Looking at Orion and thinking of you

Note: This post was written at a later date, but I thought it fitting to add it at the actual date it happened.

When I was 6 years old we were driving back from the beach on a warm Sunday night in January. My parents sat in the front, while my grandmother sat with me in the back. Suddenly she leaned over and said “look! Orion!”. I had no idea what Orion was or how it looked, so she took the time to explain it to me. “It’s really quite easy once you see the three stars – that’s the belt and the bright 4 stars around it, well, that’s the frame.” I remember intently staring at it through the car window on that warm winter night. Seeing my fascination, my grandmother suggested the following: “I see you are enjoying watching the sky. Tell you what, when you look up – try to find Orion. When you do, you could think of me, I will do the same!” You see, she didn’t live near me, she was far away in Germany, I saw her once maybe every 2 years. I intently nodded. This seemed like such a cool thing, like it brought me closer, because we shared the same sky.

Over the next years she would ask me if I still looked at Orion. Not often, maybe once every 5 years or so and not lately. I always answered in the positive and that was enough for her. Little did she know that Orion became the support, the stake for my further study of the sky. I always had a long vacation in the winter so it was from Orion that I expanded out discovering the sky – upwards (westwards) towards the triangle and that smudge (Taurus and the Pleiades), downwards towards that bright star (Sirius in Canis Major) and the two bright stars that followed (Castor and Pollux in Gemini), left towards that round grouping on stars (Auriga) and that strange W (Cassiopeia). When I got my first telescope, Orion’s nebula was the first thing I tried to see. When I started observing with a CCD camera in the back of a telescope and processing images with IRAF, Orion’s nebula and the trapezium was also the first thing I recorded. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the fits file or the image I made of it anymore. Anyway, even my internet moniker, “bellatrix” derived from the fact that I looked at Orion first for everything astronomical. It was almost a sort of crux when looking at the sky – Orion, then the rest. And often, I thought of my grandmother.

Yesterday, when walking home, I showed my daughter Orion. The belt, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix, the nebula. Of course, she was more interested in Jupiter nearby, but she acknowledged my enthusiasm. And I thought of my grandmother again. She died very early this morning. I don’t know if we will still be sharing the same sky, but I will keep on staring at it, thinking of her and the love of astronomy she unwittingly instilled in me and kept on fostering in me. I miss her so much already!

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…

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 ūüė¶

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!

People are awesome!

My mom and I were having a disagreement the other day. I don’t know how we got to the argument, but the basis was that I was giving people too much credit. She said that most of the population just want to live a comfortable life and are not really that interesting, their lifes, that is.

I can’t accept that, I hope I never will. First of all, obviously everybody has their natural story, with its ups and downs and progression from childhood to adulthood and then aging. But it isn’t just a conglomeration of random events, it has cause and effect and congruency. So it is my personal belief that everybody could fill out an interesting book on their deathbeds, filled not only with their lifes, but their hopes and dreams.

Second, it is about the strive to achieve comfort. The lull of complacency being such a strong pull to resist the fight, the struggle, making people boring in the process. Again, I have to resist to accept that. Maybe we aren’t all awesome. going out into the world, changing it, rather sitting in our the comforts of our home and the extend of activism liking a Kony 2012 vid¬†. It isn’t about that, it’s about following your passion!

Here is where the main disagreement was. Do you think that enough people follow their passion?

I was on a radio program the other day (brag!) and before starting we had a small pre-interview with the moderator. Of course, the moderator wanted me to feel comfortable, so she was very “fascinated” with astronomy throwing out phrases like “how interesting!” and stuff like that. Anyway, eventually we got to the question of what made me go into astronomy. First she wanted to know, why I entered such a male dominated field. It must have caught me off guard, because I didn’t know how to answer that, it was never a question for me, I just did. But it made me stop and wonder why people didn’t make the same choice, that moment when somebody decides as a teenager/young adult saying to themselves “ok, that image I had of me as a [insert dream profession here] is nonsense, I will give it up”.

