Monthly Archives: May 2014

Chile, here I am!

After a short TGV ride from Brussels to Paris on 1st class (and almost getting chased down by the French border control after not wanting to stop for their undercover agent at the train station – yeah, sorry, but anyone can wave in front of you with a fake ID…), and a flight of 14 hours and 35 minutes (I had the same flight duration from Abu Dhabi to Sydney last year), I arrived to Santiago de Chile. I came to South America for the first time in my life, and I will be observing at the Swiss 1.2 metre Leonhard Euler Telescope at the La Silla Observatory (ESO).

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The flight was really long, and with much more turbulence above the equator upon entering the airspace over Brazil than what I am comfortable with. Anyway, these Boeing 777s are luckily pretty flexible. Among others, I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I found a really nice feel-good movie, with a great soundtrack. Unluckily I did not manage to sleep much, partly because the Air France economy class is simply crap, but mainly because while other people fell asleep almost immediately after take off, I wanted to sleep only after shifting to Chilean time, which coincided with others waking up and turning their reading lights on… Anyway, I got picked up at the airport by a taxi arranged by ESO (which by-the-way stands for European Southern Observatory), and after a short drive, ended up in the ESO Guest House in Santiago. It was quite an experience driving past dirt an poverty around the outskirts of the city, then the modern financial district, and ending up in the very green area of the guest house. The building itself is a colonial hacienda, with an inner garden, a nicely furnished living room, and very friendly staff. More importantly, with great food! I have not done much on the afternoon and the evening besides posting the two previous blog posts, simply because by nine I was so tired, that I had to go to bed. I did not take more than 5 seconds to fall asleep.

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The next morning I finally made it to the shower, then after a quick breakfast my taxi came and I took the plane to La Serena. With its 1h 15m flight time, it was nothing compared to the more than two hours I spent afterwards in the ESO transport driving up to the Observatory of La Silla. But at least I finally saw the blue sky (the weather in Santiago was pretty rainy and windy), and the Andes. The roads here are generally not the best, but the last section towards the observatory before the gate of the ESO was simply missing (only gravel), while after the ESO gate, there were more potholes than road around them. It was really bad, not only compared to the smooth roads of Mallorca… I was seriously worried about my photo equipment.

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Then upon arrival, I was immediately taken to my room. End that was it. No reception, no check in like on La Palma, nothing. I was still in time for lunch, where I ran into the current observer and a few other young astronomers (and by young I mean more or less my age) too. Since I had nothing better to do, I joined them for a small excursion to the nearby (dried out) oasis and a small copper mine.

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As you can see, this is a pretty dry place, a rocky desert. But a very colourful one! Now I am at the telescope, but the sky is cloudy, so we are not working tonight. Also, my run only starts on Monday, so I still have some time to walk around, and take some pictures of the Southern sky, if it clears up. Many more posts to come!

Cycling holidays (a.k.a. training camp) on Mallorca

It might sound a bit strange, but the goal behind all my training this year (so far) was to get myself into a good shape for the upcoming cycling holidays. While most of my cycling buddies (and here I mean those who are also taking part in amateur – but quite serious – competitions, known as the toeristenkoersen) went to Mallorca to put the last hundreds of kilometres into their legs before the competition season stars, I went there knowing that this might easily be the week where my season peaks (since now, two weeks later, I am not going to be able to train for almost a full month), so I wanted to be in top shape.

A few years ago I probably would have said, that I did a quite amazing amount of training leading up to Mallorca, but now, having many friends both in real life and on Strava who are at least as crazy about road cycling as I am, and who might have twice as many kilometres in the saddle by the end of the year, now I can only say that I did a quite respectable amount of training, but nothing exceptional. Time changes your perspective… Also, everything is relative. If you look at people who do not race, then this mileage is very good. It’s just that I know, that to be able to keep up with the best amateurs and race, I would need to train twice as much as I do, and I just don’t think I could do that and still enjoy it. And at the end, that is what matters to me.

