Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Gender ratios in physics students in the US and UK....

Why do A-level physics gender ratios in the UK and BSc physics major gender ratios in the USA show similar trends offset by 15 years....?

In the UK the trend flatlined (or began declining) around 1985. I the USA the flat line/decline starts around 2000. There should be an offset of about 4 years (the length of time it takes to get a degree in the USA), but I don't understand 15 years.... 

Modelling Data - Example using A-level Physics Gender Trends

Love this blog post: "Brent and Levenberg-Marquardt: the bread and butter algorithms for postgrads" which uses data I collected as an example for modelling trends.
I collected these data to include in an article I was invited to write for Astronomy&Geophysics on "Women of the future in the RAS". In that article I conclude: "Fitting a straight line to this 60-year trend and dangerously extrapolating the poor linear fit into the future, we find that we can't expect gender equality in physics A-level until 2163."

The data is not cheerful, and a linear increase model does not fit it well. In fact according 's best fit model, recent years show a decline in the fraction of A-level physicsists who are women. 
Credit to Val Aslanyan ( for this version of this plot.

What to Call your Professor?

Nice infographic which may help with the age old question - why do so many people call me Mrs. Masters? (PS. That's my Mother, or my Nanna, but never me, my patriarchal married name would be different.....)
So, you're taking a class... What do you call your professor?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Tech Support for Finding Stars

Here's an article by Benji Jones for Gizmodo in which I was interviewed about helping people find stars they have "bought".

People Can't Find the Stars They Paid to Name—and They're Calling Astronomers for Tech Support

The main points:
  •  There is nothing official about buying a star - you're just buying a nice certificate.
  • Many of the stars cannot be seen without substantial amateur size telescopes
  • You can see them online fairly easilly. 
I had previously (like over a decade ago!) written about this for the Curious about Astronomy? Ask an Astronomer website.: "How can I find the star that I bought?"

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

My Advice for Summer Research Placement Applications

Summer research experiences for undergraduates have been common in the US for years, and more recently have been growing in availability in the UK (where they are sometimes called "summer research placements"). They are one of the best ways to help obtain a PhD position where demonstrating your experience and ability in the research environment really helps.

As an undergraduate at Oxford I benefited from summer placements in two summer breaks. I spent the summer between my first and second years working at the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center (as part of the British University's North America Club, BUNAC exchange scheme), and in the summer between my second and third year I spent 10 weeks working with Duncan Forbes, then an academic at Birmingham University (which happens to be relatively close to where I grew up), on a project which resulted in my first ever published paper: "The elliptical galaxy formerly known as the Local Group: merging the globular cluster systems", Forbes, Masters, Minniti & Barmby 2000, A&A 358, 471.

I have also previously been in charge of organizing a summer research placement scheme (Summer Research Placements at the ICG, Portsmouth), and it has been a real pleasure to be able to help the current generation of undergraduates access different schemes.

Here are my top tips for summer placement applications, as well as making the most of a short talk/poster presentation which may follow:

Application Tips (many of these I assume apply to more than just summer placements):
  • Tailor your cover letter (at least a bit). A form letter is easy to spot, and probably worthless
  • Spell check.
  • Be open to different project possibilities, but honest about subject areas/placements that don't interest you.
  • Spell check.
  • It's extremely helpful if you include details of your results in different units. This helps us figure out which project may be most suitable for you.
  • Spell check.
  • Don't assume the person you are sending the application to is admin staff (especially if they are female).
  • Spell check.
  • Don't assume the person you are sending the application to is male (especially if they are female).
  • Spell check. 
  • In fact just address the letter to "Dear Prof/Dr. A. Non". Don't go with "Ms. A. Non", "Mr. A. Non", "Amy", "Andrew" or "Dear Sir".... No-one was ever offended by you being more formal than you needed to be, and I suggest you spend 5 minutes looking up who you are writing to (or if if you can't work it out go with "Dear Sir/Madam", or "Dear Summer Placement Organizer").
  • Spell check. 
  • Send your CV as a pdf, with a filename which includes your surname. 
  • don't use a personal email - your University should have provided you with an email you can use. 
  • list references up front, rather than list them as "on request".
  • Oh did I mention you should use the spell check on your computer (honestly I'm bad about this too, hence mentioning it so much. Correct spelling demonstrates you care about your application). 

