In memoriam: Richard Hunstead

A couple of months ago I received an invitation from the University of Sydney to attend a celebration function for the career of my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Richard Hunstead, as he retired. The date was to be Friday 14 February, with an afternoon of reflective talks by his colleagues, followed by an evening of drinks and canap├ęs. I accepted the invitation.

Two weeks ago, I received another email from the University. Dick (as he was known) had suddenly fallen ill and passed away. The event would go on, now as a celebration of the life of this distinguished researcher. I felt less inclined to go to something where the mood would be so different, but yesterday afternoon I went.

I saw and spoke with many old university friends and teachers who I hadn’t seen in many years. The afternoon of talks consisted of reminiscences by several of Dick’s closest colleagues, a couple of whom had been fellow students with me back in the day. Many people who Dick had taught went on to very successful careers in astronomy – I felt a bit like the odd one out, having left astronomy and moved into a career in photographic research. But the crowd felt familiar, because during my years as an astronomy Ph.D. student I moved in the same circles as this distinguished group of people. The Australian astronomy crowd is a large family, and does some of the best astronomical research in the world.

Dick in particular had many achievements over his long career. Many I knew about, some mentioned by the speakers were new to me. In the early 1960s, radio astronomers discovered the strange radio source named CTA-102. Early observations indicated that the signal strength varied, and in 1965 Gennady Sholomitskii proposed that it might be a “beacon” set up by an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation. This was two years before Jocelyn Bell’s discovery of the first pulsar, which was also at first suspected to be an alien radio beacon – making it the first astronomical object seriously suggested as a potential sign of an alien civilisation. This caused a sensation in 1965, and The Byrds wrote a song about it, released on their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday. Mount Palomar Observatory found an optical counterpart to the radio source, identifying it as a quasar, which removed the idea that it was an artificial radio beacon.

Dick came into this story over the next few years, when he was the first to observe CTA-102 at relatively low radio frequencies, using Sydney University’s Molonglo radio telescope. The received wisdom of the time was that variable astronomical radio sources only varied at high radio frequencies, in the GHz range. Molonglo observed at 408 MHz, well below the range that anyone thought radio variability occurred. With three years of careful observation, Dick showed that CTA-102, and three other sources, varied with time at this low frequency as well. This transformed our understanding of quasars and radiogalaxies, and laid the foundations for physical models of the processes that power these objects.

Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope, east arm

[The Molonglo Telescope (my photo, during my honours year physics project, working with Dick).]

Dick was also a pioneer in the detailed study of the Lyman-alpha forest of absorption lines in the optical spectra of quasars. This is work that I know very well, as it was the subject of my Ph.D. thesis, working under Dick’s direct supervision.

AAT Dome

[The Anglo-Australian Telescope (my photo, where I did my observing during my Ph.D.).]

Besides his research, Dick was also passionate about education. He ran the second year undergraduate physics labs, and sometimes the first and third year labs as well, for many years, from when I was a student until fairly recently. He participated (as I learnt yesterday) in numerous education outreach programs, encouraging young people to pursue training in science, and collaborating with teachers and other groups to set up science education programs.

My last interaction with Dick was late last year, when I returned to the university for the first time in many years, to seek him out and request to borrow some lab equipment, for use in my own science education efforts with Brookvale Public School. I wanted some lasers and diffraction slits and other stuff to do experiments with my Science Club. Dick was keen to help and offered all the resources he had to give.

As I heard during yesterday’s event, this generosity of time and effort was repeated across the hundreds of students and colleagues who Dick mentored and worked with. The common theme to all the speakers was how Dick had boundless energy to share his enthusiasm for science with others and to actively encourage people, without prejudice, to develop their interest in astronomy. A good friend of mine told the story of how she, as a brand new first year undergraduate, ventured timidly into the astronomy department to ask if there was anything that she could do to participate in some sort of astronomy work. Normally only students in their fourth year are assigned research projects by the various physics departments, so a first year asking for additional work was very unusual. The first person she came across told her to go to biology because “that’s better suited to girls”. Undaunted she returned a few days later to try and find someone else. She met a professor in the corridor and asked the same question: was there some sort of astronomy project that she could possibly help out on? That professor was Dick, and he immediately gave her some real data, showed her how to book time on the computer system, and how to analyse it. That girl is now a professor in the same astronomy department.

Dick has left a huge legacy at the University of Sydney, in the Australian astronomical community, and in global research. Dozens, if not hundreds, of highly successful astronomers and scientists in other fields (e.g. me) owe their careers to Dick and his positive influence.

