nanila: fulla starz (lolcat: science)
( Mar. 18th, 2014 09:59 pm)
I felt the urge to rewrite my introduction so I thought I’d use it as a starting point for a Subscription Meme, as I haven’t seen one going around for a while.

I’ve made a template, which I’ve filled out very wordily below. Please feel free to adapt it to your wishes, and please link this post wherever you like. (Please participate or share? I'm going to feel very sad if this entry sits here alone with 0 comments...)

Subscription Meme template:
<b>People in this journal</b>
<b>About my job</b>
<b>Some random facts</b>
<b>Things I like to do</b>
<b>Social media usage</b>
<b>>Subscriptions, access and commenting</b>
<b>What I’d like to get from my participation here</b>

My responses! )

[Image of one of many small cherubs in the church graveyard. I will hazard a guess at the translation of the German inscription "Die Seele ist nie ohne Geleit der Engel" as, "A soul is never without the company of angels."]

So. Sunday. Having a little difficulty summing up Sunday. For a start, I was particularly homesick for my family. We talked on Skype a few times over the course of the day. I watched Humuhumu bibble around her daddy in one of the new dresses her grandparents bought for her, playing with the new teddy bear her grandparents bought for her. (I sense a theme here.) She isn't too well, poor thing, as three of her canines are coming in at once and she's getting over a bad cold and an eye infection. Her voice was hoarse and she whimpered now and again because of the pain in her teeth, but, being an even-tempered child, she rallied on. I desperately wanted to give her a cuddle, and the five days I have to wait before I can do that weighed heavily on my heart.

I forced myself to go down to the Schoolhouse at 10 AM. Many of the students went to the church services at 9, so I didn't think it was worth heading in too much earlier. It was a quiet morning. The lack of urgency gave me a strong feeling that they still didn't seem to have a grasp on how much work they needed to do before Monday's review. My hunch was borne out as the afternoon progressed. They didn't start working properly until much later in the evening, after dinner, when at last the tutors lost patience and spelled out for them that "mission profile" means you have to have a full mission scenario from launch to end of mission defined, complete with orbit trajectories (and that means specific altitudes, please). You also have to know the mass of your spacecraft(s), an estimate of the power budget, daily data rate, communication band, ground station coverage, etc. And you need to have your payload defined, to ensure that you can deliver the science you have promised. They had a few of these numbers here and there, but others they hadn't even considered yet. It was finally enough to shock them into taking drastic action.

We left them to it at 12:30 AM and went in search of beer, forgetting that this is a small village and it was Sunday. Disappointed, we dispersed to our rooms just before it began to rain.

[View over my outstretched legs as I relax on a lounge chair in the hotel garden.]

Most of the students and a fair number of tutors went on alpine hikes yesterday. Given that hauling my pregnant self from the Schoolhouse to the hotel, a distance of about 400 metres at an incline of OMG STEEP, leaves me breathless in the current heat wave (30+ degrees C), I decided not to go. I spent the morning and early afternoon alternately working and resting.

Just before 16:00 I headed back to the Schoolhouse. A team tutor (science) for one of the teams had not yet returned from the hike, and their science team was in disarray. With the permission of the other (engineering) tutor, I stepped in to marshal them to order. I put all their science objectives up on the blackboard and assigned the requirements to the members of the science team according to their interests. Some of them were already working on them, but no one knew what anyone else was doing, so there were both gaps and overlaps. One of them wanted to rewrite the objectives (not just the requirements, the original science objectives). I had to give my speech again about it being far too late for that and needing to move forward because they must have a payload (and spacecraft(s) and mission scenario e.g. orbits) by Monday. They settled down to do some serious work.

Once the scientists got organised, they started putting some numbers up on the board, which gave the payload and mission (orbit) analysis teams something to work with. After dinner, the team reconvened and each scientist took it in turn to explain and defend their numbers to everyone else.

All of this took most of the afternoon and the evening and I'm deliberately glossing over the details, but it was wonderful to watch the transformation from utter chaos and despair to order and optimism. Their leader, whom it was obvious to the tutors should have been the leader from the first day, had agreed very reluctantly to do so that morning. By the evening, he was in control, with the full backing of his peers. He called for a engineering review at 12:15 AM to ensure that the payload team were getting the interpretation of the science team's requirements right, and they identified where they'd need to have discussions or rethink the need for the given measurement range or resolution given available technologies.

I'm afraid I didn't rove much as a tutor yesterday since I got caught up in this team's struggle, so my goal for today is to wander more freely!

