Christmas pickles

It’s the time of year during which everyone follows some kind of tradition or rituals, whether it be conscious or not. Depending on which country you’re in, seasonal activities may include several (or all) of the following activities:

  • the ritual Christmas shopping rush
  • the Christmas party at work
  • putting up an advent calendar
  • lighting candles on an Adventskranz
  • decorating the tree and maybe the entire house
  • baking biscuits/cookies
  • putting up lights

… etc.

So far so hectic stressful good.

Having a somewhat difficult relationship with these types of activities myself, however (I am always to late with things and frequently only get stuff ready at the very last minute – I was going to post this earlier but had to wrap the presents, the last of which I got this morning…), I’ve often wondered about them: where do such traditions come from, anyway? Who thought them up? And – most importantly – why do we seem to completely forget the origin of many (or most?) of our traditions?

Two Christmas carols traditionally sung in Germany use melodies that go with very different lyrics (and are sung for very different occasions!) in other countries:

O Tannenbaum
Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann

Ok, maybe melodies are not the best example. So then maybe look at these two photos and tell me which one is the Hefezopf, which is traditionally made in Germany, Austria and some areas of Switzerland for (get this) the central feast in the Christian liturgical year, and which one is the Challah:

And it’s said that the traditional German Adventskranz goes back to the 19th century, when it was “invented” by a guy called Johann Hinrich Wichern, the founder of an orphanage and (still existing – I know because I went there!) school in Hamburg. I don’t know whether this is true – but in any case, I’m pretty sure Wichern may have put together some existing traditions. Hanukkah lights anyone?

It’s fun to see how one tradition inspires another. But the innocent joy of observing such influences is lost when seeing how unaware many (or even most?) Germans are of many of “their” customs going back to Jewish traditions. It’s important that we stop and ask ourselves why we do certain things. It helps to remember, and it makes us aware that pretty much all we do is part of something bigger.

And then there’s the Christmas Pickle.

Translated from Wikipedia (as you’ve noticed, I’m relying heavily on Wikipedia for this post):

A Christmas Pickle is a glass Christmas tree ornament shaped like a pickle. Hiding a Christmas Pickle in the tree is a tradition in the United States. The pickle is somewhat hard to find due to its green colour. Whoever finds the Christmas Pickle in the tree receives an additional present.[…]

The origin of this custom is unclear. In the US it is said that it is an old German custom. However, the custom is unknown in most German-speaking regions. It is unclear whether the Christmas Pickles that can be found in some German-speaking places can be traced back to a local tradition or whether they are based on taking over this custom from the US.

Until this morning, when they talked about this on the radio, I had never heard of a „Christmas Pickle”. I checked with my mother: she hadn’t either, and she emphatically added that she had never seen a glass ornament shaped like a pickle on any of the many Christmas markets she had visited on her annual trip with friends either (among which were the markets in Munich, Salzburg, Oldendorf, Cologne, to name a few).

But who knows, maybe give it a few years and we’ll have a pickle in our tree. I’ll be watching this pickle thing in any case.

Until then: Merry Christmas or whatever you’re into!

Posted in society | 9 Comments

Happy birthday OT!

Dear OT,

I wish you all the best for your first birthday. I apologise that this is coming a bit later than the congratulations from my fellow OT-ters (otters?), but it’s been that kind of day. And that kind of week. And, kind of, that kind of year. And in a way, it may be appropriate that I am a bit late – after all, I was also late in joining when you first got going.


You’re turning one today, which is – it seems to me – a good age for a site set up by a group of bloggers as dissimilar as us here on OT. My husband also had a birthday this week (it was a round one – he’s in denial). Here’s a picture of him around age 18, which was a very long time ago indeed and which kind of shows how much can change in a lifetime:

We’ll see what the next year brings for you, OT. In any case, here’s to you.

Posted in Silliness | 8 Comments

Where photons will fly

Today was one of those work days that makes working at the European XFEL fun, despite all challenges and frustrations. Around lunchtime, I found myself standing in one of the photon tunnels of the facility.

Photon tunnel from the future Experimental Hall

We were giving a tour of our biggest construction site to external visitors. I was thoroughly distracted from my growling stomach.

Photon tunnel wall (1)

As the name says: when the facility starts operating in a few years, this is the tunnel one of the photon beams will run through. When you look closely, you can see that every piece of concrete wall material is connected via a little metal bit to every other piece of wall. This is to turn the entire tunnel wall into a Faraday cage, to prevent any electromagnetic contamination of the outside that could be caused by the extremely high energy beam. I should mention that all tunnels are at a depth of 6 bis 38 meters below the surface.

