter).

Because of the backlash of his statements on the internet, Tim Hunt lost honorary positions at prestigious institutions, and saw his reputation go down the drain in just a few days after the fact. He defended himself saying that he meant that as a joke, and that he was just being honest. Many scientists (including Richard Dawkins, for whom I have a lot of admiration on his science and the way he reports it to the public) went on to defend him, saying that, during his career, he always respected women and empowered them, and endorsed his defense statements.

More recently, a story appeared on Daily Mail that raised claims about Connie St Louis’ credibility as a journalist, stating that her CV contains untruthful information about her publications and that, therefore, her words should be taken with a grain of salt. Additionally, it contains a report of a anonymous person adding a few key lines to Tim Hunt’s remarks at the conference, strengthening the idea of it being ironic, and really meant as a joke. Whatever you want to believe “the” Daily Mail with an anonymous source on the internet, that is on you.

Now, everyone seems to have an opinion about that. And here is mine: while it is clear that we don’t have the complete context, jokes always have the potential to offend and cause damage, whatever the context. To me, it seems like doing that kind of joke in such a conference would be too stupid of a step to take, and I wonder how clueless could a scientist be about social dynamics that he wouldn’t think about that being completely terrible.

It’s not the first time I see a scientist make a stupid joke that can put him in a bad situation if made in public. At school, I knew many teachers that would spill them out almost daily, and would continue their lives as if there was nothing wrong with their joke. But the fact is that there is. The most damaging jokes are the ones that are not reacted to. Clueless professors and scientists get away with them because they are treated or seen as authorities at their institution. Maybe that is why they are clueless?

The fact that this case exploded is a vindication. For years, people have been quiet about stupid racist/sexist jokes among the scientific community, but now we can take over social networks to speak out loud about this issue. Well, too bad it happened with a “misjudged joke” by a Nobel laureate, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. I have seen many scientific role models, such as Richard Dawkins and Richard Feynmann, having their statements judged by the public as sexist. Especially in Feynmann’s “Surely You’re Joking…” book, it is clear that he had a peculiar taste for practical jokes and toying with women.

But many people ask: do they deserve this? They have their arguments for defending Tim Hunt and other white male scientists: “it was just a joke”, or “he is now too old and clueless”, or “he was raised in a different cultural context” or “he has already apologized, what else do you want”? All of these are perfectly valid, but it is difficult to undo damage. And by that, I mean the damage done to Hunt’s reputation. He may have ended up as a scapegoat, and that is a lesson to be learned by other scientists and professors: be careful with your stupid jokes.

What I do know and endorse is that people who suffered injustice for centuries do deserve equality, they deserve respect, and they deserve to not be joked about. I also think that we should not judge someone based on an incomplete picture. During the shitstorm shortly after Hunt’s remarks went public, I retweeted something that implied he was “not an OK human being.” Now, in hindsight, I regret that retweet, because I was too quick to judge him based solely on the reports being made at the time. And I apologize for that. This piece of text by Alessia Errico on Nature shows another side of this whole story, of a Tim Hunt that is thoughtful of his female scientific partners but, still, a terrible comedian. I don’t know if I am entitled to accepting Hunt’s apologies, but I would urge you to do it, if you were somehow offended by his joke.


Featured image: “MacShane knew of course that the woman wasn’t real.”, photo by Terry McCombs on Flickr, author of the art unknown.

 

Reflections on the #TimHunt case

Woke up a co-owner of ESO’s facilities

The news is not that fresh, but I just want to register the information if someone missed the buzz of the last days or if this text was retrieved from an old and well-preserved server on the distant future when humanity has deceased. In case you didn’t know, Brazil is in its way towards being the first non-European country to be a member of ESO, the European Southern Observatory. The whole process started back in 2010, when the Ministry of Science & Technology proposed an agreement to ESO. At that moment, Brazil was enjoying fruitful times, with a steadily growing economy and a general improvement on the people’s lives, especially the poor. Things were good, so the 270 million euro investment on membership didn’t seem like too long of a stretch.

