Supernova Condensate is a blog about our place in the Universe. Of astronomy, chemistry and life in the big bad bubble of academia.
Invader Xan is a molecular astrophysicist and part-time alien invader, who spends life looking at very small things on very large scales, and trying to better understand the chemistry of interstellar space.
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While I’m quite merrily building a writing career and even planning on writing a book, there is honestly no way I’m going to drop my research career without a fight. Thankfully, right now there are a fair few things I can use in that fight…
If I’m honest, this list is more for myself than anything else, though it may be of use to anyone else who’s looking at finding a fellowship position. Or anyone who’s curious about how the academic job game works.
Current fellowships to apply for:
- Marie Curie Fellowship
Europe will fund me to go and work practically anywhere in the world. Coincidentally, I’d very much like to go and work practically anywhere in the world. Deadline’s a few months away. I have some reading to do…
- NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship Program
The next funding cycle is also the next time when the Astrobiology program are participating. Nuff said. Which reminds me, I have a couple of e-mails to send…
- Gemini Science Fellowship
Now this one would be fun. It’s based in Hilo, Hawaii. Only 40% of my time would be my own research, admittedly, but it still looks pretty awesome. A friend of mine won one of these a few years ago…
- IAC Fellowship
The Institutio Astrofísica de Canarias would be a good place to work. And I know they do research there which is in line with my own, because I’ve cited several researchers who’re based there.
Of course, this is all assuming that that thing which I applied for which I’d really like to happen does, in fact, happen. Or not. As the case may be.
If I’m honest, I’m still uncertain as to whether by applying for fellowships, I’m pitching too high. I honestly don’t know if I’m good enough, and in many ways, I don’t believe I am. But that feeling is remarkably familiar these days, and I don’t have the luxury to think like that right now.
Oh, I have much to do. Allons-y!
Happy caturday! Here’s an illustration showing five of the largest cat species to have ever lived!
From left to right, those cats are…
American Lion (Panthera leo atrox)
Possibly the largest cat to have ever lived, looking remarkably like modern day lions, only much larger. These animals have been extinct for about 11,000 years.
Sabre-Toothed Cat (Smilodon populator)
The smilodon was the most heavily built cat ever and, as you can tell at a glance from those vicious looking fangs, you wouldn’t have wanted to mess with one. Smilodon populator was the largest and heaviest of three known species of smilodon. It went extinct around 10,000 years ago.
Panthera tigris acutidens
An extinct species of asian tiger, possibly the largest tiger to have ever lived. Unfortunately, their fossils are extremely rare and mostly in the hands of collectors, so little is known about them.
European Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea)
An extinct lion subspecies, known to be depicted in cave art, as well as ivory carvings and clay figurines. Actually, there’s a little uncertainty about what species this cat belonged to. It was closely related to lion subspecies, but its skull shape is more similar to tiger subspecies. Some even consider it a species in its own right.
Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
These magnificent beasts are still alive today. They’re the largest cats in the modern world, using their size to outcompete other predators (such as wolves and bears) in their habitat. They’re also critically endangered, with the population of tigers in Russia declining slowly, despite the best efforts of conservationists.
Siberian tigers are also totally adorable…
(Size chart via Scientific Illustration Tumblr. I’m afraid I don’t know the source for the image. If you do, please drop me a comment and tell me!)
So sometime yesterday afternoon, I found myself reclining in a crowded coffee shop amidst an eclectic assortment of undergrads studying, using a similarly eclectic assortment of electronic devices… When I stumbled across an article posted on twitter, which a friend of mine had retweeted. As I write this, I’m still decoding my feelings towards it.
The article in question, by Jalees Rehman, was posted on Guardian science blogs under the title “The need for critical science journalism”, with the tagline “Too much contemporary science writing falls under the category of ‘infotainment’”, and it has a host of twitter pundits chirping in agreement★. I, respectfully, both agree and disagree.
