The Canterbury Tales – Chapter 1

ICYA2009, phd, rantings, travel

I can’t quite believe quite how quickly time seems to have passed by. Now it’s 2010; a new year, a new decade, end of the International Year of Astronomy, and for me onto new things – starting a PhD in Canterbury, Kent, doing something I’ve dreamed of doing for a long time to further my career in astronomy. I feel I’ve been given a great opportunity and I can’t wait for what lies ahead. I know it will mean a lot of hard work over these next few years, but good things don’t come for nothing!

First of all, Happy New year to all my friends and colleagues. The reason I haven’t blogged is for good reason really. The last time I ‘meaningfully’ blogged was back in September, about the International Conference of Young Astronomers I attended in Krakow, and that was only just as I moved to Canterbury. I gave you ‘The very start of the ‘Canterbury Tales’, telling of my recent move and the very briefest of first impressions. A few months on, as you can imagine a lot has happened. I’m now over 3 months into my PhD (very scary!!!) but still I am very much settling into most things. Where I feel nicely settled in the house, and that I am starting to get into some sort of routine with my PhD, it’s still not ‘Leicester’. I don’t mean that as a bad thing to Canterbury or anyone here, but the change of environment is just far greater than I expected.

Returning home for Christmas was a good time to reflect on the last few months, in particular the lessons to be learnt from my PhD so far, and how to ensure a much more effective use of my time. My main focus over these months has been my PhD, and as such, my life has slowly been crumbling to make way for it. I’ve realised the demands of teaching, which I’ve gotten used to; the expectations of my PhD; and having absorbed the last three months I have learnt to block-book my time to ensure I make the most of this experience.

It’s been quite tough to keep up with real life activities. I’ve managed to fit in some comedy evenings at the Gulbenkian Theatre which have been quite good, including an evening with comedienne Sarah Millican (who has appeared on ‘Mock The Week’ and ‘Live on the Apollo’). These are very different to anything I’ve ever experienced in Leicester. I look forward to more of these. Some of the highlights this term are Chris Addison (from the ‘Thick of It’ and ‘Lab Rats’), Stewart Francis (‘Mock the Week’, ‘Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow’), Jo Caulfield (‘Mock The Week’, ‘Have I Got News For You’, ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’), Zoe Lyons (‘Mock The Week’ and ‘4 Stands Up’ (BBC Radio 4)). I feel in this way Canterbury appeals to my taste of comedy more, having a circle of people in many of the few TV programmes I really enjoy. In fact I have applied for ‘Mock The Week’ tickets, so fingers crossed! I also enjoy the jazz evenings at the Gulbenkian, quite soon after work once a month, as they make a good change of environment. Plus, you can sit back an relax over a glass of wine listening to jazz, finishing of work if necessary due to free wi-fi across campus. I’ve found a good few things here, though slowly perhaps I feel I’m turning into a bit of an old man :-p.

Saying that, I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 4 a lot more recently :). I’ve always liked the Friday Night comedy shows, such as ‘The News Quiz’, but in particular ‘The Now Show’. Now, I’m starting to listen more to shows like ‘The Today Programme’. Maybe I am turning into a bit of an old man :-p. I got a DAB (and FM) radio for Christmas. I quite enjoy that I have well over 40 radio channels. It’s amazing. I’ve started listening to BBC World Service which can be quite good, and more of BBC Radio 2. In keeping with ‘the fashion’ I listen to NME UK and Absolute Radio. For my love of rock/indie/metal, as well as 80s they serve quite well. As with any music on the radio, you just can get fed up of listening to the same tracks over and over, day-by-day.

It’s the people that made it at Leicester, but I’m sure I’ll feel much the same after 3 years in Canterbury. It’s still very early days. Whereas I am still ‘settling’, I feel as though I’m finding my place with certain things such as the aforementioned. The fact also is that the nature of a PhD is very different to an undergraduate degree. It requires far more self-motivation, often also a good conceptualisation of tasks to be completed, so a need for good planning – perhaps something I have learnt at my cost a little. Now is a good time to reflect, to ensure a good start the new year and new term, and to ensure also that I make good progress throughout my PhD. I wouldn’t trade it for the world! I just wish I had more hours in the day. I guess a point here really, for anyone wanting to do a PhD is to make sure they are willing to put the required effort into it, and to be prepared to sacrifice a lot for it!

International Conference of Young Astronomers 2009

astronomy, ICYA2009, IYA
Logotype by Mariusz Slonina

Back in May, I wrote about the The International Conference of Young Astronomers (ICYA). Once this was advertised my eyes lit up for me seeing this another valuable opportunity to get in touch with other young scientists, with whom we might cooperate in the future. It would also be a good chance to establish connections there with scientists, researchers and advanced amateur astronomers whom I could meet in the future and work together in projects which will develop modern astronomy. A good few of us from the opening ceremony of IYA, in Paris who have stayed in touch since that conference, mainly via a Gooogle Group, but with modern technology have managed to regularly keep in touch, as far as countries such as Venezuela, New Zealand and Indonesia, and now call each other friends. This event was something of a great opportunity for us all academically, where most of us study the subject, but also a great chance to meet with such friends it is normally difficult to see.
It was a great shame for us friends attending that it wasn’t possible for some of our other friends to make it. It is understandable in many cases, due to the severe distance and price involved, as well as general complications of everyday life. It was sad in particular, that one of our friends who put hard work into a spectacular poster, at the last minute could not make the conference due to visa problems in his country. I must say, he was there in spirit.