The tunnel boring progress is updated frequently on our website. If you’re seriously interested in the tunneling itself (it really is cool stuff), there’s an interesting short film at the bottom of the German part of the site – this is because the information is primarily aimed at the neighbours surrounding (and living above) the construction area.

Turning around and heading back into the future Experimental Hall of the facility, we almost got squished by a flying backhoe.

Fly, little backhoe! (1)

Well, not quite.

Posted in exciting science, Photos | 9 Comments

Pretty face

Remember this?

I knew I took the wrong turn...

This beautiful photo of a mummified seal, which was taken by my dear husband in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, was seen by Andy Foote, a marine mammal researcher who for some reason happened to read my blog over at the place we don’t talk about. Andy used the shot to illustrate a soon-to-be-published paper.

He recently sent my husband a pre-print, saying that many people had already complimented him on the picture.

Just goes to show: pretty faces are always appreciated.

Posted in Antarctic stuff, Photos, Silliness | 7 Comments

Casual conversations

Last Thursday, I came across a casual conversation in my facebook “news” feed. I’ll call the two participants A and B.

It all started with A posting a link about a rather large number of people “fleeing Rome” last Wednesday because, back in 1915, some seismologist had apparently made a prediction about a catastrophic earthquake happening on that date. Everything else followed from there.

Rome, Italy (Credit: NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS and the U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team)

B: They might wonder if it’s a coincidence that the earthquake happened in Spain instead.

A: yes indeed!

B: This is probably dumb because I don’t know enough of the science to comment, but if the position of a distant planet can perturb the orbit of a gas giant orbiting close to its star, to the point that it rotates in the opposite direction, then why couldn’t certain alignments generate forces that might affect plate movements? Is it that such calculations can’t be that specific because of other variables?

A: You have to compare the force of gravity (F=ma) in the two situations to know the answer.

I guess for the first situation, you’re thinking about this? I would need to look at the research paper to get their simulation details, but the reason is still gravity.

For the second situation, add up the gravitational forces and see how little effect on Earth that is. Remember the gas giants are pretty far from the Earth, and there is that r^2 in the denominator.

Roughly one day later:

A: This hot jupiters orbiting retrograde topic was one of those discussed at our Friday morning science meeting… it’s far more interesting than I first thought. Yes, it’s a gravitational effect, but it’s a subtle one arising from …the gravitational forces for the several interacting bodies. If you expand the interacting forces, there is a primary r(distance between the bodies)^2 term plus a less strong r^4 term and a less strong r^8 term and less strong higher order terms. The r^8 term which they call the octopole term (I hope I’m understanding correctly) over time adds up so that every once in a while it cases large changes in the eccentricity of a planet’s orbit, which causes the planet to change its orbit and become retrograde. It almost looks to me like it’s a chaotic effect.

Then our morning discussion expanded to discuss hot Jupiters generally and the enormous just released Kepler data set. When hot Jupiters were first found by the radial velocity method 15 years ago, those types of planets were found everywhere, but that was due to the method because they are the easiest to find. Then all of the theoreticians scrambled to try to explain them, and it wasn’t easy, and they still can’t explain every aspect. Now the Kepler data has shown that hot Jupiters are in fact rare, and not only that, our own solar system doesn’t look like the typical ones in the Kepler data either. We should have more terrestrial planets at Mercury’s orbit, and we seem to need another ice giant (Neptune-like) to explain Mercury. If our solar system lost the ice-giant, it could be anywhere in the galaxy by this time. In fact there should be a lot of ejected free-floating planets around from similar scenarios all over the galaxy.

Summation: Scientists’ planet formation models could be completely wrong based on what is seen in the Kepler data.

B: Thank you, A. That’s juicy stuff. Tonight I skipped ahead to disc 7 in the Filippenko course, which begins with “The Formation of Planetary Systems,” so this is timely information. Astronomy seems to be on fast forward!

There are so many things in this conversation that I absolutely adore – I don’t really know where to start. First, there’s simply the fact that it’s possible to stumble across such a “casual conversation” about serious science on facebook on a weekday morning. I love it. Then there are the explanations A is giving B. Even I can understand them (at least I think so… kind of). There’s the twist where A goes away for a little while, thinking about all of it, and comes across new fodder for the conversation which she then brings back to explain further and expand on the topic. Then there’s the little jolt of surprise to hear that, apparently, planets can go missing. (And that there may be a whole lot of missing planets flying around, apparently. I thought this only happened in Doctor Who.)

