CASCA 2017: conference report

I’m writing this on the way back from Edmonton and the 2017 annual general meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society, also known as #CASCA2017. The meeting was hosted by the University of Alberta Department of Physics and took place on-campus. There were about 200 attendees, which is pretty typical for a CASCA meeting (the entire membership of the society is about 525 people). The complete program for the conference is here. CASCA meetings have two…

Continue reading


Compact objects in Michigan 5

Last Friday I went with a couple of our grad students to the Compact Objects in Michigan 5 meeting. This is a small, one-day scientific meeting designed to give students and postdocs the opportunity to give talks about research related to “compact objects”: black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs. In previous years it’s been held at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University; this year our colleagues at Michigan State University hosted. I…

Continue reading


Academic CV Tricks

I’ve been reading a lot of academic curricula vita (CVs) recently. By “CV” I mean the academic-everything-you’ve-ever-done document, not the one or two page please-hire-me document that is called a resume in North America but a CV elsewhere. (This page from UBC covers the differences nicely. See also my earlier post on converting a CV to a resume.) I’ve been reading CVs because I’m on committees involved in faculty searches and scientist awards. This means…

Continue reading


Genetic algorithms and galactic empires

I had my most-ever-popular tweet last week: Don't see a lot of arxiv papers with "humanity's ultimate goal of a galactic empire" in the abstract but here's one: https://t.co/bqhw2xixbm— Pauline Barmby (@PBarmby) February 2, 2017 The “galactic empire” bit obviously caught some attention! So what is the paper by Fung, Lewis, and Wu of the University of Sydney, titled “The optimisation of low-acceleration interstellar relativistic rocket trajectories using genetic algorithms” all about? Figuring out how…

Continue reading


What is astronomy good for, anyway?

Big universities have staff members whose jobs it is to help professors get grants — whether by finding the right programs for their research, introducing researchers to potential partners, or sorting out the seemingly-endless paperwork. These folks often have graduate degrees and research backgrounds, so they know what research is. Like most people, they have a general idea of what astronomers study: stars and planets and stuff like that. But we often have to try…

Continue reading


The strange world of the NSERC Discovery Grant

It’s 2017, which means that I have to start thinking about submitting an NSERC Discovery Grant proposal in the fall. For Canadian astronomers, this is a pretty high-stakes operation. These grants are our research-funding bread-and-butter since there aren’t many alternative sources of funding: there are no regular sources of funding from our space agency, for example. It’s a big source of anxiety (for me at least) because a Discovery Grant is more like a hybrid…

Continue reading


More galaxies!

Back in October, there were a number of news stories with headlines like “The Universe Has 10 Times More Galaxies Than Scientists Thought”, “We Were Very Wrong About the Number of Galaxies in the Universe” “Two Trillion!” –The New Hubble Estimate of the Number of Galaxies in the Universe These stories were based on this press release which in turn describes the paper “The Evolution of Galaxy Number Density at z < 8 and its…

Continue reading


Please don’t be a DOOFAAS

If you haven’t seen the Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms Site (or DOOFAAS) produced by Canadian astronomer Glen Petitpas, go have a look. It’s pretty hilarious. It doesn’t yet list “H0 Lenses in COSMOGRAIL’s Wellspring” (H0LiCOW) which, I have to say, still makes me scratch my head. In astronomy we like to make up names for our projects, be they instruments, telescopes, surveys, or programs. Often these are clever or silly; usually they are…

Continue reading


Tips for short conference talks

There is lots of advice out there on how to give a good scientific talk. But less is available on how to give a good short talk, where by short I mean 15 minutes or less. Non-astronomers might be surprised to learn that contributed talks at American Astronomical Society meetings are only 5 minutes long! I have seen many of these go poorly. Here are some things to consider, based on a seminar I gave…

Continue reading


How hard is it to get a PhD in astronomy?

I’m not much of a Redditor, but my spouse pointed me to this post which asks, effectively, “could an average person get a PhD in Astronomy if they worked hard?” My answer: Yes. You do not need to be a super-genius to get an astronomy PhD, but you do need to know what you’re getting into. Here I am very loosely defining the kind of “smarts” needed for astronomy as “ability to understand a complex…

Continue reading