Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Beach, Bible study, interesting discussions, Japanese culture, hanging out, dinner of diversity, Victoria market

There was so much that happened this past week! Last Sunday (Oct. 21), a couple of other Swinburne students, Caroline from Canada and Anneke from the Netherlands, and I went to the St. Kilda beach for the first time. It was really fun! It was really hot too, but unfortunately it was cloudy, but I guess that was a good thing considering I burn so easily. We went into the water for a little bit, but not too long because it was cold! The waves weren't big at all either because we were in the bay, where there really isn't any surf. The highlight of the trip was seeing penguins at the end of the pier in the rock wall, which is where they live. After sunset, you could see them swimming back from the ocean into their home, and occasionally you would see them coming out of the water or peek through the rocks if they were already home. They just didn't seem to mind having their picture taken! They were beautiful. Apparently you can see hundreds more at Philip Island, a 1-2 hour drive from Melbourne, for $90, but this was so much closer, it was free, and you can get right up next to them!

We continue to have good Bible studies on Monday night (did I mention that I'm part of the young adults Bible study at Camberwell?). We have good fellowship and meaningful discussions. I'm so thankful to be a part of the group!

On Wednesday (Oct. 24) we had a speaker from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney come and give a talk. He's originally from Japan and was Warrick's postdoc at UNSW. We held a lunch for him at a Vietnamese restaurant the day of his talk. He seemed to be preoccupied with the fact that some people believe the universe is 10,000 years old because he always seemed to bring it back up again if the conversation had moved on to something else. He thought that 60% of all Americans held to that belief, but I'm wasn't sure about that number. He just couldn't believe it. At one point, he asked another student, Lee, and I whether or not we had any evangelical friends. Lee said no, but I said that I was a Christian, and he promptly said, "Oh sorry, sorry." He had obviously confused evangelicalism with fundamentalism because he assumed that all evangelicals believe the universe is young. I told him that not all Christians believe the universe is young, including me! I then told him why some Christians believe the universe is young, which is that they interpret Genesis 1 as a literal description of how the universe was created, which is something that I don't do. He didn't really respond to that, but Lee made another interesting point: the public in general, not just Christians, have a tough time understanding the idea that the universe is billions of universe old. Over the last year or so I've been noticing that there is this huge rift between science and religion - scientists don't understand the thoughts of religious people and religious people don't understand the claims of scientists. Something must be done about this! I really hope I can contribute to solving this problem, whether it's now or later when I'm done with grad school. So those discussions made for an interesting day!

The next day another speaker from the University of Queensland came, and I was invited to go out to dinner with him and a group of us from Swinburne to an Italian restaurant. The other speaker from UNSW came along with us (he was here for a few days), and this time he talked about Japanese culture. It was very interesting! He mentioned that Japanese culture is very male-dominated, as most vividly exemplified by the fact that there is only one female full professor in the whole country! I just found that unbelievable! He also mentioned some things that hinted at his sexism, which probably is a product of his culture, which I didn't really appreciate, so I won't mention them here. My associate supervisor, Chris Blake, was also with us, and he mentioned that he has a Japanese friend who married an Australian man. He said that she told him that it's very difficult for Japanese families to accept anyone who isn't Japanese into their family. I thought that was really sad. As Chris said, it's amazing how advanced Japan is in some ways, but in other ways it's way behind the times.

And on Friday that week the same group of students as last week, with the addition of one, went out after Friday evening drinks and went to a pizza place for dinner. It was a very interesting atmosphere because the building used to be a factory building, so there was a lot of space above your head. The pizza was good, but different, as is everything here! It was basically a thin cheese pizza with ham, mushrooms, and olives thrown on. I was surprised I ate the olives because I hate olives. I guess I couldn't taste them that much. But yeah, we had a fun time that night. There was a foosball table in the middle of the restaurant, and so of course we had to play again! It was a pretty old school table, but that made it more fun! And a couple of other guys who were there and wanted to play randomly challenged some of us to a match, which we naturally accepted. I don't remember winning, so they must have been better foosball players. When I told them where I was from, they remarked, "Ah, the U.S.!" as if they were referring to a friend. Ever since I came here, I've been noticing how much attention is paid to my country. It's crazy: it seems like I hear something about the U.S. everyday. I guess that's not surprising, though. But still, it's almost annoying.

