Happy New Year!

Kindle, phd, random, rantings, reading, travel, university

Well, it is that time again. Another year, another time where one can reflect and look back at a year passed.

For me, I will gladly leave 2011. It sure wasn’t the best of years. If anything, it has been the hardest year of my life. I haven’t said this publicly here – I have been getting to terms with it myself, but many friends will be aware that in December 2010 my father passed away. It really isn’t appropriate to discuss it too much here, but as you can imagine, it has been very hard. I am an only child, my mother also has a difficult condition and I have felt the weight on my shoulders.

This past year, I really have felt my life has been a great roller-coaster. I have faced some really difficult personal challenges. Knowing what is best under these circumstances has been really hard. I have struggled with my PhD which didn’t really get going afterwards through various circumstances. I have found myself torn in many ways, which is hard to explain to anybody who doesn’t know me well enough. So much of this past year has been so very personal, but even those who know me I’m not sure understand fully the pain I have felt. Only now are things starting to turn around for the better, although the future remains uncertain. My biggest challenge will be getting through financial barriers which is my greatest worry.

I’d like to think that through my bad experiences I have become a stronger person. Who knows? I sure have had to be defiant in my ambitions. I have been made to see life a little differently, but that has taken a number of months to work through and even now, I ponder. Perhaps my confidence has been knocked, but 2012 is a new year. I have been considering challenges I should work towards; namely, a first author paper. I plan to focus much, much more on my work which is the ambition towards my intended career path.

I am aware I have put on a few pounds over this past year and have become rather inactive. I have already started this “Couch to 5k” running plan to help get back into shape. I intend to keep track of my progress using a website I heard called Runkeeper where one can post their activities in a sort of Fitness “diary”. The great thing is, it lets you map your movements using an app on your mobile phone. That tells you the distance, time, range of elevation, average pace and route map of your activities.

This month, I am cutting alcohol from my diet totally (except possibly, Burns’ Night for some Scotch Whisky). I am not a massive drinker, but perhaps I was drinking more frequently last year.

I’m monitoring what I eat in a food diary and I am recording my weight every day in an attempt to lose weight.

I joined the university mountaineering club after a friend/work colleague encouraged me to join. I haven’t taken it so seriously as I ought to have done but I plan to attend at least once a week no matter what. I plan to go to the upcoming Pennines trip in a couple of weeks’ time.

I am a little embarrassed to say this but I have never been to a big live concert. Anyone who knows me should know I’m not into massive crowds. I have a ticket to see Dream Theater next month which I am really looking forward to. I hope to see a symphonic metal band, Delain, in May. It would be awesome if I could get to Ruisrock in Finland. I really want to see Nightwish who are set to be playing there. Many of the bands I like either have released or will release an album before the festival, most of whom are Scandinavian/Nordic.  I’ll try to write a separate blog about that. I will be seeing the comedian, Jimmy Carr in a week, which should be fun, so a few things to look forward to.

I have no real travel plans at the moment. My focus has to be work which has suffered this past year. I’d like to visit Italy some day. I enjoy Italian wine, food, coffee and cars. I’m also very curious about exploring Roman history, as well as the astronomer Galileo Gailei. With uncertainty about the Euro, we’ll see about that for the moment.

I’m enjoying things a bit more at the moment. I think what was much-needed was the Christmas break, the first proper break I had all year. It sure was great to see old friends and family who I hadn’t seen for a long while. I know I felt exhausted about everything that happened over the past year. It is good to be back though. I’m looking to a better 2012.

Term hasn’t yet started, so university is very quiet currently although that is all set to change this weekend. Postgraduate demonstrating will in part keep me busy. I’m enjoying my new Kindle I received at Christmas. I love that there are so many free e-books out there – so many great classics. I now have at my leisure: the Complete Works of Charles Dickens, the Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, Thomas Hardy’s Complete Fiction – plus so many more. In fact, I have so much reading material at the moment, it is phenomenal. I had a £50 book token, so I also have a number of great books there such as Phillip Pulman’s “His Dark Materials” which I am itching to read.