[Image of ripe raspberries peeking out from beneath young green leaves. They grow wild at the roadsides in the village and are tiny and delicious.]

Let me see if I can gather my scattered wits enough to summarise yesterday's events.

The mood at breakfast was somewhat subdued due to the arrival of one of the lecturers from ESTEC, bringing news that one of our ESA colleagues lost his mother in the downing of Flight MH17. She was returning home to Malaysia after three weeks with her children and grandchildren.

We had to carry on regardless, so we marched down to the Schoolhouse for the morning lectures, which were all about mission design and operations. The students were just beginning to look a bit haggard, most of them having been in the Schoolhouse until at least 1 AM preparing for their first reviews, which took place at 16:30.

The reviews ran in parallel for the four teams, with a set of roving tutors assigned to each team to ask questions and decide if the science case was solid enough for them to carry on drilling down from the science requirements into observational and payload requirements. We had learned earlier that all four teams had selected Venus as their target planet. The general reasoning appeared to be:

  1. Mercury is difficult to get to. Also, BepiColombo, which launches in 2016 and is targeting Mercury, is carrying multiple spacecraft (though not a lander or a rover) and a comprehensive payload which should advance considerably the state of knowledge about the planet.

  2. Mars' geophysical parameters have well characterised by many missions, mostly from NASA, and a lot of these are ongoing or soon to be launched. The students didn't feel confident enough that they could come up with a unique science question to justify a Mars mission, despite the lecturers that included very strong (sometimes blatantly obvious) hints in this direction.

  3. They applied similar reasoning to Earth as to Mars.

  4. The lecturer who spoke on Venus was far and away the best at selling the planet as an interesting target. He's also one of the tutors and the students really like him - he's engaging, approachable and knowledgeable. Additionally, so little is known about Venus' surface, atmosphere and interior (because it is such a harsh environment) that it is much easier to come up with a unique science mission.

Back to the reviews. The group I reviewed (with two others) had a really good science question and derived set of science requirements. We quizzed them in lots of different ways and their case stood up to the questioning well. They hadn't yet moved through to the next step (observational requirements), which they were supposed to have done, but I believe this was to their benefit as it meant they'd done a much better job of defining their science requirements that it seemed the other teams had done. They didn't need a delta review, although they decided to give themselves one anyway.

It was also fun to watch the dynamics of the team take shape. Their spokesperson, a charming and articulate young woman, knew when to defer to her science and engineering leads. The engineering lead is a shy Irish chap who had explicitly stated earlier that he didn't want to get up and speak. But later in the evening during the delta review (at 11:00 PM), he got up and presented a slide. It was informative and well researched, would help them move from their observational requirements into payload definition, and he did it quite well. We (one of the other roving tutors and I) made sure to compliment him on it afterward, and he positively glowed.

The first implosion took place last night as well. I returned to the Schoolhouse after dinner and moved from room to room, observing and trying to help. I walked into one room at 10:30 PM just as one of the team tutors was leaving with a face like thunder. "Meltdown," he said, "I need a walk." It transpired that the science team were in disarray. They have one particularly combative personality, and she was at the throats of the others (metaphorically). I'm not normally one for this kind of heavy-handed intervention, but it seemed to me to be required. I went in, stood by the table and said, "Hello" in my brightest, chirpiest American. They all stared at me. Confident that I had their attention, I picked up their requirements matrix and began to talk them through it. Occasionally they tried to say, "But we aren't doing X," or "Doing Y is too hard," and I said, no, it is too late to change or add things now (exactly what I'd watched their team tutor tell them an hour earlier). You have to move forward. (I must have said this five times in half an hour.) They had been stalled for too long and were achieving nothing. They needed to stop squabbling over whether they could achieve their science objectives with the instruments they had in mind. The science requirements needed to be turned into observational requirements and given to the engineers. The engineers needed to know which quantities were to be measured, to what precision and for how long. They are the ones who will worry about whether the instruments could achieve this and then whether or no they could afford it (in terms of mass, power, lifetime of the spacecraft, etc).

I have no idea if they actually took all that on board. I'll find out later today. Most of the students are on a hike and will return to the Schoolhouse at 16:00. I really hope I return to find that this team has produced an Observational Requirements matrix, or they're going to be badly behind. The next review (the Preliminary Design Review, which requires payload definition) takes place on Monday afternoon.

[Sign for a bar I probably won't see the inside of on this trip, as it's only open from 10 PM to 3 AM and I can't drink - or stay vertical that late. But I like the look of it.]