The next day was very exciting! Another one of the American students, Andy, invited me and two other students, Lee (the same Lee as above - he's also from the U.S.) and Berkeley (who's from the U.K.), over to his place for dinner. This was no ordinary dinner, however. Since the Victoria market is near his place, we decided to go over there, get our food, come back and cook it, and relax! The Victoria market is so nice! They sell the cheapest food I have ever seen (go to the next paragraph to get an idea of how cheap it is). It makes me wish I had gone to the farmer's market back in Grand Rapids. So we got our food from there, cooked it all afternoon, chatted, and enjoyed a good dinner with beef, avocado salad, and rice. Andy had actually worked in a kitchen for a year in Christchurch, New Zealand, so he basically has a chef's knowledge, which is definitely something I wish I had! Lee's girlfriend (who I believe is from Russia), another one of his friends from Switzerland (who has relatives in Grand Rapids!), one of Andy's friends from England, and Andy's housemate from South Africa also joined us for dinner. Amazingly enough, there was not one Australian at the dinner table! That just goes to show how diverse Australia really is.

On Sunday I went back to the Victoria market because I just had to get my food from there! This is amazing: I got ~15 carrots, ~12 bananas, ~8 oranges, and a stalk of celery for $7.60!!! That is ridiculous cheap! I am never getting my food from anywhere else unless I absolutely have no other choice! While I was there I took some more pictures of the city, which I am about to post. I think that's it for now. I won't be posting again until I'm back from New Zealand! I leave on Friday (Nov. 2) and I'll be back a week from Saturday (Nov. 10). It's going to be great. Allyson, Samantha, and Erica: I'm excited to see you all again!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Birthday party, my first AstroTour, more free food, hanging out, New Zealand trip, project updates

The fun doesn't end in Melbourne! Last Saturday night (right after I published my last post), Trent and I went to Federation Square in downtown Melbourne to celebrate the birthday of one of his friends. We had dinner first, and on our way there we passed through this huge crowd of Indian people. I think it was some sort of cultural event because there were singing and dancing on the stage in front of one of the buildings, which also had a video screen showing what was happening on the stage. Trent told me that people gather in Fed Square to watch big sporting events on the video screen. Anyway, it was pretty cool. I definitely have never seen so many Indian people gathered in one place before. After dinner we went to a nearby bar and had a few drinks. Not exactly my kind of place, but it was enjoyable just to sit and chat for a couple hours. The girlfriend of another one of Trent's friends and I even talked about Christianity for a couple of minutes before we left! It had somehow come up that I was going to church the next day, and she started asking me some questions about it. It doesn't seem like a lot of young people go to church here, but it's so good to know that God put me in Australia for a reason!

On Monday I attended my first AstroTour with Swinburne's virtual reality theatre! One of the astronomers at Swinburne hosted the tour, and it was intended for a group of 11th grade boys, but I decided to sit in on it to see what it was like. It was very enjoyable! The tour mainly consisted of showing the distance scale of the universe, what stages stars going through in their lifetimes, how galaxies form, and the distribution of galaxies in the universe, all in 3D! It was very cool!

On Thursday night, I was invited over to have dinner at the house of a couple who go to my church (it was actually Mike, the geophysicist, and his wife). They had their two daughters, one of which is married with one child, another of which is engaged, and son, who is in his second year at Monash, as well. It was a tasty roast beef meal! I really enjoyed my time just talking and laughing with them. Yes, it was a very pleasant night.

