The many shades of Grey

Julia Helen Grey and I first met each other at 2 years old in the local playgroup – essentially pre-pre-school that provided us heady days of poster paints, soggy biscuits and dusty fluffy toys in the local village hall in Halewood, Liverpool. Our eyes met from across the room and we scoped each other out. Me, jealous of her beautiful dark, glossy bob haircut; her, mesmerised by my complete lack of anything in that department (“You did have hair!”, my Mum cries, “it was just really fair!”. Sure. I wonder how many times people complimented her on her beautiful baby boy whilst pushing me around the supermarket?).  But as we are often told, opposites attract, and it wasn’t long before we became mates.

Buddies from the word go!

Buddies from the word ‘go’!

At 3 years old, we were cruelly pulled apart and sent to different nurseries. I still had access to the poster paints, soggy biscuits and dusty fluffy toys, but it wasn’t quite the same without my buddy around. In my time without Joowa (as ‘Julia’ would come out as from a baby scouse mouth), I was to experience toilet paper that you could literally use (and I did) as tracing paper, ‘outdoor play’ where every child would fight for the Little Tikes car (and I was upturned on more than one occasion by one particular horrible boy), ‘indoor play’ where every child would fight over the rocking horse before fighting over the sandpit, and a particularly imposing Father Christmas who scared me and made me cry for what felt like a week. They were challenging times.

The classic car, now updated with a headlight! That's probably the descendent of the little sod who pushed me out, judging by the smug look on his face...

That’s probably the descendent of the little sod who pushed me out, judging by the smug look on his face…

However, little did I know that at 4 years old we were to be reunited. It turned out that both of our families were practicing Christians (with my Dad being the vicar of St. Nicholas’ Church, or just “Saint Nick’s”), and so we were both to spend the next six years of our lives at Halewood Church of England Primary School. We would choose each other to be our partner for group work (she was killer at maths and I did, and still, suck at it, so it was the obvious choice), we would hang out together at break times (she was the most serious collector of football swap stickers, whilst I was more of a Pog kinda girl), and we would play at each other’s houses after school as we lived across the road from each other (we both reached ‘proficient’ level at Hungry, Hungry Hippos). We both fancied the same boys in our class (which is still an exceedingly awkward predicament even at 8 years old), we would both die laughing of embarrassment every time my Dad took the morning assembly and brought out his clarinet to play, and we would both be picked out by teachers for ‘important’ tasks (yes, we were the goody two-shoes kids). We absolutely loved our time at that school, and were both devastated when we hit 11 years old and were to go our different ways once more.

“Big school” beckoned at the age of 11. I went to Liverpool College while Julia went to a high school in the local town of Widnes, and so we moved from seeing each other every day to just at weekends. Now we were older, we swapped making dens in the local park for cinema trips, and swapped playing with dolls to playing on my Nintendo 64. Somewhere, I have a brilliant picture of us towards the end of the 90’s with the obligatory sports brand t-shirts and addidas tracksuit trousers. Cool to the end, Jules and I.

Despite having new friendship groups and separate social lives, the events that always stood firm for us were (and are!) going for a curry when both home at The Raj in Woolton Village (where we spend 3 hours chowing down and chin-wagging), our birthdays and Christmas Eve. As we realised that we perhaps didn’t spend as much time together as we should in order to be extra-super-connected, we made a pact: our presents to each other would reflect our childhood fun – the more random, the better. So cue giving each other bubble guns, ‘grow-your-own spaghetti plant’ seeds, animal balloon modelling kits, sherbet fountains, edible playdough… I think my mum enjoys me opening my presents from Julia even more than I do!

The result of the edible playdough. Julia needed help from her church little ones due to its intense artistic requirements.

The result of the edible playdough. Julia needed help from her church little ones due to its intense artistic requirements.

So school days end, and University beckons. She heads off to study music at the University of Manchester (where I did my Ph.D), and I stay closer to home at the University of Liverpool. Older and wiser, we start to talk about more mature things such as plans for the future and how our studies are going, alongside other topics such as last night’s episode of ‘Neighbours’ and whether Toadie was an idiot for trying to go through with a fake marriage to Steph to cover up the fact she is pregnant with her best friend’s husband’s baby (he was). You know, the stuff that life generally revolves around. After University, I go on to my postgraduate studies and she begins her new life as a music teacher. At the end of my first year, I was offered the position of Student Support Astronomer for the Isaac Newton Telescope on La Palma and so jetted off to warmer climes for a year. Not forgotten, she came to visit me for a brilliant week of sunshine, volcanoes and ‘papas locas’.

