Thursday, 3 January 2019

Tips for Student Presentations

[Health warning: personal preferences may differ between researchers!]

One of the key skills being developed in an undergraduate or graduate degree is the ability to communicate complex ideas in a succinct and accessible way.  This is tested several times during the Physics degree course here at Leicester, and common mistakes can lead to lost marks.  Here's a list of my own personal preferences for presentations, in case they're of use to the wider community.

  • Three Ts:  Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.  Repetition of key points helps to reinforce them.  You’re telling a story, so make sure there are points in your slides to introduce, review, and summarise.
  • Show some enthusiasm:  If you don't, who else will?  I still get nervous before talks, but I try to channel this nervous energy into the talk, and I think it works.  Remember you're telling a story, and that even an audience of physicists would like to be entertained.  I'm not talking about becoming a stand-up comedian, but varying your voice and engaging your audience will all help you to be memorable.
  • Balance text and figures:  The audience will always be drawn towards your graphics, so these should dominate the slide with only bullet-points of text for key points.  Simple animations (e.g., building up a complex graphic with multiple slides) can often be really helpful.
  • Central Theme:  Use the first or second slide to define a central question or thesis that your presentation will address, and keep referring back to this in each Section and in the Conclusion.  That way, the reader will understand how each particular section fits into the wider presentation.
  • Numbered Sections and Footers:  Use numbered sections and subsections, as you would in a report, and make sure these numbers are prominent in slide headings/footers.  That way the audience knows where you are in the presentation, even if (ahem) they've just had 40 winks...  Also, use slide numbers with a [1/N] format, so the audience knows how long they need to sustain their attention...
  • Active Titles:  Use the slide title to drive home a message - this could be phrased as a question that you answer as you describe the slide; or it could be the key conclusion of that particular slide.  It helps the audience understand what you're trying to say.
  • Summarise sections:  At the end of a section, before moving on, try to include a few sentences/statements to say where we are in the presentation – what is the take-home message of the previous section, and what are we going to look at next?  This helps to avoid abrupt transitions between sections.
  • Referencing:  Figures and ideas should have references to the source (Author et al., yyyy) or a web URL - often DOIs (digital object identifiers) are helpful here.  You can include a slide with your references if the document is going to be read by people later on, but NEVER EVER end on this slide.
  • Keep to the point:  Don’t be tempted to go off topic or to introduce information that isn’t relevant to the central theme of the project – this can just lead to confusion and dilutes your take-home messages, and can mean that you run over your allotted time.
  • Practise makes perfect:  Time keeping is an essential skill - too short and you leave the audience wondering whether you're really cut out for presenting, too long and you offend the people coming after you.  And you really do want to leave time for questions at the end.  Practise out loud, preferably with an audience to give you some friendly critiques.
  • End on your Summary/Conclusions:  Don't ever fall into the trap of having the last slide say "Any Questions", or "Thanks", or "References".  Your last slide should contain a bulleted list of conclusions as a summary of what you've told them (preferably with an eye-catching graphic).  This should stay on the screen behind you as you answer questions.  
  • Don't be tempted to use fancy slide transitions:  Fade in and fade out is fine, but if I see the slide scrunch into a ball and bounce away, it's just distracting....

Oh, and Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society has an excellent guide to conference presentations here:

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Jupiter's Equatorial Disturbance Cycle

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

H2S on Neptune?

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Research Associate in Planetary Atmospheric Science 2019

Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester
Full Details: 
Salary Grade 7 - £34,189 to £39,609 per annum
Funding is available from 1 March 2019 to 31 March 2022
Closing date:  14 January 2019

The Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Leicester invites applications for a Post-Doctoral Research Associate (PDRA) in Planetary Atmospheric Science.

You will join the planetary atmospheres team led by Dr Leigh Fletcher to address the scientific aims of a European Research Council (ERC) grant to explore time-variable processes shaping the atmospheres of the giant planets.

The “GIANTCLIMES” programme seeks to investigate the natural cycles of meteorology, circulation, and chemical processes shaping the environments of the four giant planets over long spans of time. Inversions of planetary spectra, from the ultraviolet to the microwave, will be used to reconstruct these atmospheres in three dimensions to explore their temporal variability and the processes coupling different atmospheric regimes. Potential sub-projects include, but are not limited to: analysis of multi-instrument data from the Juno and Cassini spacecraft; assessments of the chemical distributions and radiative energy budgets of the four giants; numerical simulation of periodic and stochastic meteorological events (including wave phenomena); spectroscopic mapping techniques from Earth-based observatories; and assembly of data analysis pipelines to support “Guaranteed-Time” and “Early-Release” science activities ahead of the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

You will be expected to carry out independent and collaborative research for this project and disseminate the results to the international scientific community. There will be significant opportunities to collaborate within the Leicester’s Planetary Science team (whose existing research includes planetary magnetospheres, ionospheres, atmospheres and surface science), and with an international team specialising in radiative transfer and spectral inversion for planetary atmospheres.