And finally last night, a group of 6 students from Swinburne, including me, went out and had dinner at an Indian restaurant after the weekly "beer time." The food was delicious especially considering how cheap it was (only about $9 per person). Food is normally more expensive here by at least $4 per meal. For that matter, everything is expensive here, including entertainment. A couple of people have told me that movie tickets are $15 each! But on Tuesday night, every movie theatre has discounted prices ($9 per ticket). Anyway, we had lamb, pumpkin, chicken, rice, good bread that can't remember the name of... yeah, it was good! Then we went to a pub, played some foosball, went upstairs to the outdoor deck and talked about southern stars and how little we, including the one Australian there, know about them. Is it just me or is it bad that some professional astronomers don't know the sky? I know the northern sky pretty well, but I have an excuse for not knowing the southern sky.

Hopefully my little trip to New Zealand will fix that... that's right, I'm headed to New Zealand in a couple of weeks! I know three friends from Calvin (Samantha, Allyson, and Erica) who are there right now for the semester, and during the (northern) summer we talked about trying to meet up while they were there, and it looks like it's going to work out! I'll be flying into Christchurch really late on Friday, Nov. 2, staying there until Monday morning, and then taking a bus to Queenstown. I'll stay there until Friday, Nov. 9, take a bus back to Christchurch, and return to Melbourne the next morning. Sam and Al are doing the same thing, except with a slightly different timetable and they're driving all the way back to Auckland (the nearest major city to the place they've been staying all semester). They have a little more flexible of a schedule as well, as they are driving a car with three other people in it (which is why I'm taking the bus), but we should definitely be able to see each other! I'm so excited because Queenstown is one of the major areas where they filmed Lord of the Rings. To be able to see those kinds of landscapes is such an awe-inspiring experience! I can't wait! And I bet you're really jealous of me right now!

There are a few updates to my project I could talk about. I actually started on a different project from the one I mentioned before, which was more of working on a telescope proposal for a potential future project. I've been working on a program all week to try and match positions of galaxies in one catalog to positions of radio sources in another catalog, but it's not working the way I want it to. I'm using C++, which I took a class on while I was at Calvin, but that's the only programming language I know and I haven't used it for almost a year! It took me a little bit to get used to it again, and a book from the library saved me. The goal of the project is to find out how the properties of galaxies in radio wavelengths correlate with their properties in visible (optical) light, which should hopefully help us understand, for example, how the jets emanating from their central black holes, which can only be seen in the radio, affect the star formation in the galaxies. Sound exciting? I think so!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Food, southern stars, more food, and...more food!

Another week has gone by, and that means time for another post! I had a great week. On Sunday I went to Camberwell Baptist again (I'm really starting to like it there!). Afterwards a group of us, mostly people in their 20's and people over 55 or so, went to Bread and Butter, a nearby restaurant, for lunch. I ordered a $9.50 BLT. Everything else seemed to be at least $15. I'm telling you, food is really expensive here! But I suppose it's not so bad because for some reason tipping is unusual in Australia. Anyway, the BLT was a little different from what I'm used to. The bacon wasn't as crispy and the bread was slightly different, but for some reason I can't remember exactly what the bread was like, but I know it was different! I sat next to Sarah, a girl from Korea who has come to Australia to study English. I met her a couple of weeks ago, but when I met her, I didn't realize that she had only come to Melbourne within the last three weeks or so! She was fun to talk to. Later that night, Camberwell held a youth service, and of course I went to see what it was like. It was great, and I met a few more people around my age. Then we went to dinner at a nice place called Nataraj (if I remember correctly). Since I had already eaten a light dinner beforehand, I decided to have some caesar salad. Yeah, everything is different here. It definitely tasted a little different from the way it would taste in the States, and it was served with a poached egg on top. Presumably, people around here think having poached egg with their salad tastes good. I definitely do not, so I skipped the egg. So Sunday was my food adventure for the week.

