Escaping the “always busy” – happily on vacation

As I am writing this, I am sitting on the porch of a friends’ house staring out into a garden of sun-bathed flowers and listening to a concert of birds. Very far out in the background you can hear a leaf-blower, but this is pure bliss vacation feeling for me. The last 10 days I have been on vacation, first with my best friend in Colorado, now in California (see picture above of the Santa Monica pier), also visiting friends and enjoying the warm weather. My daughter is at her old daycare, happy to see her old buddies and engaging in Spring Break activities.

So vacation… yay! I have not done much in terms of work in these last two weeks, except to talk to some colleagues about it and look over some proposals, but no data reduction, no programming, no writing! I quickly went over the Planck results last week and I was sad to hear about NASA possibly suspending outreach programs due to the sequestration, but it all seems so far away right now.

My husband is sitting besides me, also on the computer, but our work on it today has been limited to finding good restaurants, managing dinner invitations and reviewing rental car agreements (and me writing this blog). It has been good to turn off the mind for a while. In a world where we are ever growing busy (or are we?), some days of rest do the body good. The opportunity to catch up with friends, to sit down for long meals and reminisce of old times or to have new meaningful conversations is priceless.

And it’s sad that so many people in astronomy don’t take proper vacations. The lecture-free time at Universities often coincides with conference season and people get their travel there, but it’s not a shutoff of work. I have been guilty of the same phenomenon. I have worked on my vacation days on purpose. One time, after attending a public event during the night at our institute, we got an extra day of vacation and I only half-jokingly complained that I didn’t have time for vacation.

And it’s hard, you know. Research is never-ending. Except for those days where you submit a paper and feel like you’ve conquered the world, there’s always “something to do”. When I was a student, I worked as a waitress for half a year on the weekends. When those days were over, you were tired, but it was good, you got home and felt like you accomplished something. You were tired and just wanted to veg out in front of the TV. But it’s not like the thoughts were lingering in your head “oh, I still need to wash that wineglass at work” like they do when I come home from astronomy work. I like the thoughts that linger in my head at night, I wouldn’t be a scientist otherwise, but it’s good to shut them off once in a while.

So this post should serve me as a reminder to shut it off sometimes, to get bored and “unbusy”, to let go. It’s good for my health, especially mental health. See you guys on April 8th! ūüôā

Workshop on “Nuclei of Seyfert galaxies and QSOs” in Bonn

On November 6th-8th I attended the “Workshop on: Nuclei of Seyfert galaxies and QSOs – Central engine & conditions of star formation” in Bonn. While it was a full meeting with lots of talks and international attendees, it seemed quite relaxed to me, since it was in Germany and didn’t take that much time away from the office.

I went to work on Monday the 5th, stayed there even longer than the typical day and then took the train at 7pm. Even so, I still managed to make it to the hotel before midnight. The journey was also relaxed for me to catch up to TV series that were stored on my computer. Once in Bonn, the hotel was just a short walk away from the main station.


Oh, the hotel… I don’t know how these things work. I was looking on HRS for the best combination of offers between price and luxury and kind of stumbled on this hotel. Without even visiting the website, based on good reviews I booked it. It was a nice hotel in the center of town right next to all the sights that Bonn has to offer, no question about that, but imagine my surprise when I entered the room. I mean, look at that picture! It was the kitchiest place I have ever stayed in and believe me, years of staying in Vegas – I have been to some kitchy places. In the picture you cannot see the lavish decorations elegantly hanging from the ceiling. Or the pictures of Beethoven and women from that era. Or the many mirrors. Such a weird room. But it was comfy!

Anyway, the next day, promptly at 9, was the start of the meeting at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. I had never been there, but I quickly realized that I hadn’t missed that much. It is basically a big block of concrete with offices in it. But anyway, I was not there to admire the architecture, I was there to listen to talks, learn something and network.


What I liked about the conference was the wide range of topics covering the conference. Often, in specialized conferences, you are sometimes stuck in a box, everybody trying to research the same questions that you are tackling, with the same techniques. But here, for example, a few hours were devoted to the black hole in the center of the Milky Way and the gas cloud accretion event that is set to occur soon . I mean, this obviously will not result in an AGN and is as low powered accretion as you can name it, but it still is very interesting to see the things from that spectrum and compare.

So in that sense, the session on Narrow Line Seyfert 1 (NLS1) Galaxies was quite eye opening for me (as was a lot of the low luminosity, nearby AGN science in general), because their techniques could be applied to a lot of the red quasars I study, too. In the end, it could be that our dust-obscured quasars are just high luminosity analogues of those NLS1s. It gave me a lot to think about.

In all, it was a quite varied conference. Good enough, that I got a lot of ideas and met a lot of people. Not so good in that some parts were a bit tedious and it was just too filled. It’s hard, finding a balance on how many talks to allocate, but I was really beat at the end of the day, retreating to my hotel room early to just watch some videos.


I did spend some time wandering the center of the city, though, trying to find a present for my daughter and in general just enjoying the peatonal zone in the center.¬†Bonn is not a huge city, but it was at the center of politics for a while, when it became the capital of Germany for a long time, this was a bit on purpose, as the allied forces did not want a huge, prominent city to be the driver of Germany’s political decisions. It still is in my mind from old times, when some newscaster would start with the grave words “Bonn. …”.

