Comets and Conferences

This month we are being visited by comet C/2020 F3, better known as comet NEOWISE, named after the mission that first discovered it. Comets are, roughly speaking, icy rocks from the outer reaches of our solar system. They follow parabolic orbits around the sun; meaning that most of their time is spent at large distances but periodically they come close to the sun. On nearing the sun, they travel much faster (due to the sun’s gravity) and start to warm up, releasing gases. It is this trail of gases that produces the characteristic cometary tail.

Comet NEOWISE reached its closest approach to the sun on the 3rd July and will reach its closest approach to the Earth on the 23rd July. If you miss it, don’t worry, you’ll get another chance in about 6000 years time. So it might be worth trying to see this rare spectacle! Currently, NEOWISE is visible throughout the night with the naked eye and should remain visible until the end of the month. Last night, I even caught a glimpse from the centre of town. (The last time a comet could be seen this easily was perhaps Hale-Bopp in 1997.) Look towards the North West, just below the constellation of Ursa Major (also known as “the plough” or the “big dipper”) and take a few minutes to see if you can spot it. Somehow, I doubt you’ll regret it.

Comet NEOWISE seen from Stanserhorn, Switzerland. Credit: Raphael Niederer, Source:

Virtual Conferences

At the start of the month, I attended my first ever virtual conference. In recent years, a move to more online formats has been frequently discussed in the scientific community. Although the motivation to reduce travel in academia has been present for a while, not least for environmental reasons, the move has been accelerated by the current pandemic. The European Astronomical Society annual meeting (EAS 2020) was due to take place in Leiden, Netherlands – but was moved to an online meeting during the same week as originally planned. This actually led to much higher conference attendance – over 1700 participants – and a much reduced conference fee.

Overall, I was fairly impressed. Separate zoom rooms were set up for each session, embedded in the dedicated conference software and hosted by the organisers. There was also a dedicated slack, with separate channels for each session and for different topics. Many features, such as the questions and note taking (exportable to word) worked particularly well. There were a couple of things that – in my opinion – worked even better than an “in real life” conference.

What worked well

  • Attendance: many more people could join online than usual – due to travel costs for those based further away, family commitments or other reasons.
  • Questions: these could be typed and entered at any point during a talk; other people could then upvote questions they wanted to hear answered. At the end of the talk, the most popular questions could then be answered – great idea.
  • Questions 2: run out of time? The conversation continues on the slack channel! Further questions could be asked and answered at leisure and questions were transferred rather than forgotten. Usually, at a conference if you run out of time, forget it. (Unless you’re lucky enough to catch the person in a coffee break later.)
  • Recordings: all of the sessions were recorded, so if there were talks that you had to miss (due to parallel sessions, presenting or other commitments) you could watch them back later.
  • Pre-recordings: some talks – particularly for people in other time zones – could be pre-recorded and played back whilst the presenters themselves were asleep. (Although I did have a colleague who decided to present live anyway – at 2am local time!)
  • Slack: Very useful for getting in touch with people. As well as for conducting quick surveys via emoji reactions! It also meant you could contact people directly (direct messages) without having to search for their email addresses or hunt them down in person. (Let’s face it, we don’t often approach people in person for “minor” points.)
  • Posters: not just a pdf, but gifs, videos and pre-recorded audio presentation – the interactive poster is a different experience!

Nevertheless, it wasn’t perfect – no-one can stay glued to their desk from 9am to 6pm with virtual coffee breaks and parallel lunch sessions too. Several of the above points are also being better addressed by in-person conferences these days, and virtual conferences are no replacement for meeting someone in person.
However, in future we will see a rise in virtual meetings or hybrid events; a new format that the academic world at least is rapidly adjusting to. There are some virtual meetings in my 2021 calendar already.

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