Week 2: In Which I Begin to Understand Binary Stars

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Monday, June 8, 2015


Rachel Odessey

Last weekend brought with it a welcome break from the initial shock of the 9-5 work week and the chance to finally enjoy the privileges of living in a city. To celebrate a first week well spent, I went with all the other SPS interns to dinner at a ramen bar in Adams Morgan, followed by some exploration of the neighborhood. Saturday, I escaped to the National Gallery for some time to myself and caught a contemporary photography exhibit before meeting Hannah, Connor, Elias, and Pat at the Air and Space Museum. The museum was just as exciting as I remember from my elementary-school field trips with the added benefit of actually knowing some of the physics as well as the history and politics around the rockets I saw. Since NASA is featured so heavily in most of the exhibits, the visit got me thinking about the purpose and the history of this giant that is hosting me for the summer, how much the momentum of politics and tension in the world at the moment of its inception carried it so successfully into being—and how different it must have been then from my post-Cold War experience so far.

My mentor, Ted, has been away at a conference this week so I’ve been trying to figure out as much as I can of my project before he comes back. Max and I had our ‘official’ NASA orientation on Monday, and it was inspiring to see the hundreds of other college students who will share the summer with us all sitting in one room—even if, by the end of the three hours of lectures I was more than ready to get back to actual work. 

My introductions to bureaucracy, however, were far from over. I got to spend the rest of the day with a fun cycle of account-setting-up and password-making and security-training-taking and program-installing and system-updating. Finally, though, my computer was up and running got to the data problem I’ve been working on all week since then. NASA has this host of data from Eta Carinae, and to organize it into meaningful information the postdoc also working on the project, Mairan, gave me folders full of scripts to organize the information in various ways. The problem is, they’re set up to work on his own computer, which means they’re pretty tangled up and they’re in a language I haven’t used before, IDL, so it’s taken me a long time to make any sense of them. I have made some progress, though, and so far I’ve come up with a few different data representations—which Mairan has been trying very patiently to explain to me and I’m slowly starting to grasp how to put them all together. My summer notebook is very quickly filling up with random questions and epiphanies about Eta Carinae, which will probably be highly entertaining to look back on at the end of the summer. In the meantime, I hope the directories full of spectra now on my laptop keep making more sense to me, however slowly.

Rockets at the Air and Space Museum
Planet models at the Air and Space Museum

Rachel Odessey