One tale to rule them all

Our hero sets off to slay a dragon, guided by the old wizard, and picks up a magic ring of invisibility along the way – or was it a cloak? If you’re not sure if I’m referring to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, well that’s the point. It could be both; it could be neither: they could be one of many stories from centuries past.

Many years ago I was reading a summary of the early 13th century German epic poem Nibelungenlied (also the basis of Wagner’s Ring Cycle Opera, der Ring des Nibelungen) and was stunned to find parallels to the then wildly popular show, Game of Thrones (GoT), all the way down to the Red Wedding. The hero is Siegfried, who is known for having killed a dragon in his youth, and who sets off on a quest with a cloak of invisibility in hand. His Nordic counterpart Sigurd features in the Völsunga Saga, in which early chapters feature a pair of incestuous twins whose family are killed by a wolf (á-la Jamie and Cersei of GoT and rival wolf house of Stark). We follow Sigurd on his quest to slay the dragon Fafnir, after which he steals his cursed ring… 

Sö 101: Ramsund carving in Sweden c. 1030, one of several rune/picture stones depicting the Völsunga Saga

One character that felt particularly familiar to me was the warrior queen Brunhild (aka Brynhild), clearly a precursor to Brienne of Tarth: unbeatable in battle, bonded to the king-slayer/dragon-slayer, and threatened only by sexual violence (in a chapter reimagined in the origin story of Sleeping Beauty). I dare say she represents one of the earliest instances of the lone warrior woman trope; now prevalent in characters from Eowyn in Lord of the Rings to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The early narratives tended to frame these women as something of a rarity; the modern feminist era celebrated their power, to the point of evolving into the problematic Strong Female Character trope.

The First, as portrayed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who insists that a Slayer is to fight alone

Besides the aforementioned rings, wolves, dragons and warrior women, other motifs that appear in manuscripts and carvings across the European continent (at least) include: the sword that only a true hero can wield, deceptive shape-shifting, the ability to understand the speech of animals, and the one-eyed omnipotent being. My attempt to track down the earliest relevant works brought up everything from Merlin to the Old Norse Elder Edda poetry (on which the Völsunga Saga is based), the Old English epic poem of Beowulf, all the way back to the writings of Plato!

Tolkien’s One Ring is the most popular instance of the cursed ring of invisibility

Of all the connections to modern fiction (whether books, comics, TV shows, or movies), I’m most amused by GoT because it is essentially trashy fantasy entertainment rather than high literature. But then again, at heart the classic sagas stemmed from the tradition of storytelling and entertainment, whether spoken around the campfire or broadcast over television to millions of viewers. As it turns out, the themes don’t change much: I guess we’ll always be suckers for monsters, magic, and a bit of drama.

This post is dedicated to Jenny Green, who passed away several years ago. Jenny, as I read the Völsung Saga and dwelt on the ideas that eventually wound up here, I kept wishing I could ask you your blunt and honest opinion. None of this would’ve been news to you; I know I’m ever ignorant, but reading and blogging is part of my effort to amend this. I hear you’ve dismissed Beowulf as being merely about “hairy men erratically swinging axes” (though I’d bet you were being purposely facetious), so I can only imagine what you thought of the rest. It would have been a stimulating conversation.


Pig and Pepper

I walked into the pizzeria and asked to look at the menu. Quickly scanning the ingredients, I rejected each pizza as soon as I recognised a word that translated to a type of meat. “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope … maybe?” It was only my second week of living in Italy; I’d studied Italian for seven months and learnt a bunch of words but not all the words and there are just so many words.

Verdure – green – that sounds vego-friendly? Most of the ingredients seemed OK except this one: peperoni. I mean… that’s straight up meat. I glanced up uncertainly at the cameriere.
“Verdure”, I pointed at the menu, “é vegetariano?”
“Sí”, he replied.
“Ma… peperoni? É carne.”
He looked confused and said something to me I didn’t understand.
“Io non mangio carne. Le Verdure é vegetariano ma peperoni é carne. Non mangio carne.”
(Pepperoni is meat. I don’t eat meat.)
He seemed impatient and muttered something else. Never piss off your chef, I thought, or they’ll spit in your food. I reluctantly ordered the Verdure.


