How to make an Astrophysicist

ad astra per aspera


Hannah Dalgleish

Travel Tips

Travelling on the Cheap

One of the questions I get asked a lot, is how on earth do I manage to travel so much with hardly any money? As a result, I thought that it might be useful to write all of my tips down as concisely as possible, even though it’s already been done many times before…

Firstly, when you’re travelling for a long time, you might as well not pay rent (if that’s possible of course). If you’re not paying rent, it’s easily possible that as you travel you’re spending far less than what you would be paying just for rent and bills, although of course, you’re likely not earning.

If you really want to be spending hardly anything at all, then try WWOOFing. This usually means spending at least a week or so on an organic farm, working in return for food and accommodation. It’s a great way of getting immersed into a place, learning lots of skills, and by the time you leave you’ve probably made friends for life. There’s a small fee to initially find such places within each individual country, and there’s the cost of transport to and from the farm, but apart from that, you’ll be able to keep going for many months. Alternatively, if you don’t like the sound of farming then try finding an Earthship and volunteering there. There’s countless other volunteering websites, usually you have to pay a fee to get specific details for the locations and contact details, but Volunteers Base is free.

For something a little more fast paced, try Couchsurfing [edit: I don’t really use Couchsurfing anymore, instead I use Trust Roots]. This is where you get the best experience of a place, in my opinion, because you’re actually staying with someone who knows it like the back of their hand. When isn’t it more enjoyable to explore somewhere with someone who loves the place in which they live and is excited about sharing culture and talking story? Usually you can stay between 1-3 nights, but it really depends on the host. I tend to stay one night in each place, sometimes 2, only because there’s so many places I want to see in a limited amount of time, but I almost always regret not being able to stay longer.

Now to the actual travel part. I try to avoid flying as much as possible, because it’s expensive both for my pocket and the environment. When you’ve taken a 35 hour coach journey once before, travelling by buses and coaches will forevermore be a breeze. You also get to enjoy the landscapes as it transforms along the way, and maybe stop over in an unexpected place or two. The other thing about long journeys is that it’s the perfect time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going, or more importantly, where you are now. On the hand, you can be super productive and get a lot done. I write in my journal, read some Astrophysics papers, make a movie montage, read a book, write a blog, catch up on sleep… All of which I have been doing in the past 13 hours, only another 24+ hours before I get back to Scotland!

In the UK and connections with Europe, use Megabus or Flixbus. For a much wider network in Europe check out Eurolines, or perhaps buy an Interrail pass for unlimited travel by train within a certain time frame. In some countries using the Interrail couldn’t be easier, like Germany or Austria for example, where you’re really getting your monies worth. However in other countries, like France, it can be more complicated because you might have to pay for additional reservations, so that’s worth checking. In North America, the Greyhound has a monopoly on travelling via coach, but there are others if you search for them. Travelling by train is usually more expensive, but you can get lucky.

As always, booking in advance will save you countless pounds and allow you to travel that bit longer (or buy a few extra pints). And never presume that there will be a bus to get you from A to B, or that the trains will be cheap on the day of travel, because you will be landed with an ugly fare. It is also a fine balance between being stuck with concrete travel plans, but still having some flexibility if you suddenly hear about an awesome place that you absolutely must visit, or a friend you haven’t seen for years crops out of nowhere. It can take years to fine tune this balance, but no matter how experienced you become, you will still always screw things up regardless and have to let an amazing opportunity pass by every now and then, don’t beat yourself up about it.

If you absolutely have to fly, then use Google Flights. They have an excellent system where you can type in two locations on a certain date and it will show you the prices of flights on surrounding dates, as well as nearby cities that are perhaps much cheaper. Sometimes the cheaper airlines slip through, so double check Easyjet, Ryanair, and Wizzair, for Europe, and Air Transat for getting to North America. Rather than having to pay ridiculous prices for food on board, take a pack lunch, it’s that simple!

The cheapest way to travel is of course hitching, but if you can’t find anyone to hitchhike with and you don’t have the confidence for it, then I would say, don’t risk it. It’s possible to find a buddy to hitch with you on Couchsurfing, or another alternative is Bla Bla Car, which is definitely the most popular car sharing website at the moment. It’s also great because you can travel across Europe far and wide, quickly, easily, and cheaply. Just be sure not to leave it too last minute when the car is likely full, or checking too early when drivers haven’t yet announced their travel plans. Again, it’s almost like gambling. Should you go ahead and book the bus months in advance, or risk waiting to see if a cheaper and faster car sharing option becomes available.

In all of the other parts of the world that I haven’t mentioned, the same rules generally apply. Travel may also be very cheap anyway, just be sure that you aren’t getting ripped off.

Funded Masters Programmes


Commonwealth – Commonwealth Master’s Scholarships are for candidates from low and middle income Commonwealth countries, for full-time Master’s study at a UK university.

Chevening – Scholarships for international students to study in the UK.

Cambridge – A one year Master of Advanced Study in Astrophysics, with funding available from Trinity College. There is also a one year research only M.Phil in Astronomy.

Gates – The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is open to anyone not a citizen of the UK.

GREAT – [New to 2022!] Scholarships are worth a minimum of £10,000 for international students to come and study in the UK.

Saltire – [New to 2022!] Scotland’s Saltire Scholarships are worth £8,000. Eligible to citizens from Canada, China (including Hong Kong), India, Japan, Pakistan and USA.

Global Wales – [New to 2022!] The Global Wales Postgraduate Scholarship programme offers up to £10,000 to citizens from Vietnam, India, North America and the EU.

Clarendon – Fully-funded scholarships covering course fees, as well as a grant for living expenses, at Oxford University.

Cardiff – Located in Wales, scholarships worth a minimum of £3,000 to UK and EU students are offered.


MASS – [New to 2022!] The new Astromundus! Do an Erasmus Masters in Italy, France, Germany, and Serbia. Scholarships available of €1,400 per month for two years.

Pleine Lune - Consultez les calendriers lunaires en France : pleine lune, nouvelle lune, éclipses lunaires et solaires ainsi que tous les événements astronomiques importants de l’année.

Stefan Banach Scholarship – Available to those from Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Western Balkan countries (see website for exact list) to study in Poland. For English-taught astronomy Masters in Poland, try Jagiellonian University, University of Warsaw, University of Zielona Góra, University of Wroclaw, Pedagogical University of Krakow.

Ignacy Łukasiewicz Scholarship – Available to those from developing countries (see website for exact list) to study in Poland. For astronomy Masters in Poland (see above).

MAUCA – Master in Astrophysics Université Côte d’Azur, France.

Space Master – The AstroMundus equivalent of a joint European Master in Space Science and Technology.

Leiden/UvA – Located in the Netherlands, this Observatory has the reputation of being one of the best institutes in Europe for studying Astrophysics. APAS scholarships are available for up to €5,000 a year. For those interested in Astronomy and Instrumentation, there is also the Walraven Scholarship.

GRAPPA – Also at the University of Amsterdam, if you are a fan of AstroParticles and Cosmology then GRavitation AstroParticle Physics Amsterdam is for you. Scholarships are available for €25,000 a year.

Copenhagen – At the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark you can find the Master of Science Programme in Physics, with specialisation in Astrophysics. They have scholarships available (DKK 9437 per month for 22 months) for outstanding non-EU/EEA MSc students (i.e. GPA above 85% of their Bachelors).

Helsinki – 2-year Master’s Pro­gramme in Particle Phys­ics and As­tro­phys­ical Sci­ences. They have scholarships which includes tuition fees and a grant of €13,000-18,000 per year.

MasterCosmosBCN – A Masters in High Energy Physics, Astrophysics & Cosmology. Located in Barcelona, Spain. Few scholarships available.

Bonn-Cologne – Located in Germany, this programme offers a scholarship of €700 a month as well as funding for summer schools. There’s also a one-week Admissions Academy which is funded (including help with travel costs) where you get to visit the universities and meet the staff and fellow students. Great if you’re not 100% sure that you want to go in Astrophysics as there are other Physics courses available as well.

FAU – The Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. Read about scholarships here and here.

KU Leuven – Up to €10,000 scholarships are available at this University in Belgium.

Geneva – On offer are a great range of Physics courses with specialisation available in Astrophysics, as well as the opportunity to work with CERN, ESA or NASA. The Excellence Master Fellowships offer between 10,000 to 15,000 CHF a year (around €10,000 – €15,100).

EPFL – Also in Switzerland, Astrophysics courses are available in Lausanne. The university offers fellowships as well as scholarships. The first year is very skills-based and focused on practical work.

ETH Zürich – A Masters in Physics is offered, which includes many courses in Astrophysics. Scholarships are available to national and international students.

ICTP – This is an intense, pre-PhD programme (with some courses in Astrophysics and Cosmology). The scholarships available are aimed towards students from developing countries who already have an MSc (or an exceptional BSc).

Chalmers – Two-year Masters in Physics (with some Astrophysics options) in Sweden. Tuition is free for EU/EEA students, with many scholarships for international students.

ISU – Master of Space Studies Program, located in Strasbourg, France.

Aix-Marseille – A 2 year international programme focusing on theoretical, applied, numerical, instrumental and observational Astrophysics at the Aix-Marseille University in France.

Utrecht – Unfortunately Utrecht University no longer offer their Masters in Astrophysics, but they offer Theoretical Physics with an opportunity to take courses from the Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics on cosmology. Scholarships can be found here (for non-EU/EEA passport holders).

If Germany is somewhere you would like to study, DAAD offer scholarships for international students interested in studying a Masters. This opens up doors to Heidelberg or Munich for example.

Rest of the World

ANU – The Australian National University has brand spanking new programme located in Canberra. There are scholarships.

Australia Awards Scholarships – For people from developing countries to undertake full time study at participating Australian universities.

PSI – Perimeter Schools International is a 10 month Masters course in Ontario, Canada. It focuses mostly on Theoretical Physics some of which are astronomy related i.e. Relativity, Cosmology, Gravity, String Theory… Hefty scholarships available.

Chile – The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile offers a Masters programme with a variety of scholarships available.

Weizmann – The Feinberg Graduate School of the Weizmann Institute of Science, located in Rehovot, Israel, offers Masters programmes in Physics with specialisation in Astrophysics. Fellowships are available.

Technion – Similarly, the Physics department at the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel offers specialisation in Astrophysics. Fellowships are available from the Lady Davis Trust worth $750 (€660) a month, as well as a return flight.

NASSP – If you fancy studying in South Africa then this programme is for you. The National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme, hosted by the University of Cape Town, offers grants of R95,000 a year.

NWU – Another Masters programme in South Africa at the Centre for Space Research, Northwest University, offering R70,000 a year.

Tokyo – This Masters programme in Japan has lots of different scholarships available to apply for, all around 144,000 yen a month (about €1060), however the university requires the GRE Physics exam.

Hong Kong – The University of Hong Kong offers many paid MPhil projects in astronomy and astrophysics with a stipend available.

I haven’t included the USA as they often combine Masters and PhDs together. But for example you can take a look at the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program at Stanford University.