(I was awakened this morning by the person upstairs who apparently couldn't figure out how to shut and lock their door when they went out for a run/swim/whatever at 6 AM. Bang! Bang! Bang! BANG! >.< Also, the baby is ill and I'm hundreds of miles away. The bloke has everything under control but it's still worrisome. Apologies, therefore, if this is less coherent than optimal.)

Despite the unnecessarily early banging-door alarm call, I was alert throughout the morning lecture session, because all three of them were extremely good. They covered Mars, Venus and Mercury geophysics in succession, and they were structured very well to spark the interest of the students in their mission design. They presented the state of known science, walked through a quick history of space-based measurement and modelling of geophysical properties, and then gave a list of unknown/desirable items that would be exciting to explore in future. We broke for lunch,after which the students returned to their four teams to begin narrowing down their options in earnest.

I spent the afternoon going from room to room, mostly observing the student discussions but occasionally being asked for information, some of it quite specific technical information about magnetometers, which worried me a bit since at this point they should not be focused on how they'll do the measurements but rather why they want to do them in the first place. I tried to steer them away from this, but it's hard, especially when they get so excited delving into the nitty gritty details.

While the teams are going through similar personnel-based challenges (e.g. Who is going to be the team leader? A: Not necessarily the person who thinks they should be...), they are taking radically different approaches to deciding their mission topic. One group, which is strangely composed entirely of shy people and barely spoke yesterday, has split into three groups and is now amongst the most animated and, I dare say, coming up with some of the most interesting science cases as a result. In contrast, another group, which had firmly decided a mission on the first day, determined that they didn't have a strong science case and had to go back to the drawing board and start again. This group also suffer from a lack of leadership but in a completely different way. There are three who want to lead and none of them are listening to each other. Or their fellow students. Or their team tutors. All three of them are fixated on their own ideas. It's a lot more difficult to manage.

By the end of the night, the teams need to have selected a target planet and written a (set of) science objective(s). Tomorrow afternoon they will go through their first design review. I get to attend one of these, because the reviews run simultaneously. I predict that we're looking at two missions to Venus and one to either Mars or Earth. I suspect they've all ruled out Mercury as too much of a challenge, given both the trajectory analysis headache and the fact that BepiColombo is going there with multiple spacecraft and a fairly comprehensive payload in 2016. But we'll see!
Friends, I eschew a blow-by-blow of today's events in favour of letting you know that I reached an important scientific milestone. I have collapsed the wave function of my knowledge of the existence of Erwin Schrödinger's grave.

As one of my scientist friends pointed out, however, since I didn't actually open up his grave, I still can't be certain he's really in there. For all I know, it could be occupied by a cat. I have yet to observe a cat in this village. Note to self: Remember to bring shovel next time.

[Schrödinger's grave marker, with wave equation.]

[Schrödinger's grave in context in the churchyard.]

Additional anecdote: Today's evening meal included a dessert called "Mohr im Hemd". content note for residual linguistic racism and AWKWARD )

Now I must return to the Schoolhouse for the night's mission planning session.

[Oh, you know, just some Alps in the background.]

The official opening of the 38th Austrian Space Summer School began with the ringing of an enormous cowbell at the Schoolhouse at 8:30 AM. The clanging was followed by a number of lectures, beginning with a broad overview by the head of the German space agency (DLR) and proceeding with ever-increasing specificity through a range of geophysical topics. It ended with the students finally being taken off tenterhooks when the composition of their four teams were announced and their dedicated tutors (one Science, one Engineering) assigned.

We trekked up the hill back to the hotel for drinks and dinner, which were followed by yet another lecture. Despite the deluge of information, the students are still all keyed up. Everyone of the teams is downstairs in the hotel bar (it is now 11 PM), forming working groups and discussing potential mission parameters.

Official language of the School: B.E. (Broken English)
Best lecture of the day: "Terrestrial and planetary tectonics". And I'm not just saying that because he talked about Hawai'i a lot.
Best interruption of the day: A mobile phone ringing persistently. This doesn't sound that great until you know that it turned out to be the speaker's. The director of planetary science at the DLR had to answer call from ESA in the middle of his own lecture.
(Probable) Fact of the Day: Erwin Schrödinger is buried in the graveyard of this village. I shall at some point make a little trip to his grave, so that I can collapse the wave function of my knowledge of its existence through observation of it myself.
Quote of the Day: "In space missions, it is not that failure is not an option. Failure is the default mode. You have to work extremely hard not to fail." -- spacecraft engineer

I'm in my hotel room now with my feet up, exercising the principle of Conservation of Spoons, because I know that my expertise, while not immediately required, will certainly be in demand well before the end of the next nine days.
nanila: YAY (me: abby)
( Jul. 14th, 2014 03:40 pm)
I have been in three countries and multiple forms of transport today.