When it came out, I stared at the Verdure pizza. It looked fine. Pulling open the menu, I mentally drew lines connecting each word to a topping until there was only one topping left. And then… it clicked: capsicum. Peperoni was capsicum. Like Peppers. Peperoni. Capsicum. I looked up and grinned at the cameriere who had already turned away, glad to be done with this troublesome customer.
“É vegetariano!”



The Mother of Invention

Our paper Simulation-based marginal likelihood for cluster strong lensing cosmology got accepted for publication a few days ago. The astronomy problem posed was about how we can use observations of the phenomenon of strong gravitational lensing by galaxy clusters to infer the values of cosmological parameters (or potentially the cosmological model itself). Each hypothetical universe would result in different galaxy cluster compactness and universe expansion history. Both consequences ultimately affect the Data: which galaxy clusters would be selected in a flux-limited survey, their mass, and their effectiveness as a gravitational lens.

Anyway, we hit a snag because one of the things you need to do this is to be able to say how likely you are to observe what you did under different hypothetical universe models (or something more specific, like the amount of dark matter) – this is the likelihood. Since we use large-scale computer simulations to model non-linear structure formation, we can’t write down a likelihood function – a common problem in fields like epidemiology, genetics, and geology as well.

Our solution ended up being something in the vein of approximate Bayesian computation: use summary statistics. Except in this case, the summary statistics have to be something you infer using the usual Bayesian approach and you end up with a joint PDF (rather than a set of scalar values) for a given dataset (whether real or simulated). Then instead of a kernel distance metric and threshold distance, you calculate the zero-shift cross-correlation of the summary statistics PDFs (ssPDFs) for the real and mock datasets – that’s your likelihood!


This paper is particularly important to me because

  • it was my last as a professional astronomer
  • it involved throwing away the original paper we had written, re-framing the question (away from the notions of tension and consistency with standard cosmology), and implementing creative ideas.
  • we also had the best (anonymous) reviewer. We were both stubborn and pedantic but utterly respectful. This is how the refereeing process should be!

The idea is finally out there and I can now get on with several follow-up validation tests and applications in other fields of research. We could (and hopefully will) demonstrate the full posterior inference/model comparison in the kind of research problem where the simulations are relatively quick or emulators are available. There’s also much work to be done in the choice of summary statistics and inference of ssPDFs. Plus the logistics of calculating the cross-correlation with discretely sampled functions will get tricky when the ssPDFs are higher-dimensional, so any help with that would be greatly appreciated!

Place of Worship

I stood waiting in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – this was my temple. Art galleries around the world are my place of contemplation, providing idols and shrines to inspire thought, and seemingly infinite space and time. It had been 5 months since my last confession: the Tatsuo Miyajima exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

With its diverse subjects, political commentary, and a genre-twist, the 2017 finalists for the Archibald Prize were of high calibre. Every year, Sydneysiders enjoy browsing the portraits of well-known personalities, obscure-but-accomplished citizens, and actor/director John Bell (only two works featuring him this year!). Almost-three-dimensional oil-paintings are popular as ever (see pictured below), perhaps because of the painting of John Bell that won back in 2001. But there’s everything from photo-realistic paintings to cubist art, like this year’s winner: “Agatha Gothe-Snape” by Mitch Cairns.

There was some interesting uses of mixed media: “JC” (pictured above) contains a dead moth and a unicorn hologram; there’s a school-boys’ collaborative work made of blocks of painted wood; a Peter Powditch portrait with folded cardboard and wood; and a fabulous Wynne entry by Juz Kitzon (below, left) that is made of porcelain, wool, resin, pelt, wax, horns, teeth, quills and more.

I’ve realised that portraits of white men in suits rarely interest me anymore unless, like Phil Meatchem’s painting of Francis Greenslade, they reveal something unexpected. I realise that the suit is an important symbol in its own right, but it hardly jumps out at you. On the other hand, Dee Smart’s “The mayor of Bondi” (above, right) was strikingly beautiful with pops of colour offsetting the monochrome realist body of John Macarthur. Then again, I was just captivated by his shocking white hair and dark wrinkly skin that reminded me of my grandfather who had passed away a week earlier.