Poster Tips:

  • Go for visual impression. It's likely your poster will be in a room with many posters, so you need to attract attention
  • Include some photos of what you did.
  • Don't put too much text - just the main points.
  • Make sure you can read all text if you print the poster A4 size - then it's about right for printing full size to go on the wall (and you can make handouts easilly if you want to). 
  • Include your email/photo/full name. 

Presentation Tips:
  • Say your FULL NAME, and the University you study at. 
  • Say the FULL NAME of the location of your placement, what they do, and what your project was
  • Describe your main result and/or something you enjoyed about the placement. Describe the implications of what you found (these may not be obvious). 
  • End with "If you'd like to know [more or something specific] come and see my poster, number XX".

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Women of the Future Awards for 2017

Nominations are now open for the 2017 Women of the Future Awards, so please see below for an updated version of a post I first wrote this time last year.  

The deadline for nominations this year is 8th September 2017.

Monday, November 7, 2016

What is a Supermoon?

The astronomical news this month is all about the "Supermoon" happening on the night of 14th November 2016. But what is a Supermoon, and why is it different to any other Full Moon?

Let's start simple, with what it means to have a Full Moon. All this means is that the Moon is in the point of its orbit around the Earth which puts it directly opposite the Sun in the sky. As a result the side of the Moon we see is fully illuminated by the Sun, and the Moon rises at sunset (and sets at sunrise) making it visible all night.

Diagram illustrating how the phase of the Moon depends on its position in its orbit around the Earth relative to the location of the Sun. In this diagram the Sun is not shown, but it is to the right, directly above the point on the Earth labelled "Noon". Credit: Wikimedia, Thomas Splettstoesser.
 So obviously, the Full Moon happens once in every lunar orbit around the Earth (well technically slightly less, because meanwhile the Earth is also orbiting the Sun, but let's not worry about that). Now the orbit of the Moon isn't perfectly circular. It's very slightly oval shaped, with a point (which is called the "perigee") when the Moon is at its closest to the Earth, and a point (called "apogee") when it is at its furthest.

This difference is very small - much smaller than shown in the diagram above. If I drew an oval with the right proportions you couldn't tell it wasn't a circle! The mean distance to the Moon is 384,400 km, the closest approach is just 21,296 km closer than this. That might sound a lot, but it's just 5% closer than the average (an apogee is 5% more distant than average). 

A Supermoon is just the name we give for a Full Moon which happens when the Moon is at or close to perigee (i.e. it's closest point to the Earth). Being 5% closer than average makes the Moon look a barely noticeable 5% larger, however the impact on its brightness is more significant, making Supermoons the spectacle that gets attention. A Supermoon will be 30% brighter than a Full Moon at apogee. High and low tides will also be more extreme when the Moon is closer.

The Supermoon of 19th March 2011 (right) compared to an average full Moon (left). Credit: Wikimedia, Marco Langbroek.

Now how close the Supermoon is to the exact point of perigee determines the exact distance to the Full Moon and how super the Supermoon is. The upcoming Full Moon happens at 3pm GMT, Monday 14th November 2016, when the Moon is within 1.5 hours of passing through perigee, making it a "super Supermoon". 

 What's more, the distance of lunar perigee also varies slightly (caused by the gravity of other planets in the Solar System and various resonances). The November 14th perigee happens to be a  close one. This means that 14th November is really a super-dooper Supermoon; a lunar perigee hasn't happened so close to the Earth since January 26, 1948, and the next Full Moon which is so close will be November 25, 2034.

 While these are relatively rare events, the noticeable difference in the Moon is quite small. The Full Moon is well worth catching every month, even if the nights of 13th/14th November 2016 ti will be slightly brighter and larger than average.

xkcd comic explaining the Supermoon.

 And be aware that Supermoons are getting gradually less super. The Moon is very slowly moving away from the Earth. However as it's moving away at just 3.8cm each year, it'll be a while (a few billion years) before this makes any noticeable difference.