Nichol and Matt go to Chile!

Sunset over Cerro san Cristobal

Hi all,

Just thought we’d write a brief note to show off a couple of pictures that we just took. The first is a simply meant as a comparison shot to demonstrate what Cerro san Cristobal looks like without any smog. The rain this weekend has really cleared the air, and we’ve been thrilled to let the fresh air in! We snapped the second picture because at that moment, the sky looked incredibly eerie, even a little apocalyptic.

Cerro san Cristobal and the foreground when the air is about as clear as it gets. We’ve never appreciated fresh air more than we do now.

The Seven Cell Towers of the apocalypse…

That’s all for now!


Clusters, Courses and Everything in Between

As foreshadowed in our most recent post, I thought I’d provide an update on some of my recent astronomy related goings-on. Since March, I’ve been pretty busy with the first few courses of my program as well as trying to fit in some time to work on a bit of data in regard to what will eventually be my thesis. My course work thus far has involved assignments, preparing/giving three 45-minute seminar talks and now the focus is mostly on completing two significant research projects. Two of my talks have been on summarizing recent major review papers. The first was on the idea of a universal stellar initial mass function (don’t ask…you don’t want to know), and the second was a review of what the community knows about the formation of massive young star clusters, the sort that I will be studying in detail for the next few years. The other talk was a lecture to my stellar variability class on various techniques of determining pulsational periods of variable stars…thrilling I know.

As far as the thesis goes, thus far there is exactly zero interesting information to report. Indeed, when time has permitted, I’ve just been trying to reduce some data taken of some large star clusters in the galaxy NGC 5128, or Centaurus A as it’s also called. Unfortunately, the most important task in astronomical observations, transforming what we get from telescopes into clean, usable data, is also one of the hardest, most frustrating and challenging parts. I’m hoping that after the semester is finished at the end of June, that I can work full-time on getting these spectra reduced so that I can move on to the fun part: analysis. In this case, I’ll be trying to measure what kind of chemical abundances are in the clusters, e.g. how much carbon, magnesium, calcium, iron, etc., the systems have. These measurements will tell me what kind of star formation has happened in the past, since all of those elements are created on different timescales by different types of stars. In the long-term, I’ll hopefully be creating some computer models that simulate how such massive groups of stars evolve, and most importantly, form. The observed measurements, combined with those of clusters in other galaxies (and galaxy clusters) will serve as a good test to see if my models may actually be accurate representations of how these structures form.

I’m also working on two other research projects as part of this semester’s courses. For my extra-galactic course, I’m working with two other students on collecting information on a large sample of galaxy clusters in order to compare to work that has previously been done. We’re still quite early in the project though, so I don’t have too much to say about it other than that. This project will be very challenging in that it involves a subject of astronomy that I’m not very familiar with, so it will be interesting to see how it develops.

My other project is being done as part of my stellar variability course. I’m working with another PhD student on this, and so far it is coming along very well! With fingers crossed, we’re hoping to complete a report that might be submitted for publication since the subject matter is quite contemporary. The object we are studying, NGC 6569, is similar to the objects that I’m studying in Centaurus A; it is a collection of a few hundred thousand stars called a globular cluster (GC), in the bulge of the Milky Way. Specifically what we are doing is searching for variable stars, i.e. stars that periodically get brighter and dimmer, and plotting how the stars’ brightnesses change over time. This GC is interesting in that the ‘metallicity’, or how much of the cluster’s stars are made of elements heavier than H or He, is quite high compared to other GCs. Some recent work has suggested that variable stars in other high-metallicity GCs seem to have longer periods, i.e. they take a longer time for their brightnesses to increase and fade, than the same types of variable stars found outside of clusters. It will be interesting to see what kind of results we get. Will they have longer periods, or will they be more in line with what is expected from other GCs? Will the results point toward a fundamentally different sub-class of this type of variable star? One way or another, hopefully we’ll end up with a report that will be interesting to the theorists who incorporate these observational constraints into their models. As well, since these types of variable stars are used as ‘standard candles’, which can be used to estimate distances, this kind of work may effect current distances estimates that have already been done. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but things are looking promising so far. To bring this update to a close, I’ll just leave this here…

The globular cluster NGC 6569. I wish I could take credit for the gorgeous image, but this was made from our data by my partner. The one I made was nice, but not this nice!


Cinco de Mayonaisa

Hola Todos!

We had a really good excuse for not updating for the past few weeks, but one of the urban dogs ate it. Honestly though, we just haven’t had a whole lot to share recently; however, looking back at the month there have been a few interesting tidbits that we should mention.

