Week 9 – Project Update

Here’s a short update that I wrote two Mondays ago (on the 19th) and never got around to posting:

An unexpected bought of cold brought clear skies to London briefly tonight (Monday). As I type this week’s update from the tube on my way home, I can barely feel my fingers still. Tonight was very, very cold. Way colder than it should ever get in March. We did some imaging of M53 and the cigar galaxy as we slowly turned into human icicles. These images will be stacked and processed by each of us and the best result will be posted in our next update! In the meantime, here’s a picture of Malcolm when he stopped playing space invaders long enough to decide what to image : “


Final update coming soon!


Weeks 7-8 Project Update

Hi everyone! We’re back to tell you a bit more about what’s been going on up on the roof lately!

The biggest obstacle we’ve been facing recently has been the weather. London is usually quite cloudy, but recently it seems as though clouds have a permanent place overhead (and let’s not even begin to discuss the snow we got). While we did go up to the roof once in weeks 7 and 8, the sky wasn’t quite clear enough to see much of interest. But fear not, we were still productive! Our biggest accomplishment of that night was adjusting the weighting of the telescope to improve accuracy. It was a group effort to hold up the OTA (Optical Tube Assembly – aka the main body of the telescope) and move it into the optimal position. There was much trial and error involved, and the words “we have to move the telescope again” may or may not have earned Isaac some death glares throughout the night. In the end though, we managed to get the counterweight on, the telescope balanced, and we saw a dramatic improvement in the accuracy and steadiness of the telescope. Of course, no blog post would be complete without pictures, so here’s one of Malcolm laughing at us trying to get the telescope into place:



Check in again soon for more of our adventures!

  • Despina, Conor, Ethasham, Isaac, and AJ

Weeks 2-6 – Project Update

Hello everyone!

So as it turns out, we have not been very good about these ‘weekly’ updates. Here is a bit of an update from week 2 – week 6!

First of all, below are some pictures from a late night telescope visit earlier this term:



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During this particular session, we took spectral readings of the Orion nebula and Sirius, which were used for calibration. This was done using the DADOS spectroscope.


The poor quality of the spectrum is due to the fact that this is a picture of the screen in the observatory (don’t worry, our actual data is better than this!)

Of course this was all after we focused the telescope by spying on some office workers. When you are located somewhere like London (i.e. an area of extreme light pollution and perpetually dismal weather), sometimes the best targets for observation are offices and bars (whoops?). Before going home, we looked at the moon briefly – here is a picture taken through the telescope (with an iPhone camera):


We took this picture of the moon by pressing a phone camera up against the eyepiece of the telescope

After this, the next couple of weeks primarily focused on analyzing the data we obtained and writing a code to give us pretty graphs like the one that Conor is pointing at below from our original spectral data (shout-out to AJ and Ethasham for doing the heavy lifting on this part of the project!)



Conor points at a screen (!)

Keep an eye out for our next post (coming soon!) where we’ll talk about what we’ve done since then!

– Despina, Conor, Isaac, Ethasham, and AJ

Striking for Pensions

From the end of last week academics at Universities all across the UK have gone on strike to protest at a proposed slash to their pensions. There are very many people who have studied this in a great deal more detail than I have and it is certainly a complicated story. A good place to start is the work of Mick Otsuka in setting out the problem in all its gory details. However to cut a long story short, the USS which is the pensions fund for lecturers is suggesting that they cut the level of pensions promised to lecturers based upon a risk assessment process which assumes that every single higher education establishment which signs up to the pension pot suddenly goes out of business simultaneously. Since this is clearly ridiculous, the only reasonable interpretation of their actions is that they are greedy and they are trying it on. I am one of those people cursed with the ability to see both sides of an argument. On this occasion, I can see no reason at all why the proposed changes are reasonable – it looks like a straight forward cooked up money grab so that those people who view universities simply in terms of the bottom line of a financial spreadsheet can make that number a little better.

Their proposed changes would drastically reduce the level of pensions paid to University lecturers upon their retirement, the University lecturers are not happy about this and so we are currently on strike.

When you go on strike, you don’t get paid of course. However in some sense the worse thing is the effect upon your students. This term I am teaching projects but I am not teaching actual courses, so it is a lot worse for my colleagues than it is for me because they have to decide whether or not they withdraw the teaching of actual courses, which effects many more students and cannot really be made up for.

So why do the lecturers feel motivated to strike given the adverse effect it will have upon their students?

If you undertake a career in academia, you have to put yourself through years of uncertainty. You have to do a PhD, and then you have to do multiple postdoctoral positions, (at each stage probably moving country in my field). At each stage, many people drop out of the process and only the most stubborn and lucky people (or occasionally, sometimes, the really gifted ones) make it to the place where they can get a permanent position. Their reward for dragging their family and their life around for more than five years? Well it certainly isn’t a huge salary. My PhD students who quit the field for finance or, more recently, big data regularly inform me that they are earning more than me within a year of their leaving academia.

Why then do academics remain academics? Well of course there are advantages to the lifestyle. I get to decide what research I do, I am in a sense my own boss. This sometimes has its own stresses associated with it – I have no inbox, I have to invent my own inbox and sometimes that makes me question whether I am putting myself under enough pressure. However on the whole, I am very lucky to be in that situation. In return I have to teach, which is not a bad thing. I don’t have to teach all the time and on average it is a pleasure to pass on the skills I have developed by doing research to younger people who are motivated by science. I like students a lot, on average they are amazing, intelligent people, spending time with young people is a pleasure (they have a lot of energy which is infectious) and I often see my younger self in them. Often much more than my younger self. What I teach them is what they need to know to become physicists and/or to solve problems, it is often not what they think they need to know and it is based upon my years of research experience. It is very different from what they would get from someone who was purely a teacher.