Distance Learning

LJMU – distance learning can be a cheaper alternative.

This is by no means the full list of opportunities available, if you know of any other programmes please let me know. There are also many Universities which offer free tuition if you are an EU citizen (e.g. Aarhus, Munich; places in Scandinavia, Finland, Germany, …)

On the other hand you may be able to get funding from elsewhere, perhaps an organisation like the Royal Astronomical Society or a trust such as the Leverhulme Trust. This would mean that you could study a Masters in Astronomy at Universities such as Groningen, Queen Mary, Glasgow, Jodrell Bank etc.

For Africans studying in Africa, you can apply for funding towards postgraduate studies and conferences from the National Space Research and Development Agency.

Astronomical Opportunities

The number of Astronomy related Internships/Summer Schools/Camps/Conferences are endless, thus this will provide a beginning to your search of things to do in those long summer holidays (or simply if you just want to go off and explore another country). I’ve tried to make sure that most of the opportunities listed are available to everyone regardless of citizenship, if not, I’ve hopefully stated otherwise.

The following opportunities are mostly for undergrads and master students, but there are also some for high school and PhD students too! If you happen to be a PhD student, look here for tons of conferences and schools. On the other hand, if you are interested in space and engineering events see here.
Otherwise, read on…

Astronomy Camps – Undeniably a great way to make friends for life, whilst getting to do a lot of practical Astronomy.

Conferences – A perfect opportunity to meet other students from all over the world, and practice those presentation skills!

Summer / Winter Schools – If you only have a week to spare and want to focus on a specific field of Astrophysics, this is a great way to learn from the experts.

Internships/Programmes – This is the best way to really get a feel for what research is like, spend 2-3 months working on a project of your very own.

Volunteering – Taking part in outreach can be a very inspiring and rewarding thing to do with your time, that I think everyone should experience.

Workshops – Get your hands dirty with some hands-on Astronomy related experience.

Hackathons – Work intensively with people from all sorts of backgrounds in a short amount of time! Lots of experience to be gained.

As always, please let me know of anything I have missed out!


Most of the following are aimed at undergraduate and masters students, those who want to see what real-life research is like, and dip their toes into a field they think that they might like to pursue.

[For non-research opportunities see the IAU Outreach Visitor Program in Japan and the science journalism internships at the European Southern Observatory in Germany. Both cover travel and accommodation and come with a stipend.]

For Europe and the UK click here.

For Canada and the US click here.

See below for the rest of the world.


Swinburne – Vacation scholarships at the Centre for Astrophysics and Computing, at Swinburne University of Technology. Mostly for Australians and Kiwis, however exceptional international students may apply. Usually over summer (i.e. winter for most of us), 6 – 10 weeks, A$500 per week.


TAU – Scholarships are available to go to Israel and carry out research for 8 months, for those with a BSc. For research ideas/contacts take a look at The Raymond & Beverly Sackler School of Physics & Astronomy at the Tel Aviv University. There is also the Nella and and Leon Benoziyo Center for Astrophysics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and not forgetting Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology.

JAXA – Internships available at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Japan.

JSPS – The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science has a two month summer programme.

UTRIP – An intensive summer research programme at the University of Tokyo.

OAO – New! The Office for Astronomy Outreach offers 2-3 month internships in Japan.

ASIAA – A summer student programme in Taiwan.


OAD – Based in Cape Town, one has the chance to become a Fellow of the Office of Astronomy for Development. Flights, accommodation and daily subsistence covered!

Central + South America

ALMA – Internships often pop up, for roles such as Journalism, Graphic Design, and Computing. Located in Chile!

INOAE – New! 2-month summer internships in Puebla, Mexico.


YSP – New! The BMSIS Young Scientist Program is offering research space-related projects. Some projects can even be carried out online.

Summer of Code – If you like coding check out the ESA’s Summer of Code which will get you a nice €4000 (here’s one opportunity related to supernovae: TARDIS). Or alternatively, see Google.

SGAC – The Space Generation Advisory Council often has internships and volunteering roles available.

SSP – The Space Studies Program is a two month summer programme, with disciplines including space physical sciences; space engineering; space policy, economics and law; space management and business; space and the humanities; space applications; and human performance in space. In 2018 it will be in the Netherlands.

SH-SSP – The Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program lasts for 5 weeks, and will be in Australia in 2018.

See here for a list of even more opportunities which include more general Physics related topics, and here for further opportunities in the US.

Don’t however limit yourself to specific summer schools/internships if you feel like you are looking for something different. For example, you could volunteer. On the other hand you might want to work for someone at a particular university, and you may be able to find funding from a trust for example.



OAD – The Office of Astronomy for Development are always looking for volunteers, on projects that you can do online.

IDA – Perhaps you might like to become an Advocate for the International Dark-Sky Association, where you will have access to monthly training relating to light pollution and dark sky conservation.

IAPS – The International Association for Physics Students has a lot of opportunities, from advocacy to outreach. A great way to get some hands-on experience.

ISEC – The International Science Engagement Challenge are always on the look out for mentors for their summer camp (happening online this year).


VIS – I volunteered at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station a couple of years ago and it will remain one of my fondest memories for as long as I live. They really care about their volunteers, whether about teaching them how to use some super duper fancy telescopes, or how the ancient Polynesians traversed the Pacific Ocean using only the stars to guide them. The island itself has so much to offer, from beaches to lava to jungle, it’s impossible to ever experience everything.

ASP – If you’re interested in science education, I’d definitely get in touch with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Kitt Peak – The Kitt Peak Visitor Centre has a Docent Program in Southern Arizona.


SDSO – The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Galloway is always happy to receive volunteers.

Kielder – The Kielder Observatory in Northumberland is always looking for volunteers.

IoP – The Institute of Physics runs needs volunteers for public engagement activities such as Lab in a Lorry and Physics in the Field.

Summer Science Exhibition – Volunteer with the prestigious Royal Society in London.

RMG – There are sometimes opportunities to volunteer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. They also have work experience available during the summer.

There is no limit when it comes to possibilities of volunteering. And it is in no way a derogatory experience if you end up doing something a little unusual. Don’t feel like you have to do a summer research project, just because everyone else is doing one! For example, you could write to your local Planetarium, Science Museum, Observatory… and ask if there are any volunteering opportunities available. When I went to Hawaii I ventured out in the hopes of doing as many different volunteering roles as possible, and ended up doing 4 at once! It’s also possible to find funding to help you, like the Physics department at your University for example, or an Astronomical Society/Association. People want to help you volunteer for something that you feel is important and worthwhile!

Astronomy Camps


IAYC – The International Astronomical Youth Camp is a fantastic opportunity for 16-24 year olds. Every year the camp takes place in a different European country and is a wonderful way to meet students from all over the world whilst delving into a research project. The IAYC is so addictive that I have attended 6 camps thus far – it will be my 7th camp this year!

ISEC – The International Science Engagement Camp offers astronomy as well as other scientific projects, for 16-24 year olds. It lasts for two weeks and will be in the Czech Republic in August, 2020.

AstroCamp – an academic program for secondary school students from the EU, held in Portugal in August every year.

ESC – The European Space Camp is located in the Andøya Rocket Range, Norway, for 17 – 20 year olds. Fantastic lectures, group work, rocket launching and excursions up mountains or to the sauna!

ESO – This Winter Astronomy Camp is located in Saint-Barthelemy, Italy, for international high school students between 16 and 18.

Space School – For high school students in the UK, run by the University of Leicester.


Astronomy Camp – An international camp in Arizona.

Alfred University – An astronomy camp in Western New York State, for grade 10-12 students.

Arecibo Observatory Space Academy – A 10 week programme in Puerto Rico for 9th-12th grade students, at the largest radio telescope in the world!

SSP – The Summer Science Program, with generous grants available.

Student Conferences

Student conferences are usually heavily subsidised, with amazing opportunities to learn about state of the art science facilities/institutes, not to mention all the people from all over the world that you get to meet!


ICPS – The International Conference for Physics Students is a heavily subsidised week-long conference for students. It is a great way to meet hundreds of students from all over the world and learn about all kinds of research. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to practice your presentation skills. You can find an account I wrote of ICPS 2018 in Helsinki on the IOP blog here. In 2020 it will be in Mexico!

LOT – If you are an IAPS member you can register to attend the Lights of Tuscany. Happening in April, you will have the chance to visit facilities in Pisa and Florence such as the VIRGO, INFN/PISA and LENS laboratories. There will also be student talks and a career workshop.

PLANCKS – The Physics League Across Numerous Countries for Kick-ass Students is a contest, symposium and scientific excursion packed event. It will take place in London in May, 2020.

YSC – Young Scientists’ Conference on Astronomy and Space Physics held in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Open Readings – This is the Scientific Conference for Students of Physics and Natural Sciences, taking place in Vilnius, Lithuania in March every year.

EAS – The European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting
(formerly known as EWASS) will take place in Leiden, June-July 2020.


CAPS – Close to my heart is the Conference for Astronomy and Physics Students, I’ve attended one in Sheffield (2012) and helped to organise one in St Andrews (2014). It will be in Newcastle, June 2018!

CUWiP – The Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in the UK will be hosted by the University of York, March 2020. I went in 2015, it was a pretty amazing experience to stay in one of the Oxford colleges and meet Dame Jocelyn Bell!

Womxn in Physics – Hosted by King’s College London each year, inspired by CUWiP. February, 2020.

NAM – The next National Astronomy Meeting will be in Bath, July 2020.

NSSC – The UKSEDS National Student Space Conference features talks by leading space science and industry figures, a careers fair, and more. It’ll be in March 2020 in Birmingham.


CUWiP – These conferences for women studying Physics across the US is what inspired the UK CUWiP to come into being!


SAAO 200 Symposium – New! A time to celebrate Africa’s heritage of astronomical excellence. October 2020, Cape Town.

Space Generation Congress – For those more interested in the Space Sector, the SGC is always looking for volunteers.

CAP – Communicating Astronomy with the Public conference, taking place in Sydney in September 2020. You can see my account of the experience on the RAS blog here.

ICWIP – The next International Conference on Women in Physics will take place in Melbourne, Australia in July, 2020. Funding available for women from developing and low-income countries, deadline: March 8, 2019.

Summer Schools

I’ve tried to find all of the Schools which include masters students and below, not only PhD students. However, if you happen to be a PhD student, look here and here for tons more opportunities.


AI for Astronomy – New! The 4th Institute of Space Science Summer School, held in Barcelona, July. For Masters students and above. Scholarships available.

VOSS – New! The 17th Vatican Observatory Summer School will be on galaxy centres, held in June. Open to undergrads and postgrads, with some financial support available.

Space School – A three-day residential in Kent, UK for 15-18 year olds.

Summer School of Science – Aimed at high-school students with a strong interest in science with hands-on experience working in small groups on a specific project. Located in Croatia.

PSI – The Petnica Summer Institute is located in Serbia and covers a range of topics in both Astrophysics and AstroParticles.

Alpach – Every year visit the Tyrol region (mountains!) of Austria to learn about space!