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On cooking Brussels sprouts

For years I hated Brussels sprouts. My mother used to boil them, and they were bland and slimy and horrible. In all the years since, I never bought them or cooked them myself, and avoided them if they happened to be served anywhere I went.

But the other week I went to a restaurant and the server suggested the house specialty side dish: fried Brussels sprouts. Nowadays I’m fairly adventurous with food and so I said sure, why not? They arrived, and the were delicious – crispy and spicy and oily and salty. Now maybe they weren’t really much more than a vehicle for oil and salt and crunch, but that worked, and for the first time in my life I really enjoyed sprouts.

Since then I’ve bought Brussels sprouts from the supermarket a couple of times. The first time I shallow fried them with garlic, chilli, and salt, and they were different to the restaurant ones, but still delicious. My wife liked them too. So a few days ago I bought some more.

I started cooking them tonight, and realised we were out of garlic. So I thought I’d add some finely chopped onion. But it turned out we were also out of onions! I added some chilli and turned to the Internet for help with what else could be added. Bacon… no, my wife is vegetarian and we don’t have any in the house. Onions… no, see above. Nuts… hmmm, we have almonds and walnuts. I could try that. Balsamic vinegar… Now we’re talking! I have some lovely caramelised balsamic vinegar. I added a drizzle of that to the sprouts, and served them up with spicy vegetable patties, and some steamed broccolini.

I didn’t take a photo because we ate it very quickly (we had a late dinner because my wife was out at a yoga class, and we were hungry). But it turned out wonderful!

A whole new world of cooking flavours and combinations have opened up. It’s fantastic. The net suggested other combinations with sprouts: cheese, lemon juice, honey, miso, apples, mustard! Not all at once, but I can definitely see a lot of possibilities here.

I enjoy cooking and trying new flavour combinations. Getting a new ingredient is one of the most wonderful things that a cook can experience.

In work news: I spent much of today organising experiments for Science Club on Monday. I’ll report on those after Monday. I would have liked to write a new Proof that the Earth is a Globe this week, but time got away, and tomorrow I’m busy too. I should have time to do one next week.

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Busywork

I did a bunch of small odd jobs around the house today. One was drilling some holes to mount a kitchen gadget on the wall of the kitchen. I’ve been putting this off for a while because I hate drilling into brick – it’s really hard without a hammer drill, and I don’t want to buy a hammer drill for a couple of holes. I took my time, letting the drill bit cool down between roughly 30-second drilling sessions. It eventually made holes deep enough and I screwed the gadget to the wall, clearing off some benchtop space that’s been occupied for several weeks.

I did some ISO Standards work on a photography standard that requires reading and commenting on. I did a bunch of configuration for my photography web shop. I did some prep work for my school science visit on Monday.

I went for a walk and saw some more storm damaged trees. Over by the creek not far away from my place, two enormous trees, about 30-40 metres tall, had fallen over.

Storm damaged trees

These were huge trees, but fortunately they fell in the middle of a park, away from any houses or power lines.

Oh, a snippet of chat conversation I had with friends today:

SI: Can they get any genes from the bones or is that just Jurassic Park nonsense?

Me: No, DNA doesn’t survive that long.

SI: Oh even in the movie it was inside a mosquito in amber or something I think?

Me: Yeah. It’d still decay in there. Google says DNA base pair bonds have a half life of 520 years. So after 1000 years you only have a quarter of the genome left. After roughly a million years you only have a handful of intact bonds left – not enough to work with.

DMc: What if the DNA has been travelling at relativistic speeds though?

Me: Well yes, samples extracted from dinosaurs who travelled at 0.9999c to a distant star and back should be fine.

DMc: Cool, my startup idea is still feasible.

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Switching chapters

I did some solid work on Darths & Droids today. Our joint writing group has agreed that we should start work on Star Wars: Episode VII, but because we no longer work together and aren’t able to spend lunchtimes doing the writing work, I am going to draft skeleton scripts that we can quickly go over at our fortnightly games nights. Hopefully we can manage to turn over 6 new strips a fortnight this way, to return to our long-standing 3-a-week schedule, rather than the one per week we’ve been doing since ending our treatment of Rogue One and doing the Muppet Show story as an intermediate story.

Today I wrote and assembled the traditional three intermission strips that we publish between each of our stories. That will give us three more weeks of space to start buffering up strips in preparation for the beginning of Episode VII, which will happen on 22 March.

