Lab in a Laptop

The classic view of the scientist is, well, a male who has a beard and crazy hair, wears a labcoat, wears goggles, holds test-tubes, and generally looks like exactly what you’re thinking. This is an image that comes to mind from an early age. In fact, you should check out the wikipedia article on the ‘Draw a scientist‘ test carried out by Chambers (1983). Though dated, the research question and results were telling. A fun and ongoing follow up to this experiment is done at FermiLab, a massive particle accelerator located in Chicago. In their version of the test they ask visiting school groups, who are touring the facility on field trips, to ‘draw a scientist’ when they first arrive and before seeing FermiLab. The children are then asked to ‘draw a scientist’ again when they leave, after having seen what type of work goes on there, and having met the people who do it. Here is one result from a kid named Jesse.

Tangent aside, the classic view of a scientist is someone who wears a labcoat and works in a ‘lab.’ This is certainly not the reality, and I am a perfect example of that (though I do have a beard). I am an astronomer, which is a scientist who studies space. For this I need no test tubes, I need no goggles, I wear no labcoat, I use no chemicals, I mix no solutions; however, I DO have a lab. But my lab is very different than the one you may be thinking of.

A lab is place where scientists can create controlled environments in which to test a question they have. As an astronomer, my lab is my laptop. In it are all the tools I need: word processing software, calculators, image reduction software (like IRAF), analysis packages (like those in IDL or python), and a myriad of other tools and programs I invariably use or curse.

Since all I need to make my research happen is my laptop, I can do my work from many places. Here are a few examples:


This is my desk at York University where I work most of the time. While I can have my laptop anywhere, actually being at school helps me work. It is where my supervisor is, my textbooks (though available online), papers I have printed and made notes on, and other things of this nature. It is also where I am best connected to the school servers that hold all my data. More on that later. 



When we have meetings or colloquia in our department, I can bring my laptop along and run programs or make notes.



This was my desk in my previous apartment. ‘Working from home’ includes both staying home for the day instead of going into the office, as well as pulling longer hours. Meaning, working at the office during the day, coming home for dinner, and then working more hours at home. This is more usual during busy times (like telescope proposal season, for instance).



I have been lucky enough to attend a few conferences and workshops throughout my graduate career. This is SciCoder, a work shop that runs out of New York University; SciCoder teaches astronomers how to program more efficiently. Seriously, astronomers need to be very good programmers.



I have also been lucky enough to travel to a few telescopes. This is the MDM observatory at Kitt Peak, Arizona…

photo (1)…and this is the Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. At the telescopes there are many places for you to set up and do some work while a) waiting for your data to collect, astronomical exposure times can be as long as 25 minutes, or b) waiting for your night, it can be prudent to arrive an night early to adjust your sleep schedule.

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Most recently, my newest lab spot is here. At the counter in my apartment.

The cool thing about my laptop as my lab, is that I don’t really need to have anything actually installed on my computer. I use my laptop as portal to the campus servers which house all the software and data. All I need is a secure shell and an internet connection and I instantly have everything I need. WIth the increase in WIFI at various public places, as well as the ability to tether internet through my phone, I’m never without.

Having my lab with me everywhere I go has its ups and downs. On the upside, I have my work with me everywhere, and therefore can always work if I need to. A chemist, biologist, or experimental physicist cannot bring their work anywhere, and will have to spend lots of time at lab on campus. The downside is I have my work with me everywhere. Sometimes it makes me feel guilty when I’m at home and not working on something I should have done. I personally think the benefits outweigh the downsides. I can work from a coffee shop, my home, my office, an airport, a park, public transit, and anywhere else you can think of.


Completing the Tangent:

A scientist is a lot more than the white labcoat and crazy hair stereo-type we all know very well. Most importantly, scientists are not just about science. Scientists are people! Science is their work, but they have lives outside of it. Check out the ‘This is what a scientist looks like‘ tumblr; this project is designed to change the perception of who and what scientists do.

The rest of the trip

After my observing run at the Palomar Observatory (check my posts about that here), I headed into San Diego to hang out with my brother for the weekend. We accomplished a lot. In order to best capture what I did, I made a map. Click the link below to look at the places I went in more detail.

———-> Jesse’s Palomar-SanDiego Trip <———-

(here’s a screenshot of the map)

First thing we did was head from Palomar Mountain to Sunset Cliffs, in San Diego. We JUST missed sunset, but it was still beautiful.