We are starting to get a feel for what kind of weather a Santiago autumn has to offer. The temperature hasn’t dipped too low yet (~ 20C high, ~ 10C low), although the odd night has felt a little chilly. Of course, this could be due to the lack of insulation in the apartment. Apparently buildings have not been required to have insulation until the past couple years. Seeing as our building was built in 2007, it must have just beat the change in building code. We’ve also discovered that our thermostat is more for aesthetics than for adjusting the heat. Rather, we have a very modest space heater, which, while effectively heating a small room, does not reach (thankfully?) temperatures that would be considered a fire-hazard. In fact, when our Spanish teacher saw it, he insisted that it was not for heating the apartment. No, this little unit was meant for pre-heating your bathroom on those oh-so-cold mornings before you take a shower. At least that’s what his Mom uses the exact same unit for. After asking our landlady about the thermostat earlier this week, she informed us that heat is paid for communally by all the apartments that choose to use it. Thus, if we wanted to use the heated floors, we would have to ask the front-desk to turn the heat on…for a measly 60,000-80,000 CLP ($120-$160 CAD) per month! Please note that our apartment is approximately 380 sq. ft. Wethinks that the space heater will do.

This cloud is not fog, the picture was taken on a sunny day. Who wants subcutaneous emphysema?

Apart from the temperature, the weather is usually lightly overcast, with at least one sunny-break per day when the temperature almost always climbs above 20C. The layer of clouds also serves a rather nasty function though: it holds the smog in. We’ve found the smog to be almost unbearable, and insist that anyone back home in Canada immediately go outside and take a few nice deep breaths for us. Have you ever put your tongue on the terminals of a 9V battery to see how much charge there is? Well imagine the metallic twinge of a battery that’s almost out of juice; that’s the flavour that settles on the tongue after walking 10 minutes in the smog. It’s disgusting, and it burns the lungs if out too long. Unfortunately, there’s just not much to be done about it, other than close the windows and try to minimize being outdoors. Matt just got over a minor sinus infection that we strongly suspect was due to the atmosphere. Nichol is now showing the exact same symptoms, so perhaps it is some sort of cold, but regardless, breathing in the ‘smair’ just exacerbates the problem. Pleasantly, as we write, the rain is falling for the first time since our last post and we have the window wide open to let in the beautifully cleansed air. The rain is also serving to clean our ‘smog window’, that is, our window that is heavily caked with the particulate matter floating around. It will be nice to finally see out the window again!

We’re not sure if there are window-washers for this building, but if there are, they don’t seem to come on Saturdays. We’d wash it ourselves, but it’s a precarious ledge overlooking a long-drop with a sudden stop.

The rain is also illustrating another interesting aspect of Santiago life: drainage, or lack thereof. It does not take much precipitation before small ponds form at every intersection of every street. This problem is made even worse by the fact that almost every crosswalk is raised, forming little dams that guide water towards seemingly non-functional storm-drains. During our walk in the last…uh, ‘downpour’, we bore witness to an unfortunate motorcyclist who failed to negotiate the street-lake which he was rapidly approaching. As we safely traversed the cracked pavement between the crosswalk-dam and the sidewalk, we heard a terrible *screeowwwlll* and turned to see a motorbike sliding on its side into the lake, with the rider six feet ahead of it, jacket-surfing on his back across Lake Calle. With great dignity, he got up, dripped his way back to his motorbike, gave it a couple of kicks, and re-saddled before popping a wheelie and tearing off down Providencia Ave. At least he was wearing a helmet.

We are continuing our twice-weekly Spanish lessons with a great Spanish teacher, Andres, who comes to our apartment on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. After one of our Tuesday sessions a couple weeks ago, we got a call from the front-desk just minutes after he left. Still having trouble understanding the impossible Chilean accent, we simply assumed that Andres forgot something and so simply said ‘que pasa por favor’. A few minutes later, our door-buzzer went off, and we opened the door expecting to see a friendly face. Indeed, the face was friendly, but alas it was not Andres. Rather, it was the face of an unshaven South American with a long ponytail, wearing coveralls with the logo of one of the local tele-com companies, ‘VTR’. He flashed his VTR ID, came in (after asking…we think), and immediately started looking at our modem and wireless router, with all indications of there being a problem with the modem and wanting to change it. Unfortunately, ‘Hay no problema’, and ‘Lo funciona!’ didn’t seem to have an effect and, realizing our Spanish was poor at best, he told us ‘cinco minutos’, and left the apartment, his toolbox and clipboard sitting on the counter as a promise that he would be back.

Having exchanged a number of ‘what the hell is going on?’, ‘I don’t know!’ looks, Nichol went into super-sleuth mode and (perhaps inappropriately) investigated the clipboard. She soon realized that, among the addresses listed on the pages, was an apartment building with the same street and apartment numbers as ours, but on a different street, while on the back of the sheet was an address with our building, but an apartment ten floors down from ours. Proverbial alarm bells started ringing. Just then VTR-man returned with a shiny new modem to replace ours. When we eventually distracted him enough to pay attention, and pointed out what we thought was the problem, silence fell as he thoughtfully looked at the two addresses, then at us, then back at the pages, finally clasped both hands together, and replied with a ‘lo siento’ before gathering his gear to go down to apartment 401, who must have been eager to receive their new equipment.

