Sunday, April 24, 2016


Coquí report #4: I finally saw some coquís!!!

Yes, there are millions of coquís on the island, so I have to admit that finding one is not that rare occasion. But they can be pretty difficult to see because they're small and only active after the sunset. One of the frogs that I saw I could hear so clearly that it was evidently in the tree in front of me, but all that I could see was a snail. After a while of intensive staring I realized that the frog was behind the snail.

One of the things that I love in living here at the observatory is the nature. You're literally in the jungle although some roads and building have been constructed in the middle of it. Therefore you can see a lot of wildlife here, mostly birds, lizards and insects. And the frogs, of course. There's not that big variety of mammals; largest beasts on the island are people, cats and dogs.

I've been in a flu the whole week like half of the whole planetary radar group (the negative side of the close social contacts) and I don't feel capable of intelligent analyses of anything right now, so I'll just post some shots of the local wildlife I've taken during the last three weeks and a couple from the earlier trips here. I've done my best to name them right but if someone notices a mistake, let me know!

The fortresses of San Juan host some big iguanas, this one was posing next to one of the famous guard towers.

The smaller lizards/gekkos you can't avoid anywhere. They come in all colors and sizes below 30 cm.

The thrushes (Fin: rastaat) are the most common birds around here. They're not so colorful but they sing nicely. 
The kingbirds (Fin: tyranni) like the electric/phone lines. I've never seen any other birds sitting there.

Bananaquits (Fin: banaanikerttuli) are also quite common, but they're very small and quick. This one was cuddling a flower (or more likely trying to eat it).

This little bug comes hovering in front of my porch every morning shining in bright green.
A random beetle. Just because a nice picture.

An orange-striped millipede. Much nicer-looking bugs than the centipedes that look like aliens and that I hope to be able to avoid as long as possible. 

A snail. Also snails seem to be active only after the sunset.

Local toads are slightly poisonous so you don't want to go touch one. Fortunately they're around only after raining. This photo is from my first visit to PR. A few weeks earlier I had almost tripped down on a toad on a dark path.

And last but not least, the coquís. There's actually 16 different species on the island.
The coquís are sensitive to light so I'm sorry I had to torture these ones with my flash. I hope they will recover from the shock...

I'm personally more into fauna than flora
but here's one pic for the flora people, too!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I hate small talk

How do you know you've met an extrovert Finnish person? Because he's looking at your feet instead of his own.

This week I want to discuss something quite unique for isolated communities such as Arecibo observatory: the social culture, and how I see it personally in contrast to my past.

But first some background: The number of scientific staff at the observatory is relatively small. Our group has currently only 5-6 people, and the radio astronomy and atmospheric groups are not significantly bigger. From the doctoral staff, only one is originally from the island, others are mostly from the States with only a few exceptions.

I don't know if it's really so exceptional for American culture but here the work community is the most important social contact also outside work. We go to lunch together, have a tea time regularly between 3 and 4 p.m., and sometimes also go to dinner together. For seasonal celebrations such as halloween, there can be a party for all the science staff at someone's home. There is a social gap between the scientific and other staff, most of whom are locals, but for me even seeing the whole science staff gathering together for fun at someone's home is extraordinary.

Last week we went to some local bars with some of my colleagues. At some point one of them wondered that I hadn't said much during the whole evening. They asked me to tell some Finnish jokes just to get me talking, and although I couldn't think of any at that time, I looked up a few for this week. I realized that the jokes may not strike Americans as very funny unless they know Finnish people, because all the jokes that are not about drinking are about social awkwardness, and thus may seem awkward. Example: "Why is Finnish called Finnish? Because if you ask something from a Finnish person, the answer is the finish of the conversation".

After one of the jokes one person commented to have heard the same joke with "Finnish" replaced with "a physicist". I can't give a reference but I think it's true that physicists (including astronomers etc.) in average are more introverted than all the population in average. So if the Finnish people are in the more introverted end of the spectrum, and so are physicists, where do you think I am? And, although extraversion/introversion is a spectrum, should a different spectrum be used for different nationalities, or is there only one absolute spectrum? For Americans, outgoing and talkative traits are encouraged, while the Finnish societal norms encourage to talk less and just mind your own business.

Have you ever thought what part of your behavior is genetic/in your nature and what is learned through experience? In theory, the part that is genetic may be controlled but not changed and thus simply has to be accepted, whereas the part that is learned can be changed, even if it might feel difficult. If the learned behavior – or a peer pressure toward a certain kind of behavior – contradicts the natural response, problems might emerge. If I don't know whether a certain behavior is learned or not, trying to change natural behavior due to peer pressure would be even more stressful than just acknowledging a lack of skill (e.g., small talk skills).

