Like 5-and-a-half peas in an ePOD

The past couple of weeks have been very exciting. Free from the shackles of academia, I have officially started my six-month internship with the ‘Education and Public Outreach Department’ (ePOD… bit like iPOD with its media capabilities but without the money-grabbing bandits behind the scenes), here at ESO-Chile. And what an exciting time it has been! But before I get too carried away with daydreams of becoming the next Brian Cox (in terms of visibility, certainly not dreaming of having that ridiculous floppy hair or irritating narrative saying such groundbreaking statements as “space is big.”), I shall explain what ePOD actually does.

"Get a haircut, you hippy!"

“Get a haircut, you hippy!”

ePOD, as with all things ESO related, finds it HQ at ESO-Garching in Germany. The majority of the team are also based there, and it’s only when you look at the staff list that you realise what a major operation it actually is behind the scenes. Yes, ePOD are the group responsible for the nice news releases on the ESO webpage, but there are many stages that take it from A to B (we have a weekly teleconference with the ePOD team in Garching in order to make sure we are all up to date with what everyone’s role is in a project. And Google Docs. Sooooooooo many Google Docs…): you need a writer, you need a translator, you need a graphics designer, you need a web administrator, you need someone to promote it via email and the social networks… And that’s just for one paragraph of text with one pretty picture. Imagine now what else is involved when they produce one of their ESOcasts (ESO’s video podcast). You have the above, plus a narrator, a producer, video and sound technicians, and an editor. Think a VIP visit to one of the sites is organised the day before? Guess again. You need to think about the logistics of transport and accommodation, not just for the VIP but any accompanying entourage, media, family… You need people from ESO to serve as the host or hostess, you need to think about feeding them, who they can talk to, what to give them as memorabilia of their visit. Now multiply that by 150 people for a major event, such as the recent inauguration of the ALMA observatory, and you can imagine how much work goes into just a few hours of exposure.

The ePOD team involved in the ALMA inauguration... (image credit: ESO)

The ePOD team involved in the ALMA inauguration…
(image credit: ESO)

... And the rest!  (image credit: deccanchronicle.com)

… And the rest!
(image credit: dccanchronicle.com)

Without ePOD, there would be no promotion, no PR. If ESO is not shown in the correct light to the correct people, funding will dwindle down to nothing. And as money is sadly what makes the world go round, without funding there’s no telescopes, no astronomy, no advancement. Nothing for me to write about in this blog. Sad face. So as you can see, this department, albeit tiny with just 5-and-a-half people in Chile (a part time worker, Mylene, counts as the half), is a very important part of ESO.

As the team was only 4-and-a-half people previously, they were very excited when they heard that I wanted to volunteer to work with them for six months (as most people are when they discover that you don’t have to pay anybody). They like the fact that I am now a qualified astronomer as many of them have journalistic experience rather than scientific, and they like that I am linked to the other astronomers who work here and at Paranal so that it makes communication and organisation a little easier (i.e. I can bat my baby blues at them when I need a favour). My current role is a varied one, as they are more than willing to get me involved in all aspects of ePOD life. Within three days of starting, I was already replying via email to a journalist from a Chilean newspaper called ‘El Mundo’ about one of the latest ESO press releases on a particular galaxy (in Spanish, with a little help from my most trusted friend in Chile – Google Translate). A couple of days after that the article was printed online for public viewing. And I was quoted! I wasn’t expecting that, especially as it’s not my area of astronomy and ‘la experta’ here had to go ask one of the grown ups if what I was writing was actually correct! But that was a nice surprise, and not a bad achievement for my first week on the job.

So dealing with random journalists’ questions is one part of the job. The other is dealing with visitors. I don’t mean ‘ordinary’ visitors like my family (they were easy – stuck my sister Laura in the ESO garden with a book and a coffee, and my Dad in a seminar. Happy as Larry, the both of them), but rather those with special requests. A lot of the time it is media-related – journalists for magazines or newspapers wanting interviews with the staff, photographers wanting night shots of the telescopes, sometimes a film crew wanting to create special recordings (ranging from local science programmes in France to Hollywood blockbusters like ‘James Bond: Quantum of Solace’), and this all comes with varying degrees of complexity in terms of organisation: who can journalist X interview without the risk of falling asleep? Just where DO you put 100 crew and actors in the middle of the desert, where astronomers still have to work day and night and there’s only 108 bedrooms to go round? Where can photographer Z put his camera without it being run over by an auxiliary telescope? Do I offer to share my chocolate supply with them or do I go eat it in the privacy of bathroom? ePOD to the rescue!

