Thursday, 10 June 2010

Minor Planet 23248 Batchelor

So, long story short, I have a near-earth asteroid named after me. It’s pretty much the second-coolest thing I own (apologies, but first place has to go to my new handbag) and makes for a pretty interesting talking point in job interviews. Anyway, I mentioned before that talked about this to my mentor and his colleague. Well it transpires that Alan (the colleague) was so intrigued as to whether or not I would ever be able to see my asteroid, that he went away and looked it up. And then he delved a little deeper and worked out when and where it will be visible from Earth. And then he realised that this corresponded perfectly with a telescope time slot and location that he will be using at the end of the month. So, THEY ARE GOING TO TAKE IMAGES OF MY ASTEROID FOR ME!!! HOW COOL IS THAT?!?!?!

I still haven’t quite got over how amazing this is! I just thought that I would never actually ever get to see my asteroid (it’s much too dim to see with the naked eye, binoculars or even most small telescopes at night) and now, the people from Fermilab and a professor from some university are going to use up their valuable observing time to takes photos of it for me! If the images are good enough, we should be able to perform photometric analysis on them to determine exactly what my minor planet is composed of. Wow. I am keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that it’s a clear sky at the observatory that night!

Woohoo! Go Hawks! Go By-fugly-en!

So I just watched the Chicago Hawks win the ‘series’ (not quite sure what that is, but it seemed to be a pretty big deal…). Everybody in the bar and then driving down the road we walked home on was going nuts! Apparently there may even be some sort of parade in Chicago this weekend because they won, so I’ll have to try to check that out.

I spent this morning at work going through the online tutorials on python and generally trying to revise my first year astronomy course – I am alarmed at how much I have managed to wipe from my memory since sitting that exam! I wanted to make sure my knowledge on distance measurement, standard candles and supernovae was up to scratch, as well as learning a bit about baryonic acoustic oscillations (these can be used as another standard astronomical ‘ruler’).

After lunch we the first of our weekly meetings with all of the interns and the two guys who run the internships at Fermilab: Rodger Dixon and Erik Ramberg. They were reassuringly approachable and more than happy to answer any questions we had and generally just help out. It was also a great opportunity to hear what projects everyone else is working on; although I do appear to have drawn the short straw with my one slightly. Quite how a physics student with an interest in particle physics and very little programming knowledge or experience has ended up writing code for an astronomical survey, I’m not sure… I would much have preferred to be assigned to one of the other projects in experimental particle or accelerator physics, but I guess I’d better not look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially one that has provided me with free accommodation, a swimming pool, a car, an ample weekly wage and a fantastic-looking new addition to my CV.

Everything is bigger in America

And not just the food! Although the portion sizes are HUGE (I’ve not quite embraced the ‘doggy bag’ culture, yet, but I’m working on it…) The roads to work are all at least dual carriageways, most of them have three or four lanes on each side; as far as I’m concerned, most of the cars look like monster trucks; and even the raindrops are massive. When we went to the supermarket for the first time on Monday, it started to chuck it down as we left – we got absolutely soaked just running from the shop to the car! And when we got in, the raindrops on the windscreen were basically the size of puddles…

Fermilab is intimidatingly large. The site covers over 6800 acres and some of the buildings are a good 5-10 minute drive from each other. There is even a field with a heard of buffalo in it. Yeah, it’s THAT big.

We spent Monday morning going through ‘orientation’, which was evidently a euphemism for ‘please come in early so you can fill in even more paperwork’. The afternoon was spent going through the various safety talks and a video on recognising and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace; i.e. we spent four hours sitting through presentations on common sense so that we wouldn’t be able to try to sue the US government if anything went awry whilst we were working here. On the plus side, I got to sample the delights of the Fermilab canteen (again, ridiculous amounts of choice and huge portions) and discovered that at 3.30 every day, there is free coffee and cookies! If you’ve ever read any of my previous blog entries, you’ll know that my priorities lie with food, so, needless to say, I was very happy.

I got to meet my mentor, Douglas Tucker, for the first time after the cookie break. He had a colleague visiting from an American university (I can’t remember which one, or the guy’s last name, but I do remember that he was called Alan…) who also stayed to chat to me. I got shown my desk (I have a great view out to the west) and then we sat and talked about what I’ll be doing this summer and also a bit about what previous physics I’ve done (they were very interested in my success at the Intel ISEF and my asteroid). It looks like I’ll start off doing Douglas’s dirty work by learning a coding language called Python, so that I can patch together pieces of code, which he has already written but not joined together yet, for real-time analysis of data. I get the distinct impression that this sounds a lot easier than it will actually be to do… If I manage to get that done, then I can maybe run simulations to determine optimal strategies for calibrating the Dark Energy Survey, with code that has already been written.

The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an imaging survey of about one-quarter of the sky in the southern hemisphere using a new astronomical imaging camera on the 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. The DES will be used to measure properties of dark energy - a force which counteracts gravity and constitutes about 70% of the total mass-energy density of the Universe. It's not scheduled to start until the end of 2011, but there is preparatory work to be done, some of it involving imaging data that will be obtained at CTIO in July and August of this year.


I made it to the Windy City! But have only just been connected to the internet so here come a lot of posts (I’ve been typing them up on my laptop in the evenings and waiting to post them all).

Flying into O’Hare over Lake Michigan was fantastic – I had a window seat so was treated to a wonderful view of Chicago. I could make out the Sears Tower, Navy Pier and Grant Park, as well as spotting some of the larger beaches along the coast. I can’t wait to explore what looks and sounds like a fascinating city!

I’m staying in Naperville, which is about 40 miles from the centre of Chicago and a fifteen-minute drive from Fermilab – this is where I will be working for the next 10 weeks. I’m not quite sure exactly what my internship will entail, but I’m working under the supervision of Douglas Tucker, who works on the Dark Energy Survey. More on that later.

The apartments they have put the interns in are great – they are a decent size and, most importantly, have massive walk-in wardrobes :) All the better to store my future purchases in! Our blocks of apartments are clustered around the ‘club house’, which has a gym AND a pool. Result. And we’re dead close to lots of shops, supermarkets and restaurants. Including three drive through (I still can’t quite bear to write it as “thru”) pharmacies, two drive through Starbucks and a drive through bank. Honestly, I don’t think anyone around here walks anywhere!