Countries: UK, Germany, Austria (where I am now)
Forms of transport, in order of use:
  • Taxi (30 minutes late + section of motorway shut == overly exciting journey at 4:30 AM)
  • Plane (jet)
  • Terminal shuttlebus
  • Plane (twin prop)
  • Bus
  • Train
  • Taxi

Twelve hours later, I'm sitting in a rather nice hotel in a small, picturesque village in the Tyrol. It was bright and sunny when I arrived and now the temperature has dropped 10 degrees and it's pissing it down. I am shattered, and I have to go to a meeting at 6 PM. Tomorrow, the 10-day Alpbach Space Summer School that I've come here to help with as an engineering tutor begins.

In conclusion, here is a picture of me and Beakle Bear (aka Humuhumu), because I miss her.

[Image from the Royal Society's Facebook page of me at the exhibit. The comet nucleus model with pockets containing molecular models is in front of me. The lander model is just visible in the middle in the background. I look knackered. This is because when this photo was taken, I had just begun my fourth 4-hour shift on the stand in three days, after handling delivery and supervising setup the previous weekend.]

I'm still recovering from the exhibition despite finishing my last shift on the stand at mid-afternoon on Thursday. The exhibit finished on Sunday at 1800, after which it was packed down and shipped back to the Open University in Milton Keynes.

[ profile] StarkeyStardust and I almost single-handedly designed the stand, commissioned the interactive elements of the exhibit, weaseled the giveaways from ESA (thanks to Project Scientist [ profile] mggttaylor), rounded up volunteers, organised the rota and arranged for delivery, setup and breakdown of the exhibit. Our nominal superiors got us the funding (which was helpful and not to be sneezed at). But most of the last five months' worth of work has been done exclusively by the two of us, in addition to our usual full-time jobs.

I learned some things about myself over the course of the organisation, which I felt the need to record.
  • I'm not a natural media person. I can come across okay if I make an effort, but I don't enjoy it the way [ profile] StarkeyStardust does. She is a natural, relaxed and effective communicator. Granted, she's had more media training than I have, but she also has a talent for it that I don't. She took on nearly all the press obligations during the exhibition. Beforehand, I thought I might have wanted to share the limelight, but as it turns out, I much prefer being a power behind the throne, as it were, rather than sitting on it myself. In Yes Minister terms, I'm probably a bit of a Bernard at the moment, with aspirations to become a Dorothy.

  • The more volunteers, the better. We were told we would need at least four people on the stand at all times. I did most of the organisation of the rota which is a much more time-consuming task than most people estimate. I knew from previous experience (I've either helped design or volunteered at the RSSE since 2011) that ideally we would have at least six people on the stand at all times, but I should have recruited harder as there were times when we had only four scheduled and that really is the bare minimum. Especially when someone drops out, as a few people nearly always do. In the end we had 42 volunteers, five of whom had to drop their sessions. Also, I should not have put [ profile] StarkeyStardust officially on the stand as much as she wanted me to. Four sessions over the course of the week really should be the maximum amount anyone does. Everyone underestimates how draining it is being on your feet talking and being enthusiastic for four hours straight.

    The exhibition keeps running for longer every year as well (it used to open on a Monday and close on a Thursday). If I were to do it again, I would ensure I had at least 50 volunteers and that none of them were officially scheduled for more than four sessions. As it was I was worried because we had a few that I never even met because they didn't come to the dry run and they were scheduled at the weekend when I wasn't there. I know now that as long as they confirm they're coming, it isn't a problem.

  • Do not try to stuff too many things into the exhibit space. I knew this one already which is why we only had two interactives, and was worried about how huge the lander model is. Its footprint is 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres and our space was 4 metres by 2 metres. Funnily enough this wasn't our biggest problem; it was the bases for the backdrop, which we hadn't realised were stupidly bulky, totalled 5 metres in length and were mostly useless. We ended up having to get rid of half of the backdrop in order to fit everything in and make it look decent.

  • Small items that are part of the interactives will get nicked no matter how vigilant you think you're being. A few of our molecular models went walkabout, and our "comet without nucleus" magnet and replacement "comet without nucleus" magnet (a London bus fridge magnet with a cartoon drawing stuck to it, see here, were both spirited away.