THAT monstrosity is 'papas locas'... Heaven!

THAT monstrosity is ‘papas locas’… Heaven!

I remember the day that she first told me about this new Spanish member of her church, on one evening out at The Raj during one of my Christmas trips home from Chile. Having come to rainy Liverpool from sunny Seville (I still ask myself “why?” to this day), she told me about her private Spanish lessons she had started to take with Pablo and was wondering at what point they were going to stop calling it ‘lessons’ and start calling it ‘dating”. It wasn’t long before they officially became a couple, and seemed solid from day one. Pablo is a fantastic guy, and I couldn’t be happier for my oldest friend to have found such a traditional romantic. Plus, we all know Spanish-speaking boyfriends are the best 😉

I love to know that I am still thought of by the people most important to me. After the Christmas celebrations, we had a Skype call together – a rare event as we both HATE talking on the phone with people! She catches up with all of my current events, and then starts off with her story. “So I was supposed to be meeting Pablo to go to a concert at the cathedral, etc.”, culminating in how she was handed a box, and inside was another box… and down it went like a group of Russian nesting dolls until she reached one last, small one. A beautiful diamond ring glinted back at her, at which point in the tale I start squealing at my laptop as she does the big reveal of her left hand. She’s engaged, brilliant! “And so we were wondering,” she continues, “if you would be one of our bridesmaids.” Cue more squealing, and immediate acceptance of this great honour. I may be on the other side of the world, but I would be at that wedding come hell or high water. Luckily for me, or perhaps through some divine intervention, she chose her wedding date – 19th July 2014 – to be just 3 days after my PhD graduation ceremony at Manchester, meaning I was already going to be in the country. It’s always useful to save on an extortionate airfare!

This amazing family has been in my life for most of it!

This amazing family has been in my life for most of it!

The wedding itself was beautiful, and I am still gutted that I wasn’t around to help with the preparations and carry out my bridesmaid duties. It took place in St Nick’s, our childhood church in our home village mentioned at the start of this piece, which I hadn’t set foot in since my Dad left as the vicar there in 1995, and they were married by the vicar of my Mum’s current church. So lots of familiarity surrounded me on this day. A brilliant, relaxed service had me in tears as they exchanged their vows in both English and Spanish for the benefit of both families, Pablo never once taking his eyes off her. The whole wedding party surrounded them as they signed the marriage register as husband and wife, relief flooding through Julia’s body as months of planning finally paid off. We celebrated through the rest of the night with a 3-course dinner, touching speeches with translations in the relevant language (with Oscar and I getting a special mention and a round of applause for having traveled the furthest to attend!) and Ceilidh dancing with a live band, before the new couple drove off to prepare for their Italian honeymoon the next day.

All I can say to you, Julia Helen Renjifo Reina, is thank you for being such an awesome, reliable, eternal friend. You are the founding member of what I refer to as my “home team” – the friend who is always still there when I go home no matter how long it has been or how far away I was, and the friendship is just as though I never left. Here’s to another 26 years of curry feasts at The Raj 🙂

The true meaning of friendship

The true meaning of friendship

Hasta la proxima,


Frankie Stein

From little rat to something vaguely resembling a real cat in 6 months!

From little rat to something vaguely resembling a real cat in 6 months!

Frankie. Our little fluffy bundle of joy came into our lives on December 30th 2013, and now we can’t imagine our daily lives without him. There’s something about having a pet that brings out this bizarre parental instinct in you that makes you feel great and makes other people think you have totally lost the plot. I am the daughter of two self-confessed cat-nuts and have never had any other type of pet, so my fate as the Crazy Cat Lady has pretty much been sealed my entire life.


A beautiful vision of the future.

But truth be told… Frankie was nearly a dog. With Oscar always saying that he hated cats and was “a dog person”, that was the original direction we were going in. We even had our puppy picked out (a Chilean terrior, bred by his Uncle) and a potential name. We saw this tiny-weeny 4 week old blob when we went round for an asado on one trip to Chillán, and instantly fell in love when he snuggled into the crook of Oscar’s arm when he held him, and did one tiny puppy-lick on the tip of my nose when it was my turn. We nearly brought him back in the car there and then, but FOR ONCE! common sense took over and we decided to go home and think about the implication properly (yes, mother, it does happen occasionally!).

