Asking “why?” or “how does it work?”

I was inspired to write this post by a recent Huffpost article by Carlos Moreno  on “Hollywood’s War on Science“. In the article, the author discusses that Hollywood mostly portrays scientists in a negative light, as mad, obsessed with power. And if the scientist is not outright EVIL, they are mostly quirky, anti-social or arrogant. Furthermore, science in general gets portrayed as something to be feared portraying what can go wrong in scientific experiments. The base of these movies and TV shows is often the fear of the unknown and sadly stands at odds with the demands of today’s world of technological and scientific literacy.

This is just something I just don’t undestand. Something must have gone awry at some point that many adults today shut down when it comes to understanding the world around us. My daughter is naturally curious how the stuff she uses everyday works and she loves playing “the why game” – answering each answer with “why?” (my second hit on google is “how to kill the why game“; so sad). But I’ve often heard the “oh, that’s a black box for me” with something technical around adults. Most of the stuff is not rocket science, the basic principles are easily accessible, but they don’t bother.

I’ve got plenty of cool counterexamples. One time, while still an undergrad, a loud party of non-scientists turned into a conversation in a circle when I began explaining the basic principles of flight, the original television, photocopier and the computer. The people were asking questions, generally fascinated to think behind the scenes of the things we use everyday. But sadly, I know that many of those people were happy that night, but never thought about that stuff again. The same probably goes for all those conversations I strike up on busses, airplanes, doctor’s offices, etc. People are fascinated with astronomy, when I talk to them about the news of the week (did you hear a Supernova exploded in a nearby galaxy and why that is exciting?). But do they take that excitement beyond their conversation with me, the strange scientist?

I don’t know, but I keep on hoping, keep on talking, keep on trying to excite without prejudice that it is wasted time. But most importantly, keep exciting kids – our world is nice as a magical place, but it is much more empowering to really understand it! I don’t think it’s futile, keep leading by example and honestly portray what it is that scientist do and why we generally are so interested and curious of the phenomena happening around us (first understanding them and then explaining them).

And at nights I will keep on working on my secret machine to take over the world! Har har har…

MUSE becoming reality and seeing first light soon

I was hired in 2011 at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics to help write the pipeline of the MUSE instrument. Back then it seemed so distant that the instrument would actually collect photons one day. In September of that year, we were so excited to test our pipeline on lab photons and to work with the first simulated data. This year in 2014 MUSE will begin actual astronomical observations, first light is only a few day away!


It has been quite exciting to slowly integrate myself within the MUSE team. While I have not done any hardcore programming on the pipeline itself (my colleague Peter Weilbacher did the excellent work of building the core and framework of the program), we have been testing, adjusting and writing lots of technical reports relating to the pipeline. Furthermore, as part of the science team, we have run many simulations, feasibility studies to test whether the science vision of our team members will be possible. Over the last 2 years, I have also written the User Manual for the pipeline, so if you are interested in MUSE data reduction, I am your gal (hint, hint for all you science collaborators out there).

Now the instrument is becoming a reality. We are already working on data taken at the VLT UT 4 telescope! They are only flats and arc lamp exposures, no on-sky data yet, but it is exciting that the mounting of the instrument went so smoothly and that data is actually coming in from Chile. Nevertheless, there are some kinks to be worked out. Beginning of February there will be a 2 week commisioning run testing out the instrument’s performance on different (calibration) objects on the sky – bright stars, galaxies and other objects.

If you are interested in this stage of the MUSE development, either because you may be interested in proposing to observe with MUSE or just because of general astronomical interest, I suggest you follow the blog over at We plan on being very community conscious and want to release as much information to the scientific community as possible. The intent of the blog is geared towards the professional astronomer or the very interested amateur, hopefully you will find it helpful and will propose to observe with MUSE! In the future, we plan not only to write about the instrument’s progress, but to show behind the scenes reduction and new science results relating to MUSE. Stay tuned, 2014 will be an exciting year for large datasets related to integral field (3D) astronomy!

So what do I want this blog to be in 2014?

In my last blog post I wrote that I wanted to get back to the saddle of blogging, that I always had fun writing my thoughts down. While I may not have some earth shattering insights, it really helped my order my feelings on what was happening in astronomy. But up until now, it has been sort of random ramblings. I had been pondering if maybe there should be some more structure to this blog, if it should have a theme. There are several things I have been thinking sort of formalizing this blog.

a) I’ve always wanted a more thorough look-in on some paper that was on astro-ph. Of course, I would be mostly selfish and it would be on some AGN related science most of the time. But sometimes, I find other things in astronomy really fascinating (you can’t help but be awed by the pace exoplanet science has evolved in the last 10 years, for example). So the thought was to really go in depth into one paper on astro-ph per week, maybe contact the author, make an informal interview and provide a summary of the paper – sort of like astrobites. However, this is too much work, there are only so many hours in the day. I can hardly keep up with astro-ph at all, although I really did in December and really liked it.

