Monday, July 17, 2017

I married a professor after all...

Andy & Andy-Chick
less serious
 Andy received a reader position at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation from the University of Portsmouth. He is joining the institute in October. Needless to say: I am very proud of him! This is the equivalent of an associate professor position in the US. It means he will build his own research group and that the position is permanent. Furthermore, if all is well, it is expected that he will be promoted to full professor in a few years. 

While we do have two children together, Andy and I are not actually married. A marriage certificate would have made our already multi-national lifestyle even harder to deal with. Certificates need to be apostilated according to the Hague convention and presented when dealing with real estate issues and with children. The apostile is only valid for a limited period of time. It is easier to simply not be married. Then one can just present their ID. However, given that we  have a family together, the relationship is somewhat equivalent and title seemed catchy.

me, Electron & Positron
As I write this I am surrounded by Electron and Positron. James also just woke up. So, I have to conclude this post to help him use the potty. He is only 8 months old and doing a reasonable job of being diaper-free.

Will Andy's position suddenly brighten my career prospects? No. I am receiving a visiting position that is unpaid and the support to apply to fellowships if/when I find the time.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Scientists Changing the World

A gravitational wave (by David)

This is the Breakthrough Prize medal. Andy says it looks very much like David's drawings of gravitational waves. I attach some pictures of both. I leave you -- dear readers -- to judge.

David is a bit older now, but just as interested in science. Today he used solar power to separate the Hydrogen and Oxygen from water through electrolysis. He kept repeating the experiment until he collected some of the gas bubbles in a syringe. Then he tried blowing them up. He is fascinated by blowing things up. But unlike the US president, he is 10 and he only blows up bubbles, and so we are safe near David for now. 

When gravitational waves were discovered, David (still 8 years old at the time) and Edward (5 years old) were so excited that they insisted in writing a book for children on the subject. The children, Mihai and I worked on the book for weeks. They made all the drawings for it, and it ended up being a collection of dancing black holes, dancing children and happy fruits. See side-bar for the amazon link.
Colliding black holes (by David)

Andy was the second person to see the first gravitational wave that was detected, and when he realized it was real he tried his best to help lead the collaboration through the right steps in checking the data and the physics inferred. The wave arrived in his first day at work as Detector Characterization Chair. The detector was not even considered in science mode. As Andy put it in the first seminar in Switzerland on the subject: "the detector was ready, but the people were not" (I organized the seminar in Zurich).  The almost-perfect match to numerical relativity data was a surprise to all concerned.

In 2016 David wrote about gravitational waves in his school diary. At the end of the school year, Andy took pictures of David's writings and when the medal arrived, he gave the medal and the pin that came with it to the children. Andy explained that they deserved it because they asked many relevant questions on the topic and because they worked hard to increase the outreach of the science.

Edward, Andy and David in Tenerife
The money from the prize was used to partially fund a trip to Tenerife (the biggest Canary Island) and to build a fence in the back yard that keeps the children and the dog safe*. 

I still sometimes wonder if the science we do has value. I worry that we end up working on very specific topics that reach a very small community. This medal helps me realize that what we do (sometimes) matters. The whole world stopped to listed to the waves in the fabric of space-time. This was a year and two months ago.
Louisiana 2002

Mihai and Mario near LIGO 
with gravitational waves posters (I wear red)
My interest in gravitational waves started in college. In my first year of graduate school, Mihai and I were visiting LSU (Louisiana State University) to organize its first course on gravitational waves. It was the winter of 2003. This course was requested by students working within LIGO who wanted to understand its science better. We used Kip Thorne's web-based lectures and homework, which Mihai had convinced Kip to make to "benefit the whole world not just Caltech" (they are available on youtube today). He and Yanbei Chen were co-authors of the lecture series. One of the LIGO detectors is in Louisiana within driving distance of LSU. We saw the mirrors locking and the detector stable and in science mode. I remember discussing how imminent a detection was. We had students coming to learn more about the waves during Christmas and New Year's Eve. Everyone was just so excited, but then not much happened besides work for a long, long time.