Between 6th – 13th September we attended the International Conference of Young Astronomers, in Krakow, Poland; a scientific meeting of undergraduate and PhD students of astronomy and physics as well as more advanced astronomers. We, as young scientists, feel we should contribute our share to this year’s International Year of Astronomy 2009. For this reason we aim to arrange an international conference to broaden our minds and to discuss challenging issues of astronomy. The goal of the conference is to establish the ICYA as a regular conference, held once a year in different countries, connecting young astronomers from all over the world. Let’s make it happen!

This year the ICYA was organised by the Polish Astronomical Society in collaboration with Polish universities (The Jagiellonian University of Cracow, The University of Warsaw, The Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznań, The Nicolaus Copernicus University of Toruń, The University of Zielona Góra, The University of Szczecin, The Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre of Polish Academy of Sciences) and supported by foreign universities and astronomical societies as well as international astronomical organizations.

The conference was very well organised, with great talks from professional astronomers, those also from some students, a mix of undergraduates and postgraduate researchers, also 10s of posters were on display. There was a great range of talks, although maybe I am now slightly biased saying this, but my feeling was there wasn’t as much planetary science and a dominance of high-energy astrophysics. I didn’t mind it however, as they are equally as fascinating to me, but maybe personally it would have been good to see what other students are doing in the field of astronomy. There was a great talk by Michal Drahus however, on ‘Microwave spectroscopy as a tool for studying the properties of active cometary nuclei’, who by coincidence works in the exact group I shall be working in, and knows my supervisor well. I know it can be difficult to get an equal balance, and I think was largely diverse, with topics including also GRBs, AGN, exoplanets, space physics, cosmology and projects for the International Year of Astronomy 2009. These were noticeably split up very well, largely into sessions of these particular fields.

On the Tuesday, interestingly for an astronomy conference, we had an International Sports Competition, and by way of vote we played volleyball. Personally I’d not played this in years. In our group, largely us ‘IYA’ friends, we came a respectable 4th place out of I think around 10 groups. Good fun, though after lack of sleep I probably wasn’t the most active in the group.

Throughout my time in Krakow, in particular at the conference I tried my best, within practical means of producing a Twitter feed about the conference, which you can search for under the tag ‘#ICYA09’. I only had internet access at the conference and that was a little temporamental unfortunately.

We had some good times, with tours of Krakow, a guided city tour, an open bar, also an amazing candlelit buffet, bonfire and free beer, wine and soft drinks all night at the Jagiellonian University!

Thanks go again to the organisers who did a remarkable job, who made this truly an experience many of us will never forget. 😀

For more information about ICYA2009, visit:

Proceedings should follow shortly, as well as a photo gallery containing many of the pictures we took during the week.

My own photo album of the conference can be viewed here.

Clear skies ^-^

The very start of the ‘Canterbury Tales’

ICYA2009, rantings, travel, university

I’m just sat in Starbucks at Stansted waiting endlessly for my flight to Krakow, Poland and I thought I’d share a little piece here.

So, things are finally nearly sorted it seems with the house. After weeks of dealing through a painsakingly tiring process of dealing with the letting agency I have moved in! Thank you Jatin for your tremendous help! The house I feel is lovely and modern. I think it’s a place I can finally relax, unlike being couped up in one room in halls with very basic facilities. My plan now very much is to keep work at work, and to relax at home. I have my room near enough how I want it. The kitchen is very modern and clean-feeling, and a great environment to cook in. The lounge has amazingly comfortable sofas. We have also a nice dining area/conservatory, so set away from the kitchen environment – nice to relax and enjoy food. The garden isn’t too bad, maybe needs a bit of work, but a great environment if we want to have a bbq.

The house is somewhere set rather residential, between the city and the university campus and quite conveniently near certain walkways and cycle routes. There is so much I can’t wait to do. I haven’t been in Canterbury long, but already I find the amazing culture it has with the advantage of being a short journey to Belgium or France; the history with the many museums and sites, the “Garden of England”, the proximity to both the coast and to London, and the range of comedy and theatre performances it hosts, in particular the Gulbenkian Theatre and cinema on campus which I am sure to attend regularly.

Most importantly I’m looking forward to the start of something new and challenging ahead, as much as I can’t help but be a little nervous at the enormity of the whole thing. As soon as I return from Krakow I am due to start. My supervisor is in the process of getting things ready for me. It’ll be so nice to have my own office space, as well as a new Macbook for conferences and observing trips. Already my supervisor is talking of submitting proposals, which as these run on 6 month cycles are due at the end of the month – one of the good reasons to start that bit earlier, to allow me to have a bit of an input if I can.

So for now things are largely on track for what I hope will be the start of many great Canterbury Tales.

A slight side….I shall be departing at 06.10am here to see my fellow young astronomers for our meet in Krakow. While I am there I hope to ‘tweet’ a bit, mainly during the conference with the tag “#ICYA09”, so you can follow me there – my username is “rjmlaird” like my blog. Stay tuned as I shall be writing, probably a more exciting piece here about the conference in the coming week or so. 😉