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Barnaby 2014

This weekend has been amazing. The Cheshire town of Macclesfield has, historically, had an annual festival (and holiday, up until fairly recently) honouring St Barnabus. After a hiatus, the festival was reborn five years ago, and Barnaby is now a regular feature in the town's calendar once again. This year I was involved in more ways than one.

On Friday night I went to see a concert in Christ Church. After being entertained by the support act, The Christophers, we enjoyed a surprisingly energetic set from the Blockheads (as in Ian Dury and the). Quite a performance! On Saturday I was back in the market place in the morning to catch a show by David Price, aka the Science Busker, who wowed the crowd with numerous science demos before the finale where, to much laughter from the crowd, he blew up his head!

The samba band on Chestergate mid-parade. Credit: Megan

Then came the parade. Having only had two rehearsals with the band, totalling less than two hours, I led the samba band through the streets of the town, pumping out batucada and samba reggae rhythms to an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers. Despite the band's lack of time playing with me acting as whistle-blower (in the Brazilian sense), we pulled it off rather well. The band played brilliantly, despite my occasional mistakes, and we were joined in the market square at the end by a trio of urban gypsies who danced along to the beat of our drums with incredible amounts of enthusiasm. Switching from playing repinique to cavaquinho in a matter of seconds, in time for the grand finale, was a challenge, but I made it, just! After a brief post-gig pint with my Mum in a local bar, I returned to Christ Church to find some food for dinner, and spent a pleasant couple of hours sitting in the sunshine on the grass with friends from the band.

Running balloon-rocket races in the Science Pod. Credit: Wendy Moss

Sunday involved less music, more science. I returned to the market place to do a performance slot in the Science Pod, part of the Hive of Industry event. In my 45-minute slot I wowed kids (of all ages) with example rockets, ranging from ready-built A-class rockets available from model shops, up to my home-built J-class 1/4-scale Patriot missile; flight-ready and capable of reaching 2 kilometres with the right engine. Then we built simple rockets from balloons, using string as a guidance system, and raced them across the church yard! Following me in the Science Pod were a couple of guys from the Kings School, who delighted the crowd with numerous explosions, liquid nitrogen, and noxious smells. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering round the market place with my rocket, talking to anyone who asked about it and explaining the mechanics of a model rocket flight. The rocket and I also had some amusing encounters with a full-size Dalek, built by Tytherington high school from the BBC plans! A thoroughly enjoyable festival all-round, topped off slightly bizarrely by a request to build a rocket for a local bar... :-)

Posted by Megan on Sunday 22nd Jun 2014 (22:04 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Time flies

It's been quite some time since I posted here, for a number of reasons. One is that I've changed jobs again (the joys of being an itinerant scientist in today's highly insecure job market), another is that I've been meaning to sort out a new system for the blog so that comments can return, but without the rampant spam.

Anyway. What have I been up to? Well, I've moved back to the UK, published some pretty cool science, played a bunch of gigs on a variety of instruments with several different bands in two countries, indulged my creative side by writing songs and designing tactile astronomy art, had my first op-ed piece published, waited over three weeks for estates to fix a waterfall coming through my office roof (I wish I was joking), written some new talks, appear to have joined the council of the Society for Popular Astronomy, and done heaps of public outreach. Life is far from quiet.

My latest talk, "When Galaxies Collide!", premièred at ArtSpace in May and went down a storm. I also gave the main lecture at an event organised by Macclesfield Astronomical Society for the science programme of Bollington Festival (also part of the new Cheshire science festival), and the whole evening had great reviews from what I hear, including from one of my old primary school teachers! Next up are two appearances at Macclesfield's annual Barnaby Festival: I'll be leading the samba band in the festival parade on Saturday June 21st, and then doing some rocketry games and astronomy demos as part of the Hive of Industry event on Sunday June 22nd. Come find me in the market square - my five-foot rocket and solar system on a string will be hard to miss!

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 17th Jun 2014 (21:29 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

VLBI Idiot

Yesterday was the annual "summer" barbecue at ASTRON; this being the Netherlands though, you can imagine the weather was more reminiscent of, well, anything but summer. This year the crowd were entertained (I hope that's the right word) by MEGASTRON, a band made up of students and employees of both ASTRON and JIVE, including me (but, before you ask, the name was not my idea and I had no say in the matter!). The five of us had been playing together for about two months, working on cover versions of sixteen songs altogether, but there was an issue with one song in particular: we planned to do Green Day's American Idiot, but none of us is American so the lyrics seemed a bit odd. So... out came my pen. By popular demand, and with sincere apologies to Green Day, here is the version we sang:

Don't wanna be a VLBI idiot
Observations stored on old media
And can you hear the sound of a pulsar?
The sub-luminal tick tock phenomena

Chorus: Welcome to a new observation
             All across the European Network
             My fringes seem to be okay
             Publication dreams of tomorrow
             Telescopes, the sources will follow
             With referees we'll argue!

Well maybe I'm an all-round astronomer
I'm not a part of a radio agenda
Now everybody do the funky quasar
And sing along in the age of LOFAR ALMA


Don't wanna be a VLBI idiot
Observations stored on old media
Information in the correlator
I'll flag my RFI later


And, if you really want a laugh, you can see the video (recorded by our director) on youtube. There was a static camera recording the whole gig, a recording of the sound from the mixing desk, and I don't know how many other cameras in the room, but we haven't looked at any of it yet... part of me doesn't really want to!

