Sunday, 1 March 2015

National Student Space Conference 2015

Well, the last day of February was one hell of a day! As I write this, I've now been awake for over 20 hours. Every single one was worth it.

The early bird catches the worm, but the late one misses the coach
I stupidly stayed up despite knowing that I'd have to get up at 3. Great decision, Osnat. Really great decision.

Anyway, I was woken up by my dutiful (and very annoying) alarm at stupid o'clock in the morning. Now, anaemia is a wonderful thing capable of making you faint and someone hasn't been taking her tablets regularly for various reasons. Guess who passed out sitting up in bed?

Yeah, that was a smart move. But in the end I managed to drag myself out of bed, get dressed, eat and somehow not faint on the way to the Students' Union - the sugar boost (and the caffeine from the Jaffa Cakes) probably helped. I was pretty hyper.

Pretty much the only low point was one of my friends not turning up, and in fact I'm writing this blog for her. She was absolutely gutted at not being able to come and I was gutted that she wasn't there. And also too busy sleeping on the coach - my caffeine and sugar boost was short-lived and so I basically died for about 4 hours.
There was just one problem with this: I talk in my sleep. I actually say some pretty weird things in my sleep, according to my long-suffering boyfriend, and usually sound drunk. So my friends said that I talk in my sleep, but haven't told me what I actually said and now I'm paranoid that I've said something stupid!

Back to the point. We turned up late because rain is a bastard and unfortunately missed the welcome and the first lecture. Fortunately, we managed to get to a lecture given by David Rokeach, the business director of Time Capsule to Mars (one of the many outreach projects where you put things important to you in or on a craft that then goes somewhere into space). One thing that really came out of that talk is that while many people are inspired by space, very few feel connected to it. Time Capsule to Mars aims to make space emotionally available to people by uploading their most precious tweets, photos and videos onto a payload that will then be landed on the Red Planet, waiting for future generations to recover it.
(for those who are interested: my answers were curiosity and hope)

That lecture ended up with us all taking a photo to send to Mars and me taking a selfie that'll cost me 9.99 USD to send to the Red Planet if I can be bothered to work PayPal to throw money I don't actually have at SPACE. They also charge 4.99 USD to send a tweet to Mars once the infrastructure's set up, which is possibly one of the most expensive tweets ever. Don't get me wrong, I can understand that Time Capsule to Mars has very little funding and is trying to be cost-effective, but how many people who aren't already emotionally invested in space are going to want to spend money on something they're accustomed to doing for free? There are also wider questions to be asked about the privatisation of space, but I've been awake for over 20 hours straight at this point and I don't think I can do these issues justice at the moment.

CubeSat fangirling
Next up was a talk by Steve Greenland about UKube-1 (pronounced you-cube-one, which I didn't find intuitively obvious). UKube-1 is essentially a research project of "how much stuff can we put on one small satellite" - and believe you me, small satellites are the future! Steve walked us through the trials and tribulations of the project with good humour and though I know some people found the talk a little too technical, I was personally squeeing the whole way through (especially at those gorgeous electronics) and truly inspired to do a project of my own. If only I could get funding...

One thing I did notice is that they seem to be very focused on systems and electronic engineering, as opposed to physics (although physicists are still needed for data processing). I actually went and had a chat with Steve and a postgrad about this afterwards while discussing using nanosatellites for humanitarian missions (yes, this is the kind of stuff we get up to). It's damn interesting stuff, but unfortunately they won't hire physicists. Even if I weren't a first year, this would rule me right out, and so I'm still stuck being a perpetually unemployable mental patient. (My foul language and flippant tone on this blog and my twitter probably don't help, but I'm not sure how many people put two and two together.)

Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut
And not everyone was born to be a king, and so on and so forth. But one of the overarching themes of this conference was that we need all sorts of people to get involved in space exploration and development - and not all of it is glamorous, but it's definitely challenging and worthwhile! Printech have decades of experience and developed the circuitry for satellites like Gaia (which is currently out there measuring parallax) and Inmarsat 4. Now, I'm a physics student and not an electronic engineer, but I have nothing but respect for the creativity and ingenuity of the fine folks who designed Gaia's CCDs.