On my part, I am very quiet and reserved compared to many other young Finnish women and I know that it's in part genetic because my family is in many ways very similar to me. But I know that I'm definitely not at the end of the spectrum and that part of my social insecurity is learned through childhood experiences, such as being bullied or socially excluded. Insecurity of oneself seems to be a common problem among young women who are otherwise highly skilled (a.k.a. the impostor syndrome/experience).

Although I'm quiet and reserved, I'm also social. If I should choose between reading at home or going to a restaurant with friends, I'd choose the restaurant. But because of the social insecurity, I need friends who are socially unreserved. In Finland, I had a lot of difficulties to make friends and trust that the people would like to be friends with me; most people don't come and chat spontaneously, which gives me a feeling that I'm being criticized by the others in some way even when I'm not. Or sometimes even when they do come, they leave as soon as they notice the reserve or misinterpret it as arrogance or such. Even the friendships that I had managed to build at some point wilted as keeping in touch by calling or messaging regularly felt like a Herculean task. Therefore I often had only one or two good friends at a time, one being a boyfriend.

Yesterday my colleague Linda asked if I feel included in the group. To be honest, for almost my entire life since I even began to think about it, it's been difficult for me to feel included in any group. This week I've had a dinner party, a pizza party with a bar tour, and a pool party with my research group in addition to the normal work hours with the same people. The team is small and none of the group members is more than 8 years older than me. Of course a team spirit needs time to grow but I feel that everyone is participating in helping it bloom. I've never felt more included in any group after two weeks, and I'm trustful that I will be able to say the same for any time period after this.

One of the things I really want from my post-doc period here is to learn away from the stereotypic Finnish social norms, which kill the conversation before it even starts. I want to be able to say how much I loved the time I spent with someone instead of "Did you have fun? – Yup." I want to be able to hug people without reserve and tell that I care. I mean, it's not rocket science. But I wish I could learn it anyway.

The coquí report #3: Still none seen. I should really go and try to find one just to avoid getting too repetitive. Otherwise I'll have to write a post next week about laziness.

P.S. If you haven't seen the Finnish Nightmares, take a look.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A trip to Pueblo

Today I went to buy groceries. In most places it's not such a big deal but here you really want to plan ahead and stock up for a week at a time. Here's why:

The closest supermarket, Pueblo, is 17 km from the observatory and it takes about 30 minutes to drive there. The road is really just a series of curves one after another: there's maybe 4-5 places on the whole route to the supermarket where the road can be described as straight for more than 200 meters. In addition, deep jungle prevents you seeing behind many of the curves and the area has a lot of hills so the road is curved also vertically. The first time on the road to the observatory in the car of a local taxi driver was basically comparable to a roller coaster.

The width of the road is in many places equal to a width of two cars and the lanes are not really marked in any way. Each side of the road, and relatively often also the middle of the road, is dotted with potholes that efficiently destroy both tires and teeth if you hit them incautiously. Most people drive in the middle of the road (because that's the easiest way to avoid the potholes) so behind any curve another car may be approaching you – or be parked – on more or less your lane. If you're lucky, there's only one or two dogs, chickens, cats, or horses sunbathing or for other reasons hanging out on the road or in the near vicinity. If it's raining, there's toads.

The car that I used has automatic gears, which might sound fancy to some Finnish people because in Finland most cars have still manual gears. Well, that's where the fanciness ends. Here, the car is known as the green car that used to be owned by the previous group leader's family until they moved away last year and, since then, has been in use of another post-doc working at the observatory. The green car is (in)famous for almost having lit to fire by itself once and for a loose rear window that at least once dropped off. Buttons, such as A/C or open-the-trunk, don't work as expected but also look like they could drop off at any given time. In that sense, a missing window could be seen as a positive issue! Today's temperature was a pleasant 28˚C (82˚F), probably around 50˚C in the car. Fortunately, as a Finnish, I'm used to saunas. But buying ice cream might not be the best idea.

The steering worked well enough so (to my own surprise as I don't have a car in Finland) I survived the whole trip with intact tires and teeth and without hitting anyone or anything! Yay! And I got more food, like mangos and papayas that cost about $1/lb (~2 /kg). Yaaay! In general, I love walking in the grocery stores of new places. Although by now it's not completely new anymore, it is interesting enough to see all the products for which I'm only guessing a more familiar name or how to prepare them. I bravely took a few local plátanos or plantains, which are the banana-like but less sweet fruits that can be prepared into, for example, tostones or tajadas (fried sliced plantains) or mofongo (mashed plantains seasoned with garlic), and will try to cook some of those myself.

