Last Friday I went with a couple of our grad students to the Compact Objects in Michigan 5 meeting. This is a small, one-day scientific meeting designed to give students and postdocs the opportunity to give talks about research related to “compact objects”: black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs. In previous years it’s been held at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University; this year our colleagues at Michigan State University hosted. I was impressed by the number of universities repesented at this meeting: 7 in Michigan, plus us from Ontario.
The meeting was very well-organized. There were about 50 attendees, a nice number for getting to know at least a few other folks and filling a classroom. The talks were organized in 4 sessions of 4 talks each, with 16 minutes for presentations and 4 minutes for questions. I thought this worked out quite well; not so many talks as to be completely overwhelming, but enough to make the full-day trip worthwhile for us. The talks were scheduled by topic, from the most distant galaxies in the first session, to nearby galaxies in the second, and compact objects in the Milky Way in the third and fourth. There was good gender balance among the speakers, although not so much among the question-askers, possibly because question-askers tend to be more senior people, and I believe was the only non-male senior person.
Most of the talks were observational rather than theoretical. Several of the theory talks, on modelling neutron star crusts, introduced me to the concept of nuclear pasta. Good thing those talks were after lunch! In a talk on modelling of supernovae I again re-learned the difference between detonation and deflagration.
Unsurprising for a meeting about compact objects, the observational talks presented a lot of data from X-ray telescopes, from the now retired RXTE to the more recent NuSTAR and a couple of space-station-mounted telescopes I hadn’t heard of: Mir-Kvant and NICER. In a discussion of all-sky X-ray monitoring telescopes in the 1980s, one attendee remarked that he wasn’t familiar with these; he was too busy watching He-Man at the time! My PhD student Robin’s talk on his machine-learning analysis of X-ray sources in M31 generated lots of interest and questions.
I came away from the meeting with a better understanding of some areas of astrophysics that I don’t always follow, and an interest in attending more small, regional science meetings. It is really nice to be able to meet colleagues from neighbouring institutions without having to get on a plane or spend nights away from home. Particularly for a small field like astronomy, such meetings are valuable for both networking and for getting excited about other people’s science.