And, last but not least, there’s the statement at the end:

Scientists’ planet formation models could be completely wrong based on what is seen in the Kepler data.

Honestly, I have no idea why so many people think scientists are only happy when they’ve figured something out. What gets us really excited is when we realize that what we thought we had figured out turns out to be partially – or completely – wrong. The possibilities!…..

Anyway, another casual conversation this week, which in this case I was involved in, was a chat over dinner with one of the directors of the European Space Agency. As you would, we started asking him about the Gaia satellite.

Gaia will be the most accurate optical astronomy satellite ever built.

Gaia satellite (Credits: ESA - C. Carreau)

What will Gaia do? Some highlights from the mission summary:

  • Gaia will conduct a census of a thousand million (yes, that’s one billion) stars in our Galaxy, monitoring each of its target stars about 70 times over a five-year period. It will precisely chart their positions, distances, movements, and changes in brightness.
  • It will map the motions of stars, which encode their origins and evolution.
  • Gaia will provide the detailed physical properties of each star observed, revealing luminosity, temperature, gravity and composition.
  • It will repeatedly measure the positions of all objects down to magnitude 20 (about 400 000 times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye). Variable stars, supernovae, other transient celestial events and minor planets will all be detected and catalogued to this faint limit.
  • Gaia will measure the position of all objects brighter than magnitude 15 (4000 times fainter than the naked eye limit) to an accuracy of 24 microarcseconds (comparable to measuring the diameter of a human hair at a distance of 1000 km.)
  • The distances of the nearest stars will be measured to an accuracy of 0.001%.

And this is what we’ll get from it:

  • Gaia’s main goal is to clarify the origin and evolution of our galaxy.
  • It will test theories of star formation and evolution.
  • It will probe the distribution of dark matter.
  • It is expected to discover hundreds of thousands of new celestial objects, such as extra-solar planets and failed stars called brown dwarfs. Within our own Solar System, Gaia should also observe hundreds of thousands of asteroids.
  • Amongst other results relevant to fundamental physics, Gaia will follow the bending of starlight by the Sun’s gravitational field, as predicted by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and therefore directly observe the structure of space-time.
  • In this spectacular image, observations using infrared light and X-ray light see through the obscuring dust and reveal the intense activity near the galactic core. Note that the center of the galaxy is located within the bright white region to the right of and just below the middle of the image. The entire image width covers about one-half a degree, about the same angular width as the full moon.

    Gaia will measure the distance even of stars near the Galactic centre, some 30 000 light-years away, to within an accuracy of 20%.

    Yes, I was also wondering who will process all that data, and where. It will be downloaded from the satellite daily and analysed by an international group of scientists located in different countries, the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC). There will be intermittent releases, but final results are not expected to be published until 2020.

    !!!Imagine all the stuff that’s going to come up over the next decade!!!

    As B said in that discussion up there: astronomy does seem to be on “fast forward” – so much so that even a down-to-earth biological oceanographer like me could easily find herself starting to get excited about it…

Posted in exciting science, International collaboration | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Galley bathroom reminder

This beautifully handcrafted sign hangs as a reminder (and maybe a warning?) on the door of the toilet that is located right next to the galley at Palmer Station, Antarctica:

No number 2!

Photo credit: Bob Farrell

Apparently, it’s not a plumbing problem – it’s the proximity.

Posted in Antarctic stuff, Silliness | 2 Comments

Long, Slow Distance

First, I want to talk about cheese.

Cheese School 101
Some cheese, yesterday.

I heard the term “big cheese” used in reference to a person for the first time in the mid-nineties, when I moved to the UK. Of course I wondered why on earth you would call someone important that. After all, a cheese is not exactly the most impressive or awe-inspiring thing to be compared to (not to mention that it smells really bad sometimes). Then, recently, I thought I’d found the explanation.

For the first time, I’ve been told that I am “too young” to do a (big cheese type of) job I am very interested in and which several (big cheese type of) people who really should know what they’re talking about have told me I could most certainly do, and probably do well. When turned down, of course I asked for an explanation of what exactly the reference to my age was supposed to mean in terms of actual qualifications for the position. Among the depressingly little that was forthcoming, two comments stuck out: one was a supposed lack of “authority”, the other was a lack of “maturity”. (Note: the circumstances and situation made it very clear that this was directly in reference to my age, not my personality or other factors.)

