How to have an epic EUCYS

I took part in EUCYS (the EU Contest for Young Scientists) 2009 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Somehow, that was two years ago (it feels like yesterday – I’m wondering if one of the projects went awry and affected the space-time continuum in such a way that time has gone faster since) and I am older and wiser – sufficiently so that I can see what I would do differently as well as how amazing it was. After corresponding on Twitter (twitresponding? tworresponding?) with the EUCYS account I decided to write down my advice for this year’s young scientists as a veteran of the contest. (Though the word veteran makes me feel ancient…)

Be proud of yourself
You – yes, you! – are one of the best young scientists in Europe. You’ve worked really hard to get a place at EUCYS and you’ve probably had to sacrifice a lot of time to do your project. Well done! If you’re the modest and/or self-deprecating type, remember this quote from Sherlock Holmes:

“My dear Watson,” said [Sherlock Holmes], “I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”

In other words, acknowledging how good you are is logical. And a scientist is nothing if not logical…

Take a suitcase with a little extra space
I generally travel very light, but I always come back from science fairs and conferences with piles of paper (such as magazines, brochures for labs, leaflets from people’s stands, as well as the event brochure itself) and various knick-knacks – when I attended ESOF 2010 in Turin I had to buy a bigger suitcase to house it all! When in Paris I picked up enough stuff to make the journey back much harder than it had to be – you try balancing a rucksack, a shoulder bag, a little suitcase on wheels, a poster roll and a bunch of flowers! The moral of the story: take a big suitcase with a little extra space and maybe a rucksack too if you need it. You can always keep the empty rucksack in your suitcase if you end up not needing it, and a suitcase that’s not entirely full is no hardship, but the alternative is a lot more tricky to navigate!

Read up about the projects online
If you have a tendency to get overwhelmed then it might be worth your while to check out the EUCYS website and see what other projects will be there – especially in your field. Perhaps you could even mentally mark ones to check out that interest you – from there you can explore more freely as you get more confident. (I like to do the same with restaurant menus. But please don’t eat your fellow young scientists.)

Take some souvenirs from your home town or city
Your “escort” (the person who is in charge of accompanying you to EUCYS – though “escort” means something different in British English!) may provide you with some badges to give out to your fellow contestants, branded with your national science fair’s logo or something similarly suitable. However, I think it’s a really lovely idea to take a few of something else too, such as postcards or the sort of little things you can buy in souvenir shops in your town/city. For example, I was given a pen from Israel that has a prayer inside it! Don’t spend loads or get loads – just enough that you can hand out a little memento to people you meet. Postcards are the best, in my opinion – I don’t know about your area, but where I live you can get postcards for the equivalent of 23 euro cents, plus you can write your name and a message on the back. I have the ones I got from EUCYS 2009 up in my bedroom and love to look at them and reminisce. Plus it makes me look a lot more well travelled than I actually am… (Sweets from your country are a nice idea too. Everyone likes sweets.)

Take something summarising your project for people to take away
Similarly, I still have a lot of the leaflets that I picked up from EUCYS 2009 about other people’s projects, and they’re a really interesting read. I wish I’d had some of my own, so I am passing down that advice to you. Again, don’t get millions of leaflets (or flyers, or business cards, or whatever else) printed – just enough so that anyone who wants one can have one. Plus it’s good practice in summarising your project!

Boil down your project to the basics and then add details
For me this is the best way to work at any speech, especially when you’re explaining a difficult scientific concept (or several). See how few words you can use to still get the project across and use that as a hook. This is what I might start with for my project, “Listening for Ghost Particles: The Acoustic Cosmic Ray Neutrino Experiment (ACoRNE)”:

High energy neutrinos –> water –> sound pulse
ACoRNE: hydrophone array, off coast of Scotland
Studied background noise (whales and dolphins), filtering
Simulated sound pulses, hydrophone response

From there I would flesh those words out enough to make them sentences, then talk more about why neutrinos are important, the shape of the sound pulses, how I studied the background noise, my conclusions, why it was necessary, how I simulated the sound pulses, my conclusions, why that was necessary, why the ACoRNE project as a whole is important – you get the idea. You can always add more to your talk if you are talking to someone who wants to know more – it’s harder to give someone back a minute or two of their life after you’ve used it. It’s a good idea to get an idea of the level of your “audience” as well – a quick “how much do you know about this subject?” will save you from being either accidentally patronising or excessively technical!

