[Image of a fluxgate magnetometer in its housing with its frayed MLI-coated cable curled round it. The destroyed connectors can be seen. The whole assembly is sitting on top of an antistatic envelope. The sensor housing reads: "CLUSTER-FGM SENSOR 08 FM1", where FM means "flight model".]

I gave an outreach talk at an open day this morning, to about a hundred A-level students, their parents and their teachers. The talk was focused on the Cassini end-of-mission science, but I managed to sneak in this bit of space history when explaining what a magnetometer does.

The fluxgate in the photo above actually went into space for a few brief seconds. It got about 5 km up before it was unceremoniously returned to the Earth. The Ariane 5 rocket that launched the spacecraft whose payload it was part of had exploded, showering the swamps of French Guiana with wreckage.

This sensor sat in that swamp for a good few weeks before a French Foreign Legionnaire fished it out.

I'm afraid that being blown up and mouldering in a tropical pond was, in fact, enough to kill it, but it's still a pretty cool object, and the students seemed to like seeing it very much.
I've had a heck of a week. Keiki was off nursery Tuesday and Wednesday. I looked after him on Tuesday. I flew from Birmingham to Noordwijk on Wednesday and the bloke looked after Keiki. I was at an all-day meeting on Thursday at ESTEC (ESA centre in the Netherlands). I flew to London on Thursday night. This morning (Friday) I went to a four-hour meeting (at which I gave a presentation) and then ran over to another building to give an outreach talk to a large group of teenage girls about what it's like to be a spacecraft engineer.

At least I did it all whilst looking rivet af.

[Me in my Noordwijk hotel room, wearing Docs, purple tights, my black wool coat with the fluffy collar and my engineer dress from Svaha.]

My week in photos )
Magnet + iron filings
Photo of a grubby optical table with a piece of chipboard on top of which are two dipole magnets stuck together under a sheet of white paper with iron filings sprinkled on top to show the magnetic field lines. Also on the optical table: a magnetometer, a multimeter, two small magnets, a forming machine and a bean bag. You know, the stuff you usually find on an optical table. Or not.

Anyway, I did this demo for a TV programme today. It's going to be about the end of the Cassini mission, and the segment features my Big Boss, who does all of the talking. I had originally envisioned a sophisticated demonstration involving a magnetometer and an oscilloscope, and instead I ended up sprinkling iron filings on different permutations of magnets for three hours. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ C'est la vie!

[From L to R: Me, Peter, Sam, Agata, Geraint in our formal attire at the Comet Revealed stand before the Royal Society soiree last Wednesday night]

Last week, my London days were largely spent at the Royal Society Summer Science exhibition doing public outreach about the Rosetta mission's discoveries at Comet 67P. I did five four-hour shifts in 2.5 days, which is about the limit a person should do when talking pretty much non-stop. I completely lost my voice after my last shift.

It was great fun, though! I was one of the stand organisers (coordinated the rota & polo shirt printing). The glorious backdrop in the photo above is an image from the OSIRIS camera on board Rosetta. The little stand next to me contains a number of 3D-printed famously rubber-duck-shaped Comet 67P nuclei as well as some of our smell-o-vision postcards. More on those below the cut.

More photos from the stand; pls note that most of these were not taken by me )
I've had an epic few days. I went to London on Thursday, worked my butt off getting stuff done for the Friday deadline, did an outreach event (including a talk and three workshops) in Wimbledon for 60 detached-but-then-totally-excited teenagers on Friday afternoon, raced back to college to drop off my kit and then got on a train to Norfolk to meet the bloke & the children at the out-laws for the weekend. Fabulous weather in East Anglia meant we spent nearly all of it outdoors.

We drove back to Worcestershire on Sunday afternoon (a 3.5 hour drive). After turfing everyone out of the car and re-packing my overnight bag, I got back into the car and drove 1.5 hours to a beautiful venue in Oxfordshire to attend an ex-work-colleague's small but perfectly formed wedding. The other work colleague in attendance and I were surprised to find ourselves in the company of mostly-relatives. I feel very privileged to have been invited. There was a band and dancing and wine and laughter, and it seemed to be a memorable and happy occasion for all.

I drove back this morning, arriving home at noon, and worked the rest of the day before going to meet the bloke at the station and pick up the kids. Also, I made supper. Can I have my Supermum badge now please?

Trowel-wielding toddler
Trowel-wielding toddler.

Helping Grandpa flatten molehills
Grandpa flattens molehills with a rake. Keiki supervises.