Right before I went to bed that night, I saw a really bright star out my window. I had to try and identify it, so I put my glasses on and sure enough, it was Sirius, the brightest star in the sky! Not only that, but a little more to the north was upside down Orion! It was so weird and wonderful seeing Orion upside down from what I've been used to my whole life. On that note, I forgot to mention earlier that I saw the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri on my first night in Australia without even realizing it! I knew they were in southern skies, but I didn't know where, but later I realized that I had looked right at them. I've also seen Sagittarius and Scorpius directly over head, which is awesome when you're used to seeing them fairly low on the sourthern horizon. Other than that, I haven't really been able to see too many other stars because it has been very cloudy ever since I got here and I'm living in a big city, which doesn't help.

On Monday night, we had dinner at John and Andrea's house for the kickoff meeting of the young adults Bible study, which I am very thankful for, considering that I was looking for a church that had just that. It was a delicious meal and a good time of sharing. John and Andrea's kids are absolutely adorable and have really cool names (they're all girls): Amalia, Imagin, and Zara (I hope I spelled those correctly, oh I probably didn't!).

On Wednesday night, I had dinner at Warrick's house. My associate supervisor, a postdoc, and a PhD student who Warrick knew from the University of New South Wales in Sydney (where Warrick used to be) also came. It was wonderful meeting his wife and two of his three kids, who I'm guessing were in their teens or maybe a little older. The meal was really good, and so was the dessert, which unfortunately I forgot the name of, but it was absolutely delicious!

I think those were the main highlights of the week. I'm planning on attending an AstroTour in the virtual reality theatre on Monday, so I'll let you know how cool it is! Until then, cheers!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Education, good speakers, and expensive dinners

Another week has gone by, and the experiences keep on coming! On Wednesday, I had lunch with Lucy, the youth pastor at Camberwell Baptist, the church I've been going to lately. We got some delicious sushi (Luke!) on Glenferrie Rd, which marks the western border of Swinburne's campus, and then went to a coffee shop to chat. We talked about various things, such as the Australian educational system, which is a little different from the one in the states. High schoolers in Australia don't take the same classes every day - they have a different class schedule every day, kind of like college in the States. And there's no such thing as pre-law pre-med - you just go and get a law or medicine degree. And for higher degree programs, like the PhD (I'm speaking from my own knowledge now), there's less of a focus on classwork and more of a focus on research. Plus, the PhD in Australia (and in the UK) is normally done in 3.5 years, whereas in the U.S. it's more like 5 years. I'm not sure why the two systems are different, but they are. So that was a good conversation.

I had another interesting experience Thursday afternoon and evening. A bunch of Swinburne people went to a cosmology talk at Melbourne University, on the other side of the city. I won't bore/awe/intimidate/stimulate/excite you with the details of the talk, but I will mention that the speaker was one of the better ones I've ever heard. She's a postdoc from UC Santa Barbara, and she had only been there a couple of weeks before she came to Melbourne and gave the talk! Afterwards, about 15 people who had attended the talk, including the speaker and people from Swinburne and Melbourne, went out for some wine and then dinner. Melbourne never ceases to amaze me: there are so many restaurants along the road with outdoor seating. It's just a lovely atmosphere. We went to dinner at an Italian place, which almost all of us were underdressed for. It was the most expensive dinner I've ever had: $40! At least that's in Australian dollars. The dinner was not even close to being worth that. Oh well. I had fun. I didn't get back to my apartment until 10:00, at which point I was pretty tired, so I went straight to bed!

BBQ, weather, and Genesis 1

So now that I've caught up with myself, I don't have to quote e-mails anymore. Here are my latest experiences:

Last Saturday, the astrophysics department had a BBQ at one of the professors' house for the Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final, which is basically the Australian equivalent of the Super Bowl. The BBQ itself was interesting because the way food is eaten here is different from the States. Hot dogs, or sausages as they're called here, are eaten with a simple piece of bread folded around it instead of a real hot dog bun! I experienced that for the first time after church the first Sunday I was here, so I was prepared for it during the BBQ, which was good. I'd be asking "Where are the buns?" and embarrassing myself had I not known about it. Anyway, the teams that played in the Grand Final were Geelong (pronounced "Jalong"), which is about an hour's drive southwest of Melbourne, and Port Adelaide, which is in South Australia. I decided to root for Geelong because they were from Victoria and my roommate grew up in Geelong. Geelong ended up creaming Port Adelaide something like 150-50, which would be like an American football score of about 56-14. It was the first time in 44 years that a Victorian team won! It actually wasn't that exciting to watch because it was so lob-sided, so a few other students and I played ping pong for the last 10 minutes or so to entertain ourselves. I like the people here. It's a fun and relaxed atmosphere.