However, investments in science and technology are also slow to get on going in this country. It is now 2015, dollar and euro went skyward, our economy is stagnated, and there is a climate of political uneasiness. Things are rough now. Even so, the slow pace has led us to what seems to be a happy ending. In March 19th, the Congress finally approved the investment (which they generally called a cost) on ESO and the membership. The political strife between the federal government and the [mostly] opposing congress may have been a blessing: it is said that they only approved the membership because president Dilma Rousseff was showing signs of backing off of the agreement.

After going around back and forth through a series of bureaucratic assessments, the process went to the Senate, and on May 14th, they also approved the investment on ESO. As someone has put out on Twitter: Brazilians woke up next morning being the co-owners of the most advanced ground-based telescopes on Earth. Today, May 19th, the Senate has promulgated the approval through the Diário da União.

The Senate didn’t put much of a fight to bar the entrance to ESO. In fact, they seem to be in accord about the benefits to our country on becoming a member. Here’s what is said in the official statement by the Senate (my own translation):

“Given what was shown, we are certain that [the membership] is an investment that will give our country an immediate return. Furthermore, there are already many research projects whose success was only attained because of the efforts of our astronomers and the observation time that was conceded to them, in addition to the perspectives of participation by our companies and institutions on the E-ELT construction. On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that this is, above all, a long-term investment in science, technology and education by our country.”

That wisely said, we are now [arguably] one step away from finally becoming a member of ESO: we need the president Dilma Rousseff to approve the project of law. This is it, people, we are almost there! Even though there is this rough political climate in Brasília, it is highly unlikely that the president will overrule the decisions of the Congress and the Senate. Will she survive long enough as a president until then? Well, that’s another story, but I would bet that she will.

Anyway, this is where things are now. I am very happy, not only because we will continue to be able to use ESO’s facilities for our research, but also because this is a huge and inspiring step for us. Astronomy was judged by many politicians to be frivolous and unimportant given the core issues that our country has. But even so, with the efforts of many people, we are almost there. We have long ways to go when it comes to science, technology and education, but it is also true that we have never seen such good times in Brazil. Baby steps.


Featured image: an excerpt of the Brazilian Senate’s report on the decision taken on May 14, 2015

 

Woke up a co-owner of ESO’s facilities

One’s small telescope is another’s exoplanet hunter

Are we alone? This project is part of one of the biggest efforts of modern astronomy, which is trying to answer questions such as “can we find another Earth?” and “is the Solar System common?”. But these are very general questions, and there are many ways to look for the answers. For instance, we can turn into the closest stars in our own Galaxy, and look for signatures that indicate the presence and characteristics of (exo-)planets orbiting them.

The majority of exoplanets discovered in the latest decades are hot Jupiters, massive gaseous planets that orbit in a very tight trajectory around their host star. This was unexpected to us, when we first got these results, because we were very used to our own Solar System, with its rocky planets in the inner part of the system, and each one relatively far away from the Sun. A hot Jupiter can be as close to their host star as a fraction of Mercury’s orbit. So, yes, that is weird. The following plot shows a compilation of the exoplanetary systems that we have discovered so far. Most of what we see are single planets instead of various planets orbiting a star, but this is probably a bias, due to limitations of our instrumentation and methods.

nature13781-f1
All the exoplanets we had discovered until September 2014. Lissauer, J.; Dawson, R.; Tremaine, S. Data provided by J. Rowe. Nature 513, 336–344

When we look at these stars, sometimes we see variability in their brightness, and there are many phenomena that can cause it. One of the causes is an exoplanetary transit, and the variability this case is very tiny, of the order of millimagnitudes. But they can be observed, and this is what many astronomical surveys do: they look for dips in stars’ brightness, all through the sky.