IMPRS – A summer school in Heidelberg, Germany, hosted by Max Planck. Held annually.

ERIS – The Europea​n Radio Interferometry School will take place in Sweden in October this year.

Astrosoma – A school near Moscow covering the state of the art theory, simulations and observations related to cosmology and structure formation. The school welcomes undergraduate and graduate students, and postdocs.


First Light – This summer school is on the topic of reionisation. It’s for Master students and upwards, and they even pay flights and accommodation! Never been to Brazil? What are you waiting for?

Growth – A free summer school in San Diego on transients. It’s for advanced bachelors and grad students.

Dunlap – A five day summer school for those interested in astronomical instrumentation in Toronto, Canada.

ISSYP – The International Summer School for Young Physicists is a two-week program for high school students with a keen interest in theoretical physics who intend to pursue physics at the university level.

Fermi – The Fermi Summer School is located in Delaware, USA, and focuses on analysing data from Fermi.


ASP – The African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications has bursaries and full support available. It takes place annually in a different country each year.


Kavli – The Kavli Summer Program in Astrophysics is a 6 week programme for graduate students. [Only PhD students and above.]

ISYA – The International School for Young Astronomers is a three-week international postgraduate school, taking place in Mexico in June.

Winter Schools

I’ve tried to find all of the Schools which include masters students and below, not only PhD students. However, if you happen to be a PhD student, look here and here for tons more opportunities.


OPTICON – New! Observing school at the Observatoire Haute Provence, October 2020.

Middle East / North Africa

AWSA – The Arab Winter Schools for Astrophysics take place in the Middle East / North Africa in October each year.


La Serena – A week long school in August, in Chile, which focuses on Applied Tools for Astronomy.

ISYA – The International School for Young Astronomers 2020 will take place in Nov/Dec in South Africa for three weeks. Anyone from senior undergraduates to postdocs can apply.



ESO – The European Southern Observatory hosts many workshops throughout the year, both in Germany and Chile.

BAriStA – Big Data in Astronomy: A Potential Tool For Social Innovation; a workshop open to undergrads and postgrads in Mauritius, August 2017.

ESA – A lot of future workshops, all with ESA involvement.

(Un)conferences & Hackathons

.Astronomy – Talks, tutorials, unconferences and hack days. [Note: they are running a new, additional online event this year: DotDotAstro.]

AstroHackWeek – A week-long workshop that combines summer school and unconference. [Note: applications have been reopened until 1st July for their virtual event this year:]

Code/Astro – New! another remote event for students interested in software engineering.

Python in Astronomy – Focuses on the use, development, and community surrounding Python packages for all types of Astronomy. The next conference will be held at Trinity College, Dublin on 20-24 April, 2020.

ADASS – The Annual Conference on Astronomical Data Analysis Software & Systems, November 8-12, 2020 in Granada, Spain.

NASA Space Apps Challenge – Every year people get together all over the world for one of the largest hackathons in the Universe. And it’s not just for coders!

PhD Guides

Behold, the AstroMundus PhD Guide! The guide covers everything from the application process in different countries to interview advice. Credit is also due to the IAYC Alumni who helped a lot.

For the US and Canada, here is an incredibly useful list of all the universities which do and do not require the GRE.

Astrobites have some good articles on graduate school preparations and submitting your application.

Duncan Forgan has written 7 guides beginning with choosing the PhD itself and ending with the viva.

I also found these articles by Dalcash Dvinsky to be rather good. There is one about conferences, and another is a guide on writing a PhD Thesis.

If you think that a PhD might not be for you, you might also want to think about getting a job in astronomy without a PhD.

The Search

Most PhD opportunities are listed by institutions at regular times each year, with deadlines often between November – February. See the PhD Guide for a long list of places which do Astrophysics.

If you happen to be looking outside of these times, your best chance is to look for individual PhD places listed on the following platforms:

  1. AAS Job Register
  2. RAS Job List
  3. EAS Job Directory
  5. FindAPhD


When PhD positions are advertised, they often come with funding attached. It is possible to get PhD funding via other means however, here are some examples that include astronomy.

  1. Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund – offered to those who belong to groups that are currently under-represented in physics (e.g. women, BAME students, students with disabilities, LGBT+ students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students with refugee status).
  2. TWAS – PhD fellowships for scientists from developing countries.
  3. OWSD – PhD fellowships for women scientists from Science and Technology Lagging Countries.
  4. Forrest – PhD scholarships including fees, stipend, accommodation and travel allowance to study at a university in Western Australia.
  5. Liverpool John Moores University – 3-year fully funded PhD Scholarships for international students.
  6. University of Surrey – PhD Studentships for UK/European students and international students.
  7. SIRAT – PhD scholarships at the UCD School of Physics in Dublin, open to all nationalities.
  8. Rhodes Scholarship – For international students to do a DPhil at Oxford (direct entry only).
  9. Clarendon – For foreign students seeking to do a DPhil at Oxford.
  10. Gates Cambridge Scholarship – For foreign students seeking to do a PhD at Cambridge.
  11. Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships – For foreign students seeking to do a PhD in Switzerland.

Opportunities During PhDs

Many students don’t realise that it’s possible to spend a part of your Astro PhD elsewhere (with funding too!). It really is an invaluable opportunity to network and gain experience that you might not be able to get at your home institution. Listed below are a few of the opportunities I’ve found.

ESO – Spend 1-2 years at ESO, either in Germany or Chile, as a part of your PhD.

ESA – The ESA Network/Partnering Initiative Programme is offering a possibility to do a PhD, or part of it, within a space related subject in cooperation with ESA.

ING – The Isaac Newton Group Support and Research Studentship Programme offers astronomy and astrophysics PhD, MSc and undergraduate students the unique opportunity to spend one year at ING as INT support astronomers, and to be involved in ING projects related to instrumental, optical, or software development, improvement and/or characterisation.

CfA – The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) Predoctoral Program offers graduate students the opportunity to carry out all or part of their thesis research at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

FDL – If you’re into machine learning, look no further than the Frontier Development Lab. Spend 8 weeks working in Oxford (ESA) or the US (NASA) with experts from all over the world.

CCA – The Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) at the Flatiron Institute (New York) allows PhD students from institutions around the world to collaborate with CCA scientists for 5 months.

JSPS – The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science offers three opportunities for PhD students (and postdocs) to spend time in Japan. There’s a summer programme available for those from UK, France, Germany, Canada and Sweden. There is also the short-term programme, which funds citizens from the US, Canada, EU, Switzerland, Norway and Russia for 1-12 months. Finally, there’s the strategic programme, for US or Swiss citizens.

Greenberg Fellowship – The Greenberg foundation offers a PhD student from a developing country the possibility of staying 9 months in the Sackler laboratory.

OCA – The Henri Poincaré Junior Program of Côte d’Azur Observatory offers internships for PhD students for two months or more. There is a condition that you must be from a country where astrophysical and Earth sciences are in development.

Eiffel Excellence Scholarship Program – up to 12 months funding to study in France as a part of a joint Doctoral Programme.

Great Wall Program – One year funding to study in China. For those from developing countries.


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Moving continent – and back again – in the middle of a pandemic

On 15th November 2020, I finally made it to Namibia. England was halfway through its second national lockdown, but as I was travelling for work, I was permitted to make my way from the Scottish Borders down to London, and get the negative PCR test result I needed to board a flight and enter Namibia, via Frankfurt. I was amazed at how full the second leg was – not a seat left untaken – many Europeans (especially Germans) holidaying to Namibia as one of the few destinations left which is relatively easy to get to (direct flight) and had comparatively low levels of the virus. With a population of 2.5 million, Namibia has a very low population density (the second lowest after Mongolia) which means not only dark skies but also less covid! At the most recent count (14th June), there have been 65,815 cases and 1008 deaths – although cases have been steeply rising in the most recent weeks. 103,605 vaccines have been administered – myself at the receiving end of one of them (AstraZeneca).

Having observed the situation in the rest of the world during these past seven months, life in Namibia has felt like an alternate universe. I’ve been able to travel the country, go camping, stay in lodges and hostels, hang out with people from all over the world, eat in restaurants, and do all kinds of activities (including my first ever skydive!!). The only thing I couldn’t do is go indoors without a face mask and stay out after curfew. I was also very lucky with all the significantly discounted tourism activities, the industry desperate to survive and offering deals left, right and centre to try and entice the locals to partake in activities they would normally never be able to afford.

Very slowly I tried to learn about the very complex history and politics of the country, but I merely scratched the surface. I experienced entirely new perspectives and cultures – in the UK it’s easy to live in a bubble where everyone thinks and votes the same way as you do. But in Namibia, you are constantly meeting people who are different to you in every way. It was always fun to compare numbers of siblings, almost every Namibian I met has ten brothers and sisters, if not more.

Having moved to and lived in several countries so far, I didn’t expect the move to Namibia to be so challenging, or for it to be such a culture shock. Setting things up was an endless source of bureaucratic frustration, in the most extreme case it took me two months to set up a bank account. And the heat. It was unbearable at first, so much so that I spent most of my time indoors. When I ran out of food, I’d force myself to get up extra early to go to the supermarket, still uncomfortably hot and dry at eight in the morning. On the few days that it was overcast, I discovered a newfound freedom to seize the day and explore. Then the rains came (albeit late) and life became considerably easier – not only was it cooler, but everything turned luscious and green which lifted my sprits. I joined the local saamstap (“walk together” in Afrikaans) on a couple of hikes, which meant getting up at 5am on a Saturday to beat the sun, but it was worth it to share in the remarkable joy of grass and flowers with others.

My first Namibian adventure began with a train – as all adventures should. It was my birthday and I took the overnight train from Windhoek to Walvis Bay, a journey which is supposed to take 12 hours but took 18, compared to only four hours by car. The ticket cost 134 Namibian dollars, equivalent to £6.70. By the time the train departed Windhoek, it was too dark to take in the sights. But given the delay, there was still lots to see the next day, observing how the landscape changed from desert to dunes, and seeing firsthand the conditions in which many Namibians live; small homes made out of corrugated iron.

I spent Christmas next to a lighthouse on a peninsula, eating luxurious food and observing the other tourists. I went for a walk on an overcast day and got horribly sunburned, but I suppose I looked the part with my red nose. I signed up for a kayaking activity, and was astonished to see a couple of penguins on the jetty – surely so far away from home? In the end I was glad to leave the fancy hotel, and instead stay in a hostel in Swakop where I could feel more me. I fell in love with the coastal town – undoubtedly due to the strong European vibes – during the five days that I was there. It also felt wonderful to be able to breathe the first fresh air since I’d arrived, and the architecture and the pub with käsespätzle reminded me of Tyrol (Austria). I met a woman who grew up in the same city as me, who now lives and works as a teacher in Ethiopia. We welcomed the New Year together with a skydive and some fluorescent blue bubbly, and I ended up extending my holidays so that we could hang out some more. We rented a car, picked up a German hitchhiker she’d met before she met me, and together we visited Waterberg, some dinosaur footprints, and Bull’s party. It was searingly hot, but great to get out and see some of the sights and the occasional patches of dark skies betwixt the clouds.

