A Universe of Dwarf Galaxies in Lyon, France

Beth Willman, assistant professor, here.  I just wrapped up at a meeting held in Lyon, France from June 14 – 18 titled “A Universe of Dwarf Galaxies”.  Overall, the conference was very well organized, with plenty of time set aside for poster viewing and discussion.  The lunches were also ridiculously good (3 course, sit down lunches plus wine). There were over 150 participants at this meeting, so there were loads of excellent talks and posters.

This meeting included a broad range of presentations about many aspects of dwarf galaxy formation and evolution (as well as some star clusters thrown in for good measure).   There was even some discussion about “What is a galaxy?”, but it was contained to the session about Ultra Compact Dwarf galaxies (UCDs).  Even though these objects are called “dwarfs”, there isn’t uniform agreement about whether they are the high-mass end of globular star clusters or whether they are instead galaxies.  I think they are star clusters, but agree that it may not be 110% clear.

The observational result presented at this conference that stood out as the most new and exciting was a new result found by Sergey Koposov and collaborators, as presented by Matt Walker (one of Sergey’s collaborators).  Their team has been awarded a large amount of time on the VLT to obtain many repeat measurements of individual stars belonging to the very least luminous galaxies known in the universe.  This is important to investigate the effects of binary stars which could potentially have a huge effect on the observed dynamics of these tiny galaxies. Matt Walker showed the results of 21(!) epochs of imaging of stars in the Bootes I galaxies, and the velocity dispersion of 3 km/sec they computed from their dataset.  The dataset was to die for.  I look forward to seeing their upcoming paper, to read about the technique in more detail and to seeing the results they obtain from their other targets.

My own talk was about observational biases in our current census of the least luminous galaxies known in the universe and on imminent/future prospects for overcoming those biases. (I’m the world expert in the detectability of the teeniest galaxies in the universe, if I may say so myself.)

The ample time for discussion was my favorite part of the workshop, because it gave me a chance to speak with many of my current colleagues that I don’t typically get to see in person, including (in no particular order): Ricardo Munoz, Dave Sand, Evan Kirby, Erik Tollerud, Helmut Jerjen, and Gary Da Costa.  I have lots of ongoing projects to talk with all of those folks about; unfortunately time ran short for science chats because I arrived a bit late and I didn’t have much of a chance to talk with some other folks that I wanted to – like Nicolas Martin from MPIA.

I also got to spend quality time with some friends and older colleagues of mine, including (in no particular order): Julianne Dalcanton, Lucio Mayer, and Gurtina Besla.  Gurtina is a computational astrophysics graduate student at Harvard I got to know when I was there as a postdoc. It was great to have the chance to catch up with her.  We had dinner one night with Julianne Dalcanton, my dissertation advisor and then also on the last night of the conference. She is an expert in modelling the Magellanic Clouds.   Au revoir for now!

REU at the MMO

Hi!  I’m Megan Bedell and I’m a physics/astro major in the class of 2012.  I am spending the summer as an REU student at the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket- I’ve been here for nearly a month now and so far the experience has been fantastic!  There are seven astronomy interns in total living across the street from one of the two observatories.  We each have our own research project; I’m making photometric observations using interference filters to study an interesting type of variable star called uxors (named after UX Ori, the prototype).  Along with my research, I give tours of the historic observatory and work at public observing nights three times a week.  It’s a busy schedule but luckily interns are free to do our work whenever we want without set working hours, so we can always take time off during the day to go to the beach or walk around town!

Being on Nantucket is tough duty, but somebody’s got to do it…

Most recently, we took a five-day road trip to visit observatories on the east coast (including Haverford!).  It was a great trip and I had the chance to meet a lot of interesting people and get an inside view of some really impressive research institutions.  My boss, Vladimir, has connections to all of these institutions, so we were able to meet scientists (and friends of his) everywhere and hear about their research projects and experiences.  A few of my personal highlights were:
– seeing the scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope at the Hubble Institute
– eating sandwiches at a cafe down the street from the Harvard CfA and overhearing nerdy astronomy conversations all around us
– Hubble 3D movie at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, so cool!!!  bonus points for narration by Leonardo DiCaprio
– having the chance to meet and consult with a leading expert in my research area at Wesleyan
– watching construction on the MIT Haystack Observatory’s main radio telescope using the biggest crane in the state of Massachusetts!
– the Naval Observatory’s beautiful astronomy library
– a brief return to Haverford for a great talk by Bruce Partridge
– making the ferry home in time to catch the Celtics-Lakers game on the ferry’s television, which we watched alongside what felt like half of Cape Cod!  What, I couldn’t work the entire time.

In conclusion, my REU experience has been great so far!  It’s interesting to live the life of a full-time observational astronomer- I am definitely developing a whole new level of appreciation for online weather forecast services.  Interacting with the public at open nights is also a lot of fun.  I have quite a bit of work ahead of me, but I’m looking forward to getting some interesting results!

UMD Cosmology Conference

Last week I got to work and after only 2 days was off to a conference. This time it was the Advances in Theoretical and Observational Cosmology meeting at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. Beth and I travelled together, although she left after one day and I stayed for two. Overall, I had a good time–the talks kept me engaged despite getting up very early and staying up later than I should have.

I met several people whose papers I’ve cited or read, including James Bullock, Fabio Governato, and Rosemary Wyse. I also met Joe Fowler of Princeton who knows Steve Boughn and Bruce Partridge, both Princeton alums and now professors (or in Bruce’s case professor emeritus) at Haverford. I also chatted with several other folks who gave talks and hung out with several UMD grad students doing physics and/or astronomy. It’s always interesting to hear about the projects grad students are involved in.