Dave, me and Andy
In 2007, Andy, David Tsang, Mihai and I finished our first paper that modified the design of Advanced LIGO's mirrors to lower its dominant form of noise where it was most sensitive. Advanced LIGO still has to reach the sensitivity we were aiming to improve. After we finished our paper, a rainbow appeared. So, Dave, Andy and I climbed on top of the Space Sciences Building where our office was. A colleague took a picture. None of us jumped. This was our last year of graduate school. I was wearing color coordinated clothes and I was still combing my hair. That same year Andy and I applied for jobs. He received a position at Syracuse University, while I went to Penn State. There he spent a lot of time understanding how LIGO worked, and then when Edward was born, he moved to Penn State to be with us. At Penn State, he mapped a 3D space to 2D to allow LIGO to finally search for spinning black holes. Together with colleagues, he wrote the spinning template bank, which is now used by LIGO.

Gravitational waves were detected in our life-time - some 13 years later after I first visited the detector. Experiments often progress more slowly than people's lives. From 'our 2003 students', Ravi  Kopparapu is working at NASA searching for planets. His work on habitability is known world-wide. His wife who was pregnant at the time is still at his side. They have two amazing children. I have not kept in touch with the others. While most have quit the field, each must have a full life of their own.  Ray Wise began thinking about gravitational waves tens of years before us and so I have little cause of complaint, but I still feel I have witnessed part of history.

* Additional funds were needed to finish both projects. Tenerife was cold, but that's because we chose to go there in February - a year after the discovery of the waves was announced. A neighbor threatened to sue us over the fence because it's not straight enough. I wrote him about the medal. No court case has been opened to date. The medal is made of metal, and could be used to bang somebody on the head if the need arises, but then I would be sued for bodily harm. I point out I have no history of aggression.

Hristos a inviat! Happy Easter!

me and James
Edward w. baby Silkie
It's Easter and throughout the house children, a Silky chicken, a cat, tortoises, baby chicks and Terrapins are all moving about.  We wish you all dear readers a very happy Easter and a lovely spring and summer after that. Hristos a inviat! 

You might be wondering how has my family increased. It's a multi-part story. My friends assume I have a very quiet life. But at any given time, a person or animal needs something. It's much fuller than life in the office. It involves making people and animals happy or unhappy --  at times. They keep me very busy, but also play a role in keeping me sane while being on unpaid leave and with my father to take care of. My mother does more than I could ever repay. She has always been the one to help us most. 

Each member of our menagerie has a story of its own. 

Negruzi & The other girls
Why do we have Silky? We have been writing and illustrating a book about chickens and dinosaurs when we came across a furry looking chicken. The children wanted one just like that to inspire their drawings for our book. I made a phone call and ordered a Silky chicken and some Silky eggs.

Silky arrived by post. We received a frantic call from post-office personnel asking us to pick up the hen. My mom went to the post office and asked where's the chicken. People were mesmerized by the question. It seems few chose mail as their form of chicken-delivery. It took some time to locate Silky, but they both arrived home safely.

Silky is fluffy like a baby chick, gets very wet when it rains and cannot fly. The Silkies come from Asia. They have long been part of history: Marco Polo wrote about the 'furry chicken' in his 13th century travels. They are more friendly than other chicken. Every evening Silkie climbs on my feet, on my mom's feet or Andy's. That means she is ready for bed. She sleeps on the table in the living room in a box because it's still quite cold outside.

What about the other hens? Most of our other hens were rescued from a factory farm. They were acquired on the way from school when we saw a person toss hens out of his car like sacks of potatoes. The children asked him how much they cost, and we simply had to buy some. We have three chicken that are not rescues. One is a present from a family friend, and two chicken were my reward last year for paying for a genetic test. I had a friend who was pregnant and was told her baby is likely to have Down syndrome. The child is healthy and it made her pregnancy more relaxed to know that ahead of time.

the baby chicks
with Spike
The baby chicks.  We have lots of eggs, and so we also had to get an incubator. We now have 24 baby chicks. Not all have names. Spike jumps out of the box first thing in the morning. Star was the first to come out of his egg. The David-chick's shell was opened by David a day early. He did not look quite done and so we put him back in the incubator for another day in a plastic foil. He is in good shape now, but David worries he is a hen and so the naming scheme might have to be changed in the future. Then there are the six silky chicks. They are white, black, and wild-piglet like.

The tortoises (Kiki and Piki) and Terrapins (Otto and Fifi) were the children's reward for finishing their first two books and becoming published authors.
Rainbow -- the cat

The cat just showed up. She wears a bell and a collar of the same color as her eyes. She is very friendly, and also appears to be heavily pregnant. Her black and white coloring is similar to that of Coditza, our dog. Perhaps she thought that they belonged together. He receives meat to eat, and so does the cat now. They both refuse the appropriate pet food. Andy calls her "Rainbow" because white light has the full spectrum of colored light in it, and black just absorbs everything.  Rainbow must belong to a neighbor - although the ones I have asked do not know her. She caught a rat today, and ate it in front of us. Part of its skull and tail is still in the yard. The ants are eating what remained. I worry about Rainbow's safety now. What if the rats are poisoned?