Currently, I am reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife” which proved to be an interesting film. I am already finding though that Henry and Clare’s story in the novel is much more fascinating. Niffeneger really brings to life to her characters in the novel, compared to the film which seems to lose an element of that. The film always seemed as though it could have been better.

I am trying to preoccupy myself much more with those things I really enjoy and that enable me to enjoy life. At the same time, I aim to be more healthy and active. I’m looking forward to a trip to the Pennines with the University Mountaineering Club which will be in a couple of weeks time.

2011 really got me down big time, but I feel I am finally escaping the “hole” I felt I was in. “Things can only get better.” – which leaves me with this, remembering the classic hit song by D:Ream (whose keyboard player was British Particle Physicist, Prof. Brian Cox)

California: Part One

astronomy, phd, travel
Well, it’s little over a fortnight since I was last in the US preparing for my return home. Wow, I can’t believe it wasn’t so long ago! Since that time we have had a large ash cloud grounding around 60% of European flights. I consider myself particularly lucky I am now back home (and on terra firma). I’ve been dying to write about my trip during and since then but time has not allowed there nor here. Now finally I can. 🙂
The couple of weeks I spent in the US went by remarkably quickly, though oddly slowly too and it seemed like I was there more like a month. It was a truly fantastic experience and one I will always remember. It was my first transatlantic flight (awww me!). It was a great opportunity for the benefit of my research and a great chance to network with those colleagues in my field. An important part of the trip was an observing run at Mount Palomar, near to San Diego, using the 200 inch telescope. It marked my first training opportunity for such a facility.

Being my first flight, I was not too sure exactly what to expect. I’m “used to” cheap airlines and generally flying on a Boeing 757, a much smaller aeroplane. I knew this would be a considerably larger plane but it still took me aback a little to the enormity it. The time aboard the plane was perhaps the most tiring. You can pass the time by so much with a book, a film, TV and music although enduring this for 10 hours in a contained environment is a little difficult. You try to sleep but it is difficult to. The most tiring but necessary thing is to stay up and then sleep at the destination’s night time, meaning you spend over 24 hours with no/little sleep. It is fascinating but rather terrifying to think about the volcano that is causing all this disruption to flights at the moment. In fact we flew fairly near to Iceland (in Icelandic airspace) and there was a definite turbulence around there and we heard that is was an effect of the volcano from someone, although it was nothing to worry about. I have been thinking how lucky I am to be back home since the first announcements of the ash cloud causing such disruption. The most enthralling part of my journey however was when we passed over Greenland and at the time we passed over the country, the shadow of the glaciers gave us a fascinating display of landscape from our altitude. I really wish I took pictures of that but it can prove somewhat difficult to access belongings on a plane. *sigh*

The slightly annoying thing about the US was the requirement to fill visa waiver (ESTA) details not once, not twice but three times! First we filled out information on the website, then we ended up having to enter this on a display screen at the airport. After those couple of times we had to still fill out the same form to then hand to the immigration desk. It still confuses me to this day, why exactly we had to do that. Oh well.

So….I landed in the United States…and wow, what stunning weather. Most days I spent there the skies remained blue without a single cloud, the sun was shining and it was nice and warm (and mostly not too hot). One morning it really poured it down with rain and it seemed like prospects for the coming weekend for our observing would not be so favourable. Pasadena, where I stayed on the most part, is a great city with a good atmosphere and the surrounding areas, the views of the mountains and the palm trees were stunning.

A stop by The Cheesecake Factory wouldn’t be complete while in Pasadena. After all, this is the company Penny (from The Big Bang Theory) works for and being a big fan of the show it was great to see.

The majority of my time was spent at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I am thankful to Prof. Paul Weissman, our host for the entire trip for his time while at JPL. I mostly spent my time preparing for our observing run. I spent my time in preparation for that, determining which comets are best observed for the time we need and generating finder charts for those. My job is pretty much leading to take hold of data from a large programme called SEPPCoN (Survey of the Ensemble Physical Properties of Cometary Nuclei) which will form the bulk of my thesis and this observing run was part of that.