Anyway, the hotel where I was staying was in the Bonngasse, which is a sort of mini Hollywood-inspired walk-of-fame of important personalities that had something to do with Bonn. The most prominent, born in Bonn, was Beethoven, whose house was just a few steps away from the hotel. During the night pictures of the celebrities are lighted and shine a sort of path. This alley also lead right to the “Marktplatz” (market place), which overlooks the old city hall, another kitchy building, hehe. When going to the conference I passed the vendors setting up shop and shouting profanities at each other. Unfortunately, it was already quite late when coming back from the conference, so I never really saw the market in action.

2012-11-07_21-35-03_395We had our conference dinner, of course. It was at a chinese restaurant right on the Rhine river. Beautiful views, with the theater and opera house shining right at us from the other side. Right now, I can’t fully remember all the details of the conversation at our table, but I’m proud to say that ours was the funnest. it was a lot of gossip and jokes – lots of laughs.

And so I will remember this little conference in its bleak beginning of November. With good times gathered around food, mostly fast food during lunch, discussing AGN science, but in a fun way: “Do you think that guy is ready to handle that data?”, “I have no idea what that means, but it’s interesting and I need to write a paper about it”, etc.

MUSE Science Busy Week in Satilleu near Lyon


The MUSE instrument is a giant 3D spectrograph consisting of 24 IFUs. It will be put on the VLT next year and be operated by ESO. But it is not built by ESO, it is actually built by a consortium of 7 institutes across Europe. Each institute has its own duties and contributions to the telescope, which is being assembled at CRAL. The AIP has already delivered the Calibration Unit (lamps, masks and other optical elements) and handles the Data Reduction Pipeline, which will also be delivered to ESO next year. This also is the part I am currently mostly working on and why I often talk about the MUSE instrument and data reduction.

As part of building the instrument, the institutes that are part of this consortium that is building MUSE get a significant fraction of guaranteed time observing (GTO) with it. It is about 40 nights per year, with some options to shuffle the nights around in the semester to aleviate pressures on certain RA range. That is a lot of time! And a lot of data! And considering the complexity of the instrument, its 24 IFUs and the variety of lightpaths a large computational challenge. So the consortium wants to make sure that they not only get the best science, but that they are prepared to handle the challenges that come with such a huge and complex dataset.

For that reason every 9 months or so we have scientific busy weeks. These are designed to bring to the table the best science cases possible for the GTO proposals. MUSE is an instrument that will go very deep, covering large fractions of sky at high redshift. One of the main scientific drivers is the unbiased detection of Lyman Alpha Emitters (LAEs) at all redshifts without being constrained by narrow band filters. But there is so much more science to be done with those deep observations (fluorescence, accretion flows, absorption systems, mid-z low luminosity systems, etc.). The same goes for the case in nearby galaxies. The MUSE science busy weeks make sure we are up to date with the newest results that could impact these observations, to prepare the best targets and to double-check that we have all the ancilliary observations and analysis tools to produce the best GTO science possible.

Since my main task is concerned with the data reduction side, for the scientific team that means that people working with the data understand the reduction pipeline and its outputs according to their needs. In the past it was to give them an overview of the recipes and tell them about the process that was being made. But now we are actually at a point that we can do tutorials and let people play with the pipeline themselves on mock or lab data. The past half year I have spent writing an user manual and cookbook for the end user of the pipeline. I don’t know if ESO will take on this manual, but at least in the consortium we will be constantly improving it. In the tutorial I already received enough comments and improvement suggestions so that I have enough to do for the next few weeks. We also envision these sort of tutorials becoming more frequent to potential german users of the MUSE instrument (german taxpayers are paying my salary, after all). Sort of like “MUSE Community Days”, but I am not entirely sure about the format or details.

But besides the technical and the logistical side of these Busy Weeks, the consortium really has gotten together as whole. One of the conditions for a member to put forward a suggestion to tackle a certain observation was that at least aother institute was involved in the project, too. As such, lots of collaborations and even friendships have been formed. People have stated to work together on similar or preliminary science to the proposed MUSE ones.

Another aspect of the Busy Weeks is that we are often in “secluded” locations, so that we don’t get distracted and are only amongst ourselves. There is no possibility of attendees to retire to their office or home. We are all in the same hotel, we all eat together, basically “forced” to talk to each other. On Wednesdays there usually is a hike. All this to say, that by now, the members consortium know each other quite well and there is also happiness of seeing some people again.

This time the Busy Week was at a hotel in Satilleu, near Lyon in the Ardeche district of the Rhone-Alpes region. The area is sort of hilly, but not extreme. The villages are not that abundant, but in the two we stopped (Satilleu and the bigger Annonay) the houses are made out of stone built close to the hill with small and windy roads curling around them. So the scenery was beautiful, but “there was nothing there”, not even some spectacular natural scene. So we spent our free time walking around, playing mini-golf (provided by the hotel), surfing the net or having some beers in the late evenings. The food in the hotel was quite good, as opposed to the last Busy Week and I looked forward to the long conversations over wine and cheese after dinner.