The highlight for me was to see that an artwork by Indigenous artist Tjungkara Ken had been submitted as a self-portrait:

‘My painting is a self-portrait through Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa, the Seven Sisters dreaming – a self-portrait of my country. For Anangu, they are one and the same.’  – Tjungkara Ken


“Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming), a self-portrait” – acrylic on linen, Tjungkara Ken, Archibald Prize finalist.

After her collaborative work with her sisters won the 2016 Wynne prize (now hanging in the foyer of AGNSW), I had started to wonder if these so-called landscapes should in-fact be portraits given that they are an expression of identity, so I was thrilled to see this entered as part of the Archibald, but then there was still a full room of Indigenous dot-painting landscapes in the Wynne Prize. I’m not if it was accidental or clever placement, but while in that very room, I spotted through the doorway the Sophia Hewson entry that challenges viewers to confront  their white guilt. It wasn’t the only piece of political art in this exhibition, but I’m curious to see how the Australian art community responds. Until next year…


It was the 1980’s when the young Italian followed her husband across the world from the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to the city of Sydney, Australia. She eventually found work of her own in the lower-north-shore suburb of Neutral Bay and spent her weekends hanging out in Kings’ Cross. Just before she returned home a few years later, somewhere across town a little girl of Indian heritage would move to the country with her family. But the two wouldn’t cross paths until 22 years later, when the girl, now a young woman, would turn up in her small but pretty village, Chialminis, to sing Sunday mass with her Triestino choir.


La Chiesa di Sant’Elena Imperatrice in Chialminis where the Sunday mass took place.     Photo Credit:

The entire village of about 50 people attended both mass and a concert held after a coffee break at the local cafe-bar. At the end of the concert, their conductor proudly elaborated on the choir’s diversity and international-roots; the now-elderly Italian woman asked to be introduced to the young Australian, before she’d even left the stage. There was plenty of time to talk as the town had invited the choristers to join them for lunch. The two women sat down together and exchanged stories in an awkward mix of Italian and English. Each had had very different experiences of Sydney, but both had bought groceries in Leichhardt (a suburb that still hosts a large Italian community). Meanwhile, the village served up a feast – including vegetarian pasta specially made at the last minute for the young woman – and plenty of their locally produced dessert-wine Ramandolo. The locals and the visitors would take turns to sing folk songs amongst the rounds of food. When the day came to an end, the two women bid each other adieu with the usual kisses on cheeks. Five minutes into the drive back to Trieste, the young woman and her fellow singers stopped to buy bottles of that sweet white-yellow wine. She would share it with her friends and colleagues at the astronomy department on her birthday that year.
Even after she left Trieste, the young woman couldn’t shake the feeling that she had been gifted a memory from someone’s life to protect, of which only she could understand the significance. She would recall this as one of her favourite days out of her three years spent living in Italy. Years later, she would find herself scanning the dessert wine section in Sydney, hoping (but not really expecting) to discover a bottle of Ramandolo, so that she could drink in honour of a woman named Lucia.

The 10-step program to quitting astronomy

I left astronomy formally 18 months ago and recently finished up a computational modelling job in public health. With a little bit of time and perspective I now present to you my 10-step Program to Quitting Astronomy. Or any line of work. I’m not arguing that you *should* leave. This is simply about the process. Some of the details are specific to my aims, but I’m also incorporating a range of advice from my friends and colleagues, who each have their own unique goals. These steps don’t have to happen in exactly this order, but you’ll want or need to do most of these at some point. Good luck!

The 10-step program

  1. Acknowledge your feelings
  2. Identify your skills and interests
  3. Decide what to do next
  4. Find a mentor
  5. Go public
  6. Form a study group
  7. Re-train and re-brand
  8. Transition
  9. Settle in
  10. Mentor others

Let’s break these down.

