i’ve spent the past two weeks on a work trip to germany, first to heidelberg for two back to back workshops, and then to munich (garching, really) to collaborate at the european southern observatory (eso), who run the paranal observatory in chile i visited last year. now, i’m back in baltimore and enjoying the company of my cat once more. when i left, the leaves still clung to the trees, the weather felt like spring. now, the trees are bare, the temperature is frosty. drizzly german fall reminded me of home, in the pacific northwest.
after a grueling red-eye into heidelberg via reykjavik and then frankfurt, i enjoyed the view of on-going construction from my ground-floor hotel room. each morning i found myself frequenting coffee nerd, a cafe near the bus-stop, before taking the reliable public transit up the hill to the max planck institute for astronomy’s campus. one of their buildings is shaped like a galaxy, it’s pretty crazy. they also have a handful of domes at their historic state observatory. on wednesday, i took a break to visit the castle, and then took the tram up the hill to the campus. i ended up giving the first and last talks of the week: i felt fine about the first but not too pleased with the second.
my first night, i had an excellent schnitzel at weinstube schnitzelbank. my last night, i had an excellent fried pork knuckle at palmbräu gasse.
after having given my talks and said hello and goodbye to colleagues, i spent a final day in heidelberg alone, taking a hike across the river and up the philosophenweg, where, for a moment, staring between this small snail and the wide view of the valley, i did feel philosophical.
i left heidelberg by train, planning to take a direct, high speed train to munich, and arrive by noon. unfortunately, the moment i arrived at the platform, the notice rang out that the stop at heidelberg for that train had been canceled. so, i hopped on a bus, which took me to a train, which took me to munich. without a reserved seat, i spent much of the trip standing, and managed to bruise the ball of my foot by not standing correctly.
thankfully, my hotel in garching (a univerity town outgrowth of munich) did not give me the ground floor, 6am construction special. i took the reliable public transit from my hotel to the european southern observatory garching office each morning. its a pretty cool building, a twisting maze of walkways and stairwells and offices. i gave a chill coffee presentation, and then a more formal seminar on a new result. unlike the second talk i gave in heidelberg, i felt very confident about my seminar presentation at eso, like i had come to a better understanding of how to explain my work.
the best part of this trip was seeing all the cool lego constructions they have representing the telescopes eso runs in chile.
the second best part of the trip was getting to connect in person with my collaborators in the ExoGRAVITY collaboration, especially the few grad students who work on our data and modeling. in particular, i got to see evert, from mpia, again after meeting last year in leiden, and meet amanda, from northwestern, for the first time. i also had the honor of spending time in heidelberg with yoni, a fellow astrobiter (who took the picture of evert and i). i also unfortunately met my heat-demon-shadow-self using this infrared camera in the visitor center.
one thing my trip to eso impressed on me is just how friendly and tight-knit their phd studentship seemed to be. thomas, a collaborator in the phd program there, invited us to some of their social events, and the students seemed to have a very cohesive social circle there. they all had cool offices in the building, and ran regular social events. jhu and stsci could never.
the trip was a great success – in fact, just this morning i got word that an observation i planned during the trip was taken on my behalf by eso from the vlti. still, the week of unceasing work has left me feeling somewhat hollow.
spending the week interacting at work with people who do the same research i do, who use the same tools, and think about the same problems, makes me dread returning to work next week in my somewhat isolated place at hopkins. its not that i don’t have great friends in my department, or that i don’t enjoy the company of my research group there, but i’m the almost the only person there, definitely the only grad student, who works on these particular kinds of observations.
returning home has felt wonderful, i’ve gotten to spend some time with some of my best friends from amherst who visited for the holiday. i’ve sunk back into my apartment with the cozy feeling of trying on a favorite sock, and i’ve made up for lost time with my cat with lots of chin scratches. i’m excited about reading this weekend, i’m hoping to spend time improving my writing once i recover some mental stamina, and i’m looking forward to winter in the city.
but now when i think about work in the wake of this trip i feel a deep melancholy. i suppose a part of me wishes i could interact in person with people like evert and amanda and thomas every week. tired, adrift, and lonely, even though i know i’ve had plenty of success with my astronomy career so far, and have great prospects for the next year of research. i’m sure that no one else has felt this way before.
until next time, clear skies.