Dr Anne’s Log: Mission Close (Stardate 2020.67)

Well, no one can say 2020 has been uneventful….unless being sarcastic of course!

As we enter the ‘September’ level of 2020 the SFM Project is sadly drawing to a close (planned, and non-covid19 related), so I thought I would give you an pandemic friendly final update to my post detailing what a day in the life of an astrophysicist looks like.

On a normal daily basis, you will now find us in our home offices (or kitchen tables) at a computer still doing cutting edge science research, writing about it, or reading about someone else’s, coding and answering emails. We still have meetings, and are teaching students but this is virtually using a combination of live Zoom, Microsoft Teams and pre-recorded videos.

Of course, we are not doing our regular doing public talks and event activities or jet-setting to locations worldwide for conferences. However, we are adapting pretty well I think. Quite a few of our conferences planned for 2020 were converted to virtual conferences which actually means a lot more people could attend – not just from a room capacity perspective, but also people who could not attend due to conflicting schedules and/or caring responsibilities. For example, we may have a conference in France one day and in Chile the next, so it was impossible to attend both pre-pandemic but is now possible as there is no travel! I have the feeling that post-pandemic some of these new normals may continue but we shall see.

Anyhoo I hope you are all keeping well and staying safe 🙂

This is Dr Anne signing off – over and out!

Image Reference: Pixabay

Dr Anne’s Log: Around the world in 8 days (Stardate: 2018.72)

Wow its been an exciting but exhausting couple of weeks here at SFM! We had our annual project review, put on a workshop, and attended a conference… all within a 2 week period.

What is an EU review you ask? Well as part of our funding conditions our work and progress is reviewed periodically in a meeting with all the members and EU representatives [think: the adult version of show and tell 😉 ] and this time it was held in Grenoble, France. As we were all in the same place at the same time, we held our annual 2.5 day workshop the day after this review, with scientists from all around the world joining us to attend. And I am pleased to report it went really, really well with fantastic talk after fantastic talk and many stimulating discussions!

Next was The Wonders of Star Formation conference in Edinburgh which I gave a talk at on our results from SFM.

Dr Anne Buckner giving a talk on SFM results at The Wonders of Star Formation conference

Interested in seeing this talk? Its available here for the public to view  🙂

Dr Anne’s Log: Creating a Holodeck (Stardate: 2018.22)

For anyone who has seen Star Trek TNG, DS9 or Voyager, the holodeck is hands-down one of the coolest inventions in the Star Trek universe. For those of you that don’t know what I am talking about the holodeck is a room which can create 3D virtual reality environments the user can walk around and interact with, without the need to wear VR glasses or any other equipment.

Unfortunately in 2018 we have not yet made the technological advancements to create a holodeck. Therefore (to paraphrase a famous saying:) if the technology does not exist for me to go to the holodeck, I must make the holodeck come to me.

And make I did!

A 3D hologram of Earth 😀


Yep that is a 3D holographic Earth you are seeing. Well, kind of. Unlike the fictional holograms of star trek, this hologram isn’t actually 3D and you cannot interact with it. It is created by placing a perspex pyramid onto a screen which displaying a specially formatted 2D image of the Earth. The 2D image is then reflected off the perspex which tricks your brain into thinking the Earth is 3D and actually in the centre of the perspex pyramid like so:


Diagram showing how the holograms are created (Image Credit: Anne Buckner)

But (awesome as this is) what relevance does it have to the StarFomMapper project? Well, frankly, star clusters are massive, 3D and their stars are continuously spatially evolving – it is incredible difficult to visualise in your head alone! (Don’t believe me? Give it a try…go on, I’ll wait.)

So this ‘poor mans’ holodeck will allow us to see (literally) how a cluster will evolve in 3D 😀 and once it is out of the prototype stage we will be taking this technology into schools in West Yorkshire to show them too, and are creating an App so that anyone watch a 3D star cluster evolve from the comfort of their phone! Until then, why not check out the 2D visualisation of a forming star cluster here on the website?

Dr Anne’s Log: Encounters of the Astro Kind (Stardate: 2017.73)

‘We do cutting edge science research, write about it, give talks…..and a couple of times a year we jet-set to locations worldwide.’

Following on from the previous post, I’m afraid to say that this is the reason for my blog silence – many apologies!

Since I last updated you it has been all systems go here at StarFormMapper. For my part in the project, I have been developing a new statistical tool called INDICATE (‘INdex to Define Inherent Clustering And TEndencies’). This tool, which will eventually be available to the public, quantitatively tells user how spatially clustered stars are in the Galaxy’s stellar nurseries. This is really important for SFM as we need to know if there are differences in the way young stars behave in there natal environments.