That last tweet is crappy on account of sleep deprivation but also very important. Engineering gets a bad rap as being uncreative for two reasons: firstly, STEM subjects as a whole are often considered uncreative. Talk to anyone involved in STEM and it'll quickly become clear that even if some of us aren't the best writers, this is a damn lie perpetuated by people who suck at maths. Secondly, engineering is largely considered as applied - you use the tools you have to come up with solutions to problems rather than inventing new ones. This is not strictly true: while by and large engineering companies don't invest in basic research, it's in their interest to be sponsoring some kind of research as they come up against different, newer problems. In fact, having met a lot of engineers, while they're a lot more practical than I am they're very skilled at coming up with elegant solutions because that's their job.

But seriously, this is what happens when people who love space and go to Manchester, which is graphene heaven right now, are short on sleep and long on inspiration.

Someone's interested in going to space.

Putting the UK back into space
I wouldn't describe myself as super patriotic, but I'd certainly like to live in a country with a better space programme.
I must confess I had no idea who Adam Baker was, and he seemed pretty unassuming in his blue dress shirt. As he began to speak and to tell us about all the work he had done for various organisations before starting his own company, I gained a hell of a lot of respect for him!

Back in 1981, of course, Voyager 2 was flying by Saturn and inspiring a generation of scientists.
This isn't actually that stupid of a tweet - because of things like Soyuz, learning Russian opens up a lot of opportunities in the space industry. In fact, knowing Russian is a requirement to do missions on the ISS!

The UK is actually reasonably good at making payloads, satellites and such - problem is that we have no way to launch them and are relying on others, which is really putting us behind.

This is because governments, venture capitalists, angel investors and other such people who actually have money and aren't willing to just throw it at you (ah, cruel world) like to have costings and they like to know that they're going to get some return on their investment. Now, I'm not an economist, so having one around to help with my wild space dreams would be really useful.
And this is why. I wasn't able to get pictures of the graphs, but a staggeringly high initial cost and several years of loss require some major profit for people to fund you. This is probably true even with crowdfunding.
In most cases, it takes 24 months.

Unsurprisingly, sorting out the politics and economics comes first when it comes to getting the idiots in charge to not completely screw up space policy, with the actual technology a distant third. Political savvy is a very useful asset here.
Fortunately, now is the only time that me being an angry, overly political loudmouth has ever been useful. I now have more knowledge than I would ever care to use.
This is genuinely very exciting: relatively cheap off-the-shelf technology can and probably will play an integral role not just in prototyping but in running actual systems!
To be fair, Willetts had at least a modicum of scientific literacy, but as a nation I think we can do better.
This is very much me putting my geopolitics hat on - essentially, the US likes controlling space and things to do with space. This was openly stated in the lecture, so it's not just me putting on my tinfoil hat. If the UK space programme gets better I can see the US kicking up a diplomatic fuss, some gunboat diplomacy, or simply some prominent scientists or politicians coming to an untimely end.
We tried to finish off the talk with a demo of the motor, but unfortunately a PhD student reversed the polarity (in plain English: said student wired it the wrong way round) and it couldn't be fixed in time.

UK space policy
The last talk before the keynote speech was given by Dr Alice Bunn, who heads the UK Space Agency.

I made this tweet just as Dr Bunn started talking about regulation of space, since I'm generally pretty positive about using econophysical data to make policy and pretty negative about everything else, including this government. I have since felt pretty embarrassed about it since the UK Space Agency's regulations seem really quite sensible and don't involve putting absolute faith in the free market.

Space policy actually tends to remain reasonably apolitical; for example, the coalition government honoured Labour's space policy when they came to power (yes, this is an example of Labour not ruining Britain, to those of you who have gotten sucked into the purple and yellow eyesore). Joking and my leftist bias aside, I'd like to hope this is due to politicians deciding not to fuck around with things they don't understand and which are crucial (nobody wants to be the party that fucked up everyone's satnavs). In practice it's more likely to do with the military origins of space programmes.

Rosetta squee
You've guessed it...the keynote speech was about the Rosetta mission! Being proud to have lived through it, I was genuinely excited despite my blood sugar running low.
In all seriousness, he's an average and reasonably modest guy, an astrophysicist with a background in space plasma who has cool tattoos. Having met him after the keynote speech, he didn't come off as a misogynist in the slightest. (As everyone was celebrating Philae landing on 67P, he was wearing a shirt covered in semi-naked women and people made a fuss about it.) He talked unpretentiously about his early life and how he came to work for ESA.

I must confess I'm more interested in relativistic astrophysics, and more specifically in black holes. Our mathematics can't describe them, so there must be some really interesting and fascinating physics going on there that we don't know how to describe. As such, I didn't know just how old comets were - but perhaps they can give us clues to such things as how the Solar System formed. Plus we know surprisingly little about them!
Yes, this really happened. Some people thought that Rosetta would fly by the diamond-shaped asteroids to communicate with spaceships.

