Hunting Aliens in California

Greetings, Earthlings!

First off, I apologize for being so tardy on this entry. I’ll try to be more timely for the rest of the summer. Anyways…

10460212_10152259266303719_86456628812285147_nI am writing to you from sunny Mountain View, California, home of the SETI Institute! For those of you who aren’t familiar, SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, a.k.a. professional alien hunters. You may think that that sounds like science fiction, but they are a legitimate research institution doing real science, which covers topics including geology, astronomy, biology, and everything in between. And it’s the coolest place ever! Mountain View is basically paradise on Earth – sunny every day (we were told not to expect rain all summer), temperatures in the low-60s in the morning when I leave for work with daily highs in the mid-70s, and NO FLORIDA HUMIDITY.

California is a neat place, with a lot of differences that I’m still getting used to. One of the first things I learned about the Bay Area is that grocery bags cost money – you have to bring your reusable bags or specifically ask to buy paper bags. I was very confused on my first grocery run when the cashier just piled my $60 worth of groceries at the end of the counter and then asked me if I needed a bag. I certainly wasn’t going to carry them all in my arms!

Riding the CalTrain up to San Francisco!

Riding the CalTrain up to San Francisco!

The thing I like most about this area is just the environment and culture. You walk through downtown Mountain View, and it’s all family-owned restaurants (lots of different ethnic cuisines), used book shops, bike stores, and small cafes with people sitting outside on their laptops. It’s gorgeous and feels totally safe and welcoming. Plus being in Silicon Valley, I get to drive past places like Microsoft, Google, etc., which is way cool. Not only that, but there are like four or five performing arts centers in the area – hate to bash Daytona, but it is certainly lacking in that regard! Another great thing is that you can get anywhere via public transit – which is certainly comforting, considering my car is currently parked 3,000 miles away. I’d never ridden a train before, so it was a new adventure for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s also very bike friendly here; I bike to and from work every day: 2.5 miles each way. And the weather’s perfect for it – especially first thing in the morning. In California, bikes are considered cars, so I bike on the roads, stop at stop lights, and use turn signals (and here everybody thought learning those hand motions in drivers’ ed was a waste of time!) It’s kinda scary to be in the road with the cars, but it’s also really neat.

Oh, and I forgot to mention… I may not be working at NASA this year, but I do live at NASA. We are all provided housing in dorms on site at NASA Ames. So hey, that’s pretty cool. SETI and Ames work very closely, in fact most of the SETI scientists also work at NASA.

Some of the cubicles at SETI. Every wall and surface in the office has a poster about space on it.

Some of the cubicles at SETI. Every wall and surface in the office has a poster about space on it.

My first week as a SETI intern was filled with presentations and lectures on all topics of SETI science. It was very cool to hear about all the different things going on here, and to meet science celebrities like Dr. Jill Tarter and Dr. Frank Drake. If you don’t know who they are, you should. The office itself is a lot like a university, minus the classrooms and students. Lots of offices with research posters covering all the walls, scientists walking around in attire ranging from those dressed more professionally to the ones in shorts and sandals, and free coffee all day in the break room. The thing I like most about this program versus an internship at a big, corporate company is just how chill it is. We dictate our own work hours (to an extent; you still have to work them out with your research mentor), wear whatever we feel like (though I’ve been trying to be a bit above my usual t-shirt and jeans fashion), and everybody is just really cool and friendly. It’s a great environment.

This is a plot of 2D temperature distribution in a protoplanetary disk.

This is a plot of 2D temperature distribution in a protoplanetary disk.

The scientist I’m working with this summer is Dr. Uma Gorti, and my project involves modeling the dissipation of protoplanetary disks, which is the astronomical phenomenon that forms planets. Basically what we’re investigating is how fast these disks are going away, and whether or not planets will form before they do that. So not directly hunting aliens but definitely still applicable – the aliens need planets to live on, y’know. I’m very glad I was selected for this project because it’s actually really similar to my work back at ERAU. These disks act a lot like our atmosphere as far as the fluids physics is concerned, and it will be great to have had the modeling practice when I begin working on the model for my thesis in the fall!

I’m also really excited because there’s a good chance I’ll get to present my research at a conference this year, and maybe even get a paper published depending on what kind of results we get. So crossing my fingers for that…!

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

The first couple weeks here have been jam-packed with fun. In addition to the lectures and beginning our projects, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to explore the area. On our first Saturday, we all went up to San Francisco to see some of the big tourist attractions: Lombard Street, China Town, and the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is a wonderful city, and I’m sure we’ll be up there again because there’s so much to see and do. And it doesn’t feel icky or scary like some big cities do. Plus it’s just a $7 train-ride away from Mountain View!

One of the views from the Stanford Dish Trail

One of the views from the Stanford Dish Trail.

On Sunday a large group of us went to the Stanford Dish Trail for a hike. Well, sort of a hike – it was a paved road, but very hilly nonetheless. That’s another neat thing about California: there’s so much elevation, not to mention the mountains! Mountain View is very aptly named, because you literally see them in every direction. Florida is flat as a pancake. Which is good in its own way, but the scenery here just can’t be beat. But I digress. Anyways, this trail was really cool because it went past some of Stanford’s radio dishes, and from the top you get a fantastic view of the whole Valley and could even see San Francisco in the distance. It was also really cool to hike because in the biography of Sally Ride that I’m reading there’s a picture of her running that same trail. There’s just something neat about having been to the same places as such awesome, famous people.

A few of us interns outside the SF Giants stadium before the game.

A few of us interns outside the SF Giants stadium before the game.

Our second week of work was split by a company outing on Wednesday to see the San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres. For those of you who aren’t very sports savvy (like me), that’s baseball. And we totally kicked their butts – it was a no-hitter! Which means that the other team never even made it to first base. Ha. It was a lot of fun to hang out together, get the day off of work, and spend it in downtown San Francisco. The stadium was right on the bay, so we could see huge ships out in the water, which was way cool.

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“Make your meanest Kahl Drogo face.”

For the second Saturday, a handful of us went up to Oakland to volunteer for the Evolution Expo: a SciFi/science convention in its first year. And boy was that cool. I spent the day working at the photo booth, where fans would pay to stand next to celebrities and have their picture taken. Well, let’s just say the expo wasn’t very well attended, so we ended up spending a lot of time just chatting with the actors and astronauts, and taking some silly photos of our own. Some of the big names I got to meet are Jason Momoa (Kahl Drogo from Game of Thrones), John Rhys-Davies (well-known for Gimli in Lord of the Rings, but I knew him as the professor from Sliders), Tim Russ and Garret Wang (both from Star Trek Voyager), and Amanda Tapping (from Stargate, which I’ve never watched, but I just want to note that she was such a cool person!) They were all really cool. It’s funny to see actors as people and not as their characters. Amidst the actors we also got to chat with astronauts Joe Edwards and Wendy Lawrence. All in all it was a really cool experience, and I’m very glad I woke up at 5 am to do it.

The Sunday after the expo we all packed up into two big vans and headed up to Hat Creek Observatory and Lassen National Park, but I’m going to save that adventure for my next entry… 🙂

Until next time!

-Lynsey

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