MPA SN meeting, day 1

I’ll try to keep these short and sweet, less a blow-by-blow as an overview of what people are talking about and what it’s like to be at a meeting like this. I won’t mention every talk either, just a few highlights which stood out in my own mind.


The first day started in the afternoon, with only a few talks planned.

  • Mark Sullivan opened with a historical review of supernova searches. He says that photometric calibration, e.g., corrections between different filter sets or different telescopes, is the largest uncertainty in supernova cosmology at this point. He also highlighted some recent results (Nugent et al. 2011, Schaefer & Pagnotta 2012, Dilday et al. 2012) related to direct attacks on the question of what kinds of things explode to form SNe Ia.
  • Bob Kirshner talked about his star student Kaisey Mandel’s work on a Bayesian SN fitter meant to explore the role of dust extinction in a probabilistically rigorous way, including near-infrared (to which dust is largely transparent) observations as well as the usual optical optical observations. He showed a plot demonstrating how the impact of dust on the observed color of a SN Ia depended nonlinearly on the amount of dust present, in contrast to what is commonly assumed. He described a program called RAISINS which will use the Hubble Space Telescope to observe distant SNe Ia in the near-infrared, resulting in a Hubble diagram largely free of uncertainties due to dust extinction. (Bob’s group isn’t the only group interested in doing this, but Kaisey has made some very interesting contributions to understanding dust.)
  • Dan Maoz gave a comprehensive review of different ways of measuring SN Ia “delay times” — the time between the formation of the progenitor system and the SN explosion. Different progenitor models make different predictions for what the delay time distribution (DTD) should look like, so you can gather indirect evidence for what types of systems cause SNe Ia by looking at the form of the DTD. While I was aware of this area, I never really felt like I understood what was going on before (this instance of) Dan’s talk, so I found it very useful from the standpoint of getting caught up on this sub-area of SN Ia research.
  • Melissa Graham talked about a search for SNe Ia in galaxy clusters at moderate redshift (z ~ 0.5). She mentioned, in particular, the discovery of a type II supernova — that is, the explosion of a young, massive star — in a “passive” elliptical galaxy in which no new stars had been formed recently. Usually the assumption is that any SN going off in one of these galaxies must be a SN Ia, but apparently that’s not 100% sure anymore.


Anyone who’s gone to more than a few conferences on any topic can tell you that the most interesting stuff happens not in the formal sessions, but in the interstices — the coffee breaks, the dinners, the late-night drinking binges. So it is proving with this conference. It’s an excellent meeting with a lot of good energy: I had more fruitful chats with other researchers, both junior and senior, in the first day of this meeting than I have in entire other conferences I’ve attended.

I’ve noticed two phase transitions in my own role from prior conferences I’ve attended. One is that I now know enough about what’s going on in the field not only to speak with confidence and excitement about what I’m doing (even though I’m not giving a formal presentation here), but to ask “good” questions about other people’s work on which I’m not already an expert. I find that the senior scientists I most admire are not shy about asking questions, and take the attitude that no question is “stupid” or bad as long as you learn something interesting by asking it. But I find that those scientists are also good at asking penetrating questions, which quickly get to the heart of the matter and conceptually separate answers from each other in the space of possibilities. Some attributes and talents that make this easier such as good memory and ability to make connections quickly, may be innate. Others, such as attention, curiosity and self-confidence, can probably be improved with training.

The other is that I find myself, while still trying to rebrand myself in the middle of my career, increasingly a resource to scientists more junior than myself. I spent at least half of my informal chat time talking to grad students about their career plans, their thorny research problems, and the state and trajectory of the field, and introducing them to senior scientists whom I already happened to know — in short, just the kinds of conversations I wish I’d had more often at that point in my own career.

(Though I’m sure this morning that it wasn’t that bad, it felt like I spent the other half getting heckled about how SkyMapper still wasn’t finding any supernovae! But I can live with that, since we all just want the search to work so we can start getting science out of it. Some critical hardware fixes to the telescope should provide our desired image quality starting next month, but remaining patient till then, and optimistic that the fixes will work, can be tough sometimes in the face of ongoing external pressures.)

I also had some useful conversations with Mark Sullivan and Saurabh Jha about career trajectory issues — what makes a good research collaboration, how to pick fruitful science topics, and so forth. It’s always interesting to hear how successful researchers navigate the challenges of getting science done — how they express the judgment coming of long experience. But I found in the process of talking with the students that I can already articulate opinions about what goes on in my head when I pick a research topic or decide where to allocate my effort. So while we can all continue to learn, I may not be as out to sea as I’ve sometimes felt.

The revelry continued until the wee hours of the morning, with the coffee breaks giving way to an evening reception, and thence to an after-party at a bar near our hotel. Much beer was consumed, with predictable effects on students and faculty alike. Miraculously, my eardrums held. Eventually we got the “get the hell out of here” round of shots from the management (of a schnapps-like liqueur made from bloodwort root). Shortly after that the mob dispersed and I posted the previous day’s photos before losing consciousness.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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