Don’t be scared of the judges (or the other contestants)
They won’t bite. Seriously, the judging sessions may seem intimidating, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Try to treat it as an opportunity to enthuse another person about your project. Having said that, there’s always one judge that no one likes, but let me assure you that it’s them, not you, with the problem (and most judges are lovely and encouraging!). Don’t take any notice of how many judging sessions you or anyone else gets either – it’s not necessarily an indicator of getting a prize or not. If you’re shy or anxious you’ll know how hard it is to start up conversations with others, but you have one crucial weapon in your arsenal: you’re amongst people who have similar interests, and to similar degrees, as you. Just have a wander and find some projects that interest you, then strike up a conversation about them with their respective owners. I wish I’d done that – I spent far too long at my stand. If you do wander about don’t do it for too long at a time and leave a note saying “back in five minutes” in case a judge comes. Don’t be intimidated by projects that you think are better than yours or far more advanced (or that have prettier displays) – just enjoy the science. Finally, joining the Facebook group is also a great idea so you can keep in contact after the contest, plus joining in the conversation on Twitter. It’s likely you’ll make some great friends at EUCYS!

Take advantage of any trips out
There were “official” trips organised for all of the EUCYS participants, but I wouldn’t have seen half of what I did if I hadn’t taken advantage of the lunchtime and evening time trips that some of the student helpers ran. Some of the places we saw included the Champs d’Elysse, the Arc du Triomphe, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, Pont Neuf and Notre Dame! We also got plenty of opportunities outside of judging to wander around the Palais de la decouverte, where the contest was held.

Being there is the prize (but more prizes are also nice)
The aim of EUCYS is not to win; it’s to enjoy the experience. If you go for the sole purpose of winning you probably won’t get as much out of it (though if you feel differently then fair enough, don’t say I didn’t warn you…). The other contestants are not your rivals, they’re your peers! Having said that, winning prizes is pretty cool, particularly at EUCYS where your prize could be a trip to a lab and thousands of euros. Just don’t let that be your focus.

Do not take an electric guitar and proceed to strum it constantly even when you’re not demonstrating your project
Boys in the stand opposite me, I’m looking at you.

The short version of the above post is basically the photo at the start: keep calm and DFTBA (don’t forget to be awesome). But you won’t, because you are. So just have fun and enjoy the fruits of your scientific labours in the company of people who are just as passionate as you are about science! If you have any questions please feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Solar Physicist’s Love Song (with apologies to Shakespeare… and solar physicists)

I entered this poem into the 2011 British Science Festival’s Science Poetry Competition – the prize being to have your poem read out during the Presidential Address by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell entitled “Science as Culture”. Apparently it came second, which isn’t bad for something so cheese-tastic hastily written.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Her fire is not born as atoms bind
Nor is she hazardous to gaze upon
(Though if she were I’d willingly go blind).
Created from the dust of stars though she
May be, she outshines all and never sets.
The sun expels neutrinos, light and heat;
It’s beauty, truth and charm that she begets.
Though perfect she appears from far away
Her imperfections add to her allure.
It’s far from gravitational the way
She pulls me in, and this I know for sure:

Though over time our orbits may diverge
No body can eclipse my love for her.


Shakespeare’s going to come back from the dead and sue me, isn’t he? And I’d just gotten over that lawsuit from zombie!Eddington for calling myself “stellar buffoon”…

From Mr Sir Isaac Newton to the Moon

Note: This article discusses some military aspects of aviation and the space program and I have tried to present these neutrally. I don’t feel this is the place for my opinions on war and the military and have tried to reflect that in my writing.

I’ve met a handful of people with varying degrees of fame in the last couple of years: Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Jim Al-Khalili, Jeremy Paxman, Simon Singh, Brian Cox (does chasing after him and delaying his lunch count as “meeting”?) and a couple of Nobel Laureates. Eating lunch with Kurt Wüthrich, who denied the presence of creativity in science and advised a table of early career scientists that the route to success was getting a secretary to answer emails for you, and pointing Gerard ’t Hooft in the right direction in the Lingotto Conference Centre in Turin, are likely to be the closest I’ll ever get to a Nobel Prize, but that’s besides the point. Last March I found myself in the same room as two of only twelve men who have stepped onto another world, and another who would have gotten there if it weren’t for that meddling oxygen tank.

Captains Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell were three of the men who, in the 1960s and 1970s, were part of what was perhaps humankind’s greatest endeavour – Armstrong, the first man on the moon; Cernan, the last man to leave the moon; and Lovell, who was part of a rescue mission so incredible that, when being shown “Apollo 13” (the film), test audiences bemoaned the ridiculous Hollywood ending. As part of a week-long tour of the UK they stopped off at the Royal Society for an event organised by the Foundation for Science and Technology.