To sum up, I'm really grateful that I got a car to my own use for free. But before making any longer trips, maybe I should look for other options too...

Coquí report #2: Zero frogs observed, although I can hear about a thousand right now. Maybe they become even more active during rain?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Moving to paradise

One week has passed since I moved to Puerto Rico. I moved in to pursue a career of a planetary radar scientist at the Arecibo Observatory, or officially, the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which hosts the world's largest single-dish radio telescope (that includes a radar transmitter). It may not be obvious how one becomes a planetary radar scientist, and even the word "planetary radar" might be unfamiliar for many so let me give a brief overview of my background first. I'll write most of the blog in English so that more people can read it but I'll also explain some of the technical terms in Finnish so that my mom understands too. ;)

I chose to become an astronomer (or at least a scientist) already in early teenage. I studied astronomy in the University of Helsinki since 2006 with geophysics as a minor subject and wrote both Master's and PhD thesis about radar scattering of planetary surfaces. I defended my thesis on January 8, 2016.

In common language, "scattering" refers to alterations experienced by electromagnetic radiation, such as light, when interacting with single particles or a surface. Radar scattering means that the wavelength of the radiation is microwaves, that is, somewhere between 1 cm and 1 meter (while for example the wavelength of optical light is some hundreds of nanometers), and that I'm concentrating on the backscattering direction.

[In Finnish: Sironta tarkoittaa tässä tapauksessa sähkömagneettisen säteilyn, kuten valon ominaisuuksien muuttumista sen osuessa johonkin pintaan tai hiukkaseen. Tutkasironta viittaa tiettyyn aallonpituusalueeseen senttimetreistä metreihin, eli mikroaaltoihin, kun tavallisen valon aallonpituus on joitakin satoja nanometrejä eli noin 100 000 kertaa lyhyempiä. Lisäksi tutkasironnassa keskitytään vain takaisinpäin palaavaan eli takaisinsironneeseen säteilyyn.]

Planetary radar doesn't look for asteroids or comets, but it's very effective with finding out more about the ones that have been already found. For example, when a new asteroid is discovered, the distance to it may be off with thousands of kilometers. Observing it with a planetary radar can enhance the distance information to some tens of meters. So if the discoverers are unsure if an asteroid will hit the Earth or not, they can ask the planetary radar people to check on it. We can also derive information about the asteroids' (or comets') rotation, size, shape, and surface characteristics from the radar data.

In my PhD thesis I modeled numerically how different kinds of particles or planetary surfaces scatter the radar signal. So because I had done that sort of research for years, it made a lot of sense to apply the job here. The solar system research group in the University of Helsinki is specialized in studying electromagnetic scattering, but I felt that the group couldn't offer me enough the kind of research I want to do, so work-wise it was a dream-come-true to get an opportunity to work here.

I have visited here earlier, for 2 months from Oct to Dec 2013 and for 2 weeks in Nov 2014, so by this year, it was a familiar place with familiar people already. There are changes in staff often as post-docs come and go and, at times, as Puerto Rico gets the best of some people (it might be a paradise for some but definitely not everyone!). In total, there's about a hundred people working here, most of whom are facility staff, engineers and electronics staff who take care that everything works as it should. Since fall, there's been no official site director. Currently, the telescope is on a longer maintenance break as it's being re-painted.

There are three research groups (ionosphere, radio astronomy, and planetary). Our group has (for now) only three doctoral scientists: me, Ed, and our group leader Patrick, and three supporting people: Linda, Luisa, and, as a newbie, Beth. The average age of the people in our group is probably well below 35 and everyone is super nice. Ed's giving out bear names and mascot pokémons (I'm Pola(r) bear and thinking about Cubchoo as my mascot). One person in the group had left just before I arrived and Linda is unfortunately moving out soon but new people is being hired almost all the time.

The first week has been mainly reserved for re-orientation, filling out a some-centimeters-thick pile of forms for USRA and so on. I live the first month on site, in a very cute wooden bungalow on a near-by hill:

Next month I should move somewhere else; there's been talk that I could move to Linda's place. It's a big house with a yard but I could easily afford the rent with the local rates. I'll probably get dogs as soon as I move there but hopefully not all the eight that live there now...

Yesterday I went to see the Puerto Rican night-life with the guys from the observatory. The warm wind, coquí frogs singing, rum drinks, salsa and bachata music and dancing with great people created an authentic Caribbean atmosphere that I call the paradise. Let the adventure begin!

Caribbean sunset seen from my porch
The coquí report #1: I haven't seen any coquí frogs yet but I'll keep looking!