  • Be prepared for people to drop out of the soirees. This, I admit, was something we didn't anticipate. Most people love going to the Royal Society soirees and will angle for an invite. Both people who dropped out of the soirees (one each on Wednesday and Thursday night) did so on very short notice - mid-day on the day of the soiree. We managed to scare up replacements, but I think next time it would be clever to ask a postgrad volunteer who has put in a lot of sessions to be a backup attendee for an "important" guest at each of the soirees. They were the ones who ended up getting the places anyway, and they deserved them.

  • Chase up the university press office for publicity. Both Imperial and the OU let us down a bit on that front, I have to admit. We got a bit of coverage, but not really enough before the actual event to build interest.

  • Focus on only one social media outlet, or recruit volunteers to generate content. We tried to run a Tumblr and a Twitter just between the two of us before the exhibition. That was a mistake - we just about managed the Twitter account but couldn't keep up the Tumblr. Then, during the Twitter Q&A the week before the exhibition, we gave the Twitter account password to a few more people and suddenly it became way, way easier to maintain. I know this is a basic lesson of social media networking, but I've never really tried to do it myself as my accounts have always been exclusively personal.

    And finally...
  • Don't get pregnant during the run-up to the exhibition. Fighting nausea whilst trying to work an extra two hours every day after your normal work is done and you've put the baby to bed and all you want to do is go to sleep? Yeah, that sucks.

To make myself feel better, here are the things I think we did well.
  • Communicate regularly but not overwhelmingly with our volunteers. We tried to put a good deal of useful information into our group e-mails and send them sparingly. Also, we thanked them promptly after the exhibition even though none of us even wanted to think about it on Monday, which I think was good form.

  • Pay people to do the stand design properly. Neither of us had the time or the necessary expertise to do it ourselves. It was much better to commission artists to make the comet nucleus model and the mechanical workshop at Imperial to make the Pin the Tail on the Comet interactive.

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. For instance, I knew that [ profile] purplecthulhu had helped design the Herschel and Planck stands at previous RSSEs, and so I asked him where to get shirts printed and for permission to reuse their rota spreadsheet. He provided these and many more helpful tips. (He definitely earned his soiree place!) Natalie knew that the backdrop for the Stardust exhibit some years ago had been stored at the OU, so she tracked that down and had the same person who did the design for the posters reuse his template for the Catch A Comet exhibit.

  • Communicate enthusiastically and effectively with the public about SCIENCE. This is the whole point of the exhibition, and I think we managed it well in the end.
nanila: (tachikoma: celebratory)
( Jul. 7th, 2014 09:17 am)

[Number Two. Progress shot.]

So I'm finally allowed to post publicly about this. The bloke asked for a week's grace after the scan so he could have the fun of telling some people, because he's not big on the online social networking thing and last time he was sad because lots of people found out through FB before he had a chance to tell them. Which is fair enough.

Now he's had his week, so muahahaha I get to share online! Which is good because for the past few weeks every time I've gone to type an entry, all that's come out is BABY BABY BABY I'm cooking up another baby, gosh this is an exhausting thing to be doing while working full-time, all I want to do is lie down and concentrate on growing this new human but nooo, SCIENCE waits for no one and did I mention BABY?!! And then I've had to erase it and all that back-spacing is tiring so nothing has come out at all. Sorry about that.

Anyway *points up* that's the 13-week scan photo. If you're looking at it going, er, is that a Rorschach blot test, I don't blame you. If you squint real hard you can see the head on the right, and a little fist waving in the air above the tummy in the middle, and crossed feet over on the left. The little devil was quite wriggly, unlike placid Humuhumu, and it took ages for the sonographer to take the nuchal fold measurement (part of the Down's syndrome screening; appears to be well inside normal range).

No nickname yet.
Just returning to Brum after a hectic morning/early afternoon directing the setup of the Rosetta exhibit at the Royal Society.

I will be on the stand at Carlton Terrace at the following times:

Wednesday 2 July 10:00 to 13:30
Thursday 3 July 10:00 to 13:30

I'll also be there Monday morning and Wednesday evening for the soiree, but as those aren't open to the public, they're only relevant to a few people on DW/LJ.

The exhibition is open from Tuesday 1 July until Sunday 6 July, including evenings on Monday (adults only), Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. There are 20+ interactive exhibits about SCIENCE, so even if I'm not on the Rosetta stand you should come and have a look!

More photos from setup )