I also did a few other small tasks related to ISO Photography Standards, and the STEM in Schools program which coordinates partnerships like my one with Brookvale School, where I run the Science Club. Tomorrow I’ll have to get stuck into preparations for my visit on Monday. This is going to be a busy week.

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Calmer weather

The storm petered out overnight, and today was a mostly fine day, with a bit of sun. We were supposed to get a little more rain, but it seemed to decide we’d had enough.

When I went out for a walk, it was clear that a lot of damage had been done. There were small branches down all over the places, the streets littered with twigs and leaves and water-swept debris around the drains.

I took Scully to the dog park this afternoon to stretch her legs after being copped up yesterday. And we were confronted by this:

Storm damaged fig tree

This giant Moreton Bay fig tree had dropped a branch. Moreton Bay figs are enormous trees, and this branch was the size of a small tree itself. It landed on that park bench, which is where I sometimes sit while Scully plays in the park. Fortunately nobody was there when it fell.

Storm damaged fig tree

You can see more benches here on the right – the bench in the first photo is under the leaves.

Storm damaged fig tree

Two large branches fell, plus a lot of smaller ones which you can see scattered around the park. In good news though, you can see that the grass is now lush and green after the rain. A couple of weeks ago it was all dead and brown.

Work-wise, today I mostly did more photo processing, to get an order ready for matted prints for the market stall on 1 March. I’ve now submitted that order, plus orders for the matts, and large cellophane bags to slip them into for sale.

Also, the school where I do my Science Club volunteering got in touch with me, with a timetable for my first visit – which is only a week away, on 17 February! I need to decide what experiment to do with the Science Club kids, and what topic to talk about to the kindergarten to Year 2 classes. I’ll be doing Years 3-6 on a later visit in March.

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Rain rain rain rain rain

Today was all about the weather. The Bureau of Meteorology forecast 150-200 mm of rain in Sydney. Since midnight we’ve had 193 mm, and it’s only 8:30pm, and it’s still pouring in absolute torrents outside. The total for the past 72 hours is 370 mm, and that will go up as the rain actually began less than 72 hours ago.

I spent some time processing more photos for printing for my market stall. But mostly just keeping an eye on the weather, and dealing with Scully wanting to go outside every half hour, only to realise it was pelting down once we get out there and wanting to come straight back in again.

On these expeditions outside, I go through the basement garage of our apartment block. This afternoon the rain turned it into an indoor swimming pool:

Flooded garage

Water was bubbling up out of the drain in the floor. There were streams of water running down the walls and across the floor of the garage. It ran through several car spaces owned by neighbours, but thankfully our car space stayed dry. Other residents were down there moving belongings out of the water, and discussing the weather.

When I got outside to the street, at some point the wind had done this:

Tree down

The water had weakened the soil around the roots and the wind blew this tree through the fence and on to the street. Here’s a view from the other side:

Tree down

The tree was still like this, completely unattended a couple of hours later. Emergency services are stretched today, with hundreds of calls for help across Sydney. A few cars have been crushed by falling trees, trapping occupants, which obviously take a higher priority. And some people have ignored warnings about driving through floodwater and had to be rescued. A lot of trees and power lines are down, and several suburbs are blacked out.

State Emergency Services have also issued flood evacuation orders for resident in four Sydney suburbs. Residents have been ordered to leave their homes and seek safer ground, with the warning that if they stay they will be trapped without water or power and it may be too dangerous to rescue them. Evacuation centres have been set up.

The bushfires that we had just weeks ago affected a lot of people, but nobody in Sydney was affected by anything but the smoke. This rain is welcome, as it’s put out a lot of the fires, and is refilling our severely depleted dams, but it’s also causing direct danger to city residents. Oh, yeah, I also braved the rain to do some grocery shopping today, and the traffic was awful. Better to stay at home on a day like this.

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Writing and bagging

Saturday, so there was a bit of housework today. And then I got stuck into packaging the greeting cards I’ve had printed, ready for selling at the market stall in March.

Greeting cards

This was the first batch of cards I had printed. The company I used had a website upload form for the images. It said it accepted image files and PDF files, and recommended PDF for anything with text. I used JPEGs for the front photos, and I made a PDF file for the back of the cards, showing my name and website info. But for some reason the back didn’t get printed! So I spent time today hand writing the photo subject, my name, and URL on the back of each card before bagging them with envelopes in sealable cellophane bags. It took a few hours, and I could tell I haven’t done that much handwriting in a long time by the way my wrist hurt by the end of it…

Bagging greeting cards

The other notable thing about today was the weather. We had a forecast of 150-200 mm of rain… but the morning was fine, and the sun even came out. The rain didn’t start until just a few minutes before midday. There were some heavy spurts, but generally it seems to have been less than expected – we’ve only had 26 mm so far (up to 9 pm). It may be heavy in the next few hours. Tomorrow we’re forecast to have another 150-200 mm. Wollongong, 100 km south of Sydney is forecast to have 200-300 mm of rain tomorrow.

