Long Time, No See! The Woeful Strains of Academia

*The wind howled and rattled against the cold and dark window pain… Suddenly… LIFE*

Hello everyone who so happens to tremble and fumble along to me own little bloggy/science page… Thing? I know it’s been an awfully long time since my last post, but there have been reasons. The most obvious one is that I’ve been busy with my studies. And finding the time, has been hard (admittedly, I…Err…Forgot as well).

So, considering we’ve been turning to dust here on the internet. What have you been doing exactly?

Well, long story short I have just been “working”. Research can be slow, painstakingly so. For the most part I have been working hard in reducing, cleaning and analysing my data. Followed by collating it all so I don’t forget or lose what I’ve just been doing. Not only that, but there has been a lot of programming to try and fit in. As well as that I’ve been doing lots of writing, endless writing of what essentially is a massive dissertation, or a really long essay.

Wait, wait, wait… Programming? I thought you were an Astronomer?

Yes, well I might have mentioned this before if you can remember?… Well, Astronomy heavily relies on computers, and not only that but the amount of data we have is, well, a **** load. We want to be able to have programs that can help us to reduce and analyse the data quickly with minimal error. So, we therefore have to make little programs to these things for us. This allows us to get to the fun bit of interpreting the data without too much faff. We are full of surprises aren’t we!

All of this writing, it sounds pretty intense. What were you writing exactly, and why?

Ahhh! Well, I had been writing what’s called at the Open University a “Probation Report”. Now, since I am doing an M.Phil there is no real “probation” as such like there would be with a Ph.D student. However admin wise I still have to show something to the University that I have been doing work, and not just wasting my days playing tiddlywinks. It kind of makes sense really. Also it’s allowed me to consolidate my information and data into one document. Which has made my thinking less vagarious!

Wow… This is making my head hurt with all of these different things you have to do. What are you doing now?

Currently I am just busy ‘doing the science!’. That is, getting as much science as I can out of all of this data as humanly possible. All this while knowing I’ll have to submit my work formally into a bound thesis at some point over the next few months. To say I’m friggin’ scared is putting it mildly. Mainly for the viva voce exam where I defend my work. Essentially an oral exam where I have to confirm that I am the person whom has written the thesis, and knows what I am talking about.

Glad I’m not stuffed into your shoes!… So, doing anything else?

Well, as well as my main ‘academic’ life I’m also doing many other things. For one example I’m learning German, which finding the time for at times has been tricky. However I have enrolled myself onto the Goethe Institut A1 exam for beginners. I am doing this to gain another skill, but also because my girlfriend is German. So, it would be perfect to talk amongst English people who most likely will not understand what we’re talking about. Haha! I’ve also been helping out with some of the undergraduate modules, mostly acting as a ‘guide’ for students accessing and using our Radio Telescope here on the OU campus. Remotely controlled from the students’ homes. It’s fun and interesting work to do!

Been rather busy haven’t you? Oh well, what next after this M.Phil of yours?

Aha! Yes, well you can’t blame one for trying to be as resourceful as possible with gaining experience. But yes! After the M.Phil I hope to continue my studies on towards a funded Ph.D, as of this moment in time I’m looking up potential places to apply to. So Exeter, the OU, Liverpool, maybe oxbridge etc. In short, we’ll see how it goes :-). Can’t be picky, but I also have to be happy.

Anyway, I must dash off and wander off to ‘do the science’. But it’s been lovely to catch up with you all again. I promise I will not be so much of a stranger in the future.

Catch you all later astrogeeks!

TheObAstro.

Philosophising Update of the Master Variety

…*Prod*…*Prod*…*Poke*…*Thwack!*  Wake up Lawrence!

Gaahh!… First of all “ouch!”, and secondly, I’ve been too busy to update this blog as often as I’d have liked to, so I’m sincerely sorry for me being pretty much a useless fool. However I’m here now, and wow, it’s amazing how quickly time has just flown on by these past 3 months.

Sorry about hitting you, but anyway, what have you been doing these past few months?