After two weeks of to-ing and fro-ing between it being a great idea and a terrible mistake, we finally decided that the sensible thing would be to not have him. At that time we were still living in a very small apartment, and the thought of me having to look after and train a small puppy with no previous experience and to do so on my own when Oscar was at Paranal was sort of scary. I think we were both gutted at that decision, mostly because we had already met him and named him – THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO! – but because we both knew how much these Paranal shifts for up to two weeks at a time really sucked for me. Going from spending all day with someone to being on your own for 14 days is hard, and I hated it.

A few days later, on one said shift at the Observatory, Oscar says the magic words: “Why don’t we get our own little cat?”. Now cats I can do! “We should get one from scratch!”, he continued, giving me visions of an Ikea-style build-your-own-kitty set. So just playing around, I Googled something terribly complicated, like “Kittens for sale, Santiago”, to see what sort of things were available. One website seemed to have lots of options, and the first one I clicked produced a photograph of this tiny white lump of cotton wool, with bright blue eyes and head cocked to one side as if staring deep into your soul and saying “You know you want to…”. I showed it to Oscar, and that was it. Another fate sealed, and not long after we called to express our interest in the little thing.

We decided on the name before we collected him. When throwing ideas around, Oscar really wanted to call him Frankenstein “because it will be funny!” That was not going to fly with me, but figured that it could at least be shortened to ‘Frankie’ and prevent me from being subjected to future scoffing (a friend of a friend called their kitten ‘Megatron’ once – now that I like!). Our friend Anna came up with adding ‘Stein’ as his surname, which does give her comedy credits despite the fact it kind of makes him sound a little of Jewish origin now. Although given how he currently is, Frankenstein is actually quite fitting as he is indeed a bit of a monster! There’s no feeling quite like peeling him off the bedroom curtains at 5am on a Saturday, or cleaning up-chucked Go-Cat from the bed when you get home from work. Oh well, it’s all practice for having kids…. Right?!



The-kitten-that-would-be-known-as-Frankie was to be found in a house in Maipú, a commune found to the far west of Santiago. Santiago is a huuuuuge city, so it was a good 45 minute drive to get there in the heat of the morning (don’t forget that December is the middle of Summer here!). As the look of our locale changed dramatically – and not for the better – we wondered what on earth we were getting ourselves into. Were we really headed towards a drug cartel, enticing us in with a promise of seeing those big blue eyes in the photograph? Were we going to be sold into slavery as punishment for being enamored with a currently-intangible ball of fluff?

We eventually find the house in the middle of a dodgy-looking estate and are greeted at the door by the couple, 72 dogs and 164 cats (within a margin of error). The first warning sign. As we walked through the door into their living room and checked out our surroundings we were both thinking “oh crikey…” (to paraphrase, because my parents read this). It was a little like walking into an episode of ‘Pet Rescue’. There were animals everywhere, it smelled weird, and looked like we had just been transported back to the house of a 90 year old granny in the ’70s. We sat on the very edge of the cigarette smoke-stained sofa, wondering if we had made a mistake

And then the came bumbling over. Looking like a little rat with his messed-up fur and skinny tail, Frankie came to check us out for the first time. The husband got a bowl, filled it with cat biscuits and poured milk over the top like breakfast cereal and held it for baby Frankie to drink. That was my second warning sign, as any responsible cat owner would know that they are generally lactose intolerant and should never be given milk, contrary to what ‘Tom & Jerry‘ taught us throughout childhood. Frankie just lapped up the milk, unable to eat the huge biscuits with his fragile kitten teeth, then retreated to the cat bed on the floor to chew on the blanket.

As Oscar talked to the guy about him, I could see that we were going to be in for a fun time… Those beautiful blue eyes from the photograph had been replaced with pink, sore eyes, completely crusted up with mucus which the husband claimed was just “because his mum has stopped cleaning him now he’s bigger.” Warning sign numero tres. Never heard so much rubbish in my life, and knew that the poor boy had an infection. On top of this, he was sneezing (cat ‘flu), had really thin fur that was crawling with huge black fleas, and looked skinny but with a very swollen belly – a classic sign of worms. Yet despite all this, he seemed to be having the time of his life chewing the blanket, chasing it when I wiggled the end, jumping around everywhere. Like he didn’t have a care in the world.

Placing Frankie in his new travel cage along with a little cuddly reindeer he had been constantly playing with, and which he still loves (“Un regalo!”, said the husband. A present!), we drove him back to Las Condes and took him straight to the vet to get sorted out. Eyes cleaned, bathed in anti-flea wash, given anti-parasitic medicine, eye drops and antibiotics – a traumatic first few hours, which he was able to sleep off in the car as we had to drive the 4-hour trip straight down to Chillán for New Year’s Eve.

