"The importance of stupidity in scientific research"

An excellent article on The importance of stupidity in scientific research from the Journal of Cell Science. What it feels like to be a research scientist. My fellow astronomer and friend Sue has this cartoon posted on her office wall. I love it. In fact I borrowed it from her for this blog. It pretty much sums things up nicely. I'm pretty sure my astro friend (and fellow Fornax researcher) Dr. Meryl Waugh would approve of its purpleness.

Fornax, Virgo and Coma Cluster conference in Munich

Just got back from a conference in Garching bei Munchen at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and one of the world's most productive astronomical observatories. They operate telescopes in three main sites in Chile; in the Atacama desert, at La Silla, a 2400m high mountain 600 km north of Santiago, and at Paranal,  situated about 130 km south of Antofagasta. You may have heard of the four telescopes that make up the Very Large Telescope (VLT) array.

Anyway, the conference was on the Fornax, Virgo and Coma cluster of galaxies. I’ve been working on these for the past 11 years (wow, has it been that long?). My PhD was on the Fornax cluster. It was the first conference I’ve been to where I didn’t want to miss a single talk. Needless to say it was information overload and my to do list practically doubled by the end of each day. Caught up with a bunch of folks I met when I lived in the U.S. and drank a lot of German beer.

The best part was that I got to spend the weekend before and after in Germany and Austria. I spent the first weekend in Salzburg and hiked around Bergtesgarden National Park, the Alps on the German/Austrian border. I spent the following weekend in Munich. It was my second time there and I love it. The biergartens are fabulous and fortunately the weather was glorious. I also went to the Architekturmuseum der Technischen at the Universitat Munchen. It’s fabulous. Loads of really cool design stuff. I bought a new office mug from the San Francisco Coffee Company, a German coffee chain. Go figure?

Visit to Durham University

Durham Cathedral is renowned as a masterpiece of Romanesque (or Norman) architecture. It was begun in 1093 and largely completed within 40 years. It is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, and one of few to preserve the unity and integrity of its original design.

Durham Cathedral is renowned as a masterpiece of Romanesque (or Norman) architecture. It was begun in 1093 and largely completed within 40 years. It is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, and one of few to preserve the unity and integrity of its original design.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a seminar talk at Durham University. I don’t love giving talks about my research. To be honest I loathe them. I’m terrified of speaking in public but I’ve come to accept that it’s an important to do and I try to give talks as often as I can. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to give a good one.

I had never been to Durham. It’s such a beautiful town and the cathedral is amazing. I caught up with a few astro friends and met some really cool postdocs and PhD students. We went to a lovely old pub for a few pints, lost the pub quiz, and went out for tapas.

There is a bright side to giving seminar talks at another universities. You get to catch up with your mates and it gives you the opportunity to start new collaborations. Since postdocs tend to change research jobs every couple of years, it’s inevitable that your friends end up all over the world. Over the past couple of years I’ve given talks (“visited friends”) in Durham, Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham. Not surprisingly some of these have been scheduled close to my birthday. When I lived in San Francisco I invited a friend to give a seminar talk at the Lab. I’ve also invited people to Liverpool. Good times.

Royal Society Communications and Media Skills Workshop

Earlier this year (March 16 & 17) I attended the Royal Society’s two day Communications and Media Skills workshop at the Kavli International Centre. Chichley Hall is beautiful. It’s a Grade 1 listed country house in Buckinghamshire, just outside Milton Keynes.

  Kavli International Centre. Chichley Hall a Grade 1 listed country house in Buckinghamshire, near Milton Keynes. (Photo credit: Pietro Lio' - University of Cambridge)

Kavli International Centre. Chichley Hall a Grade 1 listed country house in Buckinghamshire, near Milton Keynes. (Photo credit: Pietro Lio' - University of Cambridge)


The workshop was great and I met some really cool people. The course is designed for scientists at any stage of their careers, and is run by leading journalists and communications professionals, Judith Hann and John Exelby. John was news editor at the BBC for five years and then moved into production, being in charge of the BBC's main news programmes. Judith was senior presenter of Tomorrow's World for 20 years, has had her own series on health, food and medicine and has written eight books. She also knows an awful lot about gardening and growing herbs. Being a bit of a foodie we had a great conversation about growing herbs and raising chickens at dinner.

There were about ten of us on the course, most of us were STFC postdocs or Royal Society Fellows (course costs and accommodation expenses are waived), but there were a few tenure track lecturers and professors. The first day was spent working on out writing and editing skills for specific audiences, particularly the press. The second day focussed on broadcasting science, from local radio to news interviews, discussions on funding and delivering science education programs. This was really tough for me. I didn’t handle the filmed interviews well, but I definitely learned a lot from it. Judith and John were fantastic tutors. They were very patient and understanding, but at the same time encouraged us to do things that were perhaps outside our comfort zone.

All postdocs researchers should do this course. At the very least you get to stay in a lovely country house for two days. In addition to the writing and public speaking workshops you learn a lot about the media, and how they view science. It also made me more aware of the importance of getting your science out to the public, to politicians and private funding agencies. We were also given a lot of very useful pointers about ‘new media‘, for example starting science blogs, establishing relationships with reputable science journalists and working with University Press Officers.

Since the course I’ve been approached by one science journalist (via one of the postdocs on the course) to comment on the recently launched RadioAstron, a space-based Russian radio interferometer designed to operate in conjunction with a global ground-based radio telescope network. It will obtain images, coordinates, motions and evolution of angular structure of different radio emitting objects in the Universe with the extraordinary high angular resolution.

For more information about the Royal Society courses click here

Chasing Telescopes – New Blog

Well here it is. The new research blog. Why? Because it occurred to me a few weeks ago that my non-astronomy friends and family still don’t really know what I do each day. I also figured that it might help explain why I keep moving country/continent every few years.

To be honest the idea came to me after receiving emails from my father that went something like this... “What's happening in the universe? are we going to cop it in 2012 from the anticipated sun flare? Where can we hide? What's going to happen to us?”, and the odd phone call that begins with... “so what’s all this talk about a new planet?”

I had already started a sort-of-blog when I worked at LLNL. More like a photo diary, on actual paper with 35mm film, that I was slowly digitising. I started scanning my box of photos and writing a private "blog" on my  Mac PPC. Unfortunately I managed to delete most of it, although the photos are still in a box somewhere.