Although there is Kepler to perform surveys from space, there are too telescopes here on ground doing this work, which is the case of KELT, the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope. And when I say little, I really mean it: the telescope is as tiny as a photographic camera. When I first saw a picture of it, I though “wow, that’s a cool mount, but why the hell did they put the picture of the mount without a scope”? It came to me as a surprise when I took a better look at the picture and noticed that the telescope was already there, and it’s actually just the CCD box with lenses attached to it. There are actually two KELTs, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the south. “Kilodegree” is because the field of view of the telescope is very big, which is caused by the awfully short focal length of the scope. It’s tiny after all, so no surprise there. But we should not think little of this instrument: it is powerful enough to see very slight brightness variability in many stars at the same time, and this is where its power resides.

IMG_8787.resized
The Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope. Yup, it’s that tiny. But it is powerful. Credit: KELT Team.

The problem with KELT is that, sometimes, it’s difficult to disentangle variability from other possibles causes. And this is where we come. KELT needs other instruments to make follow-up observations of their candidate targets. We are using the B&C 0.60 m telescope from Pico dos Dias Observatory to make follow-up observations for KELT South (which is located in South Africa). Our job is to observe stars for which transits are predicted, and make light curves of them.

If you are not familiar with light curves, they are plots of a star’s brightness through time. They are important tools in the study of variability, and many discoveries of exoplanets were done using such plots. There are various ways to construct these. One of them is to take consecutive observations (generally in the same night and in the same instrument) of a target star, and compare its brightness with other stars (let’s call it the “standard stars”) in the same field. The standard stars must not have an intrinsic variability, otherwise we will not be able to compare their brightness in time with our target star. This method is called differential photometry, and it is much more accurate when compared to absolute photometry, which consists on calculating the brightness of a star from “principles”, directly taking into account effects of atmosphere and instrumentation – the problem with this method is that the uncertainties will be much wider than the variability we are trying to observe (remember it’s of the order of a few millimagnitudes).

When we have two stars in the same field of view, if it is small enough, we can assume that they are affected in the same way by the atmosphere and the instruments, and this approximation is, most of the time, good enough. Because we want to compare brightness, what we do to minimize the uncertainties as best as possible is to try to get as much light as we can in an image. Getting photons is like counting, which is a Poisson process, and statistics geeks will remember that the uncertainty in a Poisson process is proportional to the square root of the number of occurrences. An exoplanetary transit takes some time: from a few dozen of minutes to a couple of hours, so we should aim for a time resolution of a few minutes, generally. But if the star is too bright, the CCD can saturate in just a few seconds. In order to gather more light as possible in a single image, we can try de-focusing the telescope a little bit, so that the CCD doesn’t saturate quickly and we keep on a linear scale for a longer time. All this contributes to having an accurate photometry, which is what we are aiming for.

Data reduction follows the usual algorithm: bias subtraction followed by flat-fielding. But after that comes the most interesting part: doing the actual photometry. As I said, we are using differential photometry, but there are some subtleties to it. The way we do it is to measure the brightness of the target star and the standard stars inside of circles or, say, apertures in the image (which is why this sub-procedure is called aperture photometry). We then follow to compare their measured brightness by subtraction in a log-scale, and this results in differences in the scale of magnitudes. These differences are then plotted, and what we have is, hopefully, a “rough draft” light curve of the target star. The plot will be, however, in an arbitrary unit for the magnitude. What we do is to normalize the differences in magnitude, by establishing that the highest values of differences should be zero (which is the same as saying that the difference of brightnesses of two non-variable stars should be null). If our target star has a variability, the difference in brightness will be seen as a shift from zero.

We have performed two observation sessions so far. The first one was more of a test, to see if the B&C telescope would be suitable for this kind of research. Most of our results at this point come from this first session. The second session was performed in the beginning of April and had two targets that were exoplanet host candidates, but the weather was crap. The following plots show the light curves that we have obtained so far. These results are very preliminary, though, because the observations weren’t, well, very good. We weren’t very experienced with transit observations, so we messed up on something very important: we didn’t get many exposures before and after the transit, so the bulk of the data is too concentrated during the event. Also, the plotted uncertainties are completely systematic, no statistical uncertainties were obtained thus far. Conditions were not photometric in either sessions.

Data reduction was done in IRAF. We performed differential photometry of the target star using the software AstroImageJ. Plots were created with Python, using NumPy, Matplotlib and Seaborn.

