Saturday 8 October 2011

Astrophysics, here I come

Whew! I'm here!

"Here" is London, the city I was born in and still think of as home. Through a friend of a friend I've found some lovely lodgings just outside the North Circular and am getting used to cooking for one again. All of a sudden there are things going on all around me. There are kids playing with remote controlled cars in the streets, there are buses and trains for which I seldom have to wait more than one or two minutes, there are endless food shops, there is shouting and laughter, there are beautiful parks, there are such a huge variety of people, there are all these friends I can meet without travelling for hours. And there is Queen Mary University and a course which, so far, looks as if it's going to be the course of my dreams.

Over the years of running the Galaxy Zoo forum and getting more and more interested in astronomy, I became increasingly aware of the gaps in my knowledge - the more I knew, the more I found there was to know for which knew I needed some training. Absorbing facts is one thing, but mathematics and computer code and the language I call "journalese" (in other words, the very dry style in which scientific papers are written) is quite another. My knowledge contained some of the gorgeous constructions of science, but without the nuts and bolts to hold them together or build on them. The trouble was that neither my undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences nor my attempt at teaching had been any encouragement to study any more. I had long stopped thinking of myself as academically minded. So I had thrust the idea into the back of my mind and it stayed there for years, until one tedious morning driving to a pretty useless course I was on for work when the idea of doing a masters in astrophysics suddenly popped into my head like a massive bright gold light being switched on.

At work later that day I snuck onto Google and by that evening I knew which course I wanted to do: this one. There weren't very many others, to be honest (at least not without also doing an undergraduate degree), but this seemed both the friendliest and the best tailoured to what I wanted. I began filling out the form, but procrastinated, worried about money and unable to get hold of one of the referees I had in mind. Then it was off to Boston for the 218th AAS Conference and that was it.

That conference was one of the happiest times of my life. I was invited into what turned out to be a waterfall of astrophysics, flooding me from all sides. Everywhere I went there was more. And miraculously, I found I actually understood a lot of it. Not a large percentage. But I did begin to notice that what I wasn't understanding was the jargon, the mathematics, the acronyms. The concepts themselves were fine. And many astronomers didn't understand the acronyms either: astronomers were specialists, so a cosmologist for example might be bemused by the many Kepler reports on extrasolar planets - and they were quite happy to tell me so. Even more encouragingly, several astronomers wanted to talk to me at their work, and were quite happy to explain things to me in detail. Since I was writing an article for the Astronomy Now magazine, and because the older I get the less self-conscious I become, I never worried about putting my hand up in seminars or press conferences to ask questions. And the upshot of that was that I heard the same thing from umpteen genuine scientists: "Where do you study?" and upon hearing that I was not a student, "Oh, you must do a PhD! Your questions are really good - you've obviously got a great aptitude for this subject!"

(It's really hard work, not aptitude, but we are often reminded that the former is what really makes the difference. For instance, I also used to be one of the worst public speakers I know. I just curled up and mumbled. Seriously. Now, due to repeatedly bludgeoning myself with the task, public speaking is one of the things I'm best at. In fact this was one way I reasoned myself into going ahead and applying: if you can run the Galaxy Zoo Forum, co-found Cardiff Skeptics and learn public speaking, I told myself, you can conquer mathematics. We'll see in the next few weeks if I was right . . .)

This autumn, I'm studying Cosmology and Research Methods. The latter is quite a new course and there is some worry that it seems "soft" and is somewhat hard to teach. It's actually incredibly valuable - everything anyone studying science needs, everything I wish I'd been told as an undergraduate, everything you need to know if you want to back up some claim you've made (or debunk someone else's). The material we are reading for it is also anything but "soft"! Next term will be Astrophysical Plasmas, and Extrasolar Planets and Astrophysical Disks, both of which sound pretty mysterious! Next year will be the Galaxy, the Solar System, Stellar Structure and Evolution, and Electromagnetic Radiation in Astrophysics - these are all more familiar to me and I can't wait to take them, but since it will also be my dissertation that year, I'm glad to be getting the difficult things out of the way now.

It's a part-time course because for one thing I want to go slowly and for another and MSc course is expensive, as is living in London. So I'm also looking for a job. If you happen to know of any science or science communication related jobs, please let me know. Science communication would of course be my ideal, but I realise I can't be choosy! As well as astronomy I have some background in Environmental Science and Chemistry, plus teaching English and Science, plus other supervisory roles, plus an awful lot of admin. Oh, and some experience of working with vulnerable people - which has been the subject of a lot of my outraged-at-injustice posts the last year or so. Oh, and I'm a very good proofreader and editor. (This is not a post in which I'm going to bother to be modest.)

I'm hoping to get myself together and get blogging more; it's been a topsy-turvy year and I haven't done much for some time. Meanwhile, because I owe so much to Galaxy Zoo for getting me into astrophysics, and because it's so much more fun to feel as if I'm doing the course for hundreds of other people as well as me, and because it'll make sure I myself keep up to date, I'm writing about what I'm learning here on the Galaxy Zoo Forum. Please come along to ask questions and join the lively discussions it's prompting!

Apologies, also, for not writing an Ada Lovelace Day post. Today is Ada Lovelace Day, in which we celebrate women in science, and women who have influenced us. Can I make the excuse that I've been busy starting off on what might one day make me, myself, a female scientist? (I don't know if I will aim to do that or not yet. Let's just say that it looks a lot more possible than it used to.) Carolyn Porco recently tweeted a list of inventions you probably didn't know were made by women, and I also want to make a tribute to Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who died a few days ago. Her loss to the world is great: she has done amazing things for women, for politics and for the environment; you can read more about her at the Green Belt Movement.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, and may neither men nor women ever be put off from learning!


Smokey_Cat said...

I am so inspired by your blog. Even though I work as a media planner in an advertising agency, cosmology and astrophysics have been my first love. It was due to various reasons that I could pursue a career in it, but I still like to keep myself in the loop by reading up on whatever literature I can find ( and understand)

Alice said...

If you can understand the literature you are so far doing better than I am! Thanks for your nice comment Smokey Cat, and I wish you joy in amateur astronomy. I doubt I'll be able to make a lifelong career of it, but something this gorgeous is worth a shot and, as you say, worth learning about whether it's career related or not.

Dorian said...

I am so glad I came across your blog...My daughter is a budding astrophysicist (or cosmologist, she's got time to decide, haha) and I am settled in a career but am slowly working on getting my education in my passion: theoretical physics. Since my career is stable and has nothing to do with my physics (per-se, I would suppose EVERYTHING has something to do with physics, ha), I am pursuing the degree for purely personal achievement purposes. It is slow-going, and I have to settle for trying to understand articles and texts I read without the math background (yet). Anyway, glad to read someone on a similar path! Good luck with your on-going education!

Alice said...

Thank you so much Dorian! That is great that you and your daughter are (if clearly in different ways) pursuing physics so keenly, and I'm really flattered that you like my blog.

With theoretical physics, I learnt an awful lot from reading the historical side - Einstein and the Copenhagen lot for instance.

I'm now faced with an assignment containing mathematics I have never seen before (and it is not explained how to do it, either - it is assumed we know), so this is my first big hurdle I guess. I'll let you know how it goes . . . I'll also try and keep up to date (so far failed, but hey!) with my thread on the Galaxy Zoo forum about my course, so at least that gives people thinking of doing a similar course an idea of what they will get!

I'll be interested to know how you and your daughter get on. :-)