So: you’re thinking about quitting astronomy. Why are you considering leaving? Are the problems specific to the job? Or a consequence of unusual circumstances? Could they exist in all workplaces? What future do you picture if you continue? What do you expect if you leave? What are the risks of leaving? What are the risks of staying? What are you afraid of? Do some honest soul-searching; talk to friends; read some quit-lit if you like. I had never planned to leave, so I struggled and this stage took me a whole year. At the end of the day, you might decide to stay. That’s OK. But your mental health is your health, so make that a priority whatever you decide.

If you make the decision to leave, then recognising your own skills and interests is crucial, especially when you come to re-branding (see Step 7). Make a mental list of intellectual interests and priorities (incl. workplace environment, autonomy, opportunity for progression, big picture, salary & benefits, flexibility & stability, family & relationships). Which of these are dealbreakers? My original list had astronomy near the top, and I had to gently but purposely delete it so that I could acknowledge its existence but then turn my attention to everything else.

Decide what to do next *generally* speaking, both in terms of your career and other life choices (based on Step 2). Take every opportunity to hear from friends and acquaintances outside your regular professional sphere about what they do and who they work with. Ask whether they hire people with your background and skills. My first resource was the JobsForAstronomers website, which – back in 2012 – introduced me to the now famous Insight Data Science Fellowship. Insight has since spawned several other satellite initiatives and similar data science programs are popping up everywhere. At that point, however, what mattered wasn’t the programs themselves, but rather realising that my PhD would really be useful and valued elsewhere, that I wouldn’t be wasting my achievements, and that a path existed somewhere to mediate my transition. At first I was drawn to data-science, but later decided (after going back to Step 1) that I still wanted to do some academic work as an applied statistician but in a different discipline; now I sit somewhere in between.

Seek out a mentor or three. Find ex-astronomers who are already working in a field you’re interested in joining (preferably people who you can relate to), ask them about what they do day-to-day, good companies/institutes to work with, where/how to look for jobs, and CV/application/interview tips. People are almost always willing to step up: advice is free and it’s flattering to be asked. In the last few years, a few Facebook groups have been formed to help with this. It’s OK to cold-call someone to ask for advice. I did.

At some point you need to let people know your plans and where you’re looking to go. Partly for logistical reasons (so you can ask for reference letters) and partly for your own sanity (you can stop pretending that your sole purpose in life is to get a faculty job). As a bonus, once people know you’re looking for a job, they might just tell you about potential mentors and any openings they hear about. So go public with positivity. There’s no need to be defensive: you’ve made a (big) choice for valid reasons.


Channel your inner career-transition spirit animal and explore new identities

Find a few other people preparing to make a similar move and suggest that you form a study-group that doubles as a support-group. I’ve met these people either in my own department or at astro-conferences (these days people discuss post-astro careers at every single event; thankfully this is no longer a taboo subject). You can swap tips and discuss all the practicalities of steps 7 & 8. You will find out about twice as many job opportunities. Most importantly, you will not be alone in this.

Re-training is simple; we do it all the time, like reading up for new projects or teaching ourselves new programming languages. But re-branding feels like a bit of a dirty word for a researcher. The fact is we’ve always been one-person companies: creating a product, marketing, consulting, HR, all wrapped up in a human package. Re-branding  means consciously influencing your potential professional community’s perception of you, communicating your expertise, what values you stand for, and ultimately if and where you would fit in with their team. Both re-training and re-branding could involve applying to fellowships and internships, completing MOOCs and kaggle-competitions, attending short courses & workshops, conferences & hackathons, meetups & career seminars, blogging demo-projects, and taking to social media.


Also, take some decent professional photographs – you’ll need them.

Beginning the transition involves a few things: job hunting, re-designing your CV, learning new interview skills, and time. Your mentors and support-study group will be crucial here so make the most of them. A good recruiter can do wonders, and networking is key. I found social-media to be very useful for serendipitous job ads, although I rely more on job-listing websites and newsletters. Interviews can be quite different to what you’re used to, so treat each one as a learning opportunity. Are companies reluctant to hire astronomers? I can’t speak for all companies, but I can tell you that to improve your chances you should avoid being seen as a risky hire: do your research, adapt to speak their language and understand their stakeholders’ needs. So… go out and score that job!