WASP19
Light curve for the confirmed exoplanet host WASP 19, with a predicted transit depth of ~20 mmag. Notice that the y-axis contains the apparent magnitude of the star (obtained through comparison with another star in the field of view).
KS21C009352
Light curve for the eclipsing binary KS21C009352. Notice the y-axis contains difference between the star’s current magnitude against its before/after transit magnitude. The predicted magnitude depth is ~30 mmag.
WASP104
Light curve of the confirmed exoplanet host WASP 104. Notice the y-axis contains difference between the star’s current magnitude against its before/after transit magnitude. The predicted magnitude depth is ~15 mmag. Cloudiness affected this observation.

WASP-19 is a confirmed exoplanet host, with a transit depth of approximately 20 mmag. In our observation, we could only get the end of the transit, because the beginning was washed out by twilight. And we can see that the observed transit depth agrees very well with the predicted. Additionally, we observed KS21009352, which is an eclipsing binary with a depth of 30 mmag. Again, as we can see in the light curve, our observed depth agrees very well with the prediction.

Another interesting result is for the light curve of the confirmed exoplanet host WASP-104, which has a transit depth of approx. 15 mmag. The photometry we performed produced these weird outliers, and it was caused by cloudiness (it also happens for the targets of the second observation session, but it is even worse, reason why I didn’t plot them here). However, if we get rid of these outliers on the transit of WASP-104b, we can see that we managed to get a reasonably good agreement with the predicted depth (but the uncertainties are bigger when compared with WASP 19 and the eclipsing binary). I wonder if there is a way to improve the uncertainties (if you know something, please let me know in the comments).

We plan to have several other observation sessions throughout the year, this time observing actual exoplanet candidates for KELT South, so more results are coming. And hopefully better ones. I’m keeping a project page about this research that I will keep updated as things go on.

One’s small telescope is another’s exoplanet hunter

If you die in science, you die for real

In 2011, I made a choice that would completely change my life: I decided to become a scientist. It was a very weird period, I was doubtful and delusional. The thing that I didn’t realize, however, is that the feeling of doubt and delusion would never go away, the better I tried.

The change itself was actually reinvigorating. Since when I first had a talk with the like-minded, I felt an urge, an euphoria, that I still feel when I go up a mountain to work at an observatory. I absolutely love to observe the sky, and the sensation seems to become ever stronger the more I do. The twilight is the beginning of a new night, of new opportunities and a travel that might end at new discoveries and excitement. For the first time in my entire life, I really feel like I belong somewhere.

And this is why… I am afraid. Almost every day, while sailing through the internet or visiting Twitter, I end up reading a post about how academia is broken; that there are too many students or postdocs trying to get an academic job and there are not many being offered; that working in academia is frustrating and it pays badly. I am afraid I might end up leaving science, and coming back to the same frustrations I had when I was looking for a job in corporations.

Since I made the decision to become a scientist, I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. To be completely honest, I was in the “follow your passion” mindset. I had confidence that everything would be fine if I did my best. Some say that we are afraid of what we don’t know, so it could be that I’m afraid now because I don’t know the exact level of difficulty of being a scientist or just because my future is uncertain.

Money is not a bigdeal for me: I was born in a simple family, and I can live comfortably with just a couple of bucks to buy me food and pay for the internet. But I know that many people want to construct their families, and have a nice house to raise their kids, pay for good education for them. So it’s understandable why a career in academia is problematic on that point. A scientist will only be able to have these good things when they are on a professorship track, and it can take a couple of decades to achieve that.

One can argue that I can be an astronomer or a scientist, even without being in academia: I could, for example, be working on data science, since it is big thing right now with corporations; or I could be a writer, working in science outreach. So there is that: looking for something outside academia. Of course, the chances and opportunities would depend mostly on luck, but also on what you have “worked” on during your graduate courses (the quotation marks are there because some companies don’t consider research as “working”). And this is where all my frustrations with corporations come from: not seeing the value in science.