Since then, I’ve been on two other short adventures. I visited Etosha with some people I met through Couchsurfing – we struck gold and saw a lion, resting just a few metres away from the road in the grass! For the second adventure I had the pleasure of visiting the H.E.S.S. telescopes and staying overnight – it’s always humbling to spend time at an observatory. In the morning I got up early to join a trip to go up the Gamsberg mountain (2347 m above sea level), the potential site of the future Africa Millimetre Telescope. Getting there is no easy task and costs a significant amount of money – the track is steep and dangerous and so requires the driving expertise of the farmer who lives next-door and his Land Cruiser. Most of us were sat in the back, without seatbelts nor a roof overhead, and I couldn’t help but imagine the vehicle making one false move and us plummeting to our deaths. But we made it up and down the cliffside with only one flat tire in all.

Unfortunately, things took a significant turn for the worse – life handed me one rotten lemon after another, without much hope of making lemonade. Living alone for the first time in my life was more difficult than I anticipated, and making friends was not easy. Then in March I was burgled. My laptop was stolen – I try to be grateful that nothing worse happened. I started counselling to help deal with the anxiety, which was just in time for a greater ruin; my partner of six years suddenly decided that he didn’t want me in his life anymore. My universe turned upside-down and inside-out. I tried to hang on and persevere, but I eventually had to accept that it was all too much and I wasn’t coping, and that I should go home. I hadn’t even planned on returning to the UK at all this year, so it surprised me how much I was looking forward to returning.

I’ve been in the UK since 9am this morning, and I’ll have to spend the next ten days in hotel quarantine as Namibia is a red-listed country due to neighbouring South Africa. But before leaving Namibia, I was extremely fortunate to have a friend come and visit for 16 days (he lives in Switzerland for which Namibia is not red-listed) and together we rented a car and went adventuring! I got to see several places I hadn’t yet seen, and even better, enjoy them in cooler weather as it’s currently wintertime (which also means a better view of the stars due to no cloud-cover). We did a lot of hiking, encountering endless seas of rocks cast against a vast array of landscapes. Big rocks, small rocks, jagged rocks, smooth rocks, red rocks, volcanic rocks, … We consistently ate too much and did things like quad-biking on the dunes, zip-lining and a skydive. I also found a newfound love of driving on gravel roads.

Looking back work-wise, the last year was an exhausting but rewarding one. After rushing to finish my PhD to start the new job in time, I entered a field that is entirely different to what the past ten years of my studies had trained me to do (i.e. astrophysics). Never in my life did I imagine that I would one day be researching tourism! I spent the better part of the year learning about astrotourism, dark sky tourism, light pollution, indigenous astronomy, cultural relations, …, all under the umbrella of sustainable development and often in Namibian contexts. Meanwhile, the shift to online conferences meant that I could give a ridiculous number of talks, while finding more time for writing. I had a go at applying for a Marie Curie Fellowship, published in Astronomy & Geophysics for the first time (Astronomy for development) and won an essay competition with the British Council (Under one sky: astronomy as a catalyst for cultural relations), as well as several proceedings. My contract ends at the end of August, and then for the first time in six years I’ll be taking some significant time off, a break at last! I have no idea what comes next, and as someone who always has a plan (or several) that’s actually pretty terrifying. Here’s to the unknown.

The privilege of being an astronomer

It’s almost been five years since I last wrote – the time for flexing my blogging muscles is long overdue. I’ve been trying to think of how I could possibly write about such a non-negligible portion of my life (one sixth, to be exact) in a way that doesn’t involve starting at the beginning and recounting each significant event one by one. This is my attempt.

In recent months, the word privilege has kept coming up for me. The privilege of having (almost) completed a PhD in Astrophysics (viva is on Friday, yikes!). The privilege to have travelled far and wide during this time: conferences and workshops in Japan, Finland, Italy, France, and Serbia; a development programme in Norway, Sweden, and Portugal; observing in Tenerife and Bulgaria; and more… On top of this, there’s the privilege that comes with being white, that I was born in the UK, that English is my native language, that I don’t have any caring responsibilities, and that I spent a few years at private school – I’ve always hidden this fact, made easy since I did my GCSEs and (Advanced) Highers at state schools. Regardless, these factors have unfairly given me a helping hand where others are surely just as deserving.

For me, this privilege is inextricably linked to guilt. I am enormously lucky to have been able to travel to all of these places during my PhD – not to forget all of my adventures beforehand – admittedly more than most people could ever dream of. All of these trips have been fully funded and I’ve never had to worry about things like visas, a barrier to so many astronomers from the Global South. I’m also trying to come to terms with my high carbon footprint, I flew almost every month last year which obviously goes deeply against my endeavour to live sustainably. In December last year, I decided I would try to go without flying in 2020 to balance things out a little – dare I say, “covid19 silver lining’’? – if I need to go somewhere I’ll go by train, or not at all.

I can’t speak for all postgraduate researchers, but I imagine that the vast majority go through some sort of existential crisis at some point. Why am I doing this? What difference is my work going to make? Surely this is pointless and I’m wasting four years of my life? Wouldn’t the money have been much better spent on someone else rather than me (hello imposter syndrome, my old friend)? Or perhaps this is more acutely felt by astronomers, because really, how is studying a handful of stars in the Universe and learning about their motions useful for anyone in their everyday lives, when 815 million are starving and 1.6 billion lack an adequate home to live in? These questions all help to serve the guilt I have associated with privilege.

That’s not to say that there have not been any moments of clarity; sometimes I felt that doing the PhD was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Finding these moments have been few and precious, and thankfully, they often occurred when I needed them the most. Many times this happened when I was on retreat in the Scottish Borders (yes, the privileged bells are ringing again). There is overwhelming evidence for low wellbeing in academia, especially for early career researchers. We constantly feel like we are not doing enough: not working hard enough, not working fast enough, not learning enough, not managing our time well enough, not reading enough, not networking enough, not collaborating enough, not publishing enough, not presenting (well) enough, not communicating enough, not having enough (original) ideas, not meeting enough deadlines, not doing enough outreach, not living up to our own unrealistic expectations, and failing to take up or continue our hobbies in the hope of feeling-like-an-actual-human-being-with-a-life. (I could probably write an entire blog on each one of these points.)

This pressure (and guilt) builds up until it becomes overbearing and we inevitably end up burning out. If I could only give one piece of advice to someone doing a PhD, I’d promote taking the time to go on some form of week-long retreat each year. This could be alone or with other people. Preferably, somewhere in nature, where there’s space to reflect, see things in a new light, and soak up some of that tree goodness. (See forest bathing – it’s a thing.) Most importantly: Go. Somewhere. Without. Internet; Leave. Your. Smartphone. At. Home. Personally, I love going on the Foundations of Natural Intelligence course (which ain’t a walk in the park), but I encourage you to seek out whatever works for you. These retreats have always reignited my love and passion for astronomy – thanks to some of the darkest night skies in the UK – and jolted me back into a person who is in state of being, rather than a state of doing. It is also very refreshing to explore astrophysics from a metaphysical context, one of the main reasons I was initially drawn to astronomy.

Now, I’m embarking on a new role, a role which allows me to use my astronomy knowledge and outreach experience to actually help people – and get paid for it! For example, I can achieve this via astrotourism, where Namibian tour guides will be able to make money from sharing their (indigenous) night skies with tourists, putting actual food on the table. But at the same time, it takes my thoughts around privilege to a whole new level. At the beginning of this month I was hired by the University of Oxford to start on this postdoctoral research position in astronomy for development. Covid19 permitting, I’ll be moving to Windhoek in the summer, to carry out the rest of the project as a researcher at the University of Namibia (yes, I will have to break my #2020nofly attempt, but for this, it’s worth it). This feels particularly fitting, since some six years ago I applied for a year-long travel grant where I proposed a trip across Africa – something along the lines of astronomy outreach with indigenous astronomers. Five people made it through to the interview stage, and I was beyond devastated to learn that I was sixth in line. Life had other things in store for me first.

I am over the moon to have this position and delighted that my PhD has come to something, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel remorse. I come from a country whose history is steeped in colonialism, a country that acted unconscionably and inflicted unfathomable torment upon countless Africans. Estimates of the number of slaves taken from their African homes by Europeans range between 9–15 million people. In Namibia (then called German South West Africa) alone, at the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples were massacred in the Herero and Nama genocide. Thousands survived, mostly women and children, but they were imprisoned in concentration camps. At least 45% died of disease, exhaustion, malnutrition, shootings, hangings, and beatings. There are many similarities between the Heraro genocide and the Holocaust, not only the concentration camps, but much of the medical experimentation and ideology was also shared. It is known that Hitler knew what had happened in G.S.W.A, and likely drew inspiration from it.

I felt further pain as I came across a publication written in 1888 entitled “The Star Lore of the South African Natives’’, containing degrading language which the author likely didn’t think twice about. The paper quotes a Professor (Henry?) Drummond, “It is a wonderful thing to look at this weird world of human beings, half animal, half children, wholly savage and wholly heathen.’’ I daren’t read on. (A topic for another day: the skies know no borders, yet much of modern Western astronomy also has its roots in colonialism.)

So what can a privileged white girl do? I can remember and acknowledge the past. I can make a pledge, to do everything I can to listen, mentor, and empower others. Do what I can to stay awake to my (un)conscious biases and the influence they have on my work. I would be glad to do even an iota of good, and help tip the scale back in the right direction.

Namibia and I were born in the same year. I’m sure that I will learn a lot more from Namibia than vice versa, nevertheless, I look forward to the time we will share and grow together.

Roses are red, blue supergiants are blue

What is a blue supergiant? (Part I)

Typically people think of blue being cold, and red being hot. In reality, when it comes to turning the tap, astrophysics doesn’t apply; blue stars are actually hotter than red stars! Looking at the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. the light we can detect with our eyes) red and blue are at opposite ends of the scale. You can think of the colours of the rainbow, which are the colours you get when shining white light through a prism (thanks Newton).

Red light has a longer wavelength than blue light, which also means that it has a lower frequency than light in the blue. The higher the frequency the little packets of light have (called photons) the more energy they carry. So there we have it, stars in the sky that appear bluer are in fact hotter!

So what is a blue supergiant? They are the hottest stars in the universe: between 12,000 and 50,000 degrees Celsius (the Sun is around 6,000 °C). They are also phenomenally large. If you were to look up at the night sky in winter and see the constellation Orion, you would notice the brightest star Rigel, Orion’s left foot. Or looking towards Cygnus, the swan in the Milky Way, you would see his tail Deneb. With a radius of 140 million km, Deneb would engulf Mercury and Venus, and Earth would be a very different place indeed! (Earth is around 150 million km from the Sun.)