Easter eggs
Edward, David and Andy painted eggs with water-colors this year. There is the Robot egg, the Jupiter egg and a few of more standard coloring. The Jupiter egg is the favorite - although it's not the toughest of all. I will soon have a post about my technical paper on Jupiter. It should be submitted this week, and once it's accepted I will write about it. In the meantime -- below is Jupiter the egg.

Jupiter -- the egg
Finishing this post late reminds me of my religion teacher from middle school who used "Hristos a inviat" instead of hello many months after Easter. He had white hair and seemed so very old to me (he was likely in his late 40s or early 50s). I remember it was summer. School was long over when I met him on the street. He started the conversation with "Hristos a inviat", and then explained that everyone should be rejoicing not just during Easter, but for much longer. 

When I walk past the Timis river and see all the lambs brought for slaughter to celebrate Easter, I cringe. My mother reminds me that fewer people go hungry now than when she was young, and that this is because of industry and agriculture -- it's now possible to feed everyone. I suppose it's fair to see a tiny piece of the price paid from time to time. The killing of lambs does not happen in the open in the US or the fancier parts of Europe. But it's interesting to watch how we can so easily turn off compassion. When seeing the lambs, I think of the various countries in the world where there is war and wonder if there will ever be a time when we'll be truly kind and grateful for what we have -- perhaps when there will be less left to destroy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Wall Painting

David explaining biology to James 
It was a long process

In a dark, cold winter day, my children decided to paint the walls in my room.  Before I was only surrounded by boxes of tortoises and terrapins and visited by chickens and rabbits. Now there are also inanimate versions of them on the walls. I admit they make the room more cheerful. Elements of astrophysics sneak in: my six year old drew a black hole and a galaxy, and David (age 9) drew the LISA mission. The laser was unfortunately leaking as were other colors.

Edward's painting were mostly inspired by our animals, while David was inspired by his biology book. He says he hates biology, but has to study it for school. He does understand it. His biology textbook - like most textbooks - is very dense with too many names for plant parts and processes and too little logic. 

Wall 2

And it's done!
Wall 1
The ideas were first discussed with two-months old James (see above). He babbled in his own language and appeared to pay serious attention to each suggestion. James can already sustain long conversations with sounds that sound almost like words, and likes being held all day long.  

Edward drew tortoises, a dog, several chicken, some flowers and insects, and what he says is a blue submarine. David drew a yellow submarine, a snail, a boat, sections of flowers and pores in leaves that open at night and close when the sun is too hot. James was surprisingly quiet during the whole process.

The results are briefly described below. Wall 1a (by David unless otherwise noted):  section of a flower with pollen and seeds, giant tortoise (by Edward), pores of leaves that close when the sun is up and open when it's cool, another flower section, the LISA mission. Wall 1b (by David): a snail, a boat, an yellow submarine. Wall 1b (by Edward): galaxy (the green spiral with blue dots for stars), a yellow version of Urechila (our white bunny), a darker version of El Dogo (also known as Codita) and a flower with its seeds. Wall 2 (by Edward): flowers with insects (bee and butterflies), a nearsighted tortoise and a nearsighted Petunia, who looks more like a duck than a chicken. Wall 3 (by Edward): floating turtle, a black version of Pufi - the white chicken, Negruzi - our rooster, a black hole with stuff spiraling into it, and a tortoise eating a flower. The blue submarine is hiding under the window sill.

Wall 3: the black spiral is a black hole
A few years ago we were standing in an elevator with some visitors, and Andy wondered at how things happened in our family in a disappointed voice. He concluded that first the one year old is asked where we should go and what we should do next, then the four year old is consulted and lastly a decision is taken by the adults that focuses on pleasing both children. The trend continues to today. Now,  they are six and nine, and still very stubborn. When my mother goes to the store to buy building supplies and asks the six year old for his opinion, the clerk stares.

Edward and his model
I often wonder if I am right with most of what I do. We'll have to wait until they are grown and perhaps beyond that to be certain. So far my mother, Andy and I are very proud of them, and will always love them very much. I am less patient and more nervous that I should be, and make plenty of mistakes, but for now they are perfect.