Yesterday, I went to the same church that I went to last week. It was another good experience. As a matter of fact, I met Mike, a geophysicist who works at Monash University, which is another university in Melbourne. That was pretty cool. After I talked with him for a while, I had an interesting conversation with the pastor, who is also named Andrew. The one thing I remember from that conversation was that he told me in Melbourne's summers, it can go from being 40 deg. C to 20 deg. C (~105 to 70 F) within 20 minutes! I had heard something about if you want to experience four seasons in a day, then come to Melbourne, but I didn't think it would be that dramatic! The thing that fascinated me most about it was something that hadn't occurred to me before: northwest of Melbourne is the dry desert-like outback, but just south is Antarctica. So if you have a northwesterly wind, you get warm air, but if you get a wind from the south, you get cold air from a huge, massive ice continent! I thought that was so cool! Speaking of weather, it has been really cloudy and rainy here for the past few weeks. It was warm when I got here, but has been pretty chilly ever since. Hopefully it will warm up soon... I'm sure it's beautiful and colorful in Michigan.

After church, I went to the house of John and Andrea, the same family that I had lunch with the week before, and we had a meal together with Lucy, the youth pastor. Another couple came, but I can't remember their names. I wish I could because the husband has a masters degree in physics! I had an interesting conversation with him as well. We talked about Genesis 1 and the message it was intended to give, which was pretty cool because it was basically a summary of everything I had learned about Genesis 1 during my years at Calvin. I like that!

Settling in and seeing some more sights!

Here's another (slightly edited) e-mail I sent to my family on Sept. 23:

"Today I went to a small nearby Baptist church. Someone gave one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard! I also met a few other people my age. Afterward, I went out to lunch with a family from the church and had a lovely conversation with them. It was a very pleasant time. I'm planning on coming back next week because everyone said most of the universities were on break, so not everyone was there.

Yesterday, Trent (my roommate), two of his friends, and I went to the You Yangs Regional Park, which hosts a small group of hills about an hour southwest of Melbourne. In fact, you can see them in the distance on the way to the Great Ocean Road. The weather was beautiful: 18 and sunny (sorry, that's 18 degrees Celsius, so about 65 degrees Fahrenheit). It reminded me a little bit of Texas, but on a smaller scale of course. The peak wasn't very high - it only took about 45 minutes to get to the top. The view was spectacular - in the east you could see Melbourne and in the west you could see Geelong, another city nearby, with the bay in between.

That night, Trent took me into Melbourne proper and showed me around the city. We went to a free interactive art exhibition, which wasn't very large, but it was still interesting. Then we went to a hotel-like complex next to the Yarra River (the big river that goes through the city) that had a large shopping area and casino. We didn't really do anything except look around, which is all I really wanted to do anyway. Then we went and saw some huge flames come out of some pillars along the river. The pillars burst their flames in sequence so as to make more of a show out of it. Apparently, they do this every night, and it lasts for only a couple of minutes. Trent told me they use an ungodly amount of gas to do it, so it seems like a real waste to me, especially since it wasn't even that cool.

I experienced a little bit of a halt in my research this past week, unfortunately. One of the programs I'm using isn't doing its job, and my advisor was away this past week in Sydney, so I couldn't really do anything except read papers. That was fine because that's something I need to do anyway. I'm having fun reading about all the work that has been done so far on galaxy clusters!

Trent took me to a mobile phone store yesterday and helped me get a cell phone, so now I have one! The amazing part is that I have 180 minutes Skype on it per month, so I can call you from my mobile without incurring heavy expenses!"