Chowing down after a hectic first day

But our little Frankie is a trooper. Despite being so sick, he was still full of energy and willing to play and get to know his new family. We do wonder if he is as sweet as he is now because of all the care we had to give him in those first few months. To this day, he has never bitten or scratched anyone maliciously – even when playing, his claws are retracted and he doesn’t bite down when he has you in his grip. His favourite place is sitting on people’s shoulders like a furry parrot, and he loves to have his chest scratched. There is still a funny reminder of his tough first month of life, however: Frankie eats and drinks with his eyes closed! The food starts off in his bowl and ends up on the floor surrounding it, as he pushes it up the side with his nose and over the top with his eyes firmly shut. The only explanation is that this is how he has learnt to associate eating, when his eyes were sore with conjunctivitis and gunked-up to the point where they were almost glued shut so that he had no choice but to eat without looking at what he was doing.

Daily dinner carnage

Daily dinner carnage

I have also never known a cat to live by such a strict routine. We generally get home from work around 6:30pm, and he immediately demands his dinner which HAS to be biscuits mixed with a bit of Whiskas else he refuses to look at it (but only for the evening meal! He’s very happy with just biscuits morning and afternoon). He throws it out of the bowl, as shown above, then has a long drink of water. Then it’s play-time: chasing his toy mice, running through his tunnel, attacking his dad from underneath the laptop on his lap. After such fun activities, it’s time for a little nap on the rug ready for the madness to begin at 10:30pm – just as we start to think about bedtime ourselves, Frankie begins his favourite games of “Let’s climb the curtains!”, followed by “Uh-oh, I’m trapped on the roof and will complain until you rescue me!”, and ending with “I’m going to look you straight in the eye while I scratch the sofa!”

This is not going to end well for me...

This is not going to end well for me…

We go to the bedroom and he runs past us and jumps on the bed. As we settle down, he walks over us in the most awkward, heavy-pawed way possible, and sits on my chest and starts to purr like a motorboat – the only time in the day he does this. At no other point in the day does he sit on our laps and make noise! So he gets scratched and fussed over for a while before we try to sleep. He trots back down the bed and lays down on the bottom right-hand corner by my feet (sometimes via a little micronap on my pillow behind my head). At some ungodly hour of the night, he will suddenly decide to check that we are still breathing, bounce along the length of us until he reaches our faces, and press his nose next to each of ours in turn giving us eye- and mouthfuls of whiskers. When we inevitably wake up flinching and complaining, he starts to purr, gets a chest-scratch and resumes his anterior position by my feet, wholly satisfied that his humans are ok.

We stopped using an alarm clock months ago, as Frankie never fails to make sure we are awake in plenty of time to get to the office. Every morning around 7:30am, he will repeat the face-full-of-whiskers routine to stir us. More purrs, more cuddles. If my alarm does happen to go off, he races along the bed and jumps all over me, en route to my bedside cabinet where he points at the clock like an Irish Setter until I turn off the annoying beeping. Off he goes to climb the bedroom curtains to ensure we physically get out of bed to remove him, then happy with his success he trots off to the kitchen in search of breakfast. We go to work, come back, and the whole kitty cycle repeats itself.

These little creatures worm their way into your life and into your heart and take root, languishing in the love and attention you give them in return for huge vet bills and ruined furniture. We have just dropped him off to Oscar’s family down in Chillán to be looked after for the next 5 weeks while we are on a trip to Europe, and the house simply isn’t the same! As much as I constantly complain about being woken up with a paw to the throat like a feline karate chop at 3 o’clock in the morning, I also wouldn’t want it any other way. Frankie Stein may be a little monster, but he’s OUR little monster. 🙂


My little family

 Hasta la proxima,


La luna de sangre

Given that this is a blog by an astrophysicist originally meant to report on ESO-based life events, there have been more posts about me going on my jollies than there have been about spacey type things. While everyone loves a photo of a penguin or a super-awesome view, I thought I would sprinkle a little science over your day.

In April, we in South America were lucky enough to be in prime position to witness a total lunar eclipse – an event that happens around 1-3 times a year and is visible from different places across the globe. As you well know already, our place in the Universe is pretty unique and special, and our position in the Solar System even more so. Asides from taking up much sought-after real estate in what is known as the ‘Habitable Zone’, or ‘Goldilocks Zone’ (where conditions are neither too hot nor too cold, but are ‘just right’… see what they did there?), it just so happens that everything in our night sky is positioned so nicely as to make our Sun and moon appear exactly the same size when seen from Earth. The Sun is about 400 times the size of the moon in reality, but is also found 400 times further away from the Earth. This is why during a solar eclipse the moon can pass in front of the Sun and appear to cover it perfectly, temporarily preventing its light from reaching Earth and thus plunging us into darkness for a few creepy minutes.

