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!

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.

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! 🙂