Where (some of) the magic happens

Posted By Pamela on Nov 17, 2008 | 8 comments

I love random adventures, and currently I’m in the midst of one.

Last Thursday I flew from St Louis to London where I spent a couple days recovering from jetlag somewhere that I (almost) speak the language, and then yesterday I flew on to Munich where I am now working with other International Year of Astronomy folks to build the Portal to the Universe.

While getting to London was more of an adventure then intended (my luggage was lost again), the too few hours I got to spend in the UK were wonderful. On Saturday I took a train out to the east side of England (Audley End) to meet some of the wonderful folks behind Galaxy Zoo, including Steven Bamford, whose journal articles on galaxy morphologies and galaxies in cluster environments I’ve been gleaning inspiration from for over a year. Sunday was another day of happy meetings involving trains and train stations. I was able to finally meet Astronomy Blog writer Stuart Lowe for the first time, as well as seeing Chris Lintott. The three of us met at St Pancreas / King’s Cross train station – I love public transit, and luckily so do they. We met, drank coffee, and then found some lunch as we discussed new media, astronomy, and just how different British English and American English really are.

For instance “pants.” After my luggage was lost (yes, again) I was promised by British Airways that I would get all my things, but probably 24 hours after I actually needed them. This led to me shopping. There is an amazingly cheap store called Primark that offered me almost everything I needed. Almost. As this store caters primarily to teenage girls (judging from the swarm of skinny 14 year olds that were flirting with mirrors), I was very lucky to find anything that fit (for better or worse, I am not shaped like a teenager). My luck ran out just shy of finding a pair of what I would call pants and what a Brit would call trousers. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem accept that “pants” in British English means underware, whereas the type of pants I referred to would have made up the publicly viewable lower half of Ms. Clinton’s ubiquitous pants suits. (I really need to find out what Brit’s call pants suits). Thus, my struggle to fund “pants” led folks to believe I was on a quest to find panties. You can see where this might lead…

But I survived and I think I’m going to try and start writing down all the random new words I keep encountering.

But London and the trains and train stations that allowed me to meet cool people are temporarily behind me (although I’ll be back and will meet any of you up for it at Mabel’s Tavern on Sunday November 23 from 2-5pm. With me will be Galaxy Zoo’s Chris Lintott). Instead of confusing British vocab words I’m now dealing with even more confusing German. It has been a good day and my two years of High School German have sufficed to allow me to kinda-sorta interact with shops and restaurants. Everyone at ESO / ESA (they share a building) speaks English at some level, so once I’m to work I’m fine, and I’ve been enjoying the adventure outside of that safe science center. It is good to know that knowledge sometimes sticks (and I actually looked up my old german teacher in Westford and emailed him a note of thanks).

I’ll put up pictures tomorrow (I forgot my camera today).

Working at ESO is fun. Space exploration is in the air and the walls are lined with pictures of space and of the ground-based and space-based instrumentation that allows us to explore the universe’s most distant corners. The group of people working on IYA are under the guidance of Lars Lindberg Christensen and Pedro Russo. Between them and their staff, well – this is where all the IYA magic is happening. I’m not sure how many of the international cornerstones are coming out of the offices here, but I know Mariana Barrosa, Lars Holm Nielsen, and Rachel Shida are all playing roles along with staffs of graphical artists and programmers too numerous to list but all deserving respect for the cool and global projects they are making a reality. Lars Holm Nielsen is one of the main programmers making Portal to the Universe, the IYA international website, and many other websites function, and he’s been patiant with me working on Portal to the Universe as I stumble jetlagged through our python and java code. (Thank God the coffee at ESO/ESA is free!) Hopefully in the next couple weeks we’re going to have something really great to show you.

For now though, I find that I sadly need to get some sleep. And just in case you haven’t heard me say it before, Go Register Your Organization, Your Astronomy Business / Department / Facility, Your Astronomy Blog / Podcast / Vodcast / Image of the Day Feed for Portal to the Universe! Go do it today!

Pictures coming …


  1. Hi Pam, we call them ‘Trouser Suits’… See, we’re not as confusing as we could have been if you’d wanted suspenders. Our word for what you call suspenders is ‘braces’, what we call suspenders are used by (mainly) ladies to hold stockings up…

  2. You *just* missed Pat Reiff of the Rice U Space Physics and Astronomy Dept. She’s in London now.

    I can help with some of the British terms:

    Spotted Dick is a dessert (pudding with raisins), not a social disease.

    You will find nobody in England named Randy Pratt (randy = horny; pratt = butt).

    Over there, a fanny isn’t a butt, it’s a lady part.

    Bum = butt, too, so their homeless people (if there are any) aren’t bums.

    Those are just the ones I know off the top of my head; I’m sure there are thousands. Can’t help you in German, though.

    Thanks for the update! I’m *so* envious of your travels and connections with nifty people!

  3. Pamela,

    Sounds like your having a great trip, hope your luggage shows up before you get home.

    I think the IYA is being short changed. Even though I lived through it I had to be reminded that the International Geophysical Year was 18 months long. (June 1958 – Dec. 1958). The IYA really deserves more than 12.

    I know you are too young to remember Walt Kelly’s Pogo but if you can spare a few minutes for a laugh take a look at “G. O. Fizzickle Pogo” at:


  4. Hi Pam,

    We also call them ‘business suits’ as well up in the North of England.

    Terminal 5 always sucks the life out of everyone who passes through it. Its the endless walking followed by a half hour bus trip into the airport underworld. I’m sure they could have built it closer to the rest of the airport if they tried hard enough. For a new terminal they also could have shelled out a few more quid for more comfortable seats instead of the standard numb your butt ones lol!

    As for Primark stuff watch for the shrinking and never tumble dry anything you have bought from there. It loses a 3rd of its size (especially jumpers/sweaters)!

  5. and remember American and British dress sizes are different – but I expect you have discovered that by now! See you on Sunday

  6. The “IYA magic” is indeed happening … everyone on this planet! Just the past week has been amazing, and today more major steps were taken: May your two years of German guide you through this summary where at least most of the links go to sites in English. 🙂

  7. Haha.. The pants issue sounds familiar. A friend of mine emigrated from South Africa to the UK. While shopping for new clothes at Marks and Spencers (UK department store) he remarked rather loudly to his wife (who was standing a few meters away) that he thought she would look good in a nice pair of leather pants. He only realised what he had said when a few nearby shoppers stopped and looked at him.

  8. pants is a funny word. v.t short rapid breathing. noun, trousers, shorts, knickers (english vs american meaning), pantaloons. If you aren’t confused yet, remember English is a diverse Language which hasn’t procreated yet.

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