Optional extra: transition between countries…

Adjust and settle into your new job & new life. Get used to answering the question: “So, what do you do?”. I still almost always mention astronomy. No job is perfect, but sometimes it’s not until after we’ve had one job outside our previous career that we realise what we’d taken for granted. That said, nobody I know regrets their decision to leave. It’s OK to miss your research topic. I miss gravitational lensing terribly – the research, my colleagues, and the conferences. I still like to share major science news with my family, friends, and bus drivers. But why not get involved with other science disciplines? Why not the tech industries and start-ups? Why not help shape policy? Now that I’ve freed myself from the shackles of lifelong career goals, I have the opportunity to be part of any of it. I am also free, it turns out, to continue doing research astronomy as a hobby, at my own pace, on whatever I’m inclined to do.

Congratulations! You’ve moved on – with some help. Now it’s time to pay it forward. From the moment you go public (step 5), you can expect requests for mentorship or at least a one-off chat. One year on, I was asked to speak on a panel to junior academics about alternative career paths (keep an eye on emails from your previous department and volunteer when you see calls for speakers). Your ability to help others transition will be useful for at least a few years, so go out and do your duty. Maybe write a blog about your experience.

An Astro-interlude

I decided to spend two weeks hopping from continent to continent to take part in back-to-back astro-statistics-tech events: the COIN Residency Program and AstroHackWeek. A year after having left the field, formally speaking, I’ve chosen to make astronomy my hobby, taking “leave” to do research. It’s maybe not entirely sensible, but I’m doing this on my own terms. This blog is a report on things I learned that sleep-deprived mostly-barefoot fortnight.

First, a little background about the events.

The Cosmostatistics Initiative (COIN) is a collaboration that began in 2014 as a section of the International Astronomical Association (IAA) and brings together people across the Astronomer–Statistician spectrum to do some left-of-field research introducing new data analytic, statistical, and visualisation techniques to the astronomy community. The Residence Program happens once a year: we hang out in an apartment for a week, do some intense work on 2-3 projects well into the wee hours, write-up half the papers, and still get some sun. This year we found ourselves in the lovely, warm, city of Budapest.


Some of COIN on our day off to go sightseeing around Budapest. Credit: Pierre-Yves LaBlanche

AstroHackWeek (AHW), on the other hand, is a free-form event with elements of a workshop (pre-defined lectures) and a lot more making-it-up-as-we-go-along. Early on, 50 participants suggest topics they would like to learn about, identify one expert amongst the group and allow them to become teacher for an hour to a class of 10-20 (learning collectives are a brilliant idea!). Hack projects are the highlight, and are proposed both before and throughout the event; many of us will work on 2-4 at once. AHW also started in 2014, and was held this year at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS).


AstroHackWeek getting settled in at GitHub HQ, San Francisco.

For completeness, I’m also going to mention dotAstronomy, a similar out-of-the-box unconference that started way back in 2008/9. It has evolved over the years, but by the time I attended dotAstro7 in Sydney in 2015, it had become a combination of idea-lectures, just one day of hack-projects, and a lot of unconference group discussions. More of the emphasis is on software/tech and education/communication.

OK, so here’s my brain-dump:

Mixture models

Mixture models are the result of combining models for different sub-populations or classes. This makes them relevant to both clustering classification routines and for dealing with outliers. You can never really tease the subpopulations apart; the point is to model the combined dataset. And maybe provide a probability for each data-point that it belongs to a specific class.

Hierarchical models

Some parameters of the model will be relevant to different subsets of the group. For example, for supernova data one needs to model individual light-curves (layer 1), properties of supernovae type Ia (layer 2), and cosmology (layer 3). I’m now convinced that at least half of all models are actually hierarchical, just not recognised and named as such.

Probabilistic Graphical Models

Probabilistic Graphical Models (PGM) are diagrams that are very helpful for communicating parametrizations of models. You have to learn the “notation”, but once you do, they make great visual aids (see an example in this paper). Parameters are described as distributions, data or constants. Relationships between parameters are noted. This is particularly good for describing hierarchical models.

Gaussian Processes

Making your covariance matrix Gaussian is the first step to modelling correlated errors. This is a complicated subject, and GPs certainly have limitations (maybe Gaussian isn’t appropriate!) but it’s better than just diagonal matrix, and besides, they have useful properties that make things easier to calculate.

