Voorwerp discovery Public appearances Astronomy adventures Everyday life Comic book Voorwerp discovery Public appearances Astronomy adventures Everyday life Comic book

The meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything?

Although I have claimed before I already have the answer to this question (and it’s not 42), I recently ended up in a conversation with my partner about religion and I said to him: “The next time someone rings my doorbell to talk about their God, I will let them in and have a chat with them”. I don’t know why to be honest; chances of either of us changing the other’s view would be slim, but I guess the persistence of a non-explainable faith (of which I wish it would evolve quicker) fascinates me. The next day my doorbell rang, while I didn’t expect anybody.

Sure as hell, it was actually a Jehovah’s Witness who wanted to talk to me about God. (Don’t you love those beautiful coincidences life gives us often?) It was this morning; a Monday morning in my summer break. So why not? I had time and even though I wasn’t properly dressed yet, I was decent enough to answer the door. A guy in his late fifties walked up the stairs (a bit surprised?) with a bag full of leaflets, of which he handed me one. I figured it would be fair to let him know what he was dealing with right away, but he said my atheistic views wouldn’t bother him.

I agreed we could still have a chat, respecting each other as a person and he continued to show me a video on his iPad which made it clear God is not to blame for all the agony in the world: the devil is. I’m still not sure why this guy rang my doorbell, as his only answer to that was God had told him to do so, but I took the chance to ask him some more questions. When he said the devil controls me like a marionette, for instance, I asked if it isn’t far better I’m taking responsibility for my own mistakes, rather than passing the blame to a mythical creature. He agreed to that part saying he does feel guilt.

I helped him out using the “free will” card, but I still think it’s better to use your own moral compass, instead of acting out of fear of punishment. I do think they got that “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” part in the Bible right. I have actually read a lot of it. He interrupted me though, promoting his God as the God of love. So I asked him why He doesn’t love his homosexual children. I mean, I know we’re supposed to read the Bible being aware of the time it was written in and very few people actually think you should still murder a man who “lies with a male as with a woman”, but it’s still clear on the abomination part.

The man at my doorstep, who had refused to come in because he was on his own (fair enough, very sensible), explained to me that love between same-sex couples is not forbidden; sex is, as it’s not “natural”. Obviously I’m convinced nobody should judge anybody’s lifestyle like that, but as a biology teacher I thought I’d go with the “natural” argument, teaching him about homosexuality amongst many different species. He ignored my argument and went on to say I must think, when I look at the human eye or a butterfly’s wings, that they have to be created by a higher power?

And that’s when I asked him why he prefers taking God as an answer, instead of enjoying the quest for answers which can be tested and proven and criticised by peer review; the journey to learn new things, to develop and become better. Why would you choose to stand still when a scientific view can lead to understanding of this beautiful, complex universe we live in? I’m still guessing the answer is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of death, but he again didn’t answer. He used my science argument to say the Bible is based on facts, to which I explained the definition of ‘believing’ to him.

To which we agreed to disagree. Both none the wiser, as expected. Except that I was reminded of how much I appreciate my parent’s decision of not forcing their beliefs upon me (mum’s ietsism nor dad’s Christian beliefs). I’m happy I realise how lucky I am to have had the chances I did in life, without thinking they were fate. It’s good to know my hard work makes a difference, rather than thinking I can’t influence a predestination. And it is nice to be aware of the fact that this is the only life I’ve got, so I’d better make the most of it.

I do consider every day precious and although as a biology teacher I’d say the answer to the meaning of life would be 1) to survive and 2) to reproduce, I think the answer is to enjoy. And God, do I enjoy life. They didn’t have to tell me in school that I would look back one day thinking ‘those were the days of my life’, I think this pretty much every day. Even on rainy days. I appreciate little things and I value people I meet. High on life, I realise I may sound like a hippie, but I thought I’d put my thought process of this morning in writing. Saves me going door to door. Have a nice day!

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ZooCon 2014 part III friends

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You can see a selection of all the pictures taken at this event on my Flickr account.