It’s not like I haven’t had these disagreements with other people before. Just a few weeks ago we were debating on a poker forum about some professional poker players. There is a saying that if you can be a succesful professional poker player then you probably would be more succesful monetarily in some other venture – it’s a really hard way to make an easy living. And so the argument was to dissuade people from doing it, because you would be more succesful monetarily doing something else. For example, with the knowledge you have from poker math and statistics, you have the ability to comfortably make 200k/yr with minimal investment (e.g. programming classes) versus pursuing your passion which will pay off crappily. But I would never make that choice, it would almost feel like betraying myself. Am I wrong in thinking that people don’t betray themselves? I’d rather be happy with myself than complacent with the world.

And so I keep on refusing to believe that people make those comfort choices, how at least in their spare time they keep chasing their passion, on forums on the internet (TV fanfic, video game cheats, …), through similar interest groups (book clubs, knitting circles, choirs, …), by just following through (building hot rods, cooking the perfect meal, travelling, …). I don’t care what you do as long as you do what you love and for that you will earn my respect and I will call you awesome!

And another thing is the large amounts of stories we don’t hear. There are an immense amount of role models out there and they are just “normal” people like you and me. The website and blog Grandma got stem¬†presents women that pioneered in the STEM fields in the 20th century, how they had to overcome obstacles and biases. Just awesome women you never hear about. And so I believe there is that awesome individual in all of us.

Just recently I was alerted through facebook about a David Foster Wallace excerpt turned into a video (This is Water!). The message of the video that resonated with me is that it is up to YOU to choose how you see the world and the people in it. If stuck in a traffic jam or in the line at the supermarket it is incredibly easy to dismiss everybody as simple idiots who are just in your way, but everybody in that line/traffic jam has an incredibly complicated history on how they got to be there at that very moment and probably had very good reason to act the way they acted. In a last piece of irony, it is amazing that David Foster Wallace had that insight into human perspective, yet chose to take his own life in 2008.

Keep on truckin’

The picture above I took while traveling through Germany on January 2nd. 2013 is going to be an exciting year in my journey – personally and academically!

I am sorry I did not continue the blog. Part of it was that pressure to finish that blog about the meeting we had on AGN at Ringberg castle. It was an impressive meeting, I learned a lot and Ringberg is a really beautiful location, especially in the snow. But… I felt lazy blogging about it. I grew scientifically, but I don’t know if that interest people that read my blog. I don’t know much to say beyond what was said on David Rosario’s blog on the meeting here¬†and the live tweeting/discussions that I had with people online during the event.

And that became sort of like the blogging dilemma everybody goes through. My numbers of readers did not overly increase. I kept wondering if reaching out to those that read this blog was important. If me writing about my New Year’s scientific resolutions online would be viewed as conceited. If me addressing some “crisis” (philosophical or practical) in astronomy could be viewed as megalomaniacal. I am a postdoc, enjoying what I do, still mostly an observer and wonderer about the world around me. In the last few weeks I have found myself on opposite sides of the “consensus” opinion around me and I wonder if my voicing it in a blog is not adding fuel to a fire to which everybody is entitled to their own opinion (for example, politics).

Another part was that a lot is happening around my life. Many changes are on the horizon for me, many of which I will address on this blog in due time, too. But some things, like job prospects, really shouldn’t be talked about until everything is sorted out. There are people that thrive on it, that are delighted in discussing the rumors of who’s going where and when and why, but I simply don’t like to talk about it.

Then there are other things keeping me away: proposals, observing, work. It seems like every day is filled with meetings that keep me away from the desk and at the end of the day I sit there wondering where it went – I used to be so much more productive.

I was wrong, though. I missed blogging these last two months – those few hours of introspection. I missed putting my thoughts about the week into words. For example, last week I had a 2-day career workshop. It didn’t do wonders or anything, but it solidified me in many decisions I took 2 years ago – staying in astronomy. I still feel like I need to put down those experiences into written words, but also to share it with anybody that is interested in it (that would mostly be astronomy postdocs).

I am not going to be all draconian about it, though. Maybe I’ll write a week, maybe I won’t. Maybe there’ll be two posts in a week, who knows. On Saturday I will be traveling to the US for three weeks. I am sure lots of thoughts will go through my head, plus travel is always good to write about. So with that, if you still have me in your Readers or RSS feeds – thank you. I hope to continue writing stuff about being a postdoc in observational astronomy. In the end, it’s something I really want to communicate to the world, because I really like what I do!