Setup

Setting up their camera so quickly that they become nothing but a blur.

So for example, I was recently sent to Paranal for two nights with one of my new colleagues, Laura, who has been doing this now for eight years. On the first night, we had two workers from a science centre in France called Le PLUS (Palais de l’Univers et des Sciences), who wanted to take images and video to create a new planetarium show. It just so happened that it coincided with the recent total lunar eclipse, and so it was an exciting moment for all of us! After a standard tour of the Paranal residencia and environs, the visitors (as with visiting astronomers) are then taken up to the VLT platform to watch the telescopes open up for the night (see earlier post “Try not to break anything” for more details) followed by what is usually a very beautiful sunset. The photographers then set up their gear into the desired position to get ready to snap the night away.

It was a similar scenario for our visitors the next day; two freelance journalists writing an article for “Sterne und Weltraum” magazine in Germany, but who also run their own independent mobile planetarium and observatory – talk about multitasking! I consider waking up in the morning and staying that way multitasking enough…  So as well as taking lots of images and video (both day and night, inside and outside of the telescope and around Paranal as a whole), they set out to interview one of our German astronomers, Steffen Mieske, about the new ESO instrument MUSE (Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer… don’t worry, I haven’t a clue what that does either), and also interviewed a French optical engineer, Guillaume Blanchard, in order to gain an overall view of observatory life. ePOD’s role in all this is to arrange all aspects of the visit, from accommodation in the residencia to who the interviewees are going to be and when it will take place. These two nights I’ve just had now were my training for having to do it on my own in May… *Gulp!*

Away from the desert and back in the leafy suburbs of Vitacura, we recently hosted another type of regular visitor to ESO… A celebrity! Well, sort of. His biggest hit came out when I was just one year old, yet it persists across the globe. A couple of weeks ago, ESO got Rickrolled. Yep, Rick Astley of “Never Gonna Give You Up” fame came to visit the office with his wife and crew! Just in case you have forgotten the song, here’s 10 hours of it (YouTube is a beautiful thing). So we showed them around the office and the ALMA building also on campus, followed by a presentation on astronomy and ESO by our Garching colleague, Oli. And they were genuinely impressed at the scale of it all. After chatting to me in between explanations, I was then invited out for something to eat with them in a bar not too far away. Sadly I did not get to watch Mr. Astley get tiddly on Kunstmann lager as he sensibly decided to go somewhere else with his missus, but I still had a great evening with the rest of his gang – never realised how much I miss having people to share the British sense of humour with, even if it was under slightly bizarre circumstances!

Never gonna give astronomy up! (R.A. third from left)

As you can see, my time here with ePOD is bound to be full of new experiences – meeting people from all walks of life, dealing with different projects, getting to travel often to the observatories. All good blog fodder, if not for the CV! For the first time in a long time, I am ending the day feeling relaxed, happy, and as though this is something I can actually SUCCEED in! ! And in my opinion, that makes these experiences worth sharing with the world. 🙂

Never gonna give you uuuuup, never gonna let you dowwwwn, never gonna.... ARGH, that damn song….

Hasta la proxima,

Amy
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Genesis v2.0

Wow. So much has happened since my last post that it’s going to take me a while to catch up with everything! But, as Julie Andrews would put it, let’s start from the very beginning…

In the beginning God created the heavens and the thesis. Now the thesis was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the pages, and the Spirit of the Ph.D. was hovering over the cover.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an instrument to separate light into its constituent components.” So God made the instrument and separated the light. And it was so. God called the instrument “spectrograph.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the second day.

And God said, “Let the data from the spectrograph be gathered to one place, and let results appear.” And it was so. God called the results “original,” and the gathered data he called “useful.” And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds. Especially coffee.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing coffee beans. And God saw that it was gooooooood. Unless it came from the ESO machine. And there was evening, and there was morning — the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark bouts of insomnia, and days and years, and let there be lights in the vault of the sky to give light to the thesis.” And it was so. God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the extension of the day after office hours. He also made the stars. They were the best bit. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night and the student, and to separate the light (astronomy) from darkness (astrology). And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the thesis team with pretentious words, and let ideas and inspiration fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great chapters of the book and every pretentious word with which the thesis teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every major result according to its kind. And God saw that it was getting there. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the chapters with figures and references.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the examiners produce living doctors according to their kinds: the quietly confident, the outwardly nervous who move along the ground, and the wild perfectionists each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the doctors according to their kinds, the astrophysicists according to their kinds, and all the consequential subsets according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

Then the Examiner said, “Let us make Amy Tyndall in our image, in our likeness, so that she may rule over the doubts of the past four years, and the problems that tried to get in her way, over the hard work and all the wild tantrums, and over all the internal creatures that told her she’d never make it.”