When I read these inspirational and informative posts about looking for jobs outside academia, it’s a bit unsettling to read about isolated cases. I mean, maybe John was lucky enough to find a position as data scientist in an awesome company, and maybe Mary hit the ballpark when she founded her own business; but what about all the other people who left academia and are stuck at uninteresting jobs, just as almost all of my friends who went straight from undergrad to corporations? What do they have to say? Do they exist? We don’t have numbers on it, or at least I never saw them. As an astronomer obsessed with statistics, I find it hard to believe that getting a satisfying job outside academia is an easier task. We should be honest about the issue.

Outside of academia, I know very few people who actually enjoy their jobs as much as I do with astronomy, and all of them have a larger income than I do. They have cars, live in nice places, post selfies on Facebook when they’re traveling, but they hate to wake up in the morning and having to go to work. For them, the weekend is a blessing, and the weekdays are a curse. This is exactly what I want to avoid. Finding a satisfying job is hard, anywhere; there is no magic pill that will solve this quest.

I was talking to a friend this week, who is a professor, and he said things were even worse, in Brazil, a few years ago (around the 90’s and 2000’s). When he was in my position, a graduate student, in the same institution, he had absolutely no prospects of finding a job. Research in our country was sparse and fellowships were rare. It is just now that we are getting on our feet with science. Additionally, most of Brazilian research is done exclusively in academia, far away from companies. So, as you can see, at the current generation of scientists, there are two prospects: 1) In public universities, there are many positions being created as the result of investments and outright retirement of the old professors; for instance, at IAG/USP, most professors are either very old or very young, because of the recession gap from the 90’s to the 2000’s. 2) As the local culture of scientific jobs changes, there will [hopefully] be a broader integration between research and companies, which will open up opportunities outside academia.

Sometimes I think that being a scientist is like being an artist: it’s a very elusive position, one that few can get into; one that not everyone recognizes its importance; one that is full of ups and downs; and most importantly: one that takes a lot from you, and it will probably not financially pay-off your efforts. But, damn, it’s awfully satisfying.

Maybe I should stop focusing too much on the objectives, it’s not like a “if you die in science, you die for real” kind of situation. Perhaps I should just enjoy the ride, whatever the destination. To be honest, it’s been like that since the beginning: for instance, I never chose my exact field of study (apart from focusing more on stellar astrophysics, which I find very enticing), and that’s the reason why I’ve wondered through stellar evolution, formation of stars, interstellar medium and now solar twins and spectroscopy. Also, if you asked me 5 years ago, I would never have said that I wanted to be an exchange student in Netherlands. Things just happen, and our inclinations change. Maybe the randomness of life is what makes it worth living.


Featured image: “Science by Jurne, Huer by Enron” by Steve Rotman

 

If you die in science, you die for real

Let’s talk about talks

Last Tuesday (Apr 14), there was an interesting discussion at IAG/USP about the outcomes of a poll, or rather, a survey that some of the astronomers did about the attendance to the department’s talks (seminars and colloquia). I don’t have the actual numbers, but there were some results like this:

  • 50% of the faculty staff and 50% of the postdoc answered the survey, and so did some 60% of the graduate students, plus a handful of undergraduate students
  • Most people said they only attended talks related to, specifically, their field of research
  • Most people answered that the main reason for not attending other talks was because they were bad, and the second (but close) reason was “lack of time”

While these results are somewhat alarming, they are not at all surprising. I have to confess that I too shared this closed-mindedness of only attending to talks that only belonged to my area. But luckily I was remembered that astronomy is not only the study of stars, or galaxies, or any other particular field: astronomy is a body of knowledge that encompasses countless aspects of the universe. I think it is common to separate things because we like to work with compartmentalized blocks, it’s easier that way. Or at least it seems, most of the time.

First point: why go?

The discussions reminded me of this cartoon: don’t forget the bigger picture, it says. And now that I think about it, I’ll probably print it and glue it to my office’s door, just because more people should see it. It’s not like a simple cartoon will magically change someone’s mind, but it can help. There are countless reasons why we should listen to other fields of research, such as networking opportunities, intuition pumps, the sharing of new ideas, and maybe even a potential new collaboration.