I probably deserved the slap, as I should probably slow down now as we come close to Christmas… So, what have I been doing? Mostly reading, or at least attempting to read as reading academically can be a bit challenging at first, but the simplest workaround is to only focus on 3 key areas (A good tip for any aspiring researcher); The Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion.

But what’s so important about these 3 points, and why are you reading, shouldn’t you be finding something new; ground-breaking nuggets of knowledge?

Well, reading is a key starting point for anyone researching a particular area, everyone focuses on one niche area at a time; if you don’t have the background understanding then you can’t build upon our current understanding. So, in short I’m starting some research into an area of astronomy I’m not so well rehearsed in and so therefore I have a lot of reading of academic papers, firstly on background, and then diverging off into areas related to what work I’ll be doing. And this brings me to the 3 key points; the abstract, a concise overview of the point to the paper, the results and conclusions/findings from the research; the introduction, setting the scene or providing the background so we can understand the point to the research along with what questions we hope to answer; finally the conclusion, which simply puts the results together to assess whether anything meaningful lies within the data.

As for the “ground-breaking nuggets of knowledge”, well, that’s something that could come late ;-). This is the beauty of science my fellow astrogeeks, whether your hypothesis is correct or not it doesn’t matter, it’s still progress as you eliminate one possibility out of many. Anyway, that’s enough of me waffling about those bits!

Well, it sounds interesting, so may I dare ask as to what it is you’re working on?

Hmm… Well, luckily it’s not top-secret so I think I can spare a few words to describe what I’m doing, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you to death with in-depth details for now. Basically I’m using data from NASA’s Spitzer (Infrared) Space Telescope, and what I’ve been doing so far has been to “mine” through this data for any spectra data on Quasars; which are said to be the progenitors of all Galaxies by most in the argument chain. More specifically I’m looking for ‘PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon) features’, these are long chain molecules in space that emit light in the infrared when excited by UV photons from stars, these molecules can therefore be used to trace the star formation rate (SFR) to a certain degree; know the total infrared luminosity then you know the SFR. From this we want to see if the star formation lies close to or far away from the quasar; this will give us clues as to what affect the quasar has on star formation, as it’s most commonly agreed that they retard such stars from forming with the intense radiation field that surrounds them. It’s rather interesting :-D.

Wow, so many questions, you’ve bamboozled me… So, I’ll ask the complex ones another time after my brain’s recovered, but how have you been getting on?

Haha, well, don’t worry I’ll try and make everything I do and say as accessible as possible :-), but for the most part it’s been going well. Astronomy in the modern world is predominantly computer based, and (oddly) filled with mac users, however that shouldn’t come as a surprise with the flexibility of using UNIX. The computing side mainly means I use them to help analyse data, the reason, well machines can do perform routines and calculations far quicker than us, but they are still ‘stupid’ to the extent that they require human input to give them ‘orders’ so to speak; essentially I program using a syntax known as Python. Luckily Spitzer has it’s own suite of software developed by academics at Cornell University in America (whom one of them is my supervisor), this software is known as SMART (Spectroscopic Modelling Analysis and Reduction Tool); it can obtain spectra from the data taken by the spectrograph on Spitzer. This software is brilliant, but trying to get it to work has spent a large chunk of my initial hours, the downside to computing reared its ugly head, so after battling for days on my desktop, and then on the loaned out macbook I have, I am now ready to properly utilise any data of quasars containing PAH features. But of course, now as we are heading to Christmas I have since been given the task by my supervisor to create my own routines for the .fits files containing the spectra, in order to streamline the analysis process without using IDL (a annoying, but powerful programming language), as well as for quick referencing.

Aside from the computing, I have been reading, compiling comprehensive lists on the objects I’ve found to have PAHs, as well as starting to scrutinise the data to see if these things are extended from the central source or not.

So in short fellow astrogeeks, it’s been tough and very busy, I’m seemingly working hard and long hours (sometimes 10-11 hour days), but ends with something not so obviously fruitful; quintessentially it’s very slow going. However this hasn’t deterred me, this is research, it’s never simple or painless, just a bloomin’ drag ;-)…

Anyway catch you later fellow astrogeeks, I’ll blog again (hopefully) soon.

Happy Christmas!

The ObAstro.