Lunar eclipse - just a result of simple geometry!

Lunar eclipse – just a result of simple geometry! Image taken from:

A lunar eclipse, on the other hand, occurs when the moon passes behind the Earth in such a position that it finds itself totally in its ‘shadow’ – also known as the umbra – as these three celestial bodies line up. This lining up is also known as a  ‘syzygy‘. So it would be a little like witnessing a solar eclipse if you were stood ON the moon, but this time with the Earth blocking out the stellar light.

Because Earth’s umbra is obviously a lot larger than that cast by the moon during a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse lasts several hours from start to finish instead of the solar’s few minutes as this is the time it takes the moon to move out from the shadows and fully back into the light. About an hour and a half of this time is spent in ‘totality’, i.e. the best bit of the show where the full moon turns blood red – otherwise known as ‘la luna de sangre’ in Spanish.

Pre-eclipse full moon at twilight (real twilight, not the gay vampire movie).

Pre-eclipse full moon at twilight (real twilight, not the gay vampire movie).

Moon entering the eclipse

Moon entering the eclipse…

La luna de sangre, taken by  moi at Paranal

… Tadaa! Blood moon.

But why does it turn red? Well, this is thanks to Earth’s atmosphere, which bounces around light from the Sun as it passes through. The bluer colours of the light are filtered out, meaning that the remaining redder light is refracted onto the Moon’s surface. If Earth had no atmosphere, then the light couldn’t undergo this filtering and refracting process and the moon would actually appear totally black and invisible! Lucky for us that this isn’t the case, as it would make for some pretty boring pictures (and we couldn’t, you know, breathe and stuff either, but I feel that’s by-the-by in this conversation).

So that’s the basics of what happened on April 15th of this year, and by pure coincidence I was up at Paranal (with Oscar again, yay!) being trained on how to attend to special visitors as an ePOD representative. So on that night, we had two French guys who worked for a planetarium and had come to take images and videos for a new planetarium show. They were also very happy that it coincided with the eclipse, and I’m sure it gave them an extra edge for their project!

So we all (myself, the two French guys and my colleague, Laura) got to spend the duration of the eclipse up on the Paranal platform – the bit where the VLT units are located. It’s amazing how cold you can get from standing around for a few hours rather than the usual five minutes you normally spend outside at the observatory, so I was LITERALLY wearing everything I had brought with me! T-shirts X 2, jumpers x 2, ski jacket, leggings (part of my PJs!!), socks x 2, my silly Chile hat, a scarf and gloves. Even then, I still had to periodically nip back into the control room to grab a cuppa to warm up!

But yeah, a few cold tootsies were well worth what I got to see. As it was a full moon, the platform was lit up – you could see everything perfectly clearly, and we even cast an extremely well-defined moon shadow onto the ground! I had just bought a new camera, so was very happily playing around trying to get to grips with it (all photos in this post were taken by me). I set a long exposure shot for about 30 seconds, and the resulting image came out like it could have been in the day!

The only giveaway that this was taken in the middle of the night are the stars...

The only giveaway that this was taken in the middle of the night are the stars…

Then the eclipse started. As the moon got further and further into the umbra, the sky got darker and darker and the stars began to pop out. Totality hit, and the desert night sky I have come to know and love finally made its appearance. The central band of the Milky Way, our home, became visible in all its glory, showing off its dusty lanes and distinct orange glow. I will NEVER get bored of that view, my jaw drops every time and I get a horrific crick in my neck from looking up for a solid two hours, unwilling to peel my eyes of it. The odd shooting star (or meteorite, to those less romantic astronomers!) went streaking through one side of the night sky with the blood red moon on the other and our Galaxy above. Brilliant.

Moon enters totality, the Milky Way starts becoming visible (taken with a long exposure)

Moon begins to be eclipsed, the Milky Way starts becoming visible (taken with a long exposure)

What appears during totality. Not bad,

What appears during totality. Not bad.

During the full moon

During the full moon

During the eclipse!

During the eclipse!

The next lunar eclipse is not due to happen until 8th October this year, visible around the Pacific region. If you hear of any occuring in your part of the world at some point in the future, PLEASE go and watch it! So often our poor little moon is pushed to one side as being a “boring” bit of astronomy because it is so well studied. But big things often come in small packages, and in a dark place a lunar eclipse can certainly offer you a big view of how incredible our place in space is.

Hasta la proxima,