That's right people! You can call me on Skype on my cell now! E-mail me if you don't have Facebook and want to know what my Skype username is.

First weeks in Melbourne, Australia

G'day mates! Welcome to my first official blog. Here's the (edited) e-mail I sent out to a bunch of family and friends on Sept. 17:

"As you all know, I am in Melbourne, Australia right now studying at Swinburne University (or as it is sometimes affectionately called, Swinny). Despite very long flights (one 3.5-hour flight from Chicago to LA and one 14-hour flight from LA to Melbourne), my trip down here was about as smooth as it could possibly be. Going through security and customs were matters of only minutes! The personal entertainment system on the 14-hour flight helped too!

I really like it here so far. I only have to walk about 15 minutes to get to Swinburne. The campus is very nice and amazingly enough, roughly the size of Calvin's campus. One of the buildings is an old fire station, which is pretty cool. I've seen so many different nationalities on and off campus since I got here: plenty of Indian and Asian people, and even a few Aborigines! The city of Melbourne itself is pretty nice too. It's really easy to get around with the trams, trains, and buses. The downtown area is beautiful. It's kind of like an oversized and better version of Grand Rapids, now that I think about it: there's a river running right through the city with a nice riverbank area. There are also some cool shops and restaurants near my apartment and Swinburne.

I started last week in the astrophysics department and absolutely love it! My advisor, Warrick Couch, was really sick the first two days I was there (Sept. 11 & 12), so I didn't even meet him until my third day. I don't know how many of you have heard this, but he was recently awarded the Gruber cosmology prize for his work on the distant supernova team that led to the discovery that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating. He was in the UK from Sept. 5-10 for that, and apparently when he got off the plane, he was very sick. He's well again now, so that's good. I've met some other really neat people here in the department too. You can go to http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/staff/ to see what kinds of people are here. I'm listed, but I don't have a picture up yet. One of the Canadians I've met said that some of his cousins went to Calvin, which was really nice to hear!

Every morning at 10:00 we have a coffee break, where a lot of people from the astrophysics department meet to just chat and drink coffee at Haddon's, an on-campus coffee shop that's part of our building. I, not being much of a coffee drinker, go for chocolate doughnuts or orange juice or both. On Mondays, we have a department lunch together, featuring pizza, some administrative issues, and a short science talk at the end. And then on Fridays at 5:00, we have a hang-out time, featuring beer/wine, snacks, and conversation. It's pretty cool. Also, once a week we have a seminar in our mini theatre (whoa, did you see that? I spelled theater the Australian/British way without even thinking about it!). Yes, it's basically a mini movie theatre. We have a big silver screen designed for virtual reality tours of the heavens, and when there's a seminar, the speaker displays his/her powerpoint slides on it. I have yet to see a show in this theatre, but I'll let you know how cool it is when I see one.

For my work space, I was placed at a desk in an area known as the 'American enclave,' where three other American PhD students work. I was quite happy about that! Research is going well: my advisor is having me work on a project where we're going to find the mass of blue galaxies in a galaxy cluster. Ask me if you want to know more.

This past weekend I probably saw the most beautiful place I have ever seen! My roommate and I took an all-day trip on the Great Ocean Road, which is southwest of Melbourne. We drove through forest, countryside covered with sheep, and along the ocean. At one point Trent noticed a koala bear next to the road! We stopped to get out of the car and take a look. There it was, sleeping away right next to the road. Trent then took a picture of me only a few feet away from it! I didn't understand how it could sleep with all the noisy cars passing by, but it was cool to get that close to a wild koala bear, and only after being in Australia for a week and a half! Near the end of the road, there were huge limestone cliffs along the beach. There were also really tall limestone pillars named the 'Twelve Apostles,' even though there weren't 12 pillars there. It was absolutely gorgeous! Once I get my own computer (which probably won't be for another week, unfortunately), I'll be sure to send you all the link to my pictures. If you can't wait that long, just Google 'Great Ocean Road' or 'Twelve Apostles' and you can see pictures other people have taken. I guess that's it for now!"