#EASLeiden2020 – My First International Conference (from home)

European Astronomical Society Meeting – EAS2020

Welcome to my second blog post, all about my first ever international conference! Unfortunately, this is slightly less exciting than it sounds as I was sat in my bedroom/office in Lancaster wrapped in a duvet for the entire week. However, I still had a great time! EAS2020 was ‘held’ in Leiden, The Netherlands this year and offered talks about all kinds of amazing astronomy and astrophysics. I will mostly focus on my highlights of the conference – my poster presentation, climate change and inclusion in physics. 

Leiden looks beautiful! (Photo from Emma Dodd)

Are virtual conferences the future?

Although I was sad that I couldn’t visit Leiden (I hear it’s great – read Emma Dodd’s blog post about her internship there) for EAS2020 this year, the truth is that I probably wouldn’t have participated if it hadn’t been online. The price of the conference alone, not to mention flights and hotels, would have taken a large chunk from my budget, potentially meaning I couldn’t visit other conferences in the future. It seems as though this was the case for many people: this year saw over 1700 participants from 58 countries! Virtual meetings open the door to many more attendees, with everyone saving plenty of money and time.

I also really enjoyed the virtual Q&A sessions. I thought it was much easier (and less scary) to ask questions on the chat and this platform also meant interesting discussions involving many people could be started and read by anyone at a time that suited them. On the other hand, there is no real replacement for face-to-face networking and meeting potential future collaborators in person, which is especially important early in your career. Despite this downside, one huge upside is that virtual conferences are much better for the environment, with a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Virtual conferences have approximately 1% of the carbon footprint of ‘normal’, face-to-face conferences. Although the effects of COVID-19 have been terrible and devastating across the world, I think it’s been a good push towards having more virtual/semi-virtual meetings in the future in order to help with the climate crisis. But maybe in the future virtual conferences won’t even be an exact replica of face-to-face meetings. A good comparison made by Travis Rector in his EAS2020 talk was that when TV was new, people just made radio shows for the TV as that was the only format they had, but with time they adapted and evolved until TV became its whole own entity. Who’s to say that the same won’t happen with virtual meetings where they eventually get their own format, separate from face-to-face meetings?

ePoster Presentation

So onto some science – I was fortunate enough to be accepted to present an ePoster at EAS2020! This was a good opportunity to present my work to a wider audience and a rare chance to be creative. It would have been really great to have had an in-person poster session where I could stand with my work and chat with anyone who was interested and network a bit more, but I still enjoyed the process of creating the poster and giving a mini presentation of it. Poster-making is an interesting task: make it look good, include plenty of images with minimal text, but also enough text to explain the images and motivate your science. Pretty stressful. But hopefully I managed it, and you can find a pdf and a low quality image of it here:

Climate change and astronomy

Big international conferences such as EAS are a great opportunity to watch talks that go beyond people’s research and results. There are often many sessions including topics like inclusion in physics (discussed below), the future of astronomy and astronomy and climate change.

Climate change and the effects it will have on our lives is something that is important to me and something that should concern everyone. However, I hadn’t ever considered the effects of astronomy on the climate, or the effects that climate change could have on astronomy. Thankfully, at EAS2020 there were some amazing talks about this. 

But why should astronomers even care about climate change? These points were raised by quite a few of the speakers:

  • We have a wide platform – hundreds of thousands of students across the world take an ‘Astro 101’ course at University level (~250,000 in the USA alone) and this is a good opportunity to teach about climate change.
  • Astronomers are seen as trusted sources – we aren’t just in it for the money and we don’t have vested interests in big power/oil companies.
  • Climate change will affect our ability to produce high-quality science images of space.

So first of all: the effect of climate change on astronomy. A large proportion of astrophysicists rely on data from telescopes to do their science. However, climate change has already affected many of our telescopes and models of future changes suggest that it’s only going to get worse.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the
Atacama Desert in Chile.
(Credit:ESO/S. Brunier)

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile (which is the telescope I use for my PhD work – see my previous blog post) is built to work below 16°C. This wasn’t much of a problem in the late 90s when the VLT was being built and first started operating, however now, over 20 years later, the temperatures of the Atacama desert have risen meaning that new cooling systems had to be installed to keep the temperature of the instruments below 16°C. Although it’s good that a solution could be found and the VLT is still operational, these cooling systems use a lot of energy so are in turn bad for the environment! An endless cycle it seems.  As well as this, there have been models to predict changes in the weather patterns and they show that Chile could be hit particularly hard by increased humidity. This would have detrimental effects on the quality of the data collected.

But what  about how astronomers affect the environment? As a community we use high-powered telescopes, even higher-powered supercomputers and fly around the world for meetings, conferences and observing runs. In Australia, supercomputers account for 60% of the carbon footprint of astronomers and an average astronomer has a carbon footprint that is five times larger than the average Australian. 

Travel is also a big factor. Many speakers pointed out that there is a culture in astronomical academia that equates more travel with more success and a higher status, which now feels as though it needs to change. Although networking is very important, travelling for meetings and conferences in the way that is currently done is unsustainable.

Many astronomers rely on simulations and complex code for their research. In Australia supercomputing accounts for 60% of the carbon emissions of astronomers! Another speaker discussed the importance of writing efficient code and using the correct tools to run it – if he ran his simulation on his normal desktop computer it would produce the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of flying every attendee of EAS2020 from New York to Amsterdam and back TEN times each. (He also estimated that it would take 2000 years to run!)

Inclusion in Physics

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave a special invited talk at EAS2020 about the inclusion and importance of women in astronomy.

I found the ‘Inclusion in Physics’ talks very interesting. As a woman in STEM I am part of a minority in the field, however I feel extremely lucky to have never felt discriminated against for being a girl who is interested in physics. That being said, I still know that many younger girls are told that they can’t do science, that even women in academic positions get discriminated against and that it is important for younger girls to be inspired into science when they maybe hadn’t considered it before. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave an incredible talk about these issues. She highlighted a very relevant quote from Derek McNally, who was General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union from 1988-1991. When he was questioned about the percentage of women in astronomy his response was:

The IAU regards itself as a body devoted to the promotion of astronomical science and to this extent has tried not to cross the line into matters of social concern.

Derek McNally

This didn’t set a good precedent for change, but thankfully the following General Secretaries were much more aware that astronomy should be involved in social concerns and the inclusion of women in astronomy actually brings its own benefits. However, women still only account for approximately 19% of people in astronomy, but in more junior positions this shifts to 35%, so there’s definitely been some positive changes towards equality more recently.

There was also an interesting discussion about the lockdown and WFH routine disproportionately affecting female academics over male academics. It will take slightly longer to conclude the percentage difference in papers released by women and by men between WFH and ‘normal’ circumstances and whether women are releasing fewer papers relative to the men in the WFH environment. However it has already been seen that more women are turning down refereeing papers since lockdown. The discussion basically suggested that women with children now had significantly less time for work as usual working hours now include homeschooling, cleaning, cooking and childcare. This isn’t to say that men with children aren’t affected by this at all, but statistically women are more likely to be carrying out more of the unpaid care work in families, or it often depends on the “importance” or pay check that comes with the work. (If this is a topic that interests you check out Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez, it is an incredibly interesting breakdown of the data surrounding how the systems in our society are built for men.)

Heather Wade 07-07-20