Then it was to Ocean Beach for Fish Tacos, apparently one of the foods that San Diego is known for. They were awesome. The next day we went to Coronado Beach, which is on the semi-island Coronado in the bay of San Diego. Apparently one of the best beaches in North America, was great to dip my feet again.

This pic is looking out towards the bottom end of Point Loma, from Coronado Beach.

One of the crappiest things about Canadian winter is that I have to put my motorcycle away. The weather is both too cold and too dangerous to drive in. They don’t have that problem in California. My brother owns a Yamaha motorcycle! I took this up into the California Mountains for some of the best twisty’s I’ve ever ridden. Scenery was amazing, the bike was amazing, and we got some good apple pie in Julian, CA (see the map above for the route I took).

Great trip. Thanks brother!

Palomar Observatory: Day 4

When observing at Palomar Observatory, observers stay in a placed called ‘The Monestary,’ which is a little house about a 7 min walk from the ‘scope. It got this name because anyone entering the Monestary during the day must be very quiet! Observers return from the telescope after sunrise and go straight to bed, they do NOT like to be woken up! Especially if you’re on a run that lasts many nights and is in the winter (much longer nights). Every ounce of sleep is crucial. I found the Monestary to be so welcoming, it had a very strong family feel, as if I was an invited guest at a friend’s house. Very comfortable and VERY good food! [Every night before observing I’d eat too much, and then complain about it]

Both our observing nights were wrought with clouds! Night 1 started out with decent weather, but clouded over quickly. Unfortunately the seeing was really good that night*[See below]. Our second night was completely clouded out, and even had some rain! Not a single photon from the sky landed on our CCDs. Them’s the breaks.

You have to see the silver linings when you have nights like that. For instance, a great part of observing at Palomar was that we had a telescope operator with us the entire night. This means we didn’t have to concern ourselves with driving the telescope (which can be difficult), we only worried about the data we were taking. Here’s what the telescope operator’s console looks like:

I wanted to put another image of the Hale 5m, just because I’m in awe of its hugeness

Here’s me sitting at data console, waiting out the clouds!

While the nights we had weren’t the greatest weather, we did get some data, and just as important, I learned a lot. I hope to move forward, using what I’ve learned for the next round of telescope proposals!


*** In astronomy ‘seeing’ is a measurement of how still or blurry the night is. All stars are point sources, meaning they are very tiny dots with no discernible size. But when the light from a star enters our atmosphere, the tiny dots become blurry depending on the thickness and turbulence of the atmosphere. If you have really good seeing that means the atmosphere is not messing up your image as much. Therefore, you can have really good seeing, but still be clouded out.

Palomar Observatory: Day 3

Our observing program runs on the nights of 14-15 November 2012; our proposal information can be found here. Paola and I spent the last two nights acclimatizing to the night-time schedule, watching the telescope/instrument in action, and working on our own observing program. Heading over to the telescope in the afternoon, though, was foreboding….clouds….many of them.

The telescope we are using is the Hale 5 meter telescope, named after George Hale (a really cool astronomer), at the Palomar Observatory. The primary mirror of Hale is 5 meters in diameter, which amounts to a collecting area 70x greater than the 60 cm telescope at York University! This thing is big, as demonstrated by me standing underneath it:

Currently, Hale is the 19th largest optical reflecting telescope in the world, but between 1948-1976 Hale was the largest. Adding to its fame, Hale saw its first light under the direction of Edwin Hubble, who observed NGC 2261 (aka Hubble’s variable nebula).

The instrument we are using, a spectrograph, is called ‘Double Spectrometer.’ What it does is take the light focused by the telescope and breaks it up into its colours (just like a a prism breaks up light into a rainbow). Looking at the spectrum of colours of an object (in our case black holes), instead of just a picture of it allows you to learn much more. Here’s what DoubleSpec looks like:

…..DoubleSpec is about as big as me! haha.

Paola and I tried really hard to glean some data out of the beginning of the night, but the clouds came in quickly. Here’s the control station (and Paola!):

The clouds that plagued us all night sure made for a pretty sunrise in the east.

Image taken from the catwalk outside the dome, at approximately 10 meters high.

Palomar Observatory: Day 2

I got a little closer to the Hale 5m scope! You can see how big the dome is here

During the night, we weren’t observing, but we were furiously preparing for everything! Here is a work station I was using in the data room. The data room is very warm, the mountain drops to near zero at night! There is snow on the ground!

finally acclimatized to the night schedule, I walked home at 6am after the dome closed and the team went to bed. 

Wish us luck for tonight, the weather isn’t looking great..