Jupyter (IPython) Notebooks

This was the first time I actively used Jupyter Notebooks for writing python code, and I was pleasantly surprised by the interactive features and formatted commenting. Perfect for small pieces of code and teaching/demonstration. However, I do have some questions/gripes (please let me know if there are solutions) :

  • can you import a package/module written in a notebook? Sometimes we end up with a notebook version for development, and then a standard python file for importing.
  • can’t use all emacs commands meaning I have to do more clicking with the mouse, which is why I tend to avoid interactive editors in general.
  • how does one work collaboratively on the same notebook? Can git handle that?

To be fair, I have an old version of ipython notebook, so maybe these gripes no longer apply. I should talk to the Jupyter crew, one of whom I met at AHW.

Parallel programming in Python

I had thought that parallel programming wasn’t really possible in python: you could run code on multiple threads yes, but not really multiple cores. People use multiprocessing sometimes, but now I need to look into mpipool. Could be useful, if you have the mpiexec job launcher set up on your cluster.

Natural Language Processing & Web-scraping

Despite being astronomers-by-trade, you’ll often find us talking excitedly about everything fascinating from outside our field. At a hack-week, we’re happy to give anything a shot. So after free dinner and drinks at GitHub HQ , we dreamt up the Happiness Hack (under a different name) and within 2 hours, created this.

It was going to end there, but the next day, we drummed up interest from the group and ended up extending the hack to grab** and analyse participants’ commit messages, as a bit of a joke, I guess, but here you go.

**beautiful-soup : holy crap!! So powerful, so beautiful…


Mock Turtle sings “beautiful soup”. Snippet of the drawing by Sir John Tenniel

Failing efficiently

Pair coding has been part of my life for the last few months, and I totally appreciate how it can really be more efficient despite the extra person investment. Just enough cooks. The small collaborations formed at both events worked wonderfully together, and several papers have been spawned. But really the big lesson, particularly from hacking at AHW, is that we benefit from learning to fail efficiently, because that sets us free to explore high risk projects. One person could hack away for weeks or months at an idea, while two or three people could declare it a lost cause in a mere day or two. Besides efficiency, this system prevents frustration and burn-out. Trying and failing was actively encouraged at AHW, and, better yet, demonstrated by senior participants.

Career transitions & Imposter Syndrome

Every time I meet with astronomers these days, the discussion turns to the process of leaving astronomy and imposter syndrome. The global community only really started talking about these on open forums about three years ago, and now it’s a recurring theme. At hack days/weeks, in particular, imposter syndrome is rife. Trying to prove your skills and worth and produce something spectacular on a short timescale is a recipe for mental health disaster. The pressure to dazzle with our hacking skillz certainly got to me back at dotAstro, but not as much this time, partly because the organisers made it a point to tackle the problem head-on (thank you!) and make the most of everyone’s diverse skill-sets, and partly because this time I knew better and put more emphasis on play and fun, and less on achieving goals.


So yeah, amongst the astronomy, statistics, computing, collaborating, hacking, and playing, I managed to learn a ton of stuff, see lovely places, and make new friends, which made the trip very worthwhile. My most important lesson, however, was:

Try not to doze off while on your laptop on the sofa near your colleagues, otherwise you end up with photos of creepy teddy bears watching you sleeping…

Seven Sisters

Every year, the Art Gallery of NSW (Australia) features the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Alongside this exhibition are the Wynne Prize for Australian landscapes, and the Sulman Prize for … everything else.

While the Archibald tends to get most of the attention, the Wynne finalists are pretty impressive, and this year’s winner was worth a special mention. The acrylic painting is a collaborative work by five sisters from the Ken family, who live in a remote Aboriginal community in South Australia. The Seven Sisters depicts a Dreaming story** of seven young sisters escaping the advances of a man from ‘another skin group’. They eventually land in the heavens as a small bright group of stars; the man follows them into the sky, forever in pursuit but never able to catch them. The songline for the story extends from south/central Australia all the way to the west coast, and so comes in several variations and languages.