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I want to be able to keep up with the stronger guys, but I must respect my boundaries. The key is finding the right balance between how good I wish I was, and how good I can be without an overwhelming training load. Especially that training is not only physical, but also a psychological challenge. It is not easy to go out every day, in bad weather, alone against the strong wind, especially when in the middle of February you feel weak (or, to be honest, you feel like a piece of crap), and to skip the afternoon snacks just to loose those two extra kilos after Christmas. It is mentally difficult. Telling yourself day after day, that you put yourself through all this pain to be good somewhen in the future (no pain no gain, as we all know) – which at that very moment in the middle of February seems extremely far away. Planning your days such that you make time between work and family for training, in one way or another, is not trivial. But then, after many cold and dark winter rides spent swearing into the headwind, usually around mid March, when it finally becomes warm enough to go out in shorts (even if with the extra protection of arm and leg warmers) for an intensive ride, you start to feel strong. And that ride, that ride is worth training for. Because after that ride you start to believe that you can do this, that given three more weeks of training you will kick ass. And that’s always a nice feeling. (Long transatlantic flights are good for letting your mind go.)

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So this year, we (a few people from WTCOOL – my local cycling team – and some girlfriends, most importantly Clio of course) spent a week on Mallorca with the Fred Rompelberg Cycling team. In practice this meant that around a hundred cyclists occupied a significant amount of the Grupotel Taurus Park, and each day we had group rides to choose from matching our individual fitness levels. Also, there were rental bikes provided on spot (Isaac Graviton Ultegra), so we did not need to go through the hassle of travelling with our own ones. After the first five days, based on the ridden kilometres, they gave the title of kilometre-king and kilometre-queen to the most worthy riders, which came with a small trophy too. I can already tell you, that the author of this post brought home a shared (with another Peter from WTCOOL) kilometre-king title! So how did that happen?

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For this achievement, we – first of all – always went with the fastest group (the speed group, or the fast tour group), and if the daily distance was less that 150 kilometres, then we (Peter and I) did a bit of extra. Then on Wednesday – which, by the way, was supposed to be the rest day – we did over 200 kilometres over a scenic route I planned across the island all the way to the northeastern cliffs. And to have a nice ending, on Saturday we did another 150 kilometres, which had more elevation gain than any other ride before. So actually the two hardest rides were the ones we made for ourselves. Although in terms of intensity, the first day was quite brutal. Then we went with a speed group of only 5 people, and thanks to the low number of riders, the crazy pace, and my rear brake rubbing for a half hour, we were all happy the next day to join the larger tour group instead… This training volume and intensity combined meant that we had to eat every evening as much as possible, which turned our dinners into quite a struggle too… (Same goes for the breakfasts…)

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In terms of form, I did well, although there were a few guys (especially Peter) who were better (especially climbers). But I was in the top 5, and I was very much satisfied with that. I finished the week with 962 kilometres, 9939 meters of elevation gain, and 34h 52m in the saddle, which if by far my best week on the road bike ever. At the end of the week, I was in the top 10 of Belgian Strava users! This of course made this April my best month on the bike too (1532 km, 11371 m+, 53h 53m).

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We know that all nice things must come to an end, but when we arrived home we encountered something worse than expected. While we were on Mallorca, some people broke into our storage room in the basement, and stole our mountain bikes… (We got to know this from a mail in our mailbox – you can imagine how we felt: just arriving home, putting down our luggage, and reading our post…) Luckily it turned out, that thanks to someone reporting suspicious activity during the night when all of this happened, the police caught the bad guys, and had our bikes waiting for us to collect at the police station. So everything ended relatively well, the bikes were more or less unhurt, and soon we will have more secure doors installed (which by the way we have already ordered before all of this happened). As one would say in Hungarian: “Itt sincs kolbászból a kerítés“…