In addition to the online application form, applicants are requested to provide: [1] a CV and publication list; [2] two academic references; [3] a one-page cover letter detailing how your prior experience and future research aims are commensurate with the aims of the programme outlined above.

Informal enquiries are welcome and should be made to Dr Leigh Fletcher on or 0116 252 3585

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Report on COSPAR Ice Giants Session

COSPAR Symposium B5.4 – Wednesday July 18th 2018
Ice Giant Systems:  New Results and Future Exploration
MSO: Leigh Fletcher (Univ. of Leicester)
DSO:   Amy Simon (Goddard Spaceflight Center)

COSPAR sub-commission B5 hosted several symposia focussing on the exploration of the outer solar system at the 2018 COSPAR meeting in Pasadena, ranging from the highlights of past missions (Cassini), active missions (Juno), and future missions (exploration of ocean worlds).  The ice giant community met on Wednesday afternoon to focus on the exploration of Uranus and Neptune, from their interiors, to their atmospheres, magnetospheres, rings and satellite systems.  Unusual for the COSPAR symposia, the organisers split the time between standard oral presentations and a workshop-style discussion forum on international collaboration for a future ice giant mission.  Both sections were well received and fostered interesting discussions between conference delegates for the remainder of the COSPAR meeting.

New Scientific Results

The ice giants, Uranus and Neptune, have been visited only once by a robotic spacecraft (Voyager 2 in 1986 and 1989, respectively).  Many of the most recent insights into how these unusual systems work are therefore the result of Earth-based observations, both from ground-based observatories and space telescopes. Hoftstadter et al. contrasted radio-wave observations of Saturn and Uranus from facilities like the Very Large Array (VLA), explaining how spectral models are used to explore the deep abundances of ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and (potentially) water within these worlds.  The existing Uranus data sensing the atmospheric composition can be explained by approximately solar abundances of these heavy materials, raising the question of how the materials might be trapped within their deeper interiors.  Wong et al. described Hubble Space Telescope observations of a new dark oval that formed on Neptune in 2015, not dissimilar from the Great Dark Spot observed by Voyager in 1989.  This oval has been re-observed several times since 2015 as it drifted southwards, whereas most drift equatorward.  Its bright companion clouds have become more centred within the vortex, and Wong’s team plans to track its continued evolution in the coming years.

Observations at mid-infrared wavelengths, sensing the atmospheric temperatures and composition of Uranus and Neptune, featured significantly for the rest of the symposium, largely as a result of preparation for the expected slew of data from the James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2021.  Orton et al. presented images of Uranus at wavelengths sensing stratospheric emission from acetylene gas.  This provides a capability inaccessible to Voyager – the ability to probe the circulation of Uranus’ stratosphere.  The results, from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and Gemini Observatory, indicate an unusual circulation pattern that localises the stratospheric emission to Uranus’ poles at the time of the 2007 equinox.  Fletcher et al. followed this up in a subsequent talk using spatially-resolved mid-infrared spectroscopy of Uranus, which is extremely challenging from Earth but whets the appetite for future data from the MIRI 5-28 ┬Ám instrument on JWST, which will provide the first
spatially-resolved spectra at these wavelengths.  Fletcher also presented VLT observations of Neptune, characterising stratospheric temperatures within its warm polar vortex during Neptune’s southern summertime conditions.  Sinclair et al. presented further stratospheric imaging of Neptune from the VLT, correlating diffuse warm regions in the stratosphere with cloud activity observed in the troposphere.  Finally, a poster by Rowe-Gurney et al. explored longitudinal variability observed in Spitzer Space Telescope disc-averaged spectra of Uranus, but not Neptune, hinting at unexpected dynamic variability on a world usually thought of as stagnant and inactive.

The scientific presentations continued with Masters et al. explaining how the processes governing ice giant magnetospheres might be rather different from those at work on the gas giants, presenting models indicating the important role of a viscous-like interaction between the solar wind and the magnetosphere.  Kirchoff et al. contrasted impact cratering size distributions on the Uranian satellites with those on Jupiter and Saturn, advocating future exploration of these terrains.  And Mandt et al. concluded the scientific discussion by exploring how measurements of the deuterium and nitrogen content of Triton’s atmosphere could prove crucial in understanding the origin of volatiles on distant worlds, including Pluto.