Yes, maturity can definitely be a mark of quality – or even value – in a big cheese. Unfortunately, the (very interesting) possible origin of the term given by the Oxford Dictionary somehow doesn’t fit with this explanation…:

Big cheese: informal an important person. [1920s: cheese, probably via Urdu from Persian čīz ‘thing’: the phrase the cheese was used earlier to mean ‘first-rate’ (i.e. the thing)]

Maybe I spent just that little bit too much time during my – let’s call them “professionally formative years” in the US, where things are a bit different in this respect, but I still firmly believe that what counts is simply whether a person can do the job – and not whether they are of an age that is perceived to be “mature enough” for a position. After all, neither maturity nor authority come by themselves, but you get old automatically, don’t you? To put it differently: not every old cheese fits for every occasion – and, on the other hand, a younger cheese is sometimes just what you need. (By the way, I reckon I’m a medium cheddar.)

Now to Long, Slow Distance (also called “LSD”): this is a classic training concept to build up fitness when you start running or to get back into shape after a running break. I haven’t run seriously for a long time because I prioritized work in the last couple of years and only had time for the occasional {sigh} “jog”.

But now I am starting to run again. It’s a slog, but there’s still enough basic fitness left that I can do the longer distances that I love so much. I’ve never been the type to slow down on hills (when it gets tough) – I speed up, probably mostly because I want to get past it (= get it done). And of course the training effect is much greater on the hill. Plus I just love a challenge. When I run, I don’t mind getting passed by people who are clearly fitter than me. But I would mind if someone tripped me up or held me back, or if I had to run with ankle and wrist weights while others do not, so I don’t get a chance to win the race – or at least do as well in it as possible.

To use this analogy for my work situation: professionally, I am very fit – I can honestly say that I’ve never slowed down in that part of my life (as I have with running). So, in that respect, I really don’t see the need for a whole lot of long, slow distance work.

I had been thinking very hard for over three months whether I should even apply for the position because – naturally! – I was fully aware of the implications and politics. I finally decided to apply because I felt (and am still convinced) that I am well qualified, considering all factors involved (and being fully aware of the obstacles – hey – I didn’t just hatch from an egg yesterday).

Now, I do realize that I am not the first human being ever to be turned down for a position they were qualified for. And it’s not the first position of some significance I applied for where serious politics were at play. But I’ve certainly never been called too young before, and it was actually quite shocking – and surprisingly insulting – to be called this as an adult, professional being (and a parent – yes, I do want to mention that).

I will be 39 years old in three months. US presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy were only a few years older at their inauguration. On a somewhat more modest scale, the prime minister of the German State I live in is only one year older than me. Not to mention that, if I was out there in the real world – or in any other industry besides science – people would actually say that I am getting on a bit…

On a final note: it hasn’t been easy for me to write this, and I am more than a bit nervous of any possible implications it might have. As you may have guessed, this is not even the whole story and I had to decide what to talk about and what to keep to myself.

Why am I writing about this then? Maybe it’s my heritage – a healthy stoicism of the hanseatic variety (I was born and grew up in Hamburg) paired with a pronounced stubbornness from Lower Saxony (my mother’s side), which may currently be dominating slightly since that’s where I live these days. Of course, while the former might be helpful on occasion – if only to sit things out with a straight face – the latter may not be the best trait to have if you want to avoid getting labelled a troublemaker. But I figure that, if fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger and recent UKRC life-time award winner Athene Donald can write about certain things that really bother her, then so can I (I hope). Someone needs to talk about this stuff.

So, thanks for reading this. Please pass on the link if you feel it’s worth it – I don’t think I’ll pimp this post all that much myself for various reasons.

Posted in career, Keep on fighting, science management | 10 Comments

Planes, trains and meeting rooms

I find myself traveling quite a bit again these days. I used to travel a lot for meetings to discuss and plan research cruises when I worked for the USAP, then not so much during my rather brief stint in science publishing. Now it’s back to a relatively busy travel schedule.

Then my travel was mainly in the US – sometimes to the East Coast, sometimes to the West Coast, depending on which large US oceanographic research institute happened to have the lead in the project I was supporting. Now I am going to places like Paris, Brussels, Grenoble and… Culham in Oxfordshire.)

Regardless of where I’m going though, what I have never been very good at is planning in enough time for some sightseeing and, generally, the good things in life.