As a scientist, I can’t help but concur that reporting of any kind of science should be critical. Things can’t be taken at face value. I really can’t stress this enough – particularly when newspaper sensationalism has done huge damage in the past, prompting the nutcases to come out.
What I disaprove of is Rehman’s criticism of the tone of writing. In particular, he mentions that critical science journalism is “less ebullient” than the so-called infotainment science journalism. While I understand he means no derision, I think his message is open to being misinterpreted.
Honestly? I think some ebullience is a good thing. I think it’s the dry writing which has been holding science back for too long. If it isn’t interesting then no one will be reading. And, seriously, many of these things genuinely are exciting. I commend writers for enthralling their readers, and attempt to do the same.
You see, the people who are now writing these things are nerds. Yes, myself included. As a few notable public figures (such as John Green and Simon Pegg) have pointed out recently, nerds are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about things and to get excited when they describe things. And in my humble opinion, a little excitability is no bad thing.
With the state of the internet today, people are more interested and enthralled by science and engineering topics than ever before. We’re being taught – finally – that science isn’t just a topic for crusty old men in labcoats. It’s all around us, everywhere, all the time. And people are actually starting to care. Why? Because it’s exciting! However, I fail to see why exciting science journalism can’t be simultaneously critical.
As a science blogger myself, I take some pride in my attempt to explain detailed and difficult concepts in an understandable way. I also take some pride in trying to present things in a manner which are simultaneously exciting and critical, adding in additional commentary where my own expertise and knowledge allow. This is, in fact, the way I’ve always tried to present myself here on Supernova Condensate, particularly when I am – as Rehman suggests – critically analysing a scientific paper. I’m never certain how successful I am in this endeavour, but I’ve attempted to do so again and again and again♥.
An argument I’d make is that the things Rehman asks of science journalism, in general, require some rather focussed and specialist knowledge. I’m genuinely not sure how many writers know enough about the topics they cover to even be able to critically analyse a scientific paper, or give a full and balanced background of the topics at hand. I’d be hard pushed to critically analyse a paper in a medical journal. Seriously, it’s like another language to a physical scientist like me. Ditto, I suspect Rehman may have difficulty critically analysing any topical paper in astrophysics. It isn’t his field. That’s a bit like asking a taxi driver to fly an aeroplane. Sure, in principle both tasks involve controlling a passenger vehicle, but the specifics are… different.
I would conclude by saying that we should all remember that not all science journalism is equal. On one hand you have traditional news media like newspapers and television. If I might be brutally honest, the treatment which traditional journalism gives to science coverage is very often neither exciting nor critical (as beautifully satirised by Martin Robbins a few years ago).
Then you have the “infotainment” sources. Blogs like the rather lovely Science in a Can and It’s Okay to be Smart. Together with YouTube channels like Sci Show, these particular media aren’t really given to detailed analysis and critical discourse. Nor is it what much of their audience want. While this may be considered infotainment, it still serves a very important purpose. Enthusiasm.
By presenting exciting interesting facts and, yes, occasionally using hyperbolic words like “awesome” and “heroic” this serves to interest people. And I, for one, think it does a damn fine job of it. On social media sites from Tumblr to Facebook, peoples’ enthusiasm is being stoked in a way which it never has before.
For those who want detailed news and critical analysis, there’s a third medium. Science blogs. By which I mean long-form blogs like this one, or those found in places online like Scientopia, Science Blogs, and ResearchBlogging.org. In fact, precisely the kind of science reporting which Rehman calls for has been happening at sites like these for years now. The more switched on readers already know that if they want discourse, they should seek out these specialist sources.
In closing, I would point out again that I mean no disrespect to Jalees Rehman in this article, and I agree wholeheartedly that critical thought and unclouded viewpoints are essential in science reporting. But ideally I don’t think this should detract from the fact that many of these things are, in a truly literal sense, awesome. Just as Carl Sagan was so fond of pointing out.
★ I know it’s a cheap shot to use avian euphemisms when talking about twitter, but you know – a bird in hand…
♥ While I write freelance for other places, everything here on my personal blog is a labour of love. And I don’t intend on stopping anytime soon.