“Sirius was rising in the east; And, slow ascending one by one, The kindling constellations shone. Begirt with many a blazing star, Stood the great giant Algebar, Orion, hunter of the beast! His sword hung gleaming by his side, And, on his arm, the lion’s hide Scattered across the midnight air The golden radiance of its hair.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(‘Begirt’ and ‘Algebar’ are Arabic for Orion and Rigel)

Blue supergiants are short-lived, as they burn through the hydrogen in their core much more quickly than any other star. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Our Sun is a ripe old age of 4.6 billion years old (the universe is 13.7 billion years old, to put that into perspective). After another 5 billion years the hydrogen will run out. Yet a blue supergiant will die long before one billion years. In only a few million years all of the hydrogen will be fused into helium, and the elements beyond. The burning stops when it reaches iron, since fusing elements heavier than that would no longer be energy efficient. Soon after, the blue supergiant goes supernova, like SN 1987A. New stars are reborn out of the ashes (i.e. the dust and gas), and the cycle continues.

Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram (Credit: ESO)
To see how blue supergiants compare to all the other stars, we can look at the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram. It is a useful map that can show the lifecycles of many different kinds of stars in one single snapshot. The key components of the diagram are the temperature and luminosity (in other words brightness) of the star. You can see Rigel and Deneb right up at the top, which tells us that they are around a million times brighter than the Sun.

Blue supergiants and the distance ladder (Part II)

But what can we learn from blue supergiants? Astronomers want to work out accurate distances to objects (e.g. stars and galaxies) in the universe. The more accurately we know these distances, the better we can determine Hubble’s constant. This is the number that tells us how fast the universe is expanding, and we still can’t decide on a value. Hubble’s constant relates to the universe in more ways than one: we can work out when the universe came into existence; and how much dark matter and dark energy the universe is really made up of.

At the moment Hubble’s constant is somewhere between 67 and 73 km/s/Mpc (a Megaparsec is the same as 3.26 million light years). This means that at a distance of one Mpc (a bit further away than Andromeda – which can be seen with the naked eye), a galaxy would be travelling away from us at about 70 km/s.

The more accurately we know the distances to stars in our local environment, the better we can work out distances to objects even further away (as this video excellently explains). Standard candles, used to determine distance, tend to be either supernovae or a type of star called a Cepheid. But blue supergiants are perfectly capable of being used as a standard candle too. They are extremely bright, allowing us to observe them up to 10 Mpc away with the telescopes available to us now. By adding blue supergiants into the picture we have a new and independent way to determine distance to nearby galaxies. As we improve the distances to galaxies further away, we ultimately improve upon the value of Hubble’s constant.

Credit: Kudritzki et al. 2008

But how do we work out the distance? Blue supergiants evolve very rapidly, and because of this their brightness and mass doesn’t really change over a short space of time. Rolf Kudritzki plotted the magnitude (i.e. brightness) and gravity (related to mass) of 24 blue supergiants in the Sculptor Galaxy. He found that a straight line can be fit to the data, showing a relation between brightness and mass. Since the Sculptor Galaxy is very close, we have a good idea of its distance already. Because of this, we can fix this relation and then apply it to blue supergiants in other galaxies to work out their distance. (I did this for my Master thesis, for which I worked out the distance to Barnard’s Galaxy – feel free to ask me questions!)

Currently, work is being done to improve upon this relation using the Large Magellanic Cloud, another nearby galaxy for which the distance is well known. This will improve the distance calculations made using blue supergiants in the future. Stars (especially the big ones) are the most fundamental objects in the universe; they process the elements needed to create life as we know it, and provide the radiation needed to sustain that life so that we may be sitting here today pondering about the meaning of it all.


These past few weeks my Facebook feed has been inundated with stories involving the ever escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyday there are yet more deaths, and the media happily reports the brutally of it all in whatever biased way they can. What the media repeatedly fails to present however, are those who are paving the way for peace. Those trying desperately to counteract the increasing violence by breaking down the walls of ignorance, whilst risking their lives in doing so. Now seems a better time than any to write about my visit to Israel and the West Bank this Summer most recently past…

I went to Israel on a Birthright trip. Statistically speaking, I am now one of 500,000 others who have participated in the programme since it began in 1999. I was with 30 or so other young, Jewish adults from the UK (i.e Northwest London) all called David, apart from Anna and Shoshanna, with whom I was sharing a room. We’d expected that everyone would be very Jewish, very conservative and very close-minded so we were pleasantly surprised to discover that most of us were in fact the complete opposite. Instead, we identified with being Jew-ish, liberal and open-minded. In fact, it wasn’t only me who thought that we would be brainwashed with rightwing Zionist politics and wooed by Israeli soldiers by coming this trip. It was nice when we realised that the organisers would not attempt to indoctrinate us as we had anticipated, and that none of us would be forced to fall in love with an Israeli soldier and live happily ever after. The trip was relatively neutral, and we were allowed to ask any questions we wanted, no matter how politically or culturally awkward.
Nature and the outdoors was the main focus, so we were always active and always sleep deprived. Never have I done so much in ten days, our activities would commence at 8am and finish at 10pm, often later.

Our journey began in the North, in the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Water hiking was the first activity (i.e. wading waist-deep along a tributary), a perfectly peaceful and relaxing beginning as we became acquainted with one another. Then we visited the Tel Chai college where we made cheese using only milk, lemon and salt accompanied with some local wine. This was followed by water rafting along the Jordan river, visiting the Lebanese border, and eating to our hearts content at the kibbutz in which we were staying that evening. The next 9 days were no less packed.
We stopped by Tzfat, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism. We visited a medical institute, Bar-Ilan, who do phenomenal work with improving the social welfare of the locals. One evening we had a lecture by a woman from the Israeli Intelligence. She explained the intricacies of the surrounding Arab countries and who hates who. It’s not as simple as Jews versus Muslims. There’s the Shias, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, and they all seem to hate each other too. Our exhaustion from the day’s activities didn’t help us in trying to get our heads around it all.

On the hottest days of the trip we were making our way South. The air conditioning on the bus broke down and the itinerary brought us to Masada and the Dead Sea. We climbed Masada at the break of dawn, the air so thick that the Sun looked like the Moon. We shared a special moment as we leant over the edge of the cliff face, simultaneously shrieking into the crevasse and hearing the most spectacular echo. We laughed in childlike awe, as if we had just heard for the first time.
The Dead Sea wasn’t as buoyant as I’d remembered. We were taken to a commercialised part, where they drowned our ears in club music, and replaced the mud with sand so as to reduce the tourist’s discomfort as much as possible. The mud was put into bags for sale, every consumer’s dream.
The nearby oasis Ein Gedi, on the other hand was amazing, we saw all sorts of animals, and had to painfully tear ourselves away from the refreshing pool and plummeting waterfall. The variety of scenery never ends, for we also walked through the Ein Avdat canyon, encapsulated by serene stillness.

In the South we stayed for a night with the Bedouins in the Negev desert. This was the highlight of my trip, the evening I had been waiting for. We rode camels into the sunset and I couldn’t help but imagine a scene from Star Wars. The food was by far the best we’d had, I couldn’t stop myself from eating more.
The Bedouins taught us that strangers may have up to three cups of coffee (no milk, no sugar) and that as a Bedouin you may have up to four wives. Woman can only have one husband, in order to know who the father is. I was surprised to learn that many of the Bedouins volunteer to join the Israeli army, for they have excellent tracking skills. Arabs do not face conscription like the other Israelis do, and in general they typically don’t volunteer.
We were near the Gaza Strip when the dust came, visiting an educational farm by the name of the Salad Trail. Being outside was like being in a sauna, every time we left the coach we couldn’t wait to return again to the air conditioned haven (once it had been fixed). Our tour guide at the farm was British, thrilled to have us because British Birthright groups are few and far between, and we could understand her references. For days we were enshrouded by dust, obscuring all of the views from the typical tourist lookouts for last few days of the trip. At the farm we learnt that Israel had invented drip irrigation, and we got to make pita with za’atar, try every variety of tomato (Israelis also invented cherry tomatoes), search for passion fruits in the maze and throw homing pigeons into the air.

Our stay in Tel Aviv involved relaxing on the beach, where we sang and played guitar in the sand and the particularly pale folk got hideously sunburnt. We were also fortunate enough to go to an awful, hideously overpriced bar. The music had started off well but it rapidly went so far down the drain there was no hope for redemption. Instead, we went to play on the swings in the neighbouring park and had our own party on the bus on the way back to the hotel.
Before arriving at the Independence Hall the following day, we met the Israeli soldiers would be joining us for half of the trip, telling us everything about what it’s like to be Israeli and be in the army. Men have to serve for three years, and women for two. We shared many memories with them, from boogying in the aisles of the bus to the times most sombre at the Holocaust Memorial.
At what was once Dizengoff’s house, there was more information than I could absorb. It made sense to start with Meir Dizengoff who moved to Jaffa in 1905, in what was then Ottoman Palestine. He had the vision of Altneuland in mind, a utopian novel written by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Many others also immigrating to Palestine at that time had a similar vision. Jews had been coming to Palestine some decades prior, and although most didn’t stay, those who did lived peacefully with the Arabs. Despite their often highly educated backgrounds, the Jews set to work in agriculture, often completely clueless, and with their communist ideals the kibbutz movement was born.
The Independence Hall, in which we were sitting, had been where Israel’s Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1948. Tension had been building between the Arabs and the Jews since the Balfour Declaration in 1917; as usual, the Brits were getting involved and screwing everything up. The very next day after the declaration had been signed and Ben-Gurion had announced independence, the War of Independence began with the neighbouring Arab states attacking from all directions. Thousands were killed, with thousands more in the wars to come: the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, not forgetting the First Intifada from 1987-1993 and the Second Intifada from 2000-2005. It seems that not a decade goes by without a war or something or other.

In Jerusalem we discovered all of the sights and sounds and smells of the market, and walked through the Roman aqueducts beneath the City of David in complete darkness. We held each others hands in a chain as we felt our way along the claustrophobic tunnels, singing as we trod carefully through the water.
Our time in Jerusalem was the most religious part of the trip. We visited the Western Wall twice, once during the daytime, and again for shabbat. By day it was hot and quiet, people praying, people weeping, but by night everyone was singing, jumping and dancing. The men and the women are segregated: the men sing more loudly and dance more energetically whilst the women are supposed to sing in a more subdued manner. Some of the women can be seen staring solemnly over the divide towards the men having all of the fun. Luckily for us, some of the women weren’t having any of it, and started to clap and raise their voices in defiance as they sang some of the more modern renditions, and began to dance as well. Suddenly a troop appeared and things became even more raucous. An older woman managed to get into the middle of the circle and stop us temporarily, complaining that this is not what we should be doing, and we should stick to the older traditions, but the soldiers ignored her and continued as they were.