b) I want to become better at programming. Not because I think I am a bad programmer, but because I think I have the wrong approach. Often I program inefficiently. My mindset is often: “It works, so what if it takes 3 times as long, it is a matter of 30 seconds versus 10 seconds, I’ve got the time”. This is clearly the wrong approach and it is a detriment of the ultra-fast computers we have nowadays that we don’t learn to program memory saving and efficiently. So while vowing to delve more deeply into python, I wanted to put myself out there and just put my code out there and my thinking behind it. Maybe somebody can use the code, but mostly I would be looking for feedback on the code. I obviously would be doing some things wrong, but if I don’t put them out there, I would be doing them wrong forever, all in the name of “it works!”. However, even though I do quite a bit of coding, it could be difficult to put it in sort of blog post and I couldn’t do it quite as often.

c) I’ve been reading some astronomy and general physics books lately. I wanted to review them. Most of them aren’t in the too technical “Binney and Tremaine” formalism, but are more towards popular science. Still, I think some are quite interesting even to professional astronomers. A book review is work, often books are long and it is impossible to read one per week, sometimes even per month.

d) I enjoyed writing about the conferences I attended very much, providing some sort of summary and the take home message of the conference. Maybe highlight the motivation for organizing this conference. Or the friendships and collaborations made. Or the interesting venue. However, with the new baby, there will hardly be any travel. It is hard with breasfeeding, even with pumping milk.

e) Maybe that’s what I should write about – just the trials and tribulations now with the new baby. I wish, I had written down stuff, when my daughter was born, perhaps I am painting a rosy picture of what it was back then, maybe I am not. Just right now, I had to get up about 5 times because the little one was crying in his crib. There is this facebook group called “AWM: Astronomer, Woman, Mom” and the group is so different from other mom’s groups I have joined (either on FB or in real life). We do seem to be some weird species these astronomer moms.

So – main take-home point: I’ll just keep writing random stuff. I definitely want to write some of all of the above. But it won’t be a formalized approach or anything. Just what is passing through my head. Let’s see how it goes!

Back in the saddle

2013 was a big year for me. It may not seem that way from the amount I have posted in this blog. But having your second child – a beautiful baby boy – will do that to you. Suddenly mundane astro stuff loses importance and time is too precious to get all worked up on the philosophy of science in general.

I love the way a child can give you focus in your life. You enjoy your free time much more intensely, because it is so scarce. You bunker down during those few hours you can spare for work. I was on maternity leave during the last 4 months of 2013, but yet proposals had to be written, telecons attended, posters given. On top of that MUSE was accepted in Lyon and shipped to the VLT in September and assembled in November/December. It is now fully operational and we will see commision and first light in the beginning of February. Anyway, my point is, that the astronomy world didn’t keep from spinning and I tried to jump on it every now and then and keep up with its breakneck speed and also with an intensity, because of the value of the time.

The baby also gives you focus in that you have something to work for. I remember the drive I had to finish my PhD when my daughter was a baby and now with baby Benjamin I get a sense of new motivation. I know the next few months will be very productive for me.

So today was Benjamin’s first day at daycare. The way it works in Germany is that they have about 3-4 weeks of “easing in”. You don’t just leave the kids at daycare one day, it is gradual. Today was just me talking to the carer with Benjamin in my arms for an hour. Tomorrow, she will have him, but I will be there the whole time. On Wednesday I get to leave for 20 minutes. On Thursday it will be at the daycare for a few hours and I will get to leave maybe 45 minutes… and so on. Of course, you take it slow if there is resistance at any time. As much as I yearn to be at work, I guess this transitional phase is good, too.

And then is the guilt, of course. Always the guilt. There’s no switch to turn it off and society here in Germany is a bit more closed than it was in the US about women returning to work, while having infants (under a year). I am happy to be in the former East, where it was normal, I am sure I would have a much harder time in the West. So it’s a constant back and forth between me wanting to be at work and me wanting to be with the baby and the two of them don’t mix 😦

I sit here tonight, trying to get back into the saddle. Slowly, but surely becoming an astronomer. Part of it was blogging and wanting to get back into the saddle of that, also. Reading this post aloud, I am realizing that I am either really tired or need to practice this writing thing some more. I do miss the times where I churned out the weekly posts. I want to do that again in 2014. In fact, it was my one and only New Year’s resolution: to blog once a week again in 2014! In fact, next post, I will want to brainstorm a bit, what I want to do with this blog, perhaps focus it a bit more on something specific. Or maybe I will keep the personal touch, I don’t know yet. Anyway, 2013 was awesome, here is to an equally awesome 2014!