February, March, April…

Again more-or-less three months without blogging. It is getting more and more difficult to find time or motivation to write, but there are so many things I would want to remember later, and my blog is the best diary, so let’s see what you missed. (Also, since most of my written English practice comes from this blog, I have to admit that I felt quite bad about my language skills while writing this post… Another reason to write more often. Then again, there is this thing about promises and not being able to keep them, so, whatever…)

LEGO: After my mountain bike, I got myself another – much cheaper – present for my birthday: the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover from LEGO! It gave me a nice evening of assembling, and now it is on display below our TV. Undoubtedly, LEGO was the best toy of my childhood – even when we got our first computer, I kept playing with it. Among my favourite constructions were a suspension bridge, and an astronomical telescope in a proper rotating dome, but I always enjoyed simply following the instructions too. Ah, those were the days! I don’t think I will ever be too old for LEGO. Maybe at one point I should get all my LEGO from Hungary, since I don’t think my brother wants to play with it… The only problem is, that 1) we probably have no space for all that LEGO, 2) there is no way we could fly them over without paying extra for the overweight bags. It is really a lot of LEGO :)

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Plots: Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while must know, that I am a data-freak. While preparing my annual seminar talk for the institute I also spent some time on data-mining and visualisation using the database of observations made with the HERMES spectrograph (at the Mercator telescope on La Palma). It turned out, that I have the 3rd highest amount of observing time at the instrument. (Even without counting the time I spent there with the master students as support astronomer – if one was to add those nights to my sum, then I would be winning with quite a landslide.) As an example, here is a plot showing the distribution of all HERMES observations throughout the first 5 years of HERMES, and a plot showing their distribution on the sky near the original Kepler field (different colours mean different observing programs, the dark blue area on the first plot represents the night time, and the symbol size is connected to the exposure time).

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You can see – among many other things – how seasonal some observing programs are, and how well covered the Kepler field is. This was a nice exercise with python to learn a few new things about projections and calendar-data visualisation.

Making Belgian chocolate: After my public PhD defence I got a voucher for a chocolate workshop from my colleagues, but we only managed to go and do it now, at the end of March. It was a two hour session in the Bittersweet Chocolatier in the centre of Leuven, and we got to make small praline filled chocolate easter eggs, larger chocolate figurines, and pistachio balls covered in chocolate. It was a very nice experience, even without mentioning the half kilogram of – both self made and original Bittersweet – chocolate each of us got to take home afterwards :) I think it was definitely the best PhD defence present I have seen so far.

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Royal Greenhouses of Laeken: Last week my mother came for a visit, and this time she finally got to enjoy the Belgian sunshine for a bit longer than a few seconds. Her only wish was to visit the coast and take De Kusttram between a few of the coastal towns, which we did on our first full day. The weather was warm, but we still got to use our umbrellas in a short thunderstorm which caught us while walking through the dunes. I also brought along my kite, but this time there was basically no wind at all (which is extremely rare on the coast), so I could not play much with it. There were other people with kites desperately waiting for stronger winds too…

On the next day, we went to Brussels to visit the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, which is only accessible to the public during a short, three week long period each spring. It was very beautiful, despite being a little bit crowded. Although I think that the variety of plants in the – much smaller – botanic garden of Leuven (which we visited just a few days earlier with Clio, and on the following day with my mother) is larger, there is no doubt that the architectural beauty of this place, and the amount of blooming flowers there was truly exceptional.

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Work: Research usually takes more time than originally expected, but this time I really underestimated how much of it would take me to finish my latest paper. When I discovered something particularly interesting during the conference in Sydney last year, I though I could be finished with the necessary analysis before the end of the year (2013). Then we ran into various unexpected problems (shit happens when you do thing which were never done before), resulting in a delay of several months… But now, just before leaving to Chile (more about that later), I finally submitted the manuscript to the usual journal (A&A). Let’s hope the referee will find our work worthy, and I can show you (or at least post about) the results in a few months!