We recovered on lost sleep during the rest of shabbat and tried to prepare ourselves mentally for visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Preparing oneself for such an experience is nigh impossible. We were guided by another Brit, who had recently made Aliyah a few years ago (moved to Israel). She relentlessly laid upon us the sufferings of the European Jews during the Holocaust. She emphasised how Hitler had been voted to power, and implored us to realise that the Nazis were human beings too, that somehow people can be capable of such horrific acts. We often hear of the statistics, 11 million deaths, a number unfathomable in its comprehension. We should remember that each and every single person had their own loves, their own passions, their own story to tell.
We saw pictures of the ghettos, Jews enclosed behind walls, yet I couldn’t help but think of the Palestinians enclosed in a barrier of their own. We listened to the tales of those who had to walk for days knee-deep in snow after the war was over, starving and freezing to death. We were told about those who had endangered their lives to help save the Jews, from Danish individuals to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, an entire village. By this point I could no longer hold back the tear that so earnestly wanted to make its passage down my right cheek. I wrote a poem about that tear. When the war was over, the survivors of the Holocaust had little to celebrate. Most of them had lost everyone and everything. They had no home to return to. Where could they go?
At the Holocaust Memorial I was asked to share the story of my brother Rotem. It was in 2004 when his possessions were lost in a fire whilst on holiday in Sinai. He was trying to get new documents when he was denied to use the bathroom where he was, and was told to use the hotel across the road. He never made it out again. Little did I know that I myself had once stayed in that very hotel, at the mere age of 8, until I was told by my sister a couple of months ago. I also can’t help but think of my grandparents, who fled from persecution in Iraq in the 40s, and then think of the refugees today.

The most harrowing experience for me was our visit to the Givat Haviva organisation. We were under the care of a Welsh woman, Lydia Aisenberg, who was surely decades younger than her age given her passion, spirit and energy. She also embraced us for being British, and revelled in being able to swear. We had two precious hours with her. We were inspired immediately. She told it like it is, leaving us thirsty for more, toes twitching wishing that we could do something to help.
She read us the poem of a girl named Bat-Chen, who was celebrating her birthday in Tel Aviv with her friends when a suicide bomber took their lives. One of the girls survived, because she jaywalked. We were brought to tears, weeping for the peace that she so eloquently described in her poetry, at the sincere age of 15. Lydia then took us to see the fence, which looked so plain and simple, decorated with a garnish of barbed wire. She showed us Barta’a, a town divided in two by the Green Line. Countless families have been separated as a result of this. The Palestinians waved at us as we drove past in our big tour coach, how could they wave so cheerfully?

Before I went to Israel I thought that in all I saw I would gain greater understanding and clarity, that everything would now make sense. The complete opposite is true. I spent most of my time feeling confused and conflicted, one of the reasons which drove me to visit Palestine so fervently. Perhaps there I would find my answers. I will try to write about my experience in the West Bank sooner rather than later.

Si va avanti

When I first arrived in Italy I wrote about how I’d missed chaos. I can now say that I have had enough chaos and that I am looking forward to all things orderly. Don’t get me wrong, Italy is a stunningly beautiful country, with cheap, fresh, delicious food and architecture that you can’t get enough of. A wonderful place to visit, but living here gets exhausting (i.e. due to crazy university paperwork bureaucracy). It’s too hot. The humidity is so high that it feels like 40°C and we are rendered incapacitated. All of the time. Never have I wanted the North Sea so much.

Living in Italy does make you popular however. I’ve had at least 6 friends come to visit, as well as my mum, in these past few months. I’ve visited Venice and the beautiful islands of Murano and Burano where the houses are painted like Balamory, and they make garish glass objects that people seem to go crazy for. I saw Trento and it’s Science Museum, where I got to pretend to be a gravitational wave, and I ate pasta in Bologna and was disappointed. (Bologna also has a lot of beautiful construction work on offer right now.)

I saw the opera, Aida, in the Arena in Verona. An unannounced storm drenched everyone who had arrived early, eager for the best seats. The show started an hour late, after the rain finally stopped and an army branded with kitchen towel mopped everything up. We sat shivering to the bone for the next 3 hours in our fancy attire as dancers and singers appeared in ever increasingly elaborate costumes. The set was also immense, and must have cost an absolute fortune. The girl who played Aida was a phenomenal singer, able to reach every high note both quietly and with such clarity, whilst still managing to fill the arena. In the distance the storm raged on, lightening flashes enticed our eyes away from the opera, demanding attention. And the moon, oh the moon so bright and brilliant as it appeared from behind the clouds whenever it so desired. Afterwards, we found a restaurant for warmth and food until closing time, then sat drinking wine by the river until the first train came to return us to home and to sleep.

I also visited Rome, but it is not the place for me. It is an outrageously big city with buses that never come, or when they do they don’t go anywhere useful. Said buses are also filled with men who like to grope women. I don’t know if I just have bad luck, but it happened to me three times. Some men try and do it more discreetly than others, but we can still tell what you are doing as you shift your crotch further and further into my personal space thinking we won’t notice. We are not stupid. It’s an utterly awful, helpless feeling, because no matter how much you thought you were a strong woman who could simply yell and curse and push such a person away, when the moment comes you’re not who you thought you would be. Instead you just stand there and take it, waiting, hoping, pleading for it to be over, for it to go away. The fact that you couldn’t stand up for yourself makes you feel even worse. I was lucky in that I had friends with me, who realised what was going on and switched places with me. I don’t want to imagine the scenario in which they weren’t there. Groping aside, at least I got to go inside the Colosseum for free.

The AstroMundus retreat was hosted by the Gran Sasso Science Institute this year. We stayed in the town of L’Aquila, known for the earthquake of 2009. We met the students from the year above us, who presented their research and gave us advice for our futures. We discussed with potential supervisors about potential projects for our thesis. Dinner consisted of red wine, a starter, 2 main courses (the first is pasta, the second, meat), then dessert. We couldn’t breathe. All in all our days started at 8am and finished at 10pm; we had lectures and a tour of the Gran Sasso lab, deep in the mountain. It was cold, and we were unprepared. There are several experiments going on, mostly trying to find evidence of Dark Matter. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if we never find it, what if it doesn’t even exist? Or at least in the way that we think it might… We hiked up to the top of Gran Sasso, all the more rewarding after a very late night and basically no sleep. A captivating view, even more so with the accompanying cool breeze.

My favourite place in Italy is Bassano del Grappa. Yes, it’s where grappa comes from, although I don’t go there to drink grappa. Instead they have a drink called mezzo e mezzo (half and half), which I simply cannot get enough of. It’s their equivalent of aperol spritz in Padova, or campari spritz in Venice, but with rhubarb! Maybe I love Bassano so much because of the mountains, so close in the distance. The river, still retaining some of the vivid teal colour it had back in Innsbruck. The best of Austria (nature) and the best of Italy (food and architecture) combined.

The following is somewhat a rant about exams, so you’ll probably want to stop reading now.

The hardest thing to adjust to has been the style of education, it’s like nothing I have ever encountered. We haven’t had any tutorials, no homework problems, and my poor calculator is feeling very lonely. I can’t remember how to differentiate or integrate. Instead we learn all of the theory. We learn and we learn and we learn, every little detail, off by heart, and then we regurgitate. I failed my first exam. And then I failed my second one too. I began to wonder if I’d ever pass an exam again.

Then help came to the rescue! Help was offered and I accepted with the uttermost gratitude. My friend coached me for hours and hours, before each exam. I got full marks. I almost burst into tears in front of the lecturer when she told me, so she offered me a lower grade out of concern. I kindly accepted the former. The next few exams I also passed, things were looking up. Not that grades really account for much, I feel like the grades are based entirely on intuition, there’s no marking scheme.

For the first time in my life I’ve had oral exams, I had no idea what to expect, and I still don’t because every exam has been so different. Often we give the exam in front of the whole class. The worst part is being in the audience, when you know the answer, and all you want to do is scream it out, while you watch the person suffering and stumbling and struggling through the one of the worst halves of an hour of their lives.

One exam, by the name of Galaxy Dynamics, will probably go down as being the hardest exam in history. I took the exam four times until I eventually passed. And by the fourth time I really knew everything there was to know, from Euler’s equation to violent relaxation to Clausius’ virial, all derivations included. And yet he still always managed to ask me what I didn’t know, in some cruel twist of fate. But I scraped a pass and was happy to have it done with. Hopefully my last two exams won’t be as bad.

So what can I take from all of this? A lot. AstroMundus teaches us to be resilient, adaptable, forgiving, and many other adjectives. But that doesn’t stop me from counting down the days for exams to be over – forever – so that I can finally do some research.

Women in Physics

Last weekend was overwhelmingly inspirational. I attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) which was held in my hometown, Oxford. Not only was I dealing with how surreal it was being back in the city I was born and raised, a long 8 years since I departed, but little did I remember how utterly beautiful it is there. It was the perfect setting for such a conference, the first of its kind in the UK, and possibly even Europe.

Before arriving I was in fact a little skeptical – a women only conference – will it be filled with self-righteous, narrow-minded, claw-grabbing individuals who are condescending, only hoping to network and get ahead in their careers? I could not have been more wrong. Actually, how could I ever have even thought these thoughts in the first place? Instead I met women from all over the world, studying at institutions from all across the UK (myself being the exception). Women who were shy, women who were mature students with children, women who had no idea what to do with their lives… One woman is a science fiction writer, she enrolled with the Open University immediately after a male writer had told her that women can’t write scifi because they’re not interested in science. All in all we all had one resounding thing in common: every woman wanted to help each other, bonding over breakfast, humbly sharing experiences of our lives, and becoming fully saturated in enthusiasm; and it was terribly infectious.

Just shy of 100 students attending, we all participated in panels, workshops, and lectures together. The opening lecture enlightened us with the knowledge that both men and women are biased against women. The majority of students had never heard of this study before, where two identical C.V.s were sent to employers; one C.V. had the name John, the other Jennifer. John was considered to be more competent and hireable, and was offered a higher salary, despite being exactly the same as Jennifer. Everyone was both shocked and appalled, and led to reflect on whether or not we also suffer from the same bias, why it exists in the first place, and what we can do to change it. We were also given the information that only 20% of pupils taking Physics at A-Level are girls, less than the U.S. equivalent! Inevitably these figures get worse the further you progress through academia. It was even more astounding to meet students who are one of only two or three females in a lecture of one hundred or so males. I had never considered how fortunate I was to attend a university where the ratio is almost even.

After this striking introduction, we meandered outside to observe the solar eclipse. It was already fully underway, a good sized chunk of the Sun obscured by the Moon, and unfortunately somewhat by the clouds as well. Luckily the clouds weren’t too thick, and we were able to see enough, basking in this glorious and rare moment. We were quickly whisked away in coaches to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), practically a town in itself, comprised of particle accelerators, extremely high-class lasers, and thousands of people excited about science. Before getting to the knitty-gritty details of what goes on at RAL, we were presented with a careers panel, and a fascinating collection of women from all walks of life. The resounding message from them all was to not give into pressure, if you want to do something that is different and unusual, then do it. It doesn’t matter if women aren’t supposed to go into this or that field, or if you are supposed to study and excel from the youngest age possible. Following quirky and unexpected paths that interest you and spark your imagination can only add to your wholeness!