And now, we take a short musical interlude:

The ESA already had some pretty great outreach going on, but some older folks apparently remembered that Rosetta came out of hibernation last year (2 days after my 18th, actually) literally because of that song. (It's actually about a self-destructive party girl, but whatever helps people realise that space is cool, I guess.)
Reader, this is why I can't deal with the trope of scientists being impartial and objective in all things. One of the most profoundly moving things about the Rosetta mission for me was the extremes of emotion involved, from the whoops and cheers of the Rosetta team to the worry of the landing teams.
So far, so usual, but the way the compounds are distributed is pretty interesting and not well understood.
Now this is interesting! D/H ratio refers to the deuterium/hydrogen ratio.

Pizza is my one true love
After some awards, several interminable words from the corporate sponsors (I don't fancy mincing my words here) and finally getting a picture with Matt Taylor, there was a networking event and some wine. I skipped the wine owing to not having eaten much, but hung around to try and network. I have no doubt it was useful for graduates, but apparently nobody wants to hire 19-year-olds.

My internship plans are probably fucked, then.

I spent time exploring the University of Surrey campus in the dark, which is something I tend to do more drunk than sober. Although I wasn't that keen on the campus when I first got there because it was raining and because I'm a city girl, the rolling green spaces won me over. I really do miss being able to amble on down to the local park, or to take a calm walk with some hot chocolate and a second-hand book or three to Hampstead Heath.

During our amblings, we managed to find the Students' Union - and where there's a Students' Union, there's food! Having survived up until this point on dainty little sandwiches, we were all hungry. And there was a pizza place. And we were too hungry and tired to hunt out a deal any better than £9 for a 15" pizza because it cost us like £3 a head, and I was too hungry and tired to bother about being paid back £1.

Of course, this would be the perfect time to be told that actually the coach had rocked up at 6.30 and was leaving at 7pm sharp. Cue running back through the uni in the dark holding a pizza box bigger than the entire top half of my body. And making everybody very jealous in the process.

That was some damn nice pizza, though.

Cheating on pizza with a tube of Pringles
I hate travelling at night sometimes, I really do. Every journey seems to take fucking forever and this one was no exception. It was also ludicrously hot and I couldn't curl up to sleep (and besides, it was only 7 so it would have thrown my sleep cycle way out of whack - not that this really matters right now).

On the plus side, there were some really beautiful night exposures trailing off like comets. And there were Pringles which we shared whilst falling asleep and which made the most convoluted journey ever through the outskirts of Manchester rather more bearable.

By the time we got back to the Students' Union at 11, I'd been awake for 20 hours. I have now been awake for about 5 hours more.

It's rare that I'll ever say something deserves that much effort and time - but it did. I learned so much and I don't regret a single hour I spent at the conference.

Sunday, 1 February 2015


I have a mathematical mind. To those who know me, this is no great secret. To those who don't know me, it's not something that I try to hide.

I can't necessarily say that it's particularly fun, nor that it's particularly difficult. It's just how I am and I've never known anything else, so I can't compare. It's definitely useful for a hell of a lot of stuff, from analysing music and literature to doing the stuff I'm actually supposed to do.

What I will say is that it's frustrating. Imagine that you speak another language pretty much natively. To an English speaker, for example, this language is abstract, unintuitive and overall difficult to understand. The language is difficult if not impossible to translate without butchering it beyond all recognition, and people think you're strange for speaking it. All the same, English and not mathematese is the current lingua franca, so you grit your teeth and get translating.

Now imagine you stumble upon something wonderful. It's amazing, powerful and a masterful use of your language. You want to show it to everyone.

Problem is that it's nearly untranslatable without a lot of butchering! All the same, you try and explain it to people and are rewarded with...blank stares. Confusion. Hell, maybe even fear.

It gets annoying, you know?

Thursday, 1 January 2015

On Music

I've had a lot of time over the past weeks - after finishing the semester (and nearly collapsing with exhaustion, which means I need to take it easy next semester) and flying south for the winter - just to think. It's been good; my brain was nearly frazzled through with physics. Considering that it's by and large frazzled anyway, this was not too great.