The Sun is doing some quite exciting things at the moment. Just the other day, it spat out a X1.7 flare, the first X-class flare this year. Things are likely to stay interesting for a while now too. We’re very nearly at solar maximum – the time when the Sun’s activity is highest.
The Sun, you see, is actually slightly variable. Lots of stars vary their activity over a regular period of time. A main sequence star like the Sun may not vary extravagantly like some others do, but it does have a cycle of about 11 years during which it goes from being fairly quiescent with barely any sunspots, to being quite exuberant with plenty of activity. During solar maximum, a lot of flares and sunspots are likely, which usually means that those who live far to the South and North of Earth can expect to see some dramatic aurorae.
To give you some idea how active the Sun can be near maximum, this image shows one full year of solar activity, courtesy of NASA SDO.
This image is made from a series of 25 images taken from April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013. These images stacked together show exactly how active the Sun’s been this past year. And it’s really quite beautiful.
This image uses SDO’s 17.1 nm filter, taken in extreme ultraviolet. No really, that’s what it’s called. Extreme ultraviolet (EUV) is high enough in energy that it can show interactions with atomic nuclei and inner electron shells. It’s also high enough in energy, that many fewer photons are emitted by a little yellow star like the Sun at these short wavelengths. All in all, this makes EUV ideal for capturing these gorgeous images, full of plasma trapped in magnetic field lines.
I do find it rather interesting that there are two tracks around the Sun’s surface where sunspots are much more common. They seem to correspond to roughly where the tropics are here on Earth. I don’t know for certain without looking it up, but I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that the Sun doesn’t all rotate at the same speed. It actually rotates faster around it’s equator. Presumably that causes the magnetic field lines either side of the equator to become a lot more jumbled up… But don’t quote me on that. This is all just off the top of my head.
Chris Hadfield, everyone’s favourite astronaut, has officially handed over control of the ISS and is preparing to return back down to Earth. He’s also going out with style, recording a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
Seriously, just watch and enjoy a music video recorded in space. It’s pretty much the best video in the whole world right now.
Don Pettit set quite an act to follow as astronauts go, but Hadfield has followed up amazingly well. As well as recording songs from orbit, sending back videos and stunning photographs of the planet from above and even participating in a Reddit AMA, he’s become a celebrity, known by people from all walks of life. I really do love how the latest selection of astronauts have taken to using the internet to engage with us folks back down here on our blue world from their temporary home in orbit, and inspiring others. If you ask me, this is a huge part of what being an astronaut is all about. And it’s all possible, thanks to the way modern technology enables active communication across the whole world
I salute you, Commander Hadfield. Thank you for being awesome, and I hope you have a safe and comfortable ride back down to Earth!
So after crawling out from the thesis cocoon, I’ve been taking a few days to straighten out some thoughts and take stock of things. I’m a little behind on my e-mail, and my head contains a tangled mess of unmade plans. Those plans, however, are taking some form.
I had a nice long conversation with an old friend this evening. It was good to catch up, and nice to talk casually about technical things awhile. This may seem like a contradiction to some, but really I find informal conversation about sciencey things quite refreshing – particularly given the attitude a lot of people around me seem to have developed towards “talking about work” while elsewhere★. I’ve always rather enjoyed taking a closer look at people and finding out what makes them tick. People are fascinating things, and often the topics which they discuss with the most clarity are those which they’re most interested in.
In any case, one topic which was discussed was the ever-present peril of hunting for jobs. Virtually any academic will be able to tell you of the perils involved in hunting for postdoctoral contracts before you can get a more permanent research job on the tenure track. And I would very much like to remain on the dreaded tenure track. Even though at times it may feel a bit like playing the Game of Thrones – either you win, or you die.
Fellowship applications are evidently the long haul. Deadlines are months apart, hearing back about them takes further months, and there may be yet more months after that until you can start. Provided you’re successful. Many have a low success rate. I’m not being discouraged, mind you. In fact, I’m waiting to hear back from a few applications even as I type this (though I know I won’t be told a word until at least next month). In the meantime, I do still need to eat. So I’ve decided to cheat the game.