I took Scully out for a walk mid-afternoon during a dry spell. The clouds were pretty dramatic.

Storm clouds over Sydney

We went down to Manns Point, which is a short drive from home. There’s a boat ramp here, and a guy was fishing nearby. Then there’s a short walk along the shore to Greenwich Baths. We managed to get a bit of a walk and play in before the rain returned.

Scully and the incoming storm

Unfortunately it returned sooner than I expected, and a lot heavier. We had to race back to the car and climb in, dripping wet, before heading home.

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Portfoliating

Not much to report today. I basically spent the whole day processing photos from the original camera RAW files into final images at several print resolutions, to build myself a portfolio of image files ready to print. This is in preparation to launch my photo print web shop.

Apart from that, it was very rainy today. Very rainy. It started at 10pm last night, and by 5pm this evening we’d had 140 mm. It’s since stopped, but tomorrow we are forecast to have even more than that.

It’s good, because we’re still technically in a severe drought, and it’s put out several of the bushfires that were still burning around the state. A lot of rain has fallen in Sydney’s dam catchment area too, which should hopefully see our water storage levels go up from around 42% to somewhere near 70%, according to the water authorities.

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Setting up shop

Today I mostly worked on setting up my photo shop site. It’s still a little away form going public, but I got a lot of the gruntwork done today, setting up sizes and framing and finishing options, and crunching numbers to calculate prices. Oh, and figuring out costs for smallish (A4 or so) matted prints that I can sell face to face at the market. I’ve been doing a lot of spreadsheets lately.

In the background I ripped the DVDs of Star Wars Episodes VII and VIII, in preparation for starting work on them for Darths & Droids. And while doing that had some ideas for plot points which I jotted down.

Apart from that, it was mostly a day of cleaning up the house, scanning a pile of documents that I needed to get through and throw out, taking Scully for a walk, and cooking dinner.

Oh! I almost forgot. While at the dog park, I spotted a greater crested tern! You don’t see these in the city a lot.

One good tern deserves another

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Ethics kickoff morning tea

The new school year has begun after the summer holidays, and the kids are getting stuck into new classes. This means a new group of kids for me when my Primary Ethics classes begin. The school needs a couple of weeks to get the kids settled into new routines before they start the scripture/ethics classes, so my first day with the new Year 6 group will be 19 February, two weeks from today.

This morning we had a morning tea to meet the new teachers and for our coordinator to give us any relevant news. We met in a cafe near the school, and had a group of 7 present, with a couple of others who were’t able to make it today. Besides the coordinator, there are two women returning from last year, one woman transferring from another school where she taught ethics last year, and two new men starting this year.

One of the main issues we have this year is the fire that burnt down the school hall a couple of weeks ago. The hall was the venue for non-scripture, the kids who do neither scripture nor ethics classes, and there were a lot of kids in there, who now need to find somewhere else to sit and be supervised. Which puts pressure on the limited classroom space. So our coordinator told us that we may end up having some of our ethics classes outdoors. Which will be challenging if it happens that way.

I walked to the cafe and back, nearly 9 km of walking, and we spent 1.5 hours chatting there, so this ended up eating up the entire morning and I didn’t get home until after midday. This afternoon I’ve been making spreadsheets of costs and pricing figures for my nascent photography business, as well as recording invoices and taxes and stuff. Fortunately the accounting is fairly simple and I think I can handle it with nothing more complex than a spreadsheet.

This evening for dinner I cooked something I’ve never cooked before: Brussels sprouts. I bought some the other – the first time in my life I’ve ever bought them. I used to hate them as a kid, and thought they were disgusting. But a few weeks ago my wife and I went to a restaurant and one of the recommended side dishes was fried Brussels sprouts, with salt and chilli. I’m always keen to try something new, so we ordered them… and they were delicious! So I decided to see if I could emulate them.

I made vegetarian sausages, mashed potato, and I fried the sprouts, cut in half, in some olive oil with a pinch of salt, fresh sliced garlic, and some dried chilli flakes. And wow, it turned out really good! So easy to make.

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