[Cassini swag: 3 lithographs, a Grand Finale flyer, bookmarks, postcards, NASA stickers, Ring World DVD, info cards for Saturn/Titan/Enceladus/Iapetus]

A couple of weeks ago, I contacted JPL to ask to replenish my supplies of backlit Saturn lithographs. I was put in contact with a new outreach person, who promptly sent me a list (a list!) of available outreach materials, the existence of which I had not previously been aware. I looked at the list and said yes please, one of everything if that's not too greedy. I was expecting not to get all of it.

I was wrong. Earlier this week I received a message from Stores saying, "You have a package waiting for you." I dashed down excitedly to pick up my box. The Stores person looked at me and laughed. "You're going to need a trolley."

I don't have the time at present to assemble swag packs for people, but I can send out the postcards (on the lower right in the photo). They have a good deal of information on the back, so any message from me will be quite short. Would you like one? If so, please fill out the poll below. The answers are visible only to me. Alternatively, you can DM me. ([personal profile] emelbe & [ profile] imyril: you do not need to fill out the poll.)

Poll #17283 Cassini postcards
This poll is closed.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: Just the Poll Creator, participants: 15

I would like a Cassini postcard, please! Here is an address where it will reach me.

ETA 01/02/2016: I've closed the poll because I've run out of stamps! All the cards requested via poll response or DM on DW have been sent.

After this term is over I'll do another postcard round, and there will also be swag packs on offer although I'll have to be more selective with those or the postage could get prohibitively expensive.
nanila: (kusanagi: aww)
( Oct. 29th, 2015 01:31 pm)
Remember those Very Excited Year 4 students that I wrote about (DW/LJ) a few weeks back?

Their thank-you cards arrived yesterday.

Heartfelt and wonderful works of art that they are, I thought they merited scanning in and sharing. I shall treasure them.

"Thank you Dr [nanila]!" by Beattie

+13 )

Yeah, I cried at my desk. <333333
[Admin note: Entry text has been lifted and modified from an earlier locked entry because PHOTOS! Please let me know if Google Photos is still being crap and I'll put them on Flickr. I hesitated to do so because I didn't take these pictures.]

Last week, I gave my first outreach lecture in just over a year. I'm not doing much outreach any more as my schedule is pretty full, but I made an exception for this Year 4 teacher. I've known her for a few years now, from when she worked at a charity called IntoUniversity that runs courses for children whose parents haven't been to university. She was always fantastic at laying the groundwork for an outreach event, arranging for a big audience and ensuring that the children understood that what was happening was quite special. This is a totally underrated skill in outreach and in general, I think. I knew that the students would be studying space and the solar system in their curriculum, that they would know of my visit in advance and thus that they would be able to extract the most from it.

Anyway, this time I unintentionally pushed this poor lass to her limits. I turned up a week before I was scheduled to do so. It was entirely my fault as I'd put the correct time but the wrong date into my Outlook calendar.

She rallied beautifully. It helped that, superstar teacher that she is, she had already been preparing the students and teachers for my arrival ("We're getting a NASA engineer to visit us!"). Her composure outwardly unrattled, she managed to get all the Year 4 and Year 5 teachers to rearrange their lessons, and bring their children down for the lecture. I'll never forgot those 180 excited faces staring up at me from where they were squooshed together on her classroom floor. They hung on my every word and pelted me with questions for 15 minutes at the end. Then they applauded me. Some of them stood up. Some of them were cheering and whooping. This went on for almost two minutes. I have never felt so embarrassed and so pleased in my life. As they were leaving they came up to me individually - one girl just so she could hug my leg.

"Doctor Nanila," said one smiling eight-year-old boy, "How do I become an engineer?"
"Doctor Nanila," asked a serious-faced child, "If you could go into space and live on your dream world, what would it look like?"
"Doctor Nanila," said a brown-haired girl, "I saw the blood moon through my binoculars! Do you know, it was the closest the moon has been to the Earth this year?"

I have permission to post the photos the teacher took from the event. Without further ado, me and her Year 4s doing the Vulcan hand salute. Please note that I'm wearing an ESA Rosetta t-shirt. Sadly the design is on the back.

Live long and prosper! Peace! Five! Uh...fingers!

+3 )

They've sent a bunch of handmade thank-you cards to my work, which I'll pick up next week. They're going to make me cry at my desk. <333333
My second day at Worldcon started with a panel titled “Scientists Without Borders”, with three other female scientists: Sharon Reamer, Katie Mack and Rachel Berkson, along with our friendly moderator, Brother Guy “I can hear your confession, but I can’t forgive you” Consolmagno. All of us have worked extensively and/or presently work in a country that was not the one we were born in, which is less uncommon for scientists than you might imagine.

This was such an enjoyable panel. Guy outlined a quick plan in the Green Room (already this was looking much better than my first panel). He asked us to use personal stories to illustrate points as much as possible, which is a strategy that worked beautifully. This was a panel in which many examples of cultural misunderstanding, miscommunication, sexism and racism were brought up, but all were handled with sensitivity and even with humour.