**Aboriginal works such as this are an expression of identity – through representations of country and traditional stories – so sometimes I wonder why they wouldn’t be classed as portraits. But I digress.


Seven sisters by Ken Family Collaborative (acrylic on linen), winner of the Wynne Prize 2016 for landscape, at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The group of stars that the seven sisters become is known to many as the Pleiades, an open star cluster that lies 400 light years away within the constellation of Taurus the Bull. It actually contains not seven, but over 3000 stars, and can be seen from both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. Blue reflection nebulae surround some of the stars; these are the result of carbon dust grains reflecting blue light from the stars themselves. The man in pursuit is sometimes thought to be Orion the Hunter, or just one of the stars in said constellation.


M45: The Pleiades star cluster (image credit & copyright: Robert Gendler)

Interestingly, this star cluster is associated with mythology across many other cultures: Indian, Greek, Native North American, Maori, and Japanese to name a few. As an aside, the Japanese name for the star cluster is Subaru, which is why the eponymous car manufacturer uses a stylised image of the cluster as its logo. In most of the myths and legends, the Pleiades represent seven sisters. So it’s no surprise that the Astronomical Society of Australia has chosen the Pleiades as the name for the Award that recognises institutions that actively advance the careers of women in astronomy.

Risk and rationality

I had the privilege of attending the 2016 Australian Academy of Science Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank in Canberra just recently. I’d only heard about it via a single tweet the day before applications were due, but with the topic of “An interdisciplinary approach to living in a risky world”, my response was: yes please.

We were also asked to choose our preferred topic for breakout-group discussion, and I got my obvious favourite, the technical theme of “Uncertainty, ignorance and partial knowledge”, which turned out to have some focus on decision theory. The session would chaired by Prof. Mark Colyvan, a professor of Philosophy at my alma mater, The University of Sydney, who had recently responded to Luke Barnes’s recent fine-tuning of the universe talk. Some of the recommended reading got me thinking about matters we didn’t get to cover (like how much I don’t like maximin), but I’ll discuss with Mark, and I’m sure I’ll blog about that later. In the meantime, our breakout group spent a couple of hours throwing around our thoughts and ideas and have begun to craft a report and recommendations for the Academy regarding decision-making and risk communication in the face of uncertainty.


Wrap up from chair Prof Hugh Possingham

My fellow delegates were such interesting people from diverse backgrounds like health, maths, stats, philosophy, history, law, geology, ecology, microbiology etc, and absorbing ideas from these amazing people over the two days provided a complete mental recharge. It was like NYSF for grown-ups. Even the conference dinner speech by emergency doctor David Caldicott was so stimulating, leaving my laughing and crying, I’d dare say it was the “best event speech ever”.


Slide from Prof Terry Speed’s talk at the AAS Think Tank

Actually one of the things I most enjoyed at the Think Tank was finding out people’s thoughts on rationality during tea break, as always. As it turns out, most people I spoke to (about this topic, sample size ~5) were adamant that people are at heart, irrational creatures. Only one person (besides myself) thought otherwise. I’ve been told I have to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow to hear more arguments against the assumption of rationality. Apparently there are tests for this sort of thing…

Outliers are people too

I confess: I like Tom Stoppard because his plays highlight all the intellectually stimulating but somewhat pretentious (aren’t they all?) discussions I’ve had over the last 15 years. His latest, The Hard Problem, was no different. It follows Hilary, a psychology student who we meet as she applies for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, hoping to inject some humanity into their research. As always, Stoppard treats us to some witty banter, this time about altruism, animal behaviour, coincidence, consciousness, ego, evolutionary biology, morality, neuroscience, religion, and the worlds of academia and finance. The Hard Problem is perhaps less clever and fresh than Arcadia or RosenGuild, but fun and thought-provoking nonetheless. Some of the characters are true to the bone while others, disappointingly, feel typecast, but there is definitely some familiar truth in all. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the brain-lit Hytner production that we saw streamed live from the National Theatre in London – worth seeing.

Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre. (Opening 28-01-15) ©Tristram Kenton

Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre.
(Opening 28-01-15)
©Tristram Kenton