Physics and Astronomy Collaborative Environment (PACE)

Having just marked the last exam for a first year astronomy subject and have a little time, I thought I might write up a little of what I did. The first six months of 2014 were quite a ride in many respects (not least in submitting the PhD as chronicled below), but in many many new projects involving fingers in too many pies once again. I guess that is just how I like to function :)

A strange new UFO building (or the New Horizons building).

Some of the recent work I have been doing is in the School of Physics at Monash University. I have been undertaking laboratory sessions for a first year astronomy subject in the new Physics and Astronomy Collaborative Environment (PACE) buidlings. So far, due mainly to necessity in semester one as the move had only just completed, most subjects retained their ‘traditional’ approach laboratory+lecture setup. However, in first year astronomy, room was made to play around and experiment with new approaches.

In collaboration with Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway and some of the other demonstrators we tried out a bunch of new, more hands-on, activities. We utilised some of my already existing colour imaging and stellar evolution materials (which I outline in a future post) for some of the labs but I also made some brand new asteroid-based materials specifically for the PACE labs.

(A few of the Prompt Telescopes)

The general gist of the new asteroid labs was that the first year undergraduate students got to utilise the PROMPT telescopes in Chile. When I did my undergraduate at Monash, the first time I really got to use a telescope properly was in a (then) brand new subject called ASP3132: Observational Astronomy where a major project was based around the use of a small telescope for research purposes. So the first year students (I imagine) don’t really know how cool being able to use a proper telescope that early really is! It is a very motivating experience to get your own research grade images (if anything is going to motivate you!) as a student.

The general approach taken was that the students used the planetarium software “Stellarium” to plan their observations. Chile is in South America and in a different timezone at a different latitude so we used that to explore aspects of positional astronomy that are dependant on their location on Earth. They had to pick a bright asteroid taking into consideration its brightness (too bright and the scope would overexpose, too dim and it would be unable to be seen) and whether it was actually in the sky at all in Chile during the observing night. They could then submit their asteroid to be observed and images were taken a week apart.

(This image is two shots of pluto taken a week apart. Pluto is in each image and the students had to find it in each one and  hence measure it’s movement. Seems impossible, right?)

With 300 students, broken into 100 groups of three, there was significant overlap in requests of asteroids, so it was quite easy to get them all their images in robotic mode from the telescopes. Also taken were two shots of Pluto which, in this day and age, is actually easier to deal with than measuring asteroids and hence was used as a training exercise. The students had to get their hands very dirty in analyzing the images and calculated both Pluto and the Asteroid’s orbital period and pinpoint where the objects were located in the solar system. The results gained were of publishable research quality (to the Minor Planet Center) given enough effort but this authentic data was used more as a training exercise rather than as an intended contribution to human knowledge.

On the face of things, anecdotally, this approach seems to be a major improvement on the general toy and/or cookbook labs that are generally presented in a lot of astronomy courses. It does follow the guidelines to good instruction that we know from the literature… but we don’t know whether it is actually ‘better’ yet on any dimension as we did not take into account any evaluation at this stage. This was primarily due to my late emergence onto the scene! Next semester (Mid-July onwards), we will be incorporating new PACE labs with evaluation built-in to a variety of subjects… most intriguing for me is an astronomical/philsophical/astrobiological subject called Life in the Universe where I will be having a heavy hand in the redesign and evaluation of new lab approaches. Tastily totally up my alley :)

Consciousness Re-emerges from the Forest.

After years of wandering through narrow tubes, rebounding off rounded smoky glass walls and occasionally deviating through sneaky glitches on parole to let out the most minimum amount of steam, the fitzbrain struggled to emerge from it’s PhD prison. The result of a hellish restriction of the psyche over an excessive period of time. And once finished and submitted? Collapse. Sleeping in. 700 naps a day. Standing naps, sitting naps, traditional horizontal naps, socially awkward mid-conversation naps and an all-time favourite, driving naps. And once the naps cease? … an apparent subtle but beautiful change slowly starts to occur, first as a ripple in a pond, then a tidal wave of rocketing synapses that sprout miraculously through the forest-floor.

Was it really a prison? Sorta. A personally selected prison .. a positive analogy would be that of a monk going into the mountain thereby becoming ascetic by choice. While technically still existing in the everyday world, large sections of consciousness need to be temporarily shutdown and/or unpreventably polluted over time just so the PhD can be gestated and birthed. Towards the end, unperceived, the struggle turns into a zombie-like groundhog day of shuffling numbers, words and graphs around into a meaningful, important but empty collage. Every struggling ounce of creative energy produced by the body exhaustively stripmined and harvested for the PhD results in the outflow of all manner of toxic smog into the surrounding mental environment.. All hail PhD.

The few days following the submission of the PhD were a blur, sometimes negative, sometimes neutral, but always exhausted until the spontaneous, but necessary, moment of change with a surprise flight to Tasmania. The initial intention was to stand somewhere along the windy coast in such a manner that one ear was facing West into the wind, and the other East into the void, such that the suffocating gas could be forced thusly from the brain to an irretrievable exhaust outwards from the opposing ear into the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, this encountered minimal success. More success was seen retracing footsteps of old, and finding new places to tread, through the soft wet lush undergrowth of fern-infested temperate rainforests.

It is easy to forget how generative and positive being in the rainforest can be. Whilst I read that to myself most mornings, it is still really only a theory or memory until the jolt of direct experience… then still too quickly forgotten and lost to the abstract. Parts of my mind that had been converted, for a time, into something resembling 1980s corporate guy have all too quickly returned to the natural horde order of Lebowskis and Nietzsches. All of the flower heads, flagging neglected and parched in various dilapidated fields, that had semi-permanently closed up due to the artificial eternal night, have slowly started to turn and open expectantly towards the impending future sunrise. Driving motivations that, in previous years, used to exist daily, which had recently only been paid a eulogy-like lip service in respectful memoriam, have begun to erupt again from the fissures left bare. All of this experienced through the stench of a million moist forest smells, impossible to disentangle from each other, bringing back distant memories of frequent joyful dancing and deep communicating.

Continually driving to and fro from the forest day after day has become implausible yet irrevocably fruitful. A trip that would take 30 minutes inevitably stretches into hours as it is necessary to pull over every second minute to write notes of new ideas or take photos that describe thoughts impervious to words. If I had a guitar with me I would be doomed to never return home. Skyrockets and firecrackers explode as the mind celebrates it’s liberation while simultaneously observing the slow retreat of crisis mode beyond the distant mountains drifting away into the past. Free, it returns to it’s forgotten gnarly chaotic overgrown paths of old, also having been empowered by the PhD as originally intended …just forgotten…, to stride towards both past and future goals.

My consciousness seems to be re-emerging with the forest; the rodeo handlers at the edge of my subconscious have flung open the gates exposing a tyrannical bull, an imperviously cunning clown and a lot of screaming rural types scoffing corndogs. Various loose threads of my mind have been permanently attached to the rear-end of a stallion nicknamed “Tornado”; so called as his real name is unpronounceable by humankind. I wonder what is going to happen? Maybe I’ll ask that girl over there on the starter’s podium in the rocking chair whittling the shotgun.

My name is Fitz and I’m a recovering PhD student.

(All photos in this post generated from these walks)