Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Trip to Boston

Boston, MA (June 7, 2014)

The Summer Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, this year, was in Boston, Massachusetts. This was the perfect opportunity for me to return to the city where I lived for 12 years, before moving all the way to the middle of the country. The meeting was at the Westin Hotel in Copley, which is close to the Hancock tower, the tall blue building in photo above, right at the center of the city.

Sara Seager in Plenary
Summer AAS meetings tend to be smaller than the January meetings, yet there were almost 1,200 astronomers in town. The format of the meeting is the usual for the AAS: a number of plenary sessions spread through the day with parallel sessions in-between, where shorter talks were grouped thematically and delivered in smaller rooms. Two of my students were giving talks in the parallel sessions: one about his search of brown dwarf companions hiding in the periphery of extrasolar planetary systems, and the other about measuring the efficiency of star formation across the Galaxy. While the parallel session talks are delivered as brief "science" updates and tend to be very technical, the plenary talks are intended for a general astronomy audience, and tend to provide a broad overview of the field for non specialists. They are fun to attend. The picture on the left shows Sara Seager, extrasolar planets superstar from MIT, talking about the characterization of planetary systems found by the Kepler telescope, and the perspectives offered by future missions. Very timely, as the continuation of Kepler itself (the K2 mission) has just been approved by NASA (albeit at the expenses of other, equally useful, space telescopes). K2 is a cool hack: Kepler was designed to work with three reactions wheels, gyroscope-like devices that allow the precise pointing necessary to achieve its legendary photometric accuracy. Down to two wheels after malfunctions, Kepler was due to be retired until clever engineers figured that they could use the solar radiation with the remaining reaction wheels as a stabilizing force, the same way a sailboat use head-wind to coast against the current. Devilishly smart: it is rocket science after all. The K2 mission will operate differently than before, and its focus will be more on the stars hosting planets, rather than finding more planets like Earth: this is however as important as the search for extrasolar planetary systems, as pointed out by my Iowa State colleague Steve Kawaler in his excellent and entertaining plenary talk.

The meeting finished on Thursday, so I spent the last day of the week visiting the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), which was my workplace for the 12 years I lived in Boston. It was nice to see everybody, including the part of my group that is in California (also in Boston for the meeting), and one of my graduate students there with a fellowship to finish her thesis. As a plus, I discovered that some of my CfA friends, including my old boss, had been converted into manga characters, as a part of a collaboration between US institutions and the Tohoku University in Sendai. How cool is that?

Fenway Park
I will talk more, in future posts, about the plenary talks at the AAS and my CfA visit. Let me finish this long overdue entry with a comment about the photos. As you have certainly noticed these are cameraphone photos, shot with my iPhone 5s, and processed in-phone with Snapseed. I didn't bring my "real" camera (the Nikon 700) with me, as I often do in trips that are mainly work. This trip was actually borderline, as I stayed in town for the weekend after the meeting, and went around shooting along the Charles river (top and bottom photo) and in the neighborhood of the hotel (which was just behind Fenway Park, the famed and sacred home field of the Boston Red Sox, photo on the right). But I have already amassed a quite large selection of Boston quality photos in the years I have lived there, so it was fun just walking around happily snapping snapshots with a phone, layering artsy textures in accordance to the mood I felt while I was pressing the shutter. After 5 years in the corn fields, one forgets the diversity of life in the large human conglomerates of the East coast cities. I have been frequently to Chicago, but it is different. One ends up living in the suburbs, and the suburbs of Chicago are not different than the suburbs of a midwestern university town. Boston (and Cambridge where I worked), had a unique pulse, which is difficult to replicate in the middle of the country. Or maybe I am just getting nostalgic?

Boston, MA (June 7, 2014)

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