Wall 1 (closer): green spiral = galaxy
I often wish I could have some order in my life. But then perhaps that's the wrong thing to wish for. Order brings a certain kind of death. Perfectly aligned, weedless flower beds may be beautiful, but they are almost dead if you count the number of insects and animals they house.

The authors
My house and walls are full of animals and the doors at the entrance of the attic and basement are bright red. The colors for the other doors has been chosen to be bright blue. They will be painted as soon as the weather warms up a bit.

My house is a mess. However, there is always some light at the end of the tunnel - even if it sometimes takes the shape of a rooster that crows several times a night (and in the daytime). I admire Negruzi for his patience. He stayed still for over half an hour while Edward painted him. When I asked Edward if he wanted a childhood like that of Gerry Durrell, he answered "no, 'cause mine is better. " He then started drawing and planning on what he will do, build, get next. He stopped half an hour later. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Goodbye 2016, welcome 2017!

My family has grown in many ways this year. I am sharing the room with two tortoises, two Terrapins and my second baby.

My father agreed to move back in with us for the winter, and in addition to him, we have two rabbits (Tzup-Tzup and Urechila), Coditza - the dog, and 15 chickens.
Coditza and the hens
Edward + chickens
The chickens are Negruzi, Pufi, Petunia and the 12 apostles - altogether named the chicken army or Andy's chicken army or the army of animals most similar to the T-rex. In addition to the leadership of LIGO's detector characterization group (joint with David Shoemaker), Andy jokes he is general of the chicken army and that he often enjoys the latter role more.

Scientifically,  the year was awesome! We celebrated LIGO's first detection: first proof that black holes of tens of solar masses exist and that we can see see them through their gravitational wave emission! We can see waves in the fabric of spacetime AND the waves looked exactly as predicted by numerical relativity! Then there was the successful launch of the LISA pathfinder where the data defeated all expectations by about two orders of magnitude.

some of us this winter
our tree: to be replanted soon
I will always remember this year for the birth of James in November. Otherwise, on the human scale, it has been sad and strange: (1) the war in Syria was even more lethal than before, (2) many beloved celebrities passed away, (3) there was a new terrorist attack/mass shooting almost every week, and (4) America elected Donald Trump for president. This year brought uncertainty.  We watched the greatest country in the world elect a president known for contradicting himself many times a day, for being hateful and seemingly insane. This means there is something very wrong in the way our world is structured, in who we promote, and in what we deem important. We worry more about the future now and we are justified to worry. We should have the courage to rethink most of what we do and what we rely on.
Bending rules in school with Edward and David
after the first oral exam
logs in the forest
Edward started this year in kindergarten. He is now in second grade. David was in third grade in the beginning of 2016, and is now in 5th grade. Almost all children who come from abroad lose a year.  Few are luckier and stay in the same grade. Instead, we've been through many commissions and exams - both in Switzerland and Romania - and gained two years for Edward and one for David.

We still have a number of evaluations to go through. Many say I am wrong to push them forward. One common argument is that they are losing their childhood. I do not equate school with being a kid. I equate it with sitting down and doing what you are told for half a day in most parts of the year. If they can learn to bend rules early, perhaps they'll have more courage to try to change the system and shape the world when they are older.

part of Europe's first underwater museum
riding camels
I try to make up for encouraging them to take on challenges by allowing them to have pets, by taking vacations, and by not sending them to after school or other similar programs. They are mostly outside when they are home. They also do not own tablets or computers. We have never owned a TV. Edward (at 6) is interested in animals and in renovating the house. David will be 10 next month. He likes chopping wood, making fire and playing with electronics. They both still play with remote controlled toys: boats, cars,  drones, cameras and helicopters. 

First year unemployed
Before Romania: dreaming of chickens
This is the first year since 2001 in which I am officially unemployed. I was 18 when I started working full time. It was the summer of 2001.  I am 34 now. It would have been nice to have maternity leave, but the grant I was on did not come with such provisions and my contract was due to end the month before I had my son. While I was told I could have gotten an extension for a professor job elsewhere for continuity's sake, nobody offered me such an extension for maternity leave.