One of the reasons why people decide to become scientists is the autonomy. Scientists have, to a certain level, more freedom than other professional careers. In principle, we are not generally forced to attend meetings that are not of our immediate interest, nor do we have to have a fixed, written in stone, schedule. While we have our own interests and motivations, it is important to remind that we need to address to certain expectations. Scientists are expected to produce knowledge, to answer questions, to give back to the people who paid their salaries. There is no such a thing as a free lunch. The better we can weave our little dents in humanity’s body of knowledge, the better scientists we are.

Okay, but what if talks are outright bad or too hard to understand? What if the talkers don’t introduce the subject? What if they do not consider that they are addressing a broader audience, even if the organizers said them so? There are a few mitigating actions that can help in this point, such as red-flagging bad talkers and making sure they are prepared to talk to a particular target audience. In the discussion, someone gave the idea of a postdoc giving an introductory talk [a few days] before the main one, so as to “normalize” everyone to the same level. So, there are things we can do, and others that we can’t. If the talker is just bad, what can effectively be done about it? Nothing more than a red flag. So there is no point in discussing this. There will always be some bad talks, we just have to deal with them.

Second point: quantity vs. quality

An important issue that was pointed out is that it is not always about the quantity of people that attend talks, but rather how much knowledge is exchanged, which is the actual point of having a talk. As someone wisely said, it is possible to have a wonderful session with just ten people.

Some people criticize their snappy-styled, sitcom-sized talks, but there is much we can learn from TED. Their talks engage people in ways that, sadly, few scientists can do. Last week, during a Data Science Workshop at IAG/USP, we had a wonderful and engaging presentation by Professor Claudia Medeiros (Instituto de Computação/USP), where she introduced us into the many doors that were open for data scientists in the corporate world. She didn’t delve into the technicalities of data science, she focused on a broader topic that would suit the varied audience we had. And she delivered the message, that was received with many curious questions.

But as I said previously, expecting to always have a good talk is not a good thing. Let’s be more pratical: what can we do to make people engage more? A suggestion made on that discussion is to give an opportunity to people who were too embarrassed to ask questions, such as using an anonymous questioning system or even Twitter hashtags (which is a great idea). Also, we should avoid pointless questions such as “did you consider the magnetic fields?”: they do not help in engaging people; in fact, they can make it harder. Please, leave technical questions for an after-talk session or just read the paper; unless, of course, the talk is targeted to a technical audience who will actually be interested to know about your goddamned magnetic fields.

Another idea I read somewhere was that some people find the informal sessions, such as the coffee-break and the dinner, actually more productive, science-wise. Maybe we could have meetings that consisted only on feasting. I don’t think I would suit to these, though, because I would always have my mouth busy and wouldn’t be able to talk.

Second point: blaming an abstract entity

Something was brought up in the discussion that made me a bit uneasy at the time, and in hindsight, I completely disagree with: they said the lack of care for talks or other areas of astronomy (or the fact that students are afraid to ask questions) are part of “our culture” (whatever they meant by that). In fact, I think it is a dangerous line of thought. This thing about always blaming our culture for its miseries has a name in Brazil: it is known as Complexo de Vira-lata (which literally translates to “the Mutt Complex”). If you’re reading this post and work in another astronomy department somewhere else, you’ll most probably relate to the issues of talk attendance. When I was an exchange at Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, at the University of Groningen, the attendance to talks too wasn’t that prolific (I don’t have numbers to cite, though). And the faculty staff didn’t stimulate students to attend them; in fact, it was only my graduate colleagues that did.

I don’t think this is an issue of the culture of our country or of our astronomy departments. First of all, how to objectively define a culture? And how can we change it? Or rather, is it possible to change a culture? How can we change something that we can’t even define? As with the bad talkers, there is no point in discussing this. We should not blame what we can’t define.