Hey little guy - sorry that I didn't even come to say Hi last week!

My PhD project involved a lot of traveling to and from Chile – the USAP supports work around the Antarctic Peninsula from Punta Arenas. Did I make time for a tour of amazing Patagonia? Barely: together with a few other PhD students and post docs, we squeezed in a 1.5 day trip to Torres del Paine.

We saw most of the sights from relatively far away, through the windows of an old bus (Cordillera del Paine)

My excuses at the time were my extremely tight field work schedule, which involved a turn-around of only two months in the lab (at a maximum) between research cruises, and a thin wallet.

So I get to see airports, planes, trains, metros… and meeting rooms all over the world. Sometimes it’s fun (in an – admittedly – sick way) to compare the different buildings and meeting rooms: who has a fancy new one with all the latest equipment and who is stuck in the seventies or eighties concerning the interior is not always predictable and sometimes surprising in an amusing kind of way. Let’s just say that just because someone is sending rockets into space doesn’t necessarily mean that the air conditioning unit in the meeting room has to be functioning reliably.

On my return travel from such trips, I regularly resolve to plan the next trip with more time. But I never do, although my excuses have changed over time (the biggest one for a while now has been a swift return to my family). Which doesn’t keep me from being jealous of people who manage to combine business and pleasure in a more productive way though…

Posted in International collaboration, Silliness | 9 Comments

The Power of Research

Two days ago, on 23 February, a strategy browser game called “Power of research” was launched. Development of the game was supported by the European Commission with FP7 funding. It is supposed to inspire young Europeans to pursue scientific careers and disseminate interesting up-to-date scientific information.

From the press release:

Players assume the role of scientists working in a virtual research environment that replicates the situations that scientists have to deal with in the real world. The game […] is expected to create a large community of more than 100,000 players who will be able to communicate in real time via a state of the art interface. […]

“Power of Research” players can engage in “virtual” health research projects, by performing microscopy, protein isolation and DNA experiments, publishing research results, participating in conferences, managing high tech equipment and staff or request funding – all tasks of real researchers. The decisive game elements are communication, collaboration and competition: players can compete against each other in real time or collaborate to become a successful virtual researcher, win scientific awards or become the leader of a research institute.

The game connects the players to the real world. It is based on up-to-date science content and players work on real world research topics inspired by the FP7 health research programme that will be regularly updated. Popular science events, real research institutes, universities and European health research projects form part of the game. Players also have access to a knowledge platform, where they can search in a virtual library, zoom-into real scientific images and learn more about Nobel Prize laureates. European science institutions and hospitals will have the possibility to contribute to the game and provide details about their research. In a later phase of the game, players will also have a virtual hospital environment, where the game will consist in bringing results of research to virtual patients in the form of drugs and therapies.

(I love the statement “The game connects the players to the real world.”)

So shall we do a reality check? Who wants to play?

Posted in Outreach | 10 Comments

Lights, camera, action – or: when science goes *BANG*

David Bradley shared a link the other day that cost us a couple of hours already this weekend – he pointed us to the periodic table of videos by the wonderful people at Nottingham University. This is a series of videos explaining and demonstrating the properties of elements. These really are fun for all ages since the demonstrations often – predictably – involve burning things and setting off explosions. It’s obvious that the presenters also have fun with this when you see them giggling like schoolboys, for example in the Sodium video. Pete is definitely one of my son’s favourite characters now. (There’s plenty more excellent stuff on the Nottingham Science Channel.)


After we watched our way through Hydrogen, Helium, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Carbon, Sulfur, Chlorine, Calcium, Sodium and Lithium (I probably forgot one), we eventually got to Beryllium. About half way through, a link popped up promising more on an experiment mentioned in the video that was carried out at the synchrotron at MAX-lab in Lund, Sweden. Naturally, given where I work, I had to see this. And I have to say that this is so far the most engaging description of an experiment at a synchrotron I’ve seen.

Surface chemistry experiment at MAXlab in Lund, Sweden

Stephen Curry also filmed an experiment last year – his was at the Diamond Light Source. This also gives a nice impression of work at a synchrotron (…and of what it would be like to be grilled by Stephen if he’s your professor).

But I like the older video from late 2008 more, where Stephen explains his work in a bit more detail.

Stephen Curry on his work on Foot and Mouth Disease and X-ray crystallography

If you ask me, these types of videos are the way to go if you want to explain your science. Blogs are for everything else around that.

Posted in Outreach, Silliness | 2 Comments