first day of kindergarten
in a castle in Lazarote
 I could have placed my baby in day care or with my mother (again) and gotten a job in industry. I decided against that. It was partly because I love James and I did not want to go through prolonged separations again. Also, after meeting with a number of evaluators through the Swiss school system, they decided that if I stay, they will keep Edward for another year in kindergarten. He was getting awfully bored there, and besides learning the language there was little benefit. He was not interested in the type of books they read or in their songs or discussions. Surprisingly, in Romania, they were open minded and agreed to place him in second grade for a trial period.  I could have also gone back to the US, but it would have meant leaving my parents behind yet again, and they need me now. So, we came back to Romania.

another castle
tree climbing
Does being unemployed make me feel free? do I have more time? No, I seem to have less time than before.  When I don't breast feed, do homework, change diapers, hold the baby, fix or pay people for fixing things around the house or try to keep track of what the children are doing, I sleep or eat and try to remember to drink water to have milk for the baby.  I feel as if I spend most of my time running in circles. I forget so much more than before and I don't notice everything I should. I also try to do some science from time to time. Overall, it's easier to be at work than to be a full-time mom, but at times the latter is much more rewarding.

Do I want to be unemployed?
Carrying a hen around
at the beach
I want to spend time with my children, and I am fortunate to be able to do so without worrying over money for food.  However, it would have been nice to have had some kind of maternity leave. I have bent rules before, but I've mostly managed to bend them to allow me to work more or for free. I understand it's meant to be this way in science and, in general, for immigrants. I did not have to be an immigrant. So, I came back "home".
 The first snow
pe malul Timisului
It snowed for Christmas, and Edward and David were so happy and excited. I could not find a particle of excitement in my soul. All I could think was that it will be dangerous to drive or even walk outside - especially for my parents. I remember a time when I was sitting at the same window many years ago. I loudly mentioned then how I could not understand people (e.g., my mother) who could not find joy in the first snow of the year. I was perhaps a year or two older than David is now. I finally understand her.

 in the Alps
with grandma in Lanzarote
My mother is still the person who makes everyone happy:  the animals, the children, the fire and my father. She is 70 this year. I wonder if I'll ever be able to do for my children as much as she's done for all of us. 

What next?
Edward's first chickens
I promise to try to be more sensitive to beauty and in particular to the beauty of my children's minds and souls. I remember when they don't do their homework or when they have not worked through extra problems. They never do it on their own. They also never clean their room unless I stay there watching. Even then it does not work well; our house is a mess. But, in spite of this, I will try to see more of the bigger picture as we do things together.
Edward - the pirate

David pointed out the other day that in 4 or 5 years he'll be gone. It might 7 instead of 4, but it will still be soon. Edward was telling me that he won't care what I do when he'll be 20 if I'll live till then. While they are talking of a future they can not yet imagine, I imagine there is some truth in what they say. Ideally, the plan is to make the best of our time together, and be kind to each other as much a possible while getting stuff done.

Edward w. missiles

Military museum: David in a tank
Last year we visited all museums we could find in Switzerland. Some we've seen multiple times. We've been to most of the Ort museums in the various parts of Zurich + neighboring areas. We've seen castles, caves, the military museum, the tram museum, the plane museum, the traffic museum and many others.

Edward, Pufi, Negruzi, Pestriti
This year we'll aim to focus more inward and towards our increased family with the many pets and properties we have accumulated.

T-rexes were just like chickens
Travel-wise, in February we are going to Tenerife - the biggest of the Canary Islands. It holds Spain's highest mountain, Mount Tiede. It will be James' first volcano, the 3rd volcano for Edward and David, and also our first active volcano. I have to make sure the animals will be happy while we are away and that the pipes won't freeze.

In 2016 we published "Made in Fire: You, Me and the Universe" and "A Child's First Book on Gravitational Waves". In 2017, we aim to finish two more books. One is already written and needs to be illustrated, and one still needs to be written. 

between armored vehicles
Then there are properties to manage: houses to fix, land to rent, land to sell. The big question I have is "will the EU will fail?", and if it does, how bad will things be for Romania, how deep will the depression be?, and will we still be safe.

bubble making w. Andy?
What else lies in the future?
a bike on tank?
Simulations of boson stars, of course, and some clock related research. Boson stars are made up of fundamental bosons, i.e., dark matter particles thatonly interact with themselves.  Dark matter particles could Bose condense into compact objects called boson stars. We could be living in a giant boson star, and we know that galaxies have haloes.  Stars might have haloes, too. The question is how to detect them. LIGO might see two colliding boson stars. They could also go through each other or repel each other depending on their angular momentum. Clocks might put some upper limits, but, at first sight, they don't seem accurate enough to get into interesting regimes.