(Fun fact: if you ask at the tourist information centre where the Royal Society is they’ll point you to Burlingame House, home of what seems like every Royal Society except *the* Royal Society. Then you will find a nice man with an iPhone, follow his directions, start crying because you think you’re lost, then turn around and realise that you’re standing in front of it and just in time.)

Three other men shared the stage with the astronauts – David Hartman, former host of “Good Morning America” served as the chair, while pilots Bob Gilliland and General Steve Ritchie began the event by talking about their experiences as pilots. Gilligand was the first man to fly the world’s fastest aeroplane. General Ritchie flew in the Vietnam War, achieving the status of “Ace” (shooting down five aircraft). The talk began with a video entitled “Legends of Aerospace”, which you can watch on Youtube.

Bob Gilligand started by talking about his experiences and interests in aviation. He was a test pilot, the first to fly the SR-71 Blackbird (the world’s fastest airplane) and the F104 Starfighter, and accumulated more hours of supersonic test flight than anyone else. The SR-71 Blackbird was made of 90% titanium, rather than aluminium like Concorde was, which helped it fly faster. It could also withstand incredibly high temperatures up to 230°C (for perspective, a soldering iron functions at 290°C). Its all-black body helped to increase its tolerance for heat. He described the experience of flying as “high and fast, which really turns you on”. He called its developer Kelly Johnson, who also developed the U-2 plane, “the Leonardo da Vinci of aviation design”. However, he didn’t skim over the risks of such a vocation, pointing out the nickname of one of the planes he flew: “The Widowmaker”.

General Ritchie spoke next – he flew the F-104 Starfighter in combat and to this day the aircraft still holds the low-level speed record for an aircraft (amongst many others). On the 10th of May 1972 Ritchie was engaged in high-tech combat – he shot down two planes in one and a half minutes. His technique as he described it sounded decidedly less high-tech: talking to the missiles. Since he is one of only two pilot aces of the Vietnam War perhaps it wasn’t so strange after all. The two men, though not involved in the space programme themselves, showed how it had developed out of aviation research and military technology – so their roles in the space race were incredibly important even though they’d never set foot in a spacecraft.

While this had been going on, the Russians had begun their ascent into the heavens. Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 were launched, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space. This was deeply embarrassing for the Americans and prompted John F. Kennedy to make a speech in 1962 – “we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Ritchie described the speech as “bold” – the late Gus Grissom, not noted for his tact, said simply, “the President is nuts”.

Two space programs lead up to Apollo. The first was Mercury, characterised by “tin can” spacecrafts rather like bullets, with no external propulsion and designed only for orbiting the Earth. The second was Gemini, whose aims were to test propulsion, selecting landing places, whether humans could survive in space and at the speeds required to get there, rendezvous and docking – in short, all the skills needed to put men on the moon.

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how many people were behind that first step on the moon. Captain Lovell put the figure at 400,000 over a decade (that’s a lot of people to keep a secret if the moon landings were faked) at the beginning of his talk, and went on to talk about Apollo 8, the first spaceflight to leave Earth’s orbit. The objective of Apollo 8 was to orbit the moon and look for potential landing sites. The astronauts on board were the first humans to see the far side of the moon, just 16 miles above its surface. Lovell called the sight “majestic” and, not surprisingly, “grey”. The astronauts were also the first to see the whole of the Earth -at points they could cover the whole of it with a thumb. “It showed how insignificant and fortunate we all are”, as Lovell eloquently put it. He drew parallels between the Earth and a spacecraft – both having limited resources and both containing humans striving to live and work together without killing one another. Finally, he joked that his first trip into space revealed one incredibly important discovery – that there really is a Santa Claus.

The role of Apollo 13 was scientific – it was to land in the hills of the Moon’s highlands and study ejecta, in order to learn about the interior of the moon. Of course, that didn’t go to plan. Lovell pointed out that the accident had started six years before the craft even left the Earth – perhaps with something so innocuous as a component being dropped in the factory. The thermostat on Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks was compatible with 28V DC power – several weeks before the launch the countdown test was held and the team went to take the three oxygen tanks out, but one refused to budge. They turned on the heater, boiling off the oxygen, and managed to expose the thermostat to 56V power. The tank was depleted of oxygen; it was “a bomb waiting to go off”. And, of course, it did – some of the valves in the automatic systems were closed off, some Teflon caught on fire, raised the pressure in the tank and blew its neck off, plunging the spacecraft and astronauts into incredible danger. Thankfully the Apollo programme continued after Apollo 13, but Lovell raised the question: what if the accident had happened on Apollo 10, before humans had been able to set foot on the Moon?