Unfortunately, in order to replace the modem, he had previously shut off access to the internet. We waited about 15 minutes, hoping that he would come back, but eventually decided that it would be a good idea for Matt to simply wait in the lobby and catch him before he left the building. Luckily this plan worked, and he was able to come back up to the apartment and return the internet to it’s initial, gloriously working status. Dinner ended up being a little late that evening.

Well, this post is starting to get a little long, so we’ll wrap up with a couple of culinary curiosities that we’ve recently been enlightened to. The first is in regard to a commercial that we’ve recently been seeing during ‘La Rueta de Suerte’, aka Spanish ‘Wheel of Fortune’ (which is great for learning vocabulary, if you can get over the fact that everyone in the audience seems to have a tambourine, as well as the soccer chants during every wheel spin…that being said, the young buck hosting the show is *much* better looking than Pat. We like how he never does up the last five buttons of his shirt). The commercial is for Hellman’s mayonnaise. Chileans love mayonnaise. Really, really, really love mayonnaise. You can actually order mayonnaise as a side-dish here. It is not uncommon to see half an aisle in the grocery store dedicated to mayonnaise, sold in large 1L hermetically sealed plastic sacks. In any case, the commercial features a recipe that we can follow even with only our basic grasp of Spanish. It is as follows: take chicken, slather it in mayonnaise, bake it, serve it to guests and bask in the glorious smiles as they admire your culinary creativity.

The second is in regard to what is apparently accepted practice in Chile (among other countries…let’s be fair). We won’t go into the details of the conversation we had, but remember the butcher that we mentioned in one of our first posts? Well, we should probably be glad that we didn’t wind up getting any beef there. It seems that in some Chilean butcher shops, ‘carne de caballo’ is often sold as ‘carne de vaca’…look it up. It is even often sold as raw meat and jerky near the beaches, so that beach goers can have a snack and hasados (BBQs). We’re told that it tastes good, but, uh, ‘no gracias’.

That awkward moment when you notice the horse on the food vocab list…

Anyway, tonight we’re making chili in Chile with one of the culinary success stories we’ve come to know: merken. We can’t say enough about this Mapuche flavouring; the mix of smokiness and spice puts chipotle to shame. We will definitely be bringing some of this home with us! Until next time (this time, it will be less than three weeks…Matt has a special upcoming astronomy post up his sleeves).


Pierogi y El Parque

Hola All,

Yesterday was Dia del Trabajo here in Chile, or Labour Day in May.

It appears that the Chilenos take Labour Day pretty seriously, as even the “Big John” convenience stores and the supermarkets were closed yesterday (FYI, they were open on Easter). We spent the day at El Parque de las Esculturas taking some new pictures with our proper camera (i.e. not the iPod; check out the Pictures section if interested) as well as spending the afternoon/evening engaged in the most labour intensive meal we know: the almighty pierogi (piroghi, pierogy, perogy…we look forward to your e-mails).

As a good Canadian, the humble pierogi is one of Nichol’s favourite foods. Especially made from scratch. Not that she’s above the frozen ones, she’ll just secretly judge you for it as she ‘gags’ them down. Anyway, pierogies, frozen or not, aren’t exactly in abundance here (some may claim that the empanada is Chile’s pierogi, but we digress…). Since it has been a good 3 months since indulging in perfectly-poached-potato-dumpling-paradise, pierogi night (with a Chilean twist) it was.

After Hunky Bill hit the scene, the Canadian Union of Ukrainian Grandmothers simply wasn’t able to compete.

First up was the traditional cheese and potato filled pierogi. We’re not entirely sure how authentic it is, since the recipe is from a Kinette cookbook from the 1970s, but it’s freakin’ yummy. For those of you who are unaware, good cheese (i.e. cheese with any flavour whatsoever) is hard to come by in Chile. When you do find semi-decent cheese, you end up paying a small fortune for it (our 1st, 2nd and 3rd born may or may not be mortgaged to the Cheese Man….). After recently finding the queso mother-load at a Unimarc grocery store in Las Condes, we dropped approximately $80 CAD on cheese in a week and a half. Clearly this isn’t sustainable, thus, we haven’t been back (yet). We’ve been rationing the imported American cheddar, but this was finally used up in our pierogi filling.

Ready for action. Hunky Bill, meet dough. Dough, meet fillings. Fillings, meet ‘rolling pin’. Now that we’re all acquainted…

Since cheese is at a premium, we decided to try a new pierogi filling from ingredients that are readily available: ground beef, merken (a hot and smokey blend of dried and smoked red chilies, coriander seeds, cumin, and salt…that’s merkEN, do NOT google ‘merkin’), quesillo (mild farmer’s cheese), and cilantro. We feel that merken deserves a post of its own and will get one up soon (alas, the quesillo, no). In the end, the cheese potato filling won out, but we enjoyed experimenting with some Chilean ingredients. If you have ideas for other pierogi variations, or any questions/suggestions on Chilean food/ingredients, please let us know!

The finished product: sauteed onion and ham, cheese and sour cream. Oh yeah, there’s pierogies under there too.