The conference had a much broader scope than I had anticipated, which is not at all surprising in hindsight. This meant a lot of the talks, particularly the theoretical ones, went a bit over my head. But in many cases I was able to follow along in a general sense and take notes which I followed up on later. In the end, I learned a lot about the larger context of the work I’m doing, from high redshift theoretical work to the near-field observational cosmology I’m used to.

I don’t have any cool pictures to share, but following in Maya and Oliver’s footsteps, a few highlights:

– There was sushi and shrimp cocktail at the reception the first night!

– I learned that the resolution of the Planck Observatory is 1 lunalapin (a unit of measure they made up). That’s equivalent to the body heat emitted by one rabbit on the moon. Get it?? (Hint: luna=moon, lapin=rabbit)

-I got a ride to the train station from Zackaria Chacko, particle physicist at UMD, after my taxi failed to show. I would’ve missed the train if it hadn’t been for his kindness! He also knows Stephon Alexander, a physics professor at Haverford, and is friends with a Bryn Mawr alum, so we bonded a bit.

I would count this conference as a successful experience. A lot of great science was presented and I had the opportunity to interact with several of the scientists behind it! Now it’s full speed ahead on my own work.

STScI Conference

During the first week of final exams Oliver and I had the wonderful opportunity of getting to accompany Beth on her trip to the annual STScI (Space Telescope Science Institute) symposium. This year’s theme was “Stellar Populations in the Cosmological Context.” Here’s a picture of us:

This was both of our first times attending a Large, Real, grown-up science conference. (Oliver went to last years KNAC conference– but that was all undergrads.) We were definitely the only undergraduates there, which was an incredbile privilege as well as a large challenge. Because we are years away from being on the same professional level of most of the attendees, some of the talks were harder to grasp than others. However, the exposure to this type of conference was extremely interesting. By seeing how scientific information is researched, presented, and received, we got a taste of what may be to come in our potential Astronomical careers.

Essentially, the conference was devoted to stellar astronomy and what information we can glean about the universe from studying stars.  Since it was hosted by the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Hubble Space Telescope was responsible for most of the images and data that were presented.  Talks ranged from constraints on stellar initial mass functions to dwarf galaxies and dark matter satellites.  After each talk there was a Q&A session, which was by far our favorite part.  Seeing astronomers debating ideas and theories was incredbily interesting.  A few talks generated some lively discussions, which we didn’t expect initially.

Some Silly highlights:

– Astronaut John Grunsfeld gave a talk called “Hugging Hubble” about his experiences going up to repair the Hubble Space Craft in 2009. The next night, we saw the Hubble 3D IMAX film at the Baltimore Science Center. Maya teared up a little. Good thing we were wearing 3D glasses… Afterwords, Maya and Beth sneaked in to a photo with Mr. Grunsfeld himself! Some real proof exists that we met a real-life Astronaut! (Photo to be posted?)

– Our very own Beth Willman unfortunately got struck with laryngitis almost immediately after getting to Baltimore. We then had to communicate via notepads, sign language, smoke signals, carrier pigeons, etc. (Oliver points out that this wasn’t a “highlight,” per se, but it did have an influence on our trip.)

– A trip to Andy Nelson’s BBQ with Beth’s friend and colleague Jay Strader. Delicious…

Overall, it was a great trip. Not without its challenges, but generally very rewarding and exciting. It was fascinating to see how professional astronomers use the images from Hubble to “make science”– i.e. interpret meaningful results. It was also refreshing to see information that we learn in class and though our research brought to life in a very real and prevelent context.

Tons of thanks to Beth and to Sherman Fairchild Fellowships for allowing this awesome experience!

Welcome to Haverford’s Astronoblog

The end of the academic year might seem like a strange time to begin a blog, but there is usually something interesting happening in Haverford’s astronomy program.  So no time like the present!

One of the best things about astronomy at Haverford is our great students.  During final exam week, I hosted a dinner party at my apartment for my astronomy research students and students in my classes.  Armed with some photos from this festive event, I’m going to open up Astronoblog by celebrating the six seniors that just graduated with a degree in either Astronomy or Astrophysics.

Here I am with my three freshly graduated seniors: Alex Warres, Dylan Hatt, (me), and Gail Gutowski.  I’m pretty sure Alex is going to be a teacher at an astronomy camp this summer.  Dylan is soon heading to Max Planck Institute in Germany with a Fulbright fellowship to study astronomy.  Gail is now at Haverford to write a paper on her thesis work and will then head to UT Austin for a geophysics research position.

Here is Scott Ogden (left) with his advisor Steve Boughn.  Steve is another astronomy professor here.  Unfortunately for us, Steve will be on sabbatical for the next year.  Scott is heading off to earn a master’s degree in applied math at Stonybrook.

Last, but certaintly not least, are Tyler Evans and Nick Vechik.  Missing between them is Bruce Partridge, their research advisor and my esteemed predecessor.  Bruce had just flown in from a meeting in Paris so needed to retire from the party early.  Nick worked with Bruce on both radio astronomy research and on astronomy education.  He might continue some of his work over the summer.  Tyler may also continue working with Bruce over the summer, and will then head to Swinburne University in Australia for a PhD program in astronomy.

After all of these student-advisor photo ops, the students suggested a group shot with Scott Shelley, the physics lab instructor who taught all of them in multiple lab classes:

Congratulations to all six of our seniors for their past accomplishments and bright future prospects!