Simply, I’m running two careers in parallel. Regular readers of mine will know that I already do some freelance writing work which helps me to pay the bills. So in tandem with the ongoing research fellowship application barrage, I’m also planning on upscaling my writing career. You see, finding postdoc places isn’t always a smooth process. Ignoring any imposter syndrome related crises of confidence, I still know a large number of people who have had, or are still having, problems finding research jobs. As my friend and I were musing in conversation earlier, the sticking point is money. With half the planet seemingly in financial crisis, funding for research can be scarce. It’s better than it was last year, but that probably isn’t saying much.
So I’ve resolved to write a book. Specifically, a non-fiction pop science book. I have a few plans for things, and Supernova Condensate is probably an ideal place to collate any ideas on that. As well as documenting any adventures I may have finding literary agents and/or dealing with publishers. One way or another, I’m also resolving to keep this blog much more frequently updated than it has been recently. Writing is always a pleasant way to organise thoughts, and it’s a good habit to keep.
★ Bluntly, science isn’t simply “work” for me. It’s a way of life. I don’t like simply switching off my brain when I go home, and I’ve always found that inspiration can happen at the most unusual moments. Besides, it’s fun to geek out sometimes.
6 chapters and 2 appendices, 186 pages, 39 figures, and 52426 words later, the thesis was completed, bound, and submitted. And there was much rejoicing.
(Yes I am covering my real name. Pseudonyms and all of that. You know how it is.)
Writing the thesis is probably one of the most dreaded and forbidding things anyone will have to do on their path to becoming a scientist. I’d go so far as to say it’s a rite of passage. If you follow me on any other parts of the internet, you’ll probably know by now that I passed this particular rite about 2 days ago. And it’s remarkable how exhausted I still am.
Having one huge milestone ever present on your mind can become really quite overbearing. At risk of seeming melodramatic, you feel a little bit like Frodo carrying the ring of power at times. Except without any of the sword fights or that cool turning invisible thing★. Either way though, it’s done and dusted. Though I do still need to pass the viva voce exam (thesis defence, to those of you in the US), and I’ll probably have a bunch of corrections to do before I’m finished. Because pretty much no one passes first time without any corrections. For now, I’m going to quell the gnawing uncertainty that it’s all going to go horribly wrong somehow, and say that hopefully those will just be minor things. And now I have a big book full of research which may hopefully fuel a bunch of research papers♥. And research papers mean that I might, you know, be hired as a postdoc somewhere.
So anyway, I now have stuff to catch up on. And when I say stuff, I basically mean my entire life, which was largely neglected due to necessarily being an antisocial shut-in while finishing off writing the page beast. This may take a little while, so bear with me while I update… everything. I have much to write about, both here and elsewhere.
Also, I feel inclined to take a little me time now that I can. Get reacquainted with my poor neglected bass guitar, fool about with the paints and canvasses I have lying around, get a bit gastronomical again, make a few photomanipulations, and allow myself the blissful luxury of getting lost in a few good books. Recommendations are welcome, by the way.
I need to write here more. Personal entries on occasion, and research blogging posts. I suspect it might be useful to catalog exactly which hoops I need to jump through, indeed which hoops I’ve already had to jump through, while trying to find a postdoc. It’s something which many postgrads are eventually going to have to deal with after all, and it might be useful for some to read. There’s also a real possibility that I may be unsuccessful in this. Not everyone makes the cut. While I’d like to remain cautiously optimistic, I genuinely don’t know where things may end up at this point.
But then, life would be boring if we knew what was going to happen…
★ Also, there are no orcs. Well… Provided you avoid the student union bar when the rugby team is there, that is.
♥ In all seriousness, I can’t wait to actually publish some of this stuff because I personally think it’s really cool. I also rather like the fact that I actually think my research is cool, because a surprising number of people don’t seem especially enthused by theirs.