‘Tis the (conference) season

Summer is upon us (well, what we term ‘European summer’ at any rate – it gets confusing having to make a distinction now), and in the astronomical world this means it’s conference season! The time of year when you get to meet up with your global friends and colleagues in some ridiculously nice location to talk about the latest happenings in whatever field that particular conference happens to be about. Conferences are extremely important, not just for presenting your own work and latest results to your peers (through either a talk or a poster presentation), but also for networking and creating new contacts that may be able to help you get that job or important piece of data later on in life. And of course, it’s a great way to forge new friendships over a beer or two after the day’s seminars are over.

This counts as a ‘beer or two’, right?
(Stellar evolution conference, Poland)

Most astro conferences follow the following format:

Sunday: Drinks reception at the conference venue – a laid-back way to meet the organisers and other attendees of the conference over some bubbly and canopés. Also the time to put your poster up on display at the venue.

Monday and Tuesday: Full days of seminars (involving individual talks of lengths varying between 15mins and 45mins), broken up by coffee breaks and lunch, with maybe an ‘official’ poster viewing session involving more bubbly and nibbles at the end of one of the days.

Wednesday: Usually a half-day of seminars, with the afternoon being allocated as ‘excursion time’ where the conference organisers arrange opportunities for attendees to go on a trip out somewhere in the local vicinity.

Whale-watching boat trip… Pilot whales! 🙂
(PNe conference, Tenerife)

Thursday: Another full day of seminars, but followed by the official conference dinner in the evening – the best part, involving a 3-course dinner and free-flowing wine!

Friday: Normally another half-day of seminars, finishing in the afternoon so people can head back home if needs be.

Weekend: Catch up on the sleep you have no doubt been totally deprived of for the past 5 days.

Most of the time, the institution/University you work for will cover the expenses of the conference for you to some degree – the conference fee, accommodation, flights, perhaps a ‘per diem’ for food if you’re lucky – which is obviously another perk of the job 😉

So as part of my placement at ESO, I’m allowed to choose one expenses-paid conference per year. It was fairly slim pickings this summer (and no nebulae meetings, booo!), but my supervisor Henri suggested I attend my first major stellar conference – CoolStars 17, this year held in Barcelona, Spain. This is the biggest gathering I’ve attended yet (especially as it only happens every two years), with over 430 fellow astronomers heading for the sun for 5 days  of science and schmoozing. However, because I was coming such a long way, I turned 5 days into 9, and arrived the Friday before and left the Sunday after. And I’m so glad I did!

I shared a lovely apartment in Plaça Espanya (not a typo, just Catalan!) with three other good friends of mine who I met during my year on La Palma, and after being on the other side of the planet for 5 months it was wonderful to catch up with some friendly faces and share the odd home-cooked meal together. Plaça Espanya is pretty central, and allowed us to be right next to bars, restaurants, and the metro system – something I have learnt to love since living in Santiago, as Barcelona is also pretty massive. The apartment was pretty much next door to Montjuiic – a hill overlooking the city and home to many exciting things, such as the ‘magic fountain’ (a giant fountain that seems to put on a funky light ‘n’ sound show), the Palau Nacional (an incredible, huge building housing an art museum), various sports facilities for the 1992 Olympic games, the Montjuiic gardens, and an old 18th century fortress (and fortresses are always cool). So we spent the first Saturday wandering around and taking it all in. I could easily have spent another afternoon exploring all this stuff, but sadly I was at risk of becoming lobster-coloured after just a few hours… (even more so during our one trip to the beach, where I thought I could genuinely burst into flames at any moment… but my goodness, it was SO good to be able to swim in the ocean again!)

The aforementioned ‘magic fountain’. Not magic, so much as just… well, big…

Palau Nacional

View over Western Barcelona from the steps of Palau Nacional

Part of the fortress. I love castley things!

View to the East of Barcelona – stunning blue ocean!

Sunday was the official ‘welcome reception’ at the conference venue, the World Trade Centre, where we were offered our aforementioned bubbly and nibbles whilst being granted a beautiful view of Barcelona’s waterfront. Most people also got to put their posters up in the display room at this point… but not me! I had a minor mishap with my poster before I reached the venue. Having had it lovingly printed out for free A0 in size at ESO, put in a protective tube, flown across the Atlantic from Santiago to Madrid and then flown cross-country from Madrid to Barcelona, I then managed to promptly leave it in the bathroom in the arrivals hall 10 minutes after getting off the plane. Naturally, I only noticed after I’d already gone through the security gates into the baggage claim area so could not go back to get it, but the staff wouldn’t send anyone to go look for it either! I then spent the next three days constantly phoning lost-and-found and stressing about it (even getting my friend to look in the airport who arrived the day after me) before finally giving in and getting it reprinted at cost. Apparently, astronomy posters are hot items to steal, should you stumble across one in an airport bathroom! But anyway, to get over the trauma, a few of us sneaked out a little before the end of the welcome reception to go catch England getting knocked out of the Euros (on penalties, true to form) in a local Irish pub… Definitely the way to feel like a complete tourist!

The World Trade Centre… Pretty hideous-looking, really! The tower in front is part of the cable car system.

Monday morning, the conference kicked off properly with its first full day of talks. I had many enthralling titles to look forward to during the week, such as: “Statistics of stellar variability from Kepler”, “Volitle and refratory abundances of F- and G-type stars”, and “Three-dimensional MHD simulations of M-dwarf chromospheres”…. Don’t worry, most of that went straight over my head, too. I’m pretty new to this field (I’m a nebula girl), and so listening to niche talks of subtopics of what is only one specific branch of astronomy could be pretty hard going at times. And as with every conference, the talks all vary wildly in quality of presentation, speech and content. But still, the point of these things is to go and learn something new, and that’s what I did (well, tried to at least). 🙂  Anyway, the process is helped along by being interspersed with coffee + pastry breaks for that much-needed pick-me-up.