On one of the days Paul gave us the tour of the lab. It was a privilege to be shown around by an experienced scientist how has worked at the lab for over 35 years to give me an inside tour. It was truly remarkable to see the facilities…from the control room to the clean rooms and exhibitions.


Control room for the Deep Space Network, the Voyagers, Cassini Equinox, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and SOHO, amongst others.


The most awe-inspiring things to see were a scale model of the Mars rover, Spirit stuck on Mars and the development and construction of the Mars Science Laboratory due to be launched in Autumn of this year. For Spirit, I feel it was such a rare opportunity to see a scale model of the rover at its particular angle on the surface of Mars – truly phenomenal.

To the left is a full-size model of the Mars Science Laboratory (also known as Curiosity) to be launched later this year. The MSL rover will be over five times as heavy and carry over ten times the mass in scientific instruments as the Spirit or Opportunity rovers! It will be set down on the Martian surface using a new high-precision entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system in a guided entry and parachute and thruster descent.

To the right is the Mars Science Laboratory under construction at JPL.

(See more of my pictures from JPL!)

As well as JPL, I was able to visit many other sites (too many to go through in one blog post). The most important part of our trip was our observing run at Mount Palomar which I shall speak about in my next post amongst other things.

To New Horizons (….and I don’t mean the mission to Pluto!)

astronomy, phd, travel, university
So, finally I have a bit of time to blog since about the past couple of months. I can finally sit, think, and write about the past few months or so.My PhD is taking over my life, not that I’m complaining. I have been really enjoying it. I’ve been working through my datasets and soon I will be able to start my photometry. I have had to put that aside for the time being though due to report writing, a literature review and oh yeah, a trip to the United States, to California where I spent a fair time working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a couple of nights observing at Mount Palomar. 😀 I spent my time in preparation for that, determining which comets are best observed for the time we need and generating finder charts for those. My job is pretty much leading to take hold of data from a large programme called SEPPCoN (Survey of the Ensemble Physical Properties of Cometary Nuclei) which will form the bulk of my thesis and this observing run was part of that. So work has been rather busy but exciting. There will be more on my trip to America to follow in a separate blog. I have so many photos which I have already posted on Picasa and via Facebook but I really have so much to tell about this. 😀

It is now getting a little strange I don’t have exams any more! My housemates are all preparing for theirs. Is it weird to miss them? Maybe. I suppose it’s the thought of having been examined for the last 11 years or so and now for the first time I’m not. By no means am I complaining! 🙂 I have more than enough work! I guess now I really feel that I am really starting my PhD. America has given me a thirst for travelling across the continents and living the dreams I have had for many years; seeing the world, observing the universe and exploring different cultures. As I’m starting to write about my work I feel the pieces drawing together and that I am really along the road rather than at the very start of it.

I was delighted to have been short-listed for a Sir Arthur Clarke Award last month. They are extremely well respected in the space science community. Unfortunately I didn’t win the award but nonetheless it was a fantastic honour to have been nominated for the student award. www.kent.ac.uk/news/stories/spaceoscar/2010 It was a great shame I couldn’t make the UK Space Conference where the awards ceremony marks its culmination. Kudos to Áron Kidsi though for winning – it was well deserved!

Home is good. I’m kind of sad to have to leave as I explained in a previous blog. http://rjmlaird.blogspot.com/2010/01/time-sure-goes-quickly-when-youre.html I’ve secured a room in Woolf College for next year (although I do wish the university would tell you what room you have!) I will however need to find somewhere to leave between the end of June and September! I am told that you can’t apply to campus accommodation until the start of June, despite even offering a deposit for somewhere on campus for peace of mind I have somewhere. I am reassured however that there will be somewhere but I am still not happy about this. Considering things are settling down (a little) after my trip from the US, a few phone calls might be in order! Grr, how I hate bureaucracy sometimes!