Wrapping up: my suggestion

And after presenting you with the discussion we had, here is my take on the issue: can we try smaller groups of discussion? I remember that the best science discussion sessions I had during my course in academia, so far, have been with small groups: up to 10 people, tops. The problem with big sessions is that they will eventually turn into the so dreaded traditional talks, which are less engaging and are more prone to frustrations, almost like classes. Sometimes they are unavoidable, such as in congresses and scientific meetings, and maybe this is their place. But in weekly sessions, it is probably too much.


Featured image: “Back Lighting” by Steve Jurvetson

 

Let’s talk about talks

Photons: gotta catch ’em all

In the beginning of March, we went for an observation at the good and old Pico dos Dias Observatory (OPD), here in Brazil. I think it was the first time I went there during summer, which is the rainy season around these parts, so it’s not actually a good time for observations. We wanted to assess the B&C 0.60 m telescope in its potential to do followup observations for KELT (Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope – pretty funny name: a bit of a satire on ESO’s “very large” telescopes, I imagine), which surveys the sky looking for hot Jupiters around bright stars. So yeah, we went there to hunt some exoplanets.

To do that, we used differential photometry, a method that compares how the brightness of different stars in a given field of view vary with time. In our case, we wanted to see how the brightness of the exoplanet-host dipped when a transit occurred. To do that, we need as many photons as possible to fall on our detectors, so we can have measure the dip with a bigger certainty. Results were very interesting, and I will write a more complete blog entry about our observations in the near future. But, while we were there trying to catch the light (or rather, the shadow) of exoplanets, I was, as always, trying my hand on some night sky pictures.

While I left the telescope doing a very long series of exposures, I set out taking my camera and tripod to do some imaging. And during one of my first trials, I was lucky enough to have a really bright meteor cross the sky and go over the 1.60 m telescope, and even more lucky to have my camera exposing at the time. And further lucky to have set a high ISO, so the meteor stood out beautifully in the picture. Unfortunately, since it was one of the first pictures, the camera wasn’t focused very well (in fact, it was pretty terrible), so it didn’t end up as good as it could be. Also, the Moon was 88% illuminated, so we get this effect of “daylight with stars” in long exposures (in all pictures, click to embiggen).

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A bright meteor over the 1.60 m telescope, Mar 02, 2015, UTC 03h42. It was the first time in my life I got a meteor on picture.

However, things weren’t that bad, because the sky went completely dark after around 4 AM, when the Moon set, so there was this short window of darkness until the twilight, and I was eager to take advantage of it. I haven’t had many chances of taking pictures in really dark places with really dark conditions before, so this was a good opportunity.With the help of some bright stars, I managed to focus the camera and I took these two following pictures. The first one was taken using ISO 3200 and, luckily enough, I got another meteor (a dimmer one, though) and a satellite! The second one was taken with ISO 1600, which has less noise, but it is less sensitive, and so I had to take more exposures, resulting in longer star trails (I don’t have an equatorial tracking tripod). As you can imagine, we have to work with a trade-off between more light and noise/trails.

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The Milky Way bulge, a meteor and a satellite. 15×10 s of exposure, ISO 3200, F3.5. The light pollution comes from the cities around the Mantiqueira Mountain Range.
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The Milky Way bulge, no meteor and no satellite on this one, plus star trails. 20×10 s of exposure, ISO 1600, F3.5.

Here are two other shots taken aiming towards the domes of the observatory, and they are probably my favorite ones. Not only because they look fairly good, but because it was actually very fun to take these shots. The site was so dark, that it was hard to find my way around the observatory until my eyes didn’t get used to the darkness (it took about 10 minutes). Once your pupils are fully open, we can see so many stars in the sky that it is difficult to find the asterisms of the constellations.

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The Milky Way bulge over the dome of the 1.60 m telescope at Pico dos Dias Observatory.
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The southern band of the Milky Way is very rich. In this picture, you can find the Coalsack Nebula, the Eta Carinae nebula and various star clusters.

I think those were very productive nights. We obtained good results from the observations, I got a chance to take pictures in really dark conditions, and food was good. The food from OPD is never a let down. Word is that, when the weather is bad, astronomers like to spend their time lounging at the 1.60 m telescope pantry. Luckily we didn’t need to do that.

 

 

Photons: gotta catch ’em all