One of the woman on the panel had gotten a 2:2 from Oxford, and had felt impending doom as her life was seemingly collapsing around her, but work experience and hard work landed her a job at RAL and later the opportunity to do a PhD. This led to a student summoning the courage to ask about imposter syndrome and what can be done to alleviate it. The panel were resoundingly supportive, jumping in to tell us that they had all at some point suffered in its symptoms. For example, one can feel like an imposter, incapable, that there must have been a mistake, that they’re never good enough and are undeserving of all achievements, despite a huge amount of evidence which says otherwise. By the end of the morning we were so moved and touched by everyone’s positivity and willingness to share, one student felt it necessary to tell us just how inspired she felt; thanks had to be made known. My eyes welled up and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.

As the weekend progressed we inevitably strengthened our bonds, a deep-rooted connection instilled from the onset. Imposter syndrome repeatedly came up throughout the conference, every lecturer told us about their failures, and how they overcame the endless challenges they had faced within science, from wanting to study something unconventional, within a male dominated field, or wanting to work/research and have a family simultaneously (heaven forfend!). Dame Jocelyn Bell failed the 11+ exam and struggled for decades as a result. She was the only female student in her Undergraduate Physics degree at Glasgow, and every single day the boys would thunder down upon the desks and goad her. In her words, she become an expert in not blushing. She had no friends to study with and whenever she came top of the class her peers only became more scornful and aggressive. We listened in complete admiration, to the woman who had discovered pulsars but whose supervisor was given the Noble Prize for a woman couldn’t have possibly received such an honour. It’s funny how hearing about the failures of other prolific scientists can really inspire you… Thankfully, things are somewhat better today, and we were comforted with the knowledge that we can actually do this, one just needs to not be afraid to ask for help when they require it. There are many people out there eager to support in whatever way they can.

On the Physics side of things, I had never actually been all that interested in lasers, medical physics, or particle physics before, but exploring RAL and listening to an endless array of fascinating talks ensured that I could never see those topics as boring again. In particular, I couldn’t get over one particular discovery, that there is a field called Laboratory Astrophysics which involves simulating supernova with the use of lasers! I am still in awe just thinking about it.

I have been humbled by everyone I have met, constantly increasing in admiration and awe of those around me, and I cannot wait for the positive changes that are to come. I loved seeing everyone’s self-doubts shatter around me, replaced by this glowing, contagious excitement and thirst for knowledge. A passion for science was reignited where it had been lost, with many students now determined in doing a PhD where imposter syndrome had been holding them back. If before we had ever felt intimidated by PhD students, postdocs, professors etc. all traces of inadequacies were extinguished. If anyone had thought that a 3 day conference couldn’t achieve anything or change anyone’s lives, they were proved wrong. Instead, many new doors have been opened, women have grown and flourished, friendships were fostered, and I have no doubts that we will all go on to accomplish something incredible. Eternal thanks to all of the organisers and volunteers who made this happen.

In the words of Dame Jocelyn Bell, “Just go for it! Don’t think!”


With two weeks to go before the start of lectures, I had the perfect opportunity to explore Italy! I perused the new site to see what interesting people and places I could find, and what a treasure I found! A remote little village by the name of Trassilico, located in the Apuan Alps. To get there I found a car share from Venice to Lucca (a rather peculiar city entirely enclosed by a great big wall), took the train north to Gallicano for an hour. Next was a drive along the winding route up and up and up to the mountain tops for another half hour, swaying from side to side, the view increasing in spectacularity. In close proximity were even greater mountains, capped with snow. Sound familiar? And little did I know that the couple I was staying with had only moved to this haven at the beginning of the year, from Innsbruck! It was almost as if I was still in Austria, hearing German again and minding my steps in the snow and ice. Not only that, but by night I could see the lights of Barga, a not so far away town, “the most Scottish town in Italy”.

Trassilico is incredibly peaceful, with alleys too small for cars to drive down, and houses hobbled on top of each other. 1000 or more people used to live there, but now only 70 or so remain, the young leaving the old behind, and a lot of empty and ruined homes which are possibly owned by your uncle’s cousin’s neighbour’s nephew. For some, the perfect opportunity to buy a piece of land and a house, and live the sustainable dream. There was a tranquility about Trassilico, sitting up high ever so still and peaceful, especially at the summit where the fortress lies. Dramatic sunrises and sunsets are the norm in Tuscany, pink and velvet, red and velour, and at the right time of year the sun sets through a perfect hole carved into of one of the mountains. Taking a shower involved looking over terracotta tiles and mountaintops. I didn’t have any idea of the time, most of the time. I simply slept, helped with errands like log piling and gardening, went for walks and read. I finished Amanda Palmer’s book, The Act of Asking, and I want to give and love and hug everyone. (Would anyone like to Ask me for it?) I learnt so much from my very generous hosts, especially in knowledge, from thoughts on GM crops to making art out of money. In the past they had created rather striking artwork with a variety of different valued notes, and watched the people all stare and gather around their work, simply because people are drawn to money, whether they like it or not. On another occasion they gave out doodled and cut up €5 notes in return for €3 entry. They inevitably made a loss. They didn’t mind.

South to Batignano was the next port of call. Getting there involved a 2 hour hike down a mountain bike route, uncertain if I was going the right way but presuming that as long as I kept going downwards I’d eventually end up somewhere. Technically I suppose I didn’t, because all that I found was two dead ends, daunting private signs and weird industrial looking plants next to a river. I scrambled my way up a hill and came to a main road, and a lucky guess led me to Gallicano and the train station beyond. I reached Grosseto a few hours later, via a change in Pisa, unfortunately not long enough for me to hunt down the tower that leans. Knowing that the bus to Batignano leaves a few minutes after the train arrives I quickly figured out how to use the ticket machine and jumped onto the bus, rather impressed with myself. But suddenly a familiar face appeared and it took me more than a moment to realise it was my friend! I shouldn’t have gotten on the bus at all, but I had no internet all day to check my email. We dashed off to arrive in another stunning setting, this time a home that had originally been a convent. The Sun had just set and I had foolishly assumed that the brightest object in the sky must be Jupiter. I was immediately corrected, for it was Venus, with the distinctly red Mars directly above. Yet Jupiter was in fact up there, behind me, with Saturn too. Four planets at once, seen all with the naked eye! Never have I seen such a thing.

The following week was filled with eating beautiful food, drinking an unlimited supply of wine and helping with things like weeding, olive tree pruning, and mending a torn up quilt. By day the convent revealed itself to me in a completely new light. My friend is apprentice to a sculptor, thus pieces of stone are found dotted around the place in every form, from rough and ginormous to chiselled and fine. More dramatic sunsets. I found myself standing by the window one evening for about half an hour, unable to avert my gaze. The heavens just wouldn’t stop giving. I cut my hair, all but one dread, and I still can’t stop running my fingers across my scalp. In fact, nobody even noticed that I had done such a thing, until I couldn’t take it more and finally announced at lunch time, “has nobody noticed that I cut my dreads!?!” The winds came, la tramontana, greeting us all the way from Serbia. As the winds crescendoed I did more sewing and as they diminuendoed I did more weeding. The conversation was nothing less than stimulating; we discussed evolution, psychology, Buddhism, the history of the convent (involving Napoleon and potentially Galileo)… all in great depth. There wasn’t a topic that one of us knew nothing about.

Auf Wiedersehen

I seem to not have the greatest track record for actually performing in choir concerts. I can go to rehearsals no problem, but as soon as the day of the concert arrives I either come down with a plague, almost fainting mid-performance, or sprain my ankle the night before the ball. Here’s hoping to having better luck in Padova.

Yes, as of two days ago I have now moved to Padova, my second destination of the AstroMundus programme. I am already madly in love with Italy, never having been here before (Südtirol doesn’t count). I could immediately sense the chaos in the air, something which Austria certainly lacks, and I hadn’t realised I’d missed. Cars speeding down cobbled streets, swerving around corners whether or not a Homo sapien might be trying to get to the other side. The little alleyways, set up in a confusing maze like structure, vintage lamps and cobbles distinctly remind me of Oxford and make me feel strangely at home. There was a mixup concerning when I was supposed to be arriving at my new abode, so no one was expecting me when I turned up on the doorstep, luckily someone was in! I’ve instantaneously fallen in love with my new housemates, who are eager to learn and practice their English, and happy to teach me Italian in return. They have no problem with having random guests appear (hint hint wink wink) and they are creative, love music, love food, and of course Italian coffee. They also organise a festival every year, taking place in May. I feel like I have struck gold!

Since it is currently Carnival, it seemed only probable to go to Venice and explore. As I had been warned, if you go to Venice during Carnival, you are not going to see Venice, but you are going to see a hell of a lot of people. Never have I seen so many: traffic jams and bottlenecks of tourists as they tried to cram across bridges, slowing down to take selfies – with their newly bought selfie sticks – of yet another canal. The masks make people seem strangely lifeless, devoid of emotion, some dressed in garishly gold polyester capes, others covered head to toe in red velvet and jewels, and everything in between. Gondolas with men in black and white striped shirts and an occasional extra singing with an accompanying accordionist. Occasionally I’d happen upon a square, whilst meandering aimlessly without a map, containing vastly intricate structures that are ever so aesthetically pleasing. I cannot wait to return on a day when there are less people, preferably coinciding on a day when the sun successfully manages to appear from behind the clouds.

My goodbye to Innsbruck was to go sledding. I always thought that sledding involved getting a bin bag, or a plastic tray, and going up and down a little hill multiple times. But oh no, us Brits have been doing it oh so wrong all along. The proper way to do it is to hike up a mountain for about 2 and a half hours, whilst trying to defend oneself from snowball attacks from friends. Such a hike concludes in collapsing at the top of the magnificent mountain, surrounded my more peaks all around, where there is a guesthouse providing an assortment of knödels and beer. When satisfied, one has a choice of two options. Either walk down, or rent a toboggan sledding all the way down the mountain, crashing ever so dramatically and getting snow in every nook and cranny. Presumably one does the latter. It’s kind of like a real life mario cart. All in all a phenomenal experience, and as well as feeling somewhat initiated into the Alpine culture, I simultaneously felt like I had permission to leave.