Future Exploration

The final hour of the symposium shifted into a discussion of future international collaboration on missions to the ice giants, hosted by Hoftstadter, Simon and Fletcher.  Hofstadter reported the primary outcomes of the 2016-17 NASA-ESA Science Definition Team study, which concluded in 2017 with an extensive report (  Simon described a recent white paper advocating a two-mission concept, combining a Uranus flyby with a KBO mission, alongside a dedicated Neptune-Triton orbital mission (  It was stressed that this was one of many potential ice giant exploration strategies, and concepts for Uranus orbital exploration were also discussed.  There was discussion of the criticality of planetary entry probes (, combined with orbital remote sensing in the infrared and microwave, in order to explore the chemical composition of Uranus and Neptune for comparisons with other targets in the solar system. 

Several ideas were raised during the wide-ranging discussion, including the need to identify and develop key enabling technologies for future ice giant missions, and how to ensure that ice giant science remained at the top of the agenda in the US Decadal Survey, ESA’s Cosmic Vision, and within the sites of other space agencies.  Particular attention focussed on how to open up the US medium-class missions (New Frontiers) to allow for ice giant exploration and on starting a new large-class mission before the next Decadal review.  Given the breadth of ideas, and the timescale for the next US decadal and future potential ESA studies, it was suggested that a dedicated ice giant workshop be held in 2019, to be used as a focal point for the development of topical white papers.  The discussion section was warmly received, and we would encourage similar events be worked into the programme for future COSPAR symposia.


Sunday, 27 May 2018

#VLTJupiter 6: A Tour of Cerro Paranal

The first glimpse of the VLT came as our bus arrived at the Residencia from Antofagasta.  Four gleaming silver boxes on top of a flattened mountain.  We couldn't wait to get up there to see inside, so took the "Star Trail" path up to the summit on our second day.  This dusty path took around an hour, looping around to the west of the mountain to give us good views of the Pacific Ocean, albeit obscured by clouds held near the ground by an inversion layer.  The first thing you come to is the control building, over three stories high but beneath the main level.  This is where the astronomers sit, night after night, with control panels for each of the Unit Telescopes (UTs).  Take a gantry staircase up to the top, and you arrive at one of the most sophisticated and awe-inspiring telescope sites in the world.

Credit:  Iztok Boncina/ESO

The Telescopes

A map of the Paranal site, from the Residencia up to the VLT platform.

The four UTs, Antu, Kueyen, Melipal, and Yepun, each stand over 28.5 m high, each containing the 22-tonne 8.2-m diameter primary mirrors - single, monolithic mirrors, as large as we can build them with our technology today, made from a special glass-ceramic with almost no thermal expansion, called Zerodur.  These are mountain on a 350-tonne alt-azimuth mount, with a 1.1-m diameter beryllium secondary mirror to reflect the light back to the instruments at the Cassegrain focus.   Active optics with 150 supports control the shape of the thin (177 mm thick) primary mirror.  We got to go inside UT3 just as the sun was setting, and seeing this huge structure moving and rotating with very little sound was quite incredible.  We stood in total darkness, until suddenly the huge dome doors opened up, letting the moonlight flood in.  The wind shields behind the dome doors then opened one by one, as well as the vents all around and below the telescope - this lets the air in to keep the optics down at the ambient temperature of the mountaintop.  The dome rotates silently to align with the chosen target, and the alt-azimuth mount slews to the right elevation.  This is astronomy on an industrial scale.

Watching these huge UTs move around was an absolute privilege, especially with the golden glow of sunset in the background, Venus setting, and Jupiter rising in the east.  By the time we'd finish each night, Saturn was also high up in the sky.

The four UTs aren't the only things up on the platform - there are four additional 1.8-m telescopes called the ATs (auxiliary telescopes).  These are dedicated to full time interferometry, being able to move the ATs around on rails to produce a variety of different baselines (the further apart they are, the finer the scales they probe).  The UTs can also be used for interferometry, increasing the light collecting power, but it means that they're all being used at the same time on the same object, and no one else can use the instruments.  The beams from each telescope are combined in "delay lines" beneath the platform, where they are fed into different instruments.

ESO/H.H. Heyer

Happy Birthday

While we've been here at Paranal, UT1 celebrated a very special anniversary - it achieved first light exactly 20 years ago, on May 25th 1998, and in excess of 330 million EUR were spent in ESO Member States for the construction of the VLT.  The other UTs followed:

UT2, Kueyen: 1 March 1999
UT3, Melipal: 26 Jan 2000
UT4, Yepun: 4 September 2000

The annual budget is 16.9 million EUR without personnel costs, You can see recent 360-degree images of the summit here, and take a virtual tour here.  This website showing the current conditions is extremely useful.

"There's no cause for alarm.... but there probably will be."