We were given 2-hour lunch breaks from 1pm, so we would usually gather a small group of people and head over to the popular touristy area (and touristy prices!) of Las Ramblas – a long street running from the water front up to Plaça Catalunya, full of shops, restaurants, bars, human statues, and market stalls selling the usual array of keyrings, postcards and general tat. So we had a week of good food (from paella to sushi), nice drinks (being particularly pleased with a trip to a cava bar, and finding a source of pisco), and great entertainment (watching 5 loud scouse lads in a local bar, from a distance and under full anonymity as to my heritage, despite a member of our group trying to start a loud rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to try and draw their attention in our direction). From 3pm, the conference would split up into ‘splinter sessions’, where there would be a choice of perhaps 4 different subtopics of talks to choose from to attend for the afternoon. I admit, rather sheepishly, that I didn’t really attend these as they were way off from what I’m actually doing and so I could already predict that I would just be sitting there with a glazed look in my eyes with a bit of drool dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. So I got to see a lot of what Barcelona has to offer 😉

Antoni Gaudi’s awe-inspiring ‘Sagrada Familia’ cathedral was one such place we swung by, and is certainly a unique piece of architecture! Construction started in 1882(!) and isn’t due to be completed for another 20 years or so. The detail on the brickwork is truly astonishing, and has almost an organic feel to its design. I really regret not actually going inside (the price put me off, although I ended up being pick-pocketed outside of it – yes, again – and having 50 euros stolen, so in reality it would have been the more financially viable thing to do!), and highly recommend it to anyone who may end up in Barcelona in the future. A really interesting webpage describing all the various architectural charms and history of the building can be found here – well worth a read!

So much detail… And this thing is HUGE!

Could almost imagine this on an alien world…

The cathedral, as seen from a hilltop in the city.

Another Gaudi-related attraction we visited was Parc Güell, built between 1900 and 1914 and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the metro station, you can take an outdoor escalator through normal-looking residential streets up to the park entrance! Some amazing-looking buildings, a serpentine-esque bench around an open plaza, and funky-looking terrace walls and columns are some of the things Gaudi and the park had to offer (provided you could beat some tourists out of the way).

The colonades

One of the houses by the park entrance

Again, very ‘organic’ textures…

The Thursday night was the conference dinner, held at La Casa Llotja del Mar. Having Googled what the venue looked like beforehand, myself and my good friend Marjaana decided that this 14th century monument situated in Barcelona’s historic was an LBD kind of place (that’s ‘Little Black Dress’ to you, boys! 😉 ).

LBD’s and bubbly, perfecto!

Conference dinners are another part of astronomical life that look like some sort of cruel social experiment to outside eyes. You get the people like myself and Marjaana who like to doll themselves up a bit to match the venue, and at the other end of the spectrum you get those (usually the lads) who literally walk in off the street wearing the jeans and sticky t-shirt they’ve been wearing all day. You get the more mature generation who like to bring along their wives and sit at the Old Boy’s table, whilst grumbling about the current progress in physics, whilst at the other end you get the fresh-faced postgraduates who all bunch up at one side of the room in their best team effort to drink the place dry, whilst arguing about which karaoke bar to pile into later on. But wherever you sit, these things are always a lot of fun – getting to talk to both new and familiar faces about their science, their country, their way of life, whilst tucking into some good grub and sampling the local vino. 🙂

Whilst being offered pre-dinner champagne in the courtyard of the building, we were treated to a “castell”… A traditional Catalan human tower! Truly impressive (and slightly nerve-wracking!) to watch. Even more nerve-wracking was subsequently watching a few of the astronomers attempt the same act, having new-found, champagne-induced bravery…

One of the structures they built – held my breath every time!

Astronomers – All kids at heart!

The room where we were served dinner was beautiful – high ceilings, chandeliers, colonades, exposed brickwork, candlelight on each table… And a projector screen in the corner showing the Italy vs. Germany match! So much for ambiance.

Beautiful building, beautiful defeat of Germany in the Euros.

The food provided much amusment, in that we had no idea what we were about to be served, based on the menu shown below… Although I must say, having the food actually in front of us didn’t make it much clearer!

Brown dwarf and accretion disk

Stellar convection

You want the moon? It’s on your plate!

The starter in particular was a strange fusion of different food groups, given that one of the ingredients was sorbet and another was some sort of paté… But oddly, it seemed to work!  The second course was more recognisable as meat with potato-y and vegetable-y things, and you can never go far wrong with dessert (grey ice cream, oooooo….). Entertainment throughout the proceedings was provided by the waiting staff, who dropped entire tables-worth of drinks/food/coffee, no less than 4 times during the evening. I just hope that the crockery was from Ikea! A few post-dinner drinks were had in a local watering hole, before turning in for the last day of the conference (and we always have to feel sorry for whoever has the 9am talk on the Friday morning post-dinner!).

And so after a few more lectures, the conference came to a close. Email addresses and phone numbers are exchanged, posters are taken down and lovingly stuffed back into the protective tubes (and not left in bathrooms), and the round of goodbyes are made until the next time. I met some great people there, and I hope that I’ll get the chance to bump into them at some point in the future. In the meantime, I had one full day left in Spain before jetting off for 2 glorious weeks back at home in the UK, which I spent with a friend at Montserrat. But I shall save that for another mini-post after this one, as I think I’ve blathered on long enough 🙂 So…

Hasta la proxima!


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