In between Krampus and Carnival I went to London for an Astronomy Camp reunion; went home to Hawick for my birthday and Christmas for which I brought back a gift of stollen with me, which actually turned out to be the worst, driest stollen ever, having spent an hour trying to find it, paying for it with an arm and a leg, however it did make great French toast, I suppose they call it “lost bread” for a reason; experienced New Year in the Basque Country, Spain, with friends; unexpectedly met a friend of my Grandmothers on my dormitory doorstep, whom she met around 60 years ago(!); celebrated Ukrainian Christmas; saw Don Quixote in German at the Landestheater; went bowling then dancing in a gay club; went Swing Dancing; had unexpected coffees with friends from Vienna; went for snowy walks along the river; became obsessed with the Green Party; saw Birdman; and studied for endless exams whilst procrastinating by trying to compile the most comprehensive list of astronomical opportunities ever…

The Basque Country deserves a paragraph (or several) of its own. Vitoria is the capital, in which I stayed, where we went on a fantastic tour of the Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, unlike any other tour I have ever come across. We had to don hard hats (it is currently under renovation) as we explored underground and over. The tour began with a video explaining some of the history, with heavy metal music playing in the background (an inherent part of their culture). We also visited the card museum, i.e. playing cards, which was surprisingly fascinating! Particularly the British cards depicting countries from all over the world with quintessential British comments from centuries of old.
What sticks most in my mind is the avalanche of food, every seafood you could ever imagine, from squid cooked in its own ink to octopus and eel. We also ate our way through an entire kid (no, not a child, a baby goat). It was all incredibly tasty, and I felt like I had pretty much acquired a permanent food baby. At New Year there is a tradition to invite a homeless man for dinner, we first met him at a bar before the festivities began, and were warned that we should make sure the doors were all closed in the apartment, just to be on the safe side. He had a suitcase wrapped in bin liners and scraggly stubble. We were very confused when my friends Aunt started flirting with him, saying that he had nice eyes, making him blush. A few more glasses of wine and she kissed him! We were astonished! Apparently the look on our faces was priceless, for it turned out that they were actually married and had planned the entire event just to fool us. The Spanish (sorry, Basque) are crazy, and I love them all! Another tradition involves eating 12 grapes, one grape for each dong of the bell leading up to midnight. It’s much harder than it sounds, I almost gagged, but I managed! Afterwards we experienced everything from cheesy pop clubs to heavy metal pubs until 6am, enjoying it all immensely.
We also went on an excursion to San Sebastian by the sea, reminding me of St Andrews. We went up the funicular, enjoyed the views and went back down again in search of pintxos, the equivalent of Spanish tapas. We also dressed up in traditional Basque clothing and took silly photos! For our final farewell to the Basque Country – and because we clearly hadn’t eaten enough yet – we went to a cidery where we could have died and went to heaven. Pâté, omelette, steak (oh my goodness the best steak I’ve ever eaten, covered in salt flakes!), crème brûlée, cheese, wine, cider cider cider…

Traditions of the Tirol

The Austrians really know how to make Christmas beautiful. Humongous evergreen trees are dotted about the city, decorated in warm glowing ambers, like the rest of the city. No garish colours whatsoever, like the British would tend to go for. The Christmas market never ends, selling everything from gingerbread to pony rides. On every corner one can buy Glühwein (i.e. mulled wine), in all kinds and varieties, in cute little Innsbruck mugs offered in more colours than the rainbow. I have yet to buy any stollen, for fear of inevitably drowning in an abyss of delightful marzipan addiction.

The weather has still been rather pathetic, occasionally the mountain tops get blanketed with a thick white mass which creeps ever so slowly down the mountainside but never quite reaches us in the valley. The cloud clears to reveal beautiful snowcapped peaks, which only last a matter of days until the temperature rises again. The Austrians are feeling rather dismayed that they cannot go skiing yet.

When I haven’t been studying I’ve been going to the cinema, or enjoying a coffee in Die Bäckerei (The Bakery) and writing postcards. This is my favourite place in the city, a community space which puts on gigs, yoga, meditation, bike mending workshops, poetry slams, literally anything that you can think of. Every city should have a place like this. I even saw a band from Huddersfield perform there. The nightlife isn’t as great as people say it is, I miss cheesy clubs which play 90s tunes! But there are lots of fantastically quirky live bands instead which makes up for it.

I also managed to escape one day to go to the Achensee, a scenic lake which almost reaches Germany. I decided that I would go swimming and the only other person who had the guts to join me was a girl from Ukraine. It was very cold, but that didn’t stop us from going in three times on a cold November day! We hiked around afterwards to warm up, and enjoyed the stark contrasts of the golden hues against the shadows upon the mountains as the sun set.

So far, there have been two main events in the Tirolean calendar: Törggelen and Krampusnacht. The former is an event which involves copious amounts of home-grown wine and equal measures of food and chestnuts. The Astro department all got onto a coach and drove south, to Südtirol (technically Italy). My first time in Italy and unfortunately it was completely dark. But I suppose that wasn’t the purpose of our visit: we ate, and we ate, and we ate some more. I opted for the vegetarian dishes, delicious Knödel for starters, and a block of cheese for the main! Luckily there were also some potatoes, sauerkraut and beef to steal from the meat eaters. Utterly moreish desert; deep fried batter stuffed with jam and dusted with icing sugar. Meanwhile, we drank, and we drank, and we drank some more. Then we clambered back onto the bus and made our way home.

Krampusnacht occurs on the 5th of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day. Krampus is a beast/devil/demon creature adorned with horns and cow bells, existing to frighten children who have been bad, whipping them with branches and covering them in black soot/paint/tar/I-have-no-idea-what. Krampus is terrifying. And for some reason we thought it would be a good idea to go back to Südtirol to experience the whole thing properly. We went to a picturesque, quaint little town called Sterzing, this time before it got dark. The first time we saw a Krampus, we heard the children screaming first. A mass of little people came running at us, away from the Krampusse who were chasing them. Inevitably we started screaming and running too, unable to stop our hearts from being pumped with adrenaline! We soon found our way to the town centre, cobbled streets galore. And the same warm glowing amber lights adorned on every tree and every surface. One’s eye can’t fail to notice a great big tower, known as the Zwölferturm, which divides the old from the new. Whilst waiting for the evening’s entertainment to begin, we wondered about the Christmas market, drinking Glühwein and eating doughnuts. The atmosphere kept building as Krampusse kept appearing and attacking people who had let their guard down for only a moment. At one point they all turned up in a Krampusmobile, horns squawking! It is indeed great fun to feel like a child again; exhilarating to suddenly be attacked by a demon who plasters black grime all over your face when you weren’t looking. It happened to me. I got Krampused. I screamed like an annoying teenage girl, but it was worth every moment.

Eventually people started gathering on the main path, near the tower. We waited for what felt like forever, as people kept channeling through in both directions, leaving us with no clue as to where we were supposed to be. Occasionally we caught glimpses of a Krampus in the window of the tower, and the tension grew and grew. Suddenly the Krampus climbed out of the window, donning a pair of great big black wings. Surely he wasn’t going to climb down the tower? He was facing the wrong direction to abseil! Well, that obviously doesn’t matter for Krampusse, for he started walking down the tower, forwards. Meanwhile flares were going off in the distance behind us, and we were getting more and more crammed together. Some people had managed to escape the wrath of the black paint, but most had not. Something was coming towards us, slowly down the street, lighting up the surrounding buildings in a dark, bloody red. There would be no barriers between us, and whatever was coming. Fireworks were being set off from the window of the tower as Krampus continued to walk down perpendicularly. Health and safety definitely does not exist in this part of the world. More Krampusse appeared, pushing us back to make way, beating people with sticks and yelling in their faces. There were also little kids dressed up as Krampusse, equally formidable. Out of the blue Father Christmas appeared, handing out sweets, and a guy with a donkey. Then “it” was here! Lots and lots of Krampusmobiles. Some had trees attached onto them, decorated in red. Another had a Krampus stood hitting an anvil with a hammer. There were fires blazing on most of the rusty vehicles, but scariest of all was a great big cage filled with women and children, crying and screaming and being rocked from side to side by a Krampus. At one point the cage had gained enough momentum that it stopped in midair and we thought that it was going to fall on top of us!

Gravity is not a force.

My mind has almost imploded twice since the AstroMundus programme commenced. On the first occasion, I was in a Physics lecture, trying to get my head around the orbits of electrons depending on their orbital angular momentum. When the electron is in the ground state (of a Hydrogen atom), it is possible for there to be no angular momentum. But how can there be an orbiting electron without any orbital angular momentum? This can happen because the electron is not orbiting around the nucleus in a nice circle, but instead is going in straight lines back and forth, changing its orientation ever so slightly as it maps out a sphere. But wait? Surely, this would mean that the electron has to travel through the nucleus (i.e. proton)? I interrupted the lecturer again, for the fourth time in a row, and told him my concern. He said that I was right, the electron does go through the nucleus. Mind blown.

The second instance was in a Maths lecture a couple of days ago, just as we had started delving into the terrifying world of tensors. Our lecturer said with the most casual tone of voice I had ever heard, “gravity isn’t a force, it’s a consequence of curved spacetime”. Gravity. not. a. force. My entire life has been a lie!!!

I’ve had a fantastic time here in Innsbruck since I arrived two and a half weeks ago. It’s been around 20-25 degrees almost every day. The locals constantly remind us that this is extremely unusual, and that winter is coming! The buses are scarily efficient, running on time to the second. You never have to wait longer than 5-10 minutes during the day for a bus, and every hour throughout the early hours of the morning. I joined the University choir, the conductor makes lots of jokes (in German) so everyone is laughing all the time, apart from me who has no idea what is going on! We already had our first performance in the magnificent Jesuitenkirche. Some friends came along and much to everyones surprise it was actually a Sunday mass; men dressed in garishly colourful green robes carrying swords. Nobody had any idea what was going on, including me, but it was an experience none the less.

Our course is intense. We are basically going through the entirety of maths and physics that we have ever done at 4 years of university, and more, in only 8 weeks. I’m keeping up, just about, and it’s not yet as severe as Canada as I still have the time to sleep, a blessing in itself! The astronomy department is on the 8th floor of an interesting looking purple building with a small white dome that protrudes out of the roof. I have not yet had the chance to go to said roof but I hope I do! At the end of lectures instead of clapping, everyone knocks on the table which surprises me every time. Everyone is super friendly. In the lift, strangers will actually say hello, and wish us a good day!

The only negative thing thus far is our accommodation. The fridges and storage cupboards are all individually locked in a separate room to the kitchen. We are also not allowed to leave anything in the kitchen, even a kettle. If you’ve forgotten something there you may be lucky enough to find it the next day in the skip outside. In addition, we can not have a bin (only a small one for bio waste) so any packing left behind over night will somehow find its way inside our fridge the next morning. Initially all of these rules were baffling and frustrating, but I guess we are now used to it, as so happens in life.

The views everywhere are astonishing. I wake up and look out of the window. Mountains. I walk to lectures. Mountains. I take the bus to town. Mountains. On the 8th floor of the Technik building? Mountains. The airport is also right next to us so we occasionally hear aeroplanes taking off and landing, or a Euro Fighter jet that has to crash land making a seriously loud bang due to supersonic flight.

Hiking. I went on one of the most incredible hikes of my life, which took us up through a valley, along the Wolfsklamm river laced with endless waterfalls. The path consists of an entirely built up wooden track along the cliff edge and across countless sturdy bridges. It was like being in Rivendell. The rivers glow in an iridescent teal-turquoise-like colour and the water tastes crystal clear. As we reached the end of the narrow winding trail, a monastery appears out of nowhere, high up above, precariously perched upon a crag. Continuing our journey upwards we amble across one of the oldest bridges in this part of Austria, soaking in the view. A part of the monastery has been turned into a restaurant, so after our picnic we enjoyed an incredibly tasting and soothing beer, by the name of Edelwiess. Meanwhile we overlooked the entire valley surrounded by a ledge of blooming flowers and millions of brightly coloured butterflies. Is this heaven?