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Science…?

Besides death and taxes, there is another thing that is pretty sure in life: you will have to present stuff. This is especially true in the academic world. Since the beginning of my PhD project, I was struggling to find a good tool for preparing the presentations. There were some boundary conditions: I would prefer to prepare them on my Linux computer, have the output in PDF, and make it look nice. I tried Open Office (or Libre Office), Latex and Prezi amongst other things, but about a year ago I found my true match, and that is Inkscape.

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Last weekend I went out to see Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s newest movie. I’ve pretty much liked every production I’ve seen by Nolan and I love me some science fiction, so I had high hopes for Interstellar. Fortunately, the movie was a very enjoyable experience, although I felt like it had some issues. This… review of the movie will include plenty of spoilers, so watch out, if you haven’t seen it yourself.

Interstellar is set in the not-so-distant future. Mankind is starting to struggle to survive, as some diseases seem to be killing our plants. It paints a rather bleak picture of our future and can also be seen as comment on climate change and the effect our actions have on our environment, although this is not directly stated in the movie.

Humanity’s challenges have made space exploration basically extinct. The US government has even labeled the Moon landings as a hoax, as per the conspiracy theories. While I see movies like Interstellar and Gravity as positive marketing for space exploration, I also took this aspect as a comment on the current state of NASA and lack of manned space missions. A future without space exploration would be a dark one indeed.

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It wasn’t until I bought a smartphone that I really started listening to podcasts. Of course, finding podcasts that are worth listening to is quite difficult and to be honest, even though I’ve been recording podcasts for a few years, I might want something entirely different of the podcasts I am going to listen to myself. Luckily, I’ve found a few good shows, so why not discuss them here?

Let’s start with Startalk Radio. If you’re into science, you’ve probably heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson. You might know him by his appearances in TV shows such as Big Bang Theory and Stargate Atlantis, as well. Heck, he has even had a brief visit in DC’s Superman comics. He is the guy who people blame for the fact that Pluto is not a planet anymore. If you’ve been watching the new Cosmos series, he is the narrator of that documentary series.

Neil also happens to be the host of Startalk Radio. As the name perhaps points out, Startalk Radio deals mostly with astronomy and cosmology stuff, but sometimes they deviate to discuss other subjects as well. For example, one episode had an expert on answering questions about diseases and pandemics. But mostly it’s Neil sharing his wisdom in an entertaining fashion. His deep voice makes him a great host for a radio show (not to dismiss his ability to host a TV series, as seen on Cosmos).

The style of the show is very much like a TV or radio show: the episodes are usually divided into pretty short segments and the transitions happen through commercials and brief music snippets relevant to the subject at hand. The duration of the episodes matches that of many TV dramas: 42 minutes (maybe it is also a reference to Hitchhiker’s guide to galaxy, who knows).

While many podcasts rely on the chemistry between the participants, Startalk builds heavily on Neil’s charisma and ability to explain difficult concepts rather well. There are usually other participants as well, but their role is mostly about supporting Neil by providing funny commentary and the “stupid” point of view, as the guests are not necessarily experts in any field of science, and the show works and flows usually very nicely.

However, there have been some really bad missteps, mostly the episode “A conversation with God”. Besides the Mythbusters episodes, that was the only episode I had to just stop listening to. In the case of the Mythbusters episodes it was more about me not caring that much about that particular TV show, while the God episode was just plain bad in my honest opinion.

But still, if you want to have some rather light and entertaining but still science themed podcast to listen to, you should most def give Startalk a go. You might even have to chance to hear Bill Nye talking, and that is definitely a plus.

An integral part of work as a researcher is collaborating with other researchers. One way to do that is to attend conferences. I’ve now seen two of them myself: last summer I was helping with organizing the EPS conference on plasma physics in Espoo, this week I was participating in Physics Days 2014.

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While the EPS conference is a large international event, Physics Days is a organized for the Finnish physics society. This year the event was held in Tampere, and I’ll try to discuss it briefly, as the conference is still fresh in my mind. I’ll tell about my personal contribution and other interesting presentations (not that I’m implying that my talk was very interesting), say something about the other activities and take a moment to ponder the nature of the event.

As a brief summary, my own contribution went alright considering the circumstances, but I had to start wondering the role of an event like this and what should one present there. This was supported by some exciting talks by more experienced people. I would still say that the conference is worth attending, as it does not take too long (three days), gives you a broad overview of Finnish physics research, and offers some chances to network and just have a good time. Physics Days 2014 gave me some valuable experience and I might attend the conference again, if the opportunity presents itself.

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Nuclear power is a really polarizing subject, especially in Finland currently. There’s the ever more delayed Olkiluoto 3 project and then the possibility of new nuclear power plants being build. Often the discussion surrounding the subject feels a bit superficial and not so correct on the facts. Nuclear power tends to get these gut reactions from people. Radioactivity is scary, mysterious stuff. Or not.

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