Category Archives: Astrophysics

Nearing the end of Year 2…

I feel like my posts here have become significantly more infrequent over the last year, compared to during the first year of my PhD. I went back and briefly counted, and it’s not as drastic a difference as I expected; I posted 12 blogs during my first year, and have done 8 so far this year. This just goes to show that how I feel something is going is not always the most accurate measure of reality.

I think learning how to separate my immediate perception of my progress from the reality of my progress is the most important lesson I’ve learnt in my PhD so far. I have spent a lot of the last 12 months being frustrated with ‘not moving fast enough’, ‘not doing well enough’, and generally struggling with the idea that I “should” be at least a stage further forward than I am. Every time I speak to another PhD student about their work they seem to express the same idea, which hints at the fact that this is something we are all dealing with! Continue reading

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Telescopes, snow and so much food! (Asiago #1)

Group photo of NEON Observing School 2015 participants

Group photo of NEON Observing School 2015 participants

I don’t think I ever want to eat pasta again…

I’ve recently come home from the NEON Observing School in Asiago Observatory, Italy. This was a 10 day course designed to give Astro PhD students a chance to experience and learn about observing and data reduction, with a combination of lectures and group work. We also ate more food than I thought was possible; three course meals for lunch and dinner every day is not something I’m used to! Continue reading

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Cloudy in Belfast?

Participants at the Cloudy Summer School 2014 (QUB). Photo credit: Paul Woods

Participants at the Cloudy Summer School 2014 (QUB). Left to right, Nicole Reindl, Anne Fox, Patricia Bessiere, Larissa Takeda, Catherine McEvoy, Kingsley Gale-Sides, Megan Whewell, Tek Prasad Adhikari, Helen Meskhidze, Mattia Bulla, Catia Silva, Matt Nicholl, Andri Prozesky, Ted of School, Gary Ferland, Janet Chen, Tommy Nelson, Jake Turner, Richard Tunnard, Brianna Smart, Tom Finzell, Ting-Wen Lan, Joe Polshaw Photo credit: Paul Woods

In August (18th-22nd) I attended a Summer School at Queen’s University Belfast. The week was based around learning how to use a computer programme called Cloudy, which is an atomic physics code that simulates the spectrum you should expect to observe from many astrophysical objects and scenarios. Continue reading

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ISSI – Discussions, Presenting and Editing

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

In December, only two and a half months after I started my PhD, I wrote about a trip I was about to take to the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland.

When I got back I wanted to write about my experiences there, but it was on that trip that as a consortium we tried to work out a consistent picture for the strange data we collected of NGC 5548 over the summer. It was clear that we had an unexpected result and we wanted to minimise the risk of anyone else realising this before we had chance to publish, plus we decided as a group to submit to Science and therefore it was important to keep in mind their embargo rules.

As the first paper from this campaign was published last week, I want to go back and describe the experiences I had at ISSI. I have now spent two weeks there, one in December 2013 and one in May 2014, with almost the same people each time. I learnt a lot during both of these weeks at ISSI, but also found them very different; I will try to explain this in the rest of this post. Continue reading

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X-ray Universe 2014 – Dublin, Ireland

A full session hearing about Athena and the future of X-ray astronomy. Credit: @antmarcarr on Twitter. Click on the photo to go to the original tweet.

A full session hearing about Athena and the future of X-ray astronomy. Credit: @antmarcarr on Twitter. Click on the photo to go to the original tweet.

Last week I went to my first international astronomy conference, X-ray Universe 2014. This was organised by the XMM-Newton Science Operations Centre and had about 350 delegates, 217 talks and 135 posters.

I took a poster, showing my work so far this year, and the consortium I’m in had six talks about our NGC 5548 campaign on one afternoon (I’ve explained the main result we announced in this post).