Posted by Megan on Friday 22nd Jun 2012 (11:52 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Calling all astronomers: e-MERLIN cycle 0 call for proposals now open!

It's finally here! The call for proposals for cycle 0 of e-MERLIN observations was issued in December and today the proposal submission tool went live. Astronomers have until January 29th to submit their proposals for observations on the upgraded and much-improved facility. Details of the technical capabilities are available on the e-MERLIN website. There are already many approved legacy programmes which will make use of large chunks of the available time over the next couple of years, but that still leaves time available for general observations. I'm putting together a couple of proposals myself, and will probably be involved with one or two others as well.

MERLIN had a bunch of tools for doing both the first-stage data processing, and a pipeline available as both a script which would generate a bespoke AIPS runfile based on user interaction or as an AIPS procedure which could be run as a task inside AIPS. Data output from the new e-MERLIN correlator is different and, although the data volumes are much larger, is simpler to process in that no processing is required before reading the data into AIPS.

I spent the summer of 2011 working at JBCA, helping with commissioning efforts, processing early-science datasets and helping out the odd early e-MERLIN user. While I was there, I started to play with ParselTongue (the Python interface to AIPS, nothing to do with Harry Potter) and by the end of the summer I had working scripts to take care of the initial loading and housekeeping procedures, and a functioning data reduction pipeline for simple datasets.

At the end of the summer I moved to the Netherlands to work for ASTRON. Unfortunately, due to a malicious attack on the Jodrell computer system not long after I left Manchester, the latest versions of the scripts are not situated at Jodrell at all (where they would be most useful!), but here on rigel instead. If you're an astronomer and you play with these scripts, please send me some feedback. Contact details are on the page with the scripts.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 11th Jan 2012 (16:27 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Advice to speakers

The postdocs here are about to be sent on a communication skills course. The idea is to improve our presentation skills to help both our careers and the outward impression of the institute (if the staff are more articulate when speaking in public, people go away from talks with a better impression of the place and are more likely to remember the cool stuff happening here). It's not a bad idea and I'm actually looking forward to it, but personally I think such training would have been useful at PhD level - not everyone who does a PhD goes on to become a research scientist, but everyone needs to communicate and scientists do have a bad reputation for this particular skill (it's not hard to see why).

I've lost count of how many talks I've given since I started my PhD back in 2003. A great number of those have been public or schools talks rather than scientific presentations (in reality these are a lot closer in form than you might think - a conference talk does not have to be incomprehensibly full of jargon in order to be good), and I've taken part in science debates and radio shows. One reason I started doing outreach was precisely because I hated public speaking: I knew I'd have to overcome this if I was going to stay in research. Today I still get very nervous before standing up to give any kind of talk, but I have become much better at hiding it - to the extent that people no longer believe me when I tell them I get nervous...

So, having given many talks at all levels, recorded some of them so I could listen back and find ways to improve, listened to a great many good (and bad) colloquium and conference speakers, interviewed people, been interviewed myself, been a guest on the odd talk show, and recorded many hours of podcasts, here are a few bits of advice I would give to speakers based on what I've observed:

  • Do not address the screen - you are meant to be talking to the audience; they came to hear what you had to say, not read your slides and admire the back of your head (however impressive it might be).

  • Do not assume your audience has the same knowledge of the subject as you and your collaborators: some of them might, but many wont. This is especially important in a public talk, but it also goes for conferences - do not assume the audience knows everything about your particular bit of the subject (I've seen speakers get this badly wrong and send a room full of physicists to sleep - it's not a pretty sight).

  • Do not assume the audience want to know the subject in the same level of detail as you and your collaborators - this is a one-off talk after all, not an undergraduate lecture series. If someone really does want all the gory details, they can always ask you later.

  • Do not fill your slides with words - trust me, your audience can read faster than you can talk. If I want to read what you did, I can look at the conference proceedings later. On a related note....

  • Use images wherever possible. Make yourself short notes if you need them (there's nothing wrong with that) but make them short enough you can remind yourself of what you wanted to say with a quick glance - don't stare at your notes either!

  • Project your voice - if your audience can't actually hear you, what's the point in talking? This can be a tough skill to master, but it's worth it.

  • Talk at a reasonable pace - too slow and your audience will fall asleep, too fast and some of them will be unable to keep up. (This is one I know I'm often guilty of myself - I often speak quite quickly, especially when I am excited by the subject, and it is something I have consciously been trying to change. May be I should stick to researching boring stuff?)

  • Don't talk with your hand in front of your mouth - as well as making your speech indistinct, if anyone in your audience is hard of hearing (what's the average age of a conference audience?) they may well need to see your mouth in order to understand what you are saying.

  • Make sure you end with a conclusion - remember the old adage: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell you what you've told them. A talk without a conclusion is like dinner without dessert, you leave the audience feeling like something is missing (and wondering what the point was).

  • Don't spend 45 minutes of a 50-minute talk introducing the background information, your audience wants to know what you found, not take a lecture course in why you asked the question.

  • Record yourself - it may be painful to watch/listen to yourself give a talk, but at least you will discover what mannerisms you have and can then learn to avoid them in future.

This is just what comes to mind at the moment of course, it is far from a complete list of things to avoid / common mistakes made when giving presentations. The important thing to remember is that you could be doing the most exciting science in the world, but if you are unable to communicate it then you may as well not do the research in the first place.

Oh, and for a highly entertaining read on the subject of scientists and communication, I'd recommend Don't Be Such A Scientist by biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson.

Posted by Megan on Saturday 05th Nov 2011 (17:03 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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