He listed some of the skills needed for such crisis management – leadership, teamwork, initiative, perseverance and motivation – showing that they were not much different from the sort of skills asked for in your average job interview (though most job interviews don’t involve explosions). The Apollo 13 crew managed to take the opportunity to take pictures – giving them an extra reason to work hard to get home and get them developed! Lovell described Apollo 13 as a “seat of the pants manoeuvre” – perhaps with fewer young people in the room the military man in him might have come out more in his description.

Gene Cernan has the interesting boast of having walked around the Earth twice – as pilot of Gemini 9, performing space walks while orbiting the Earth. His second mission, Apollo 10, was a kind of bridge to the moon, finding and solving the final problems before taking that step, in particular learning about the lunar module. It came within 9.7 miles of landing on the moon, but didn’t make the final descent – its purpose was a “dry run” for the actual moon landing. Regarding the mission he said “I don’t know how we did it, […but] we had to do it”; the pressure of it was “a lot more than you could describe”. He talked of the moon as having “a majestic beauty” that he would “never forget”. On their way back to Earth, the astronauts even had time to think of others, telling the Apollo 11 crew that “we painted a white line in the sky so you wouldn’t get lost”.

“Are we going to Mars? Yes, and we’re all going together”, was Cernan’s rallying cry. He pointed out that the moon landings had both technological and philosophical implications and that it may take a long time for us to truly realise their significance. He embodied this by explaining how he “looked at infinity”, but was “not sure what to do with it”. He also described how he had looked at the journal of “Mr Sir Isaac Newton” while in the UK and drawn parallels – Newton’s work has only increased in significance as time has progressed.

Finally came Neil Armstrong – perhaps we were even luckier to be in his presence as he is notoriously (and understandably) publicity-shy, as explored in the excellent documentary “Being Neil Armstrong”. No “Dancing with the Stars” or punching moon hoaxers for him. He drew attention to the fact that those early space pioneers thought we’d be on Mars today (and the sad disparity between that and reality). However, he was optimistic. Young people accept challenges, he said, and he hopes that this century we will be able to explore the Solar System. On a less technological note, he expressed his wish that space exploration would improve the character of humanity, to the point where we can put conflict behind us and work together to learn more about the universe.

In the “relay race” that was the mission to put men on the moon, Apollo 11 was the final heat, the culmination of the work of that decade and those 400,000 people and an “emotional moment” for Armstrong. The mission went well, despite, amongst other things, what Armstrong termed “an argument with the computer” caused by a buffer overload and fixed by engineers in their 20s – another nod to the ingenuity of young people! At the end of his talk, Armstrong repeated his famous lines: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed” and “That’s one small step for men, one giant leap for mankind”. The room erupted into applause.

It’s incredible to think that, just 66 years before Apollo 11, the Wright brothers were making the first flight of an airplane – it inevitably draws your mind towards the question of the future of human spaceflight, which was something the men discussed as their talk drew to a close. Neil Armstrong had some advice for governments: to “be willing to take a risk” on investing in space exploration – calling the returns “astronomical” (pun seemingly not intended, though the man is so zen it’s hard to tell). He drew attention to the educational benefits; space excites children all around the world, and we should “invest in future of kids” by taking advantage of that. Jim Lovell ended by citing the Hubble space telescope, which needed human spaceflight – astronauts had to be sent up to repair it. He insisted that there was a place for unmanned and manned flights, as well as exploration of other worlds. Whether NASA and other administrations agree remains to be seen – since that talk the Shuttle program has ended and no replacement has been developed.

I’ve said a few times that I believe the Large Hadron Collider will become this generation’s Apollo program – beyond the tangible effect of developing new technologies and advancing science, it will inspire the scientists and engineers of the future and become an integral part of our cultural fabric. On a more pessimistic note they have both been accused of being pointless cashcows, functioning only to allow scientists to get their jollies on tax-payers’ money, never mind the fact that the science budget is minuscule compared to other areas of spending and loss. However, the achievements of the three men at the Royal Society on the 12th of March 2010, and all those who were a part of the space programme, will stand up in history as a crowning achievement of humankind beyond a myriad of other things that seem infinitely more worth caring about at the time. It was an incredible privilege to be in their presence.