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2005 Visit to San Francisco and Asilomar

Past and present UMIST group members

Past and present UMIST group members at the Astrochemistry IAU Symposium, Asilomar, California, September 2005:
Paul Woods, Róisín Ni Chuimin, Steven Charnley, Anthony Jones, Tom Millar, Andrew Markwick-Kemper, David Williams, Jonathan Rawlings, Helen Roberts, Joseph Birks, Steve Rodgers, Hideko Nomura, Paul Ruffle.


By Paul Ruffle

I attended the 5th meeting in the IAU series of Astrochemistry Symposia that was held between 29th August and 2nd September 2005. Entitled Astrochemistry Throughout the Universe: Recent Successes and Current Challenges, the conference took place at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, on the Pacific Coast near Monterey in California. The conference was organized by Caltech. Over 360 participants came from 28 countries and their common interest and expertise was astrochemistry.

Astrochemistry is about the molecules that are present throughout the universe. From the dawn of galactic formation at high redshift, to the interstellar medium in our Galaxy and others, and to the atmospheres of stars, brown dwarfs, circumstellar disks and comets, molecules provide unique probes of the environments in which they are located. Moreover, a detailed understanding of the chemical processes forming and destroying molecules, besides being of interest in its own right, can yield a global picture of the past, present, and possibly even the future of astronomical sources with a complex evolutionary history.

I presented a poster at the conference entitled Metal-poor molecular gas beyond the optical disk of the Galaxy. My poster outlined my PhD research concerning the molecular clouds EC1 and EC2, which lie at the largest distances from the centre of our galaxy the Milky Way. These clouds have elemental abundances that may be similar to irregular dwarf galaxies, so they potentially represent an environment similar to when the disk of the Milky Way was forming. Our observations of these sources reinforce the suspected uniqueness of Galactic edge clouds: a temperature of 20K (-253 C); a density of 5,000 hydrogen molecules per cubic cm; and very low metallicity (low amounts of elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen). EC2 is also the most distant star forming molecular cloud in the Milky Way. It has an associated ionised hydrogen region excited by a low metallicity early B star, that appears to have triggered star formation in EC2. Our observations of these molecular clouds have the potential to aid our interpretation of much more distant objects, i.e. those at high redshift, dating from an earlier epoch of the Universe.

In order to get over the inevitable jet-lag associated with travelling to the west coast of the United States, I travelled to San Francisco (from Manchester via Chicago) two days ahead of the conference start. I finally arrived at my hotel in the business quarter of San Francisco in the early evening on Friday 27th August. Despite being tired, I knew from past experience that it was best to not retire early, but stay up and force my body clock to adjust to Pacific Daylight Time (-8 hours British Summer Time). I went for a walk and found a lively sports bar that served a good American burger and fries! Having kept awake to around 10:00pm I returned to my hotel and fell gratefully into my bed.

On Saturday 28th August I spent the day walking around the city. Initially, I walked up and down the very steep streets characteristic of San Francisco, and came to the 210 foot tall art deco Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, which was built in 1933 with funds left by the philanthropist Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an admirer of the fire fighters at the 1906 earthquake fire. The tower's design is reminiscent of a fire hose nozzle and inside are a number of Diego Rivera inspired murals which were completed in 1933. Each mural depicts San Franciscan citizens at work in the many types of commercial enterprise typical of that era.

After that I headed for Fisherman's Wharf. Sadly this area has become more and more commercialised, so I quickly walked west to get away from the tourists. However, I did pause at the San Francisco Marine Museum at Hyde Pier and viewed some fine examples of early sailing ships and schooners. At Pier 45 I was able to view the USS Pampanito, a World War II Balao class Fleet submarine that made six patrols in the Pacific during World War II, during which she sank six Japanese ships and damaged four others.

Walking further, I came to San Francisco's science museum, located in the Palace of Fine Arts, near the Golden Gate Bridge. The Exploratorium, as it was called, was an experimental, hands-on museum designed to spark curiosity regardless of age or familiarity with science. Their were hundreds of exhibits to touch, look through, pick up, and tinker with. Sadly my jet-lag prevented me playing as much as I would have liked!

The adjacent Palace of Fine Arts was built in 1915, on land originally belonging to the Presidio, for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The site features a classical Roman rotunda with curved colonnades in an idyllic park setting. As I walked through the colonnades I watched three separate wedding parties having their photographs taken amidst the massive Romanesque ruins. By this time it was getting late so I retraced my steps, pausing at Fisherman's Wharf to see if I could book a tour the next morning to Alcatraz, which from the mid 1930's until the mid 1960's, was America's premier maximum-security prison, the final stop for the nation's most incorrigible inmates. This was not to be, as tickets for Sunday morning had already sold out. Having walked many miles by this time I returned to my hotel and then went out again to enjoy a quite dinner at an excellent, but cheap, family run Italian restaurant. I slept well that night.

The next day, Sunday, I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is housed in a magnificent building by the Swiss architect Mario Botta. It included: an exhibition by Richard Tuttle, which I thought was rubbish; photographs from the Prentice and Paul Sack Collection chronicling the history of photography and examining the relationship between people and environment, which was very good; Jeremy Blake's suite of digital animations, the Winchester trilogy, employing hand-painted imagery, film footage, vector graphics, and sound, which I found a little tedious; and the work of New York-based design firm 2x4 encompassing print, motion graphics, and environmental design which was very good. I also enjoyed viewing pieces by my favourite artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Henri Matisse.

After lunch I met up with three of my colleagues from Manchester and we then drove the 100 mile journey to Asilomar near Monterey. The Conference Centre is on a California State Park, which meant that it was very green and peaceful. All the buildings were made of wood and the accommodation comprised many chalet-like buildings dotted around the park. The Asilomar Conference Centre itself was a rather quirky location for several hundred astronomers, as it had started life as a refuge by the sea for the YWCA, being designed by architect Julia Morgan. Despite the somewhat sombre and dark surroundings, the conference itself was a great success. I met colleagues both old a new and benefited from a number of presentations that were directly relevant to my own line of research. On the Wednesday afternoon we were treated to a visit to Monterey (the 'Sardine Capital of the World' in the early 20th century) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was gifted to the Monterey community by David and Lucile Packard in 1984. On the Thursday evening we enjoyed a barbecue on the beach. Our hosts were much puzzled by the fact that the delegates desired to consume additional beer and wine after 9:00pm!

The conference finished at midday on the Friday so, as I was not flying home until early on Saturday morning, I hired a bicycle and rode the 20 mile round trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Clint Eastwood was once Mayor. I passed numerous golf courses and ruminated on the fact that I could not think of anything more boring than spending one's twilight years hitting a ball around with a long stick. Much better to try and figure out some of the astrochemistry that powers our Universe!

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