From one trip to another…albeit a slightly shorter one. I am looking forward to seeing a friend in Copenhagen for a weekend trip. It is almost going to be a flying visit. Then in August I plan to see my good friends Ania and Alex in Romania…I miss you guys! Before that there is a chance I am off to Chile to the European Southern Observatory (depending on funding) as part of my research and much closer to home, I am thinking on a related topic I might be going to Belfast in Northern Ireland for a meeting in June; we’ll see. These next few months or will involve a fair bit of travelling which I am really looking forward to. (Well that’s if we’re not grounded to volcanoes and such like ;p )!

Canterbury seems to be coming alive more which is pretty cool. As the weather is improving and the nights are later some of the attractions are running now such as the boat rides and the ghost tours which I am looking forward to doing at some point. I should really visit the seaside by Dover and Whitstable although I guess having lived at one most of my life the attraction has sort of worn off. As I’m gradually getting (back) into photography, I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the white cliffs lit by the summer sunshine.

Canterbury is growing on me. Sure, there are a couple of things that would like to fall into place still, but I know they will. I know my situation is better than many others in the world – that is enough to make me feel thankful of where I am and what I am doing. I’m probably the most happy and content for the first time in quite a while now. I’m finally living my dream! 😀

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!

Summer update

phd, travel, university

Hi all,

Well it’s been a little while since I’ve blogged and with good reason. I’ve been rather busy sorting out the next stage of my life; a PhD in Canterbury at the Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, University of Kent.

I went to Canterbury a few weeks ago to sort a place to live. Quite a strenuous affair. It was much a case of making the most of my time there, making appointments to view properties, all-in-all packing everything in as much as possible. I can only thank my supervisor who provided me with access to internet while there which was invaluable to search for properties online, to get access to the Kent Uni student forums and hospitality. After around 12 viewings I’ve thankfully chosen somewhere and I can’t wait to settle in.

It’s been a little manic since, sorting out paperwork, chasing people up and preparing for the move. I look forward to moving to what I feel is a remarkable city; the culture, the history and atmosphere. I recall walking down the main high street and there was a lively mix of music, little market stands, creperies and many museums, all of which I am yet to explore in detail. Over the 3 years I will have in Canterbury I am positive I will have a great experience there. Soon I will move and have that all to soak up.

It is sad to leave Leicester behind however. There are many which I am sure to miss, though hopefully many I shall still see from time to time. We all are moving on and doing exciting things, but we shall be sure to meet again. In fact I have many pictures which I mean to add to Picasa/Facebook though have not had both the time or ability to do it from home. I hope to do it very soon though. In fact I keep meaning to get some photos printed, though other things seem to have taken priority.

Meanwhile I have been trying to make the most of what will probably be the final time of living at home – meeting up with friends mainly and catching up with old faces. It’s been nice just to relax a little before the next major step to hopefully be refreshed come the time I start.

Last week I visited my cousin in Wales and my aunty visited too; nice to have a few days there and enjoy the glory of the countryside. In fact it was a good time to capture some of the Perseids from an almost light-pollution free part of the country, all the way up the mountains in the middle of the countryside. On I went to see my good friend Karen in Bath where we spent the weekend visiting sites in Cardiff and Bath. We visited Cardiff Bay and went to the Doctor Who exhibition (Annemarie, I know you’d have loved this!) amongst others, and saw the castle, museum and Millenium Stadium. In Bath we went inside the Abbey and visited the William Herschel Museum of Astronomy.

…So, much travelling!

And soon I shall be on my travels again. This time to Krakow in Poland for the International Conference for Young Astronomers. I look forward to seeing some old friends from the Paris conference, and to better connect us young astronomers around the world and with professional bodies, as is the aim of the conference. I’m sure in the coming weeks I shall be updating on this quite a lot. It is sure to be a great opportunity.

In the meantime I prepare for starting my PhD in Canterbury. I look forward to starting what seems a very interesting topic and one I am sure will present some great new science. I shall be starting on 21st September, which should prove an interesting and exciting experience.

For now however I bid good night.