So the Examiner created Amy Tyndall in his own image,
    in the image of a doctor he created her;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to her, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and pass on the knowledge. The viva lasted for just two hours, being nowhere near as horribly dramatic as anticipated and resulting in mostly typos for the thesis corrections, so take this new-found confidence and rule over your next life project.” Or something along those lines. This was a long time ago.

Then God said, “I give you every opportunity-bearing path on the face of the whole earth and every idea that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all your future happiness on the earth and all your new plans and all your upcoming adventures — everything that has the potential of life in it — I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very, very, VERY good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.

Thus the Doctorate and nine years of study were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day Amy had finished the work she had been doing; so on the seventh day she rested from all her work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it fantastic, because on it she rested from all the work of creating that she had done. Thus the Doctorate and nine years of study were completed in all their vast array.

And it was good.

Hasta la proxima,

Dr. Amy
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(P.S. This blog post was adapted from Genesis 1-2:2. I’m allowed to change it, because my Daddy is a vicar and God told him it was ok.)

15:33, 01/02/14

The 1st February. A seemingly normal, random day in the Gregorian calendar. But even on seemingly normal, random days, memorable things can happen. On 1st February throughout history:

1367 – A 15-yr old Edward III was crowned king of England

1884 – The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published

1957 – The first black pilot flew a US passenger plane

1994 – Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) was inflicted on the world

2003 – Space shuttle ‘Columbia’ exploded upon reentry

2012 – Amy starts her ESO studentship

2014 – Amy submits her PhD thesis.

Yep. Exactly two years to the day that I started my studentship at ESO here in Chile, at 15:33, I submitted my thesis. After four years of blood, sweat, tears and coffee (and there have been A LOT of tears!), I uploaded my 209 page, 49,000 word nemesis to the University of Manchester postgraduate department. I brought it to life (see previous post ‘My thesis, my baby’.)

The thing that ruled my life for the past 4 years

The thing that ruled my life for the past 4 years…

The depth of the beast...

The depth of the beast…

It is safe to say that the Universe was largely against me (or so it felt) for the duration of this mammoth task. Not just for the writing, but during the entire process. I’ve gone through relationship break-ups, emotional breakdowns, lost two family members and a cat, moved abroad and back again three times, been on a liquid-only diet for six weeks, fallen out with ‘friends’, had my laptop die three weeks before I was due to submit, and have apparently had my external harddrive (containing ALL my work from the past 4 years and some things I had backed up from aforementioned dead laptop) stolen the DAY before. Needless to say, when my supervisor back in Manchester gave me the option to leave the submission for a couple of weeks to read through it afresh beforehand, I laughed and clicked ‘upload file’.

But let’s look at it from the flip-side: If I hadn’t gone through previous break-ups, I wouldn’t now be with Oscar. Without the breakdown and the weird unintentional liquid diet that came with it, I wouldn’t have become the stronger person I am today. The family I lost enriched my life. We got Frankie. I have travelled the world and seen things most people couldn’t even dream about. I have been able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to my friends and those relationships are stronger than ever. My laptop dying means that I am now finally learning how to use a Mac after resisting it for so many years (and I must say, it’s growing on me!). As for my harddrive going walkabout with all my work on it? As Oscar said to me, “maybe it’s life telling you: ‘well done, now submit the thesis, then it’s time to leave all this sh** behind you!’ ”  – to which I initially replied, “well, I wish it could tell me in a slightly less stressful way!”, but now I think I have to agree with his ever-positive outlook.

So now, after I catch up on sleep and recover from the cold I have inevitably got from the lack of sleep and stress of the last few weeks, I have a lot to look forward to. We will be in our new house by 10th February (which will be a blog post in itself), and I’ll be back on my way to the UK for a month from 14th February to see my family and take the final test. I can now concentrate on the ESO-Chile outreach blog, and the webpage I am making for one of the Astronomy working groups based at Pontificia Universidad Católica (PUC) that Oscar is involved with. I can pick up learning español again, I can even just sit and read a book without feeling guilty!

At 15:33 on 1st February 2014, one phase ended and a new one began. 🙂

Hasta la proxima,

Amy
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