With the level of skills that I have developed over the years I could have done multiple things, most of which would have resulted in my salary being significantly larger than it is with me being in academia. However generally academics don’t worry about this too much because there are two things apart from the academic freedom I already mentioned which add to the equation when trying to decide whether to make this compromise or not – the pension and job security. Since I have been a permanent academic, I have come to realise that my job is not as secure as I thought it was – a few years ago the College closed down the school of physical sciences and engineering and opened a new school of natural and mathematical sciences in order to get rid of the engineering department. There was a “new” physics department and there was a job for me in it, but the stress that we all went through during that period was extreme and is something I will never forget.

Now they are trying to reduce our pensions, again, having already reduced them a couple of years ago and promising not to do anything with them for a long period of time. At some point, one has to ask oneself, why should academics come to work in the UK?

Of course anybody reading this who believes in the free market would say that I should vote with my feet and leave the country. There are indeed many postdoctoral researchers who would like a “permanent” position in the UK and lets face it, some of them are very good, and they are now cheaper than me, because I’ve been here for a while and I’ve been promoted. However, theoretical physicists, while often being quite naive in a frustrating head-in-the-clouds kind of way are not completely stupid. If the powers that be (Universities UK and University vice chancellors) continue to allow our job security and our pensions to be eroded, the equation will simply not add up in the UK, and people will eventually start to avoid the country. Already academics in the US or Switzerland earn a lot more than we do, even PhD students have started to choose those countries over us on purely financial reasons.

Disputes like the current one don’t motivate those of us trying to do our best to bring glory on our UK Universities to try harder and unless we fight for better packages for our future younger selves, the UK will slowly move towards being a second rate destination for researchers (and don’t get me going on Brexit)…

Week 1 – The STARt of Something New

Hi everyone! We’re Malcolm’s victims this year for the third-year telescope project!


Meet the team:


So, what’s been going on with the telescope project this year? We are currently attempting to calculate Jupiter’s rotational velocity using spectroscopy. For the duration of this project, we will be posting weekly updates on what we’ve been up to, complete with pictures and videos from the world’s most poorly located observatory!


The perfect hours to use the telescope are either extremely late at night or very early in the morning. Our first proper trip up to the telescope required coming in at 5:45am – meaning an early wake up call for everyone. Somehow, it was decided that allowing sleep-deprived young adults functioning almost entirely on coffee near very expensive equipment was a good idea.

The first week mainly revolved around learning how to operate the telescope and its subsequent components, as well as how to collaborate as a team. During that first morning at the telescope we took some readings of Jupiter – we worked on how to find the planet and bring it into focus, how to attach the spectrograph to the telescope correctly, and which sounds made by the camera were “good sounds” vs “bad sounds”. Most importantly, we learned that one cannot always expect good results every night, especially when one tries to use a telescope in central London. It was impossible to get a stable view of Jupiter that night, due in part to the heat haze the city causes, but we were still able to learn a lot about the equipment. Understanding the fundamentals of the technology we are working with and the methods used to evaluate data is crucial to our success with this project, more so than obtaining ideal results from the telescope.

Of course, we were rewarded for our efforts with stunning views of the sun rising over London from the rooftop of Strand Campus (and more coffee – thanks, Malcolm!)
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Dark Matter Day and new camera

On Halloween, someone somewhere decided it was dark matter day.  That’s fine by me, I spend a lot of time worrying about dark matter and anyway, it had been a long time since we had done any outreach activities, so we arranged an evening talk.  Myself, John Ellis and Chris McCabe spoke about Why we need dark matter, What it might be and How we might detect it.  The talks went well and there was a really good question and answer session at the end where there were excellent questions.

The picture on the left is John explaining the different symbols on his tank top, (it is the standard model of particle physics).

Then we got a new camera for the telescope.  I got pretty frustrated at having to fight against the weather and the mount and the dome AND the CCD so I just wanted something where we could get pretty pictures for the UGs (and for me) from time to time.  So I bought a second hand DLSR on ebay, a Canon EOS 600D.  I went up there last night with four undergrads, Alexandra, Evan, Francesca and Jamie and we got it working (Evan and Francesca turned out to be photography people so they were very helpful).  The weather wasn’t great, so we had to look for really bright things, so unfortunately, as usual, we went for the very easy Orion Nebula M42, but we were happy with our first attempt…




Moons of Saturn

It might appear to the casual reader that we’ve been inactive here at the KCL telescope over the past few months.  This is not true, we had a very successful project with UG students over the Spring where they did lots of image processing coding and some fixes to make the dome rotation more stable.  And we’ve had trips to to the roof for UG students, maybe I’ll post some images of those.

More interestingly, this summer I have taken on two students Alexandra Tofful and James Davies who are very good, and they are doing a nice astrophysics project related to dark matter I hope to tell you about later in the summer.  But they have also been helping with the telescope, mainly in the difficult business of getting the auto-tracking working.  When we had no more hair to pull out (didn’t take long in my case) we looked for more fun things to do.  So here is a composite image of the moons of saturn


“Composite” sounds like cheating and it is really, but its only two images on top of each other, a really short exposure to get saturn and a really long exposure (450 times longer) where saturn is massively over-exposed to get the moons.  We got four tonight, Tethys, Rhea and Dione which are all quite small (about a hundreth the mass of the moon) and frankly not very  very interesting unless you are very into these things.  However we also got the mighty Titan – TWICE the mass of the moon with a thick atmosphere and hydrocarbon seas and a possible location of life outside the Earth.

I hope to have more fun/cool pictures soon but if there aren’t, rest assured we are messing around with dodgy USB connections and remote telescope control and trying to find guide stars amongst the terrible London pollution etc.