I didn’t have a chance to make notes. I really wish I had, as I’ve already forgotten a good deal and I would have dearly loved to remember everything about this panel. I enjoyed Sharon’s anecdotes about being an early-career geophysicist in Germany at a time when there were almost no women in the field, trying to give instructions to men who ranked beneath her. They unwillingly respected the hierarchy at first, but eventually she won them over, partly through competence, but also through putting in a massive effort in learning German. I enjoyed Rachel’s observations on adapting to different cultural attitudes toward the expression of respect and the sharing of ideas. I enjoyed Katie’s stories about working in Japan, and her perceived value as a young non-Japanese-speaking undergraduate researcher (hint: not even valuable enough for teleconferences to be conducted in a language she could understand).

Guy provided just enough guidance to keep the panel moving along a particular trajectory, ending with literary examples that we thought did a good job of portraying scientists. (Hint: not very many.) I do hope we influenced some aspiring writers in the audience to put scientist characters in their novels who are well traveled, not single-minded, not necessarily white, who have diverse relationship histories, and who may be parents too. I am reminded now in particular of Rachel’s anecdote about the Swedish professor who was spoken of by Swedes in reverent tones because they’d managed to achieve so much and had a large family. Said professor was male - parental (not maternal/paternal) leave in Sweden is two years (!!!).

I do hope someone, whether another panelist or an audience member, writes up the panel in more detail, as I’m seriously regretting not trotting off to a quiet corner afterward to make some notes. To be fair to myself, I didn’t have much time since I picked up Humuhumu from the bloke shortly afterward and had solo childcare for the rest of the day and evening.

We spent Saturday entirely away from the con. In the morning, Humuhumu and I went to hunt book benches (see previous post), and I discovered just how horribly inaccessible much of the south bank of the Thames is when you actually need to use lifts because you aren’t supposed to be carrying a pushchair up and down stairs. I ended up having to do it once, which exacerbated my existing injury and unfortunately flattened me for what I had hoped would be an evening out for me.

Sunday heralded my third panel, “Secrecy in Science”. There were quite a large number of people on this panel. Three of us were from astro/space including the moderator, one person was from pharma, one European patent lawyer (largely dealing with pharma, I suspect, from their contributions) and one English professor.

Despite the advance discussion in the Green Room, which gave us a good structure to work with, I never felt like this panel quite gelled completely. I’m not really sure why. There was a lot of interesting independent discussion about secrecy in the two realms of drug discovery and space exploration, but we never quite managed to make an unforced connection between them. I didn’t find much of it exceptionally memorable, I must admit, so I didn’t come away regretting the lack of opportunity to make notes as strongly as I had with the Friday panel.

One tense moment occurred during the open access discussion. An audience member asked what the panel members thought of Aaron Swartz (a researcher and activist who downloaded and shared a number of academic articles from JSTOR, a paywall-protected site). Swartz committed suicide last year after being prosecuted by MIT and JSTOR for his actions. Those panel members who were aware of the case (I wasn’t among them) and the audience seemed to agree that the outcome was disproportionate to the alleged crime. Swartz had legitimate access to JSTOR when he downloaded the articles, and a good many of the articles that he shared were apparently not paywalled by their originating journals. However, the discussion got heated when audience members pushed for further personal statements from the panel members, and one panel member took issue with the agreement over disproportionality between Swartz’s actions and the prosecution’s. The tension was diffused by means of a swift topic change.

My final LonCon3 event was my Rosetta talk, “Catching a Comet”.

I had an amusing encounter before I started. I was poking the projector when a person in the audience spoke to me. “Are you the person in charge of the lights and things?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m the speaker.”

The expression on this person’s face was priceless. (You get one guess re: age/race/gender.)

I had thought this talk through but had little time to work on it before the con, so putting it together was a concentrated last-minute effort. It seemed to go over well. At the very least, I didn’t hear any snoring, not very many people left during it and I got a few laughs. I tried to add in little anecdotes and tidbits from work, and I spent at least fifteen minutes answering questions at the end.

Afterward, I talked to a few audience members, and went for a quick coffee with [personal profile] foxfinial and briefly met some other lovely writers before heading out to meet the bloke and Humuhumu for our journey home. It was earlier than I’d hoped, since I had to be in hospital in Birmingham for my 20-week scan on Tuesday morning, so I missed the last two panels I was supposed to be on.

Note: Part 1 is access-locked due to racefail during my first panel. I may unlock it at some point in future, but given previous experience and observation wherein calling out racism often brings more wrath down upon the whistleblower than it does on the person being racist, it’s unlikely.

[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.