While this was my first international astronomy conference, it wasn’t my first international conference, as I had attended the International Planetarium Society’s 2012 conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That one had 700 delegates, so the 350 people at X-ray Universe felt less intimidating than it would have done otherwise! Continue reading

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Doing science and dealing with Science

A screenshot from an animated journey through the active galaxy NGC 5548, created by Renaud Person, one of the world directors of the famous Assassin's Creed video game

A screenshot from an animated journey through the active galaxy NGC 5548, created by Renaud Person, one of the world directors of the famous Assassin’s Creed video game. Click on the image to watch the animation on YouTube.

It has been almost six about four (EDIT: I counted…) months since my last post, and for once there has been a reason for that other than “I was busy”. I started this blog as a way to write about my research and experiences as a PhD student at MSSL, and for the last 6 months the experiences I’ve wanted to write about have all been directly connected to something I have had to keep quiet.

On 19 June 2014, the first academic paper I have been involved in was published:

“A fast and long-lived outflow from the supermassive black hole in NGC 5548″, J. S. Kaastra et al, Science, 19 June 2014 (10.1126/science.1253787)

A free to access version is available on the arXiv here.

EDIT: A non-specialist summary is on the UCL news page here.

I have written before about my involvement in a consortium; this group of over 30 astronomers has been working together on one set of data, a multi-wavelength campaign studying the active galaxy NGC 5548.

Submitting this paper to Science meant that the whole consortium decided not to publicise our research, as when Science accepts a paper it is then under embargo until publication.

Continue reading

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The Importance Of Your PhD Supervisor

I am really enjoying my PhD at MSSL and the life I have around it, but not every day starts particularly well. Continue reading

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I am a scientist, I do not work alone. (Switzerland!)

The Seyfert 1 galaxy NGC 5548. Image taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The Seyfert 1 galaxy NGC 5548. Image taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

When I started my PhD I became part of a consortium, a group of researchers at different institutions who work together on specific projects. This consortium is led by Dr. Jelle Kaastra, a Senior Scientist at SRON (the Netherlands Institute for Space Research) and has members not only in the Netherlands but also in France, Israel, the USA and of course the UK (all at MSSL – my supervisor, her previous PhD student, and now me).

Working with other researchers from different institutions, and different countries, causes a lot of regular interaction to be through email. I’m sure everyone reading this will be aware how much faster some conversations can be if they are face-to-face instead! Therefore this consortium arranges meetings to help the process of working together. The next one is in Switzerland on 8th-13th Dec, at a place called the International Space Science Institute in Bern, and I’m going! Not only am I going, but I have a 20 minute slot to ‘present my preliminary results’ to the rest of the consortium (having started this PhD only two months ago I’m both excited and nervous about that part!).

The International Space Science Institute's logo

The International Space Science Institute’s logo

Continue reading

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Astro Group Seminar: Satellite Galaxy Evolution and Student Advice

New Hubble image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

New Hubble image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

Every Thursday afternoon (apart from the first one in a month) the Astrophysics Group at MSSL has a seminar. These seem to mostly be by speakers from different institutions and about a wide range of topics. After the main seminar the speaker also sits down with the PhD students to answer any questions and give career advice. I enjoyed both sections and have summarized both in this post.

Although I have been at MSSL for three weeks now, due to a welcome event at UCL’s main campus and the beginning of a month, last week was my first seminar.  The speaker was Dr Anna Pasquali from the University of Heidelberg who talked about satellite galaxy evolution. Continue reading

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#STFCastro: Lyman-alpha forest

A forest. Not a Lyman-alpha forest.

A forest. Not a Lyman-alpha forest.

A couple of weeks ago now I attended the STFC Astronomy Introductory Summer School for incoming PhD students. I have a general overview post of the whole week here.

One of the first lectures was by Ross McLure from Edinburgh University. It was about high redshift galaxies and his particular research into them. These galaxies are extremely far away and therefore the light has travelled a very long way (and for a very long time) to get to our telescopes, so we see them as they were near the beginning of the Universe.

The part that stood out for me was his explanation of the ‘Lyman-alpha forest’. This is a feature in spectra of distant galaxies and quasars and something that has come up a few times when I’ve been reading about spectra but that I’d never been able to find an understandable explanation for. Continue reading

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