Unlike other jobs, simply creating a tool like this is not enough in the field of astrophysics. We even have a catch phrase: ‘Publish or Perish’, meaning you need to regularly publish your results for other scientists to review or you will make yourself unemployable(!)… So like any good astrophysicist who wants to remain employable this is exactly what I’ve been doing: writing a paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, giving talks, presenting posters and networking at conferences/workshops about INDICATE. Most recently I attended MODEST’17 conference last week in Prague, Czech Republic which was great fun! And if you ever wondered what I look like, here I am presenting a poster:

Anne Buckner presenting INDICATE at MODEST’17, Prague, Czech Republic

(Yes, I love bright colours)

Well I’m afraid to say I must once again be off, but if you were traumatised by my absence (as why wouldn’t you be 😉 ) check out our twitter @SFM_Project for frequent, if not short, updates in between blog posts.


Dr Anne’s Log: The Debriefing (Stardate 2017.48)

There is a lot of mystery and misconceptions on what the day-to-day job of ‘Astrophysicist’ is like. Some think we are a bunch of old Einstein-looking guys who sit around the blackboard all day discussing the Universe. Others (such as my estate agent, despite repeatedly being told otherwise) are convinced we are some kind of vampire-type creatures who sleep all day and come out to work only after dark. The majority of people I meet however, are not quite sure what we do – infact after the usual stunned silence I get when answering their question ‘what do you do for a living?’, comes the follow up ‘Wow, ok, so what does an Astrophysicist do?’.

Well we do a lot of different things!

On a normal daily basis, you will probably find us in our offices (during daylight hours) at a computer either doing cutting edge science research, writing about it, reading about someone else’s, coding, meetings, answering emails and/or teaching students. On a regular (but not daily) basis you will find us doing public talks and events. And a couple of times a year we jet-set to locations worldwide.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly! It comes as a surprise to many, but your typical astrophysicist is a seasoned traveller. Mostly, this is for conferences and workshops such as the one StarFormMapper held in Spain last week. You would be forgiven for assuming we have these worldwide for the sake of it – but actually its because there are so few of us (~10,000 worldwide, compared to e.g. ~20,000 ambulance workers in the UK alone) and we are scattered across the continents, so if we want to get together to discuss topics face-to-face travel is involved!

And so last week StarFormMapper hosted a workshop called “ Star Cluster Formation: Mapping the first few Myrs ” to discuss (you guessed it) the formation of star clusters with about 30 scientists. There were so many interesting talks from observers and theoreticians alike, with stimulating discussion and a fascinating public talk on gravitational waves. These sort of events are essential in our line of work – emails and Skype really cannot compare to face-to-face meetings where everyone is working towards a common goal, but looking at and approaching it in infinite different ways and perspectives, perhaps even in ways you’d never dreamt of…so refreshing! Not to mention useful – you can quite easily go into these discussion with a problem you have been wrestling with for sometime, and come out with a solution. As such, StarFormMapper is planning annual workshops, with the next one in Summer 2018 in France, and the UK in 2019.

Want to check out what we discussed at our workshop? We’ve dedicated a whole section of the website to it here: https://starformmapper.org/madrid-workshop-2017/about/

Dr Anne’s Log: Hailing Frequencies Open (Stardate: 2017.24)

A very famous physicist once said:

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough”

and like pretty much everything else, Albert Einstein was right about this too.

In astrophysics sharing our findings with the public in an easy to understand way is really important to us, because after all what is the point of discovering all these wondrous things about the Universe if you never tell anyone about them? In fact, its so important its one of the work packages of the SFM project! So I thought I would give you a summary of what’s been happening on this front and let you know how you can get involved if you want to 🙂

Well firstly, have you noticed the new look of the website? Kinda hard to miss huh! We’ve redesigned the website to make it more user friendly (and pretty haha). We also now have a twitter (@SFM_Project) so hit that follow button for 140-character updates.

Then there’s Soapbox Science and Art Leeds for which I am collaborating with Dr Eirini Boukla, an artist from the University of Leeds School of Design, to produce a SFM research inspired art piece to accompany a talk I will be giving on said research at the Leeds Light Night Festival later this year (updates will be posted here and on Twitter). For those of you unfamiliar with the festival, Leeds Light Night is an annual multi-arts and light festival which takes place over Leeds City Centre over two nights in October. SFM is honoured to have the opportunity to take part and we hope to see you there!

Until next time this is Dr Anne Over and Out 😉

Begoña: “Do you ever look up at the stars and try to contemplate the ends of the universe?”

– Ruth Ahmed, When Ali Met Honour

My name is Begoña, and I just started my internship at Quasar. I am an undergraduate at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, finishing my Physics degree. Since I always loved astrophysics, I got really excited when I was given the opportunity of helping here with the project.

Quasar is developing the software needed for the SFM project, making the Gaia and Herschel database more accessible for the current and future research. Also, we are preparing the Workshop that will take place in June.

Looking forward to learn a lot in these months.