The Busy Week itself went fine, too. I think the tutorial was a success and it finally gave some people the opportunity to work with the pipeline for the first time and take away any initial fears of working with the data. I am very proud of all the things my institute has put out with regards to the MUSE project, so I can say that from our side it was a productive week. There were other tutorials and presentation of analysis software in different stages of execution. There were one and a half days also dedicated to science talks and suddenly it felt like a conference, too. I was looking up papers and listening to people present their results and how it could apply to MUSE observations.

So I would call this week a success. While I was totally beat at the end of it, I also was inspired to keep on working on MUSE stuff here at the institute, knowing that it was being received well.

One funny experience I don’t want to forget either is me driving the AIP people back and forth from the airport in a small bus. Maneuvering the bus through unfamiliar and narrow roads while we argue over the loudness of the radio and the comfort level for the last row participants and whether we should buy goat cheese and which freeway to take and… ah, good times.

German Astronomical Society Meeting in Hamburg


Last week (24.9-28.9) was the German Astronomical Society Meeting in Hamburg . It was done in conjunction with the 100th birthday of the observatory near Hamburg (Bergedorf).

This was my first time at such a meeting in Germany. I had been to plenty of AAS (the American version) meetings before with all that it entailed: from the eager first year in 2003 where I knew nobody, attended every session and complained that there was just too much to see to this year where I sat at a table at the entrance with friends, waved people I knew over to talk to them or schedule drinks for later in the evening and “complain” that there are so many grad students around. I was eager to compare and make friends this side of the pond.

The session that was most relevant to my interests concerned the new instrumentation being developed for the VLT. MUSE is part of 3 large instruments that are being installed at the VLT in the next year months along with KMOS and SPHERE, so the organizers of the conference thought it would be relevant to present these instruments and other new things (e.g. improvements to the interferometer) in a large sessions to the German community. As such, I did not attend that many science sessions outside of these, the one about ALMA being the exception which was very nice.

Overall, I can’t tell you that much about the science. A lot of the highlights I already knew – Sandy Faber (Karl Schwarzschild Medal) works in my field of galaxy evolution, Cecilia Scannapieco (Biermann price) works at my institute, so I know of her work. I used to work at IPAC, of which the Herschel Science Center is a part of, albeit in the US, but a lot of science highlights from Herschel were well known, too. So, if you pay attention to your field and the press releases, most of the things at these meetings are already within your scientific knowledge. Oh well, but you’re not going to such a general meeting for that, anyway. The main thing is to see people, network and get a sense of how astronomy is going in general in the country. So it was actually two sessions I attended that had nothing to do with astronomy that were quite interesting.

The first was the workshop of the Astro-Frauen-Netzwerk¬†which is intended to be Germany’s version of the “AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy“. It featured a really nice presentation on continuing work by J. Fohlmeister on “Career situation of female astronomers in Germany” (Arxiv link), now with more representative surveys also of german men and of scientist (men and women) in the UK. Some highlights of the talk that I took home, because they stood out so much,¬†were how german men kind of stood out with regards to the other three groups (german women, uk women, uk men). I am paraphrasing, but german men hardly found their jobs on the internet (while the other groups did) and they saw opportunities¬†and experienced career growth when they had children (while the other groups saw childbearing as a burden). As for the rest of the workshop, I could wax poetic about matters concerning female german astronomers, but I think it doesn’t fit the scope of this blog. Let’s just say that I see these groups as an opportunity to network and help each other. I was shocked to hear that other male astronomers have problems with such a network even existing (insert appalled emoticon here!).

The second was the general meeting of the members of the German Astronomical Society. It was almost sweet how lovingly and serious everybody took their task and I appreciate all the hard work the board does. So even though this long session had nothing to do with astronomy it was interesting observing the apparent hierarchies within the society.

The last highlight was the conference dinner at the observatory in Bergedorf where they were celebrating their 100 year existence. The dinner experience was well thought out in that you passed various stations of starters, grill, cocktails until you at long last gathered in the library for coffee and dessert. That way, you visited the main stations of the observatory without missing interesting dinner conversations. At the library there was a long speech given by Prof. Dieter Reimers (now retired) explaining the history of the observatory. It was a well done speech interjecting lots of personal anecdotes and funny facts and I was surprised that 45 minutes of the speech had passed so quickly. Overall, an excellent evening and I am happy that I finally visited that observatory.

Lastly I have to mention two things that weren’t so great, but for which the organizers had little wiggle room or fault:

a) The ESO deadline was early on Thursday along with the NOAO deadline on Friday. This made me miss lots of sessions and I was stuck at the hotel writing and reading proposals rather than attending social events.

b) The weather was quite bad, it probably rained for most of the conference. I could sneak away early on Friday to buy toys for my daughter (a boat and a compass, of course) and it was the only morning where it wasn’t pouring. The image at the top of this post was taken at that time. I had been in Hamburg before, but if you ever find yourself there a harbor tour is definitely a must!

If I can, I would gladly attend the conference next year in T√ľbingen!