I've been staying with my boyfriend, which is great because I get to relax, unwind and revise and not have my parents nag me (best of both worlds). Because he's an insomniac and I'm...well...not (my sleeping patterns are great if I can be bothered to get them right), I tend to wake up a bit earlier. I'm also a lazy arse owing to having overworked myself, so I just sort of...well...lie there and curl up and think. It's good for me to try untangling my mind.

One of the things I managed to untangle was why I love music so much. Of course, lots of people like music, even to the point of saying it's their life...but I did wonder why I liked making music so much. I guess having a music teacher for a mother didn't hurt, since I was exposed to a lot more music as a child than other people and in that respect I'm very privileged. Then again, my dad also grew up in a musical family and his musical finesse extends to listening to yacht rock...and I had the musical ability of your average cat growing up.

I must thank the head of music at my old school (John, if you're reading this, thank you for everything and see you on tour!) for setting me on the path to actually being vaguely good at music. After a 30-second vocal test (that just about everyone in the year passed), I joined the choir...and it probably didn't hurt that I went to a school that forced you to sing at least 3 times a week and got you to pick up an instrument in your first term. Yeah, I was lucky.

I don't think I really started to appreciate that until I came out of my shell and got really close to the serious musicians I knew, the ones who were - for lack of a better phrase - actually good. This was around the same time that I developed depression and for some reason I started to appreciate music a hell of a lot more. Even during my most severe episodes, I kept on singing and making music as a soloist or in a choir. And if I say so myself, I did it well.

After all those years, I think I finally understand why.

First of all, music is social - at least the kind of music I do, which is mostly choral stuff and musical theatre but even singing as a soloist requires me to listen to others. If everyone in a group tried to make music and not listen to everyone else, it would sound horrible. So doing music forced me to develop my frankly awful social skills and also gave me a safe environment to do so.

I get horribly anxious in social situations, which is why you might see me holding a crutch like a phone or a book. I worry constantly about saying or doing something which makes me look stupid or rude, which all comes on top of me being really introverted such that small talk bores and exhausts me (of course, you're not allowed to say that because that really is rude). If you swap the small talk for rehearsing a fiendishly difficult piece of music, I get far more confident because I've got a task to focus on (and there's generally less small talk to worry about because there's shit that needs to get done). I also know that I've got at least one thing in common with everyone else in the room - and more than that, because you need to practice together once a week at the very least most of the time, you end up developing a very strong working relationship with other people that sometimes turns into friendship. Hell, my old school chamber choir was like having another family and we still all get together to sing even though we've all moved away - sometimes even to different countries!

Secondly, music helps me to be confident. I know that I'm good at music - okay, I'm not virtuoso-good because that's not the path I'm taking so I don't put in enough effort to become that good, but I can sight-read very well, I've got a good range, I learn quickly and my voice sounds nice - so I don't have that much anxiety over working in a group. Solo singing, though, is a different story.

In a way, instrumentalists are lucky because they've got their instrument as a sort of psychological barrier between them and the audience. Singers who don't have a book or stand between them and the audience (and I prefer to memorise, even if it's a chore sometimes) have...well...nothing. It's like standing up and giving a presentation in your underpants. Okay, so if you're lucky you have bright lights shining in your face so you can pretend you aren't singing in front of a crowd, but if you're not you can see several pairs of eyes on you. And no, imagining the audience naked doesn't help.

It forces you to connect with the audience, to tell a story with your voice alone. It's challenging, yes, but so amazing to get right. And what helps is that sometimes you get to put on the guise, so to speak, of another character. Sometimes when I sing I'm not quiet, mousy Osnat anymore - I'm Cleopatra or Dido. And I get to borrow their confidence for a couple of glorious minutes.

Finally, music allows me to be part of something bigger. I can focus on the interpretation of the musical line or on the sentiment behind the words. I can join forces with other people to make something bigger and grander than all of us. And I can turn off my hyperactive, self-loathing mind to give up my body and brain in the service of something better than I'll ever be.

And for just those few moments, it's wonderful.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Quick tips from an old codger

I don't quite know how to get this across - it confuses even me. I'll try to start.

Let's say you're young and horny. Maybe you're unused to people trying it on with you. You meet someone interesting - maybe they're a bit older than you. Maybe they're a lot older than you, if you're someone like me. You have some pretty deep conversations and end up doing some sexual stuff. And even though you don't like them in that way, you might still end up confused as to how the fuck it all happened or disappointed in yourself.

This old codger's advice is that this sort of situation is very common and nothing to be ashamed of. When you put interesting and attractive people in a room together, this happens. A lot. Just please try and be safe. And I hope that you enjoy whatever happens.