Dr Anne’s Log: Meeting the Crew (Stardate 2017.03)

“We are sorry to announce this train has been cancelled”

… are perhaps the 10 most dreaded words in the English language when you are trying to commute to/from work. Although, for anyone who has lived in south London in the past 12 months, these words are not at all unfamiliar and like an good south Londoner I had a back up plan: the Tube. Yes, I was back in London, having travelled down from Leeds for a 2-day StarFormMapper (SFM) project meeting.

As explained in my first post, the SFM project is an EU funded collaboration between the University of Leeds, University of Cardiff, Grenoble Alpes University and Quasar Science Resources SL whose objective is to better understand the mechanisms that underlie both how massive stars themselves form and how their natal star clusters form and evolve around them. To do this we need to take a multiple-attack approach, combining both theoretical and observed data to get a full-picture of what is physically going on. So Leeds and Grenoble handle the observational part, Cardiff the theoretical part, and Quasar the hardware & software architecture part of the project.

As you can imagine, when multiple institutions are working towards a common goal, continuous good and open communication is essential. Hence every 6 months all the people working on the project get together for an in-person meeting. The one I was attending was the second since the start of the project, and the first which included all the newly hired researchers/developers.

And I’m pleased to report the meeting was a great success! There was a talk from each of the partners on what they had been up to (all very promising and interesting might I add). For my contribution I discussed my research on finding substructure within star clusters. Essentially, the structure of young and old star clusters are quite different. In older star clusters (such as those you see if you type ‘star cluster’ into google images) the stars are pretty nicely radially distributed, with a high density towards the centre of the cluster which decreases with increasing distance from the cluster centre in any given direction. However in younger clusters you do not necessarily get this central concentration of stars, and instead get multiple smaller concentrations throughout the cluster (this is called ‘substructure’). One of the big challenges of this field up until now has been lack of data, but with GAIA and Herschel we hope to make some major head-way!

If you are interested in seeing a star cluster with your own eyes (rather than just through google) here’s a seasonal guide to keep you busy until my next blog post 😉 www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/celestial-objects-to-watch/open-clusters-by-the-season/

Dr Anne’s Log: First Contact (Stardate 2016.90)

I never fail to be awed by the sheer beauty and scope of nature, how it has so much more depth beyond the superficial surface that can be seen by our eyes. But then again, I guess I wouldn’t be a very good scientist if I didn’t have an insatiable need to explore and understand the world around me – it kinda comes with the job description.

Today the source of my awe was Earth’s atmosphere: soaring high above the clouds I was greeted by a magnificent image of a peaceful bright blue sky above, and raging black storm clouds below. O how I regretted not packing an umbrella. Or a raincoat.

As luck would have it the storm had passed by the time I landed, although the dark grey clouds that filled the Edinburgh sky continued to look ominous for the remainder of the day. So why was I in Scotland? Well today the Royal Observatory was hosting a workshop on GAIA (the new space observatory of the European Space Agency). Essentially, the purpose of workshops such as these are to be a ‘how to’ for professionals, familiarising us with the technological specifications, time-lines to mission completion, known issues with equipment (etc.) in addition to giving us tips and tutorials on effective tools/software to analyse the data. Suffice to say they are pretty invaluable.

In short, I had a great day and learned some pretty important stuff. For example, astronomers can precisely determine the distance to stars by measuring their ‘parallax’ (a star’s apparent movement against the background of more distant stars in the sky caused by the change of the Earth’s position as it orbits the Sun). Normally, the distance of a star is equal to 1/parallax – an equation which is so fundamental its considered Astronomy 101. However, if this equation is used with the GAIA data it will potentially produce inaccurate distances to stars. Thus if astronomers wish to determine star distances from their GAIA parallaxes we will need to employ a more sophisticated approach. As I said, the workshop was exceptionally useful!

Anyhoo, I must get back to my research on finding star clusters within star clusters (more on that in the next blog post). If any non-astronomers out there are interested in finding out more about the GAIA mission, the ESA scientists have written a simple overview of its mission which can be read here: www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Gaia_overview (theres no maths – I promise!)

Quasar: SFM at the ADASS Conference in Trieste, Italy

Quasar Science Resources introduces in its poster contribution the virtual infrastructure proposed for the StarFormMapper (SFM) H2020 project in which Quasar participates.

The goal of the StarFormMapper (SFM) project is the study of galaxy evolution through the mechanisms that underlie massive star and star cluster formation. The project combines data from two of ESA’s major space missions, Gaia and Herschel, together with data from ground based facilities.In this work Quasar describe the proposed hardware and software architecture, what we have called the Dynamic Evolution Added Value Interface (DEAVI), a Virtual Infrastructure to take care of the development and production environment for the project based on Linux desktops and servers.

The full contribution will be published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) as part of their Conference Series.