After the successful conference part of ZooCon 2014, we moved to our favourite pub; the Royal Oak. Here I declared my love for Chris again, for making all of this happen. For putting together this loveliest group of people. We chatted about the lectures, the future of the Zooniverse and about how we’ve all been. I’m afraid we also laughed a bit when Grant said he had thought his 10,000+ classifications would make him part of the top 10 classifiers (please note that in all seriousness it was never a competition and every click helps!)

We also laughed a bit more at Els, for being the big green dot in Rob’s Talk infographic, which means she probably should spend less time Talking. Having said that, Julianne is well on her way to become a just as big blue dot and after the close of the forum (which we discussed briefly too), I have made my first move towards the ‘new’ communication tool too. I’m not planning on beating either of them though, unless I find a way to become that Panoptes creature Chris had put in his slides maybe. The one that never sleeps.

Speaking of Rob by the way, who couldn’t be here this weekend but who was visible in many of the others’ slides, he become a whole new job description and I told Chris I want to become a Rob when I grow up too. I also learned this evening that Grant often mentions me in his talks and that he uses one of my Playboy pictures to go with that. With Tom the Penguin Doctor we discussed the (romantic) sex lives of penguins and I sang Do A Beer* with my dear Annie Q. Then this other group started to sing rather loudly and Chris asked if we didn’t know a powerful Queen song to top that, so I started that bit of: “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye…!”

Speaking of that creature that never sleeps: we really didn’t want this evening to end just yet and so some of us moved to this other interesting looking bar called Freud. Here I learned of a mule/rum cocktail and I may or may not have seen someone giving someone a lap dance (this probably sounds way less innocent than it was, but unlike our very first Zoo meet, nobody was thrown out this evening). Intensely tired but high on life we eventually walked out, some stumbled out, we tried to get hold of a taxi and then Grant let me find the way home. (I suspect he must have been testing if I was really as rubbish at finding the way as I had told him).

When I had seen his guitar earlier and we had said we should sing a bit later, I hadn’t expected we would actually still do that, but he is right: that Britney Spears song uses the same chords as Hotel California! Who knew? We talked a bit more about life, the universe and everything, until the Sun came up. I concluded that it’s great to be part of the Zoo and to have found a thing in space, but the best part is the people I have met because of it. So to any of you reading this: thanks again for a lovely meet-up! After having found the pub for the Sunday lunch by myself too (it really wasn’t that hard, mostly thanks to that church) and we slowly had to end the weekend, I felt very sad to leave. But I guess that’s a good thing.

The excellent organiser Grant Miller, Julianne, Els, Bunny & I

The excellent photographer Inf, Anders, Yvonne & Richard

The awesome Brook & Tom

Chatting at the Royal Oak

Annie & I singing

Graham & Zooites in the background

The lovely Penguin Tom & I

Chris & mods Els & Julianne

Me, Grant & other mod Christine

ZooCon 2014 part II lectures

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You can see a selection of all the pictures taken at this event on my Flickr account.

I was rather pleased with myself, for having been able to find (Zookeeper/Zooite/lovely guy) Grant’s house and after I had dropped off my stuff (and met his roommates), we walked towards the lecture theatre together. We were early and went to buy cookies and juice for the break first. Grant set up his slides and we welcomed the first Zoo friends in. Hugs were shared and pictures were taken and we waited a bit to see if more people would come. There were certainly more (free) tickets reserved, and those who didn’t make it have missed a great day.

After the introduction done by Grant, Brooke gave an excellent update of the science output from various Zooniverse projects. She made an interesting comment about how people might get distracted in different Zoos. In some cases we might miss things at first, in others (like with the Voorwerp) we may see cool things we weren’t meant to look for. Dr Tom Hart, otherwise known as the Penguin Doctor, followed her and showed us the largest colony of penguins, camouflaged cameras (for studying without disturbing) and he told us they apparently warm the ice with poo. There’s still much to learn about penguin behaviour.

I think Penguin Watch might just be my new favourite Zoo project and while Tom was talking, Geoff and I tried it out on the iPad. Next up was Victoria, who told us about ‘Zoomanities’. I hadn’t realised just how successful the Operation War Diary is, but that’s very cool! Meg couldn’t make the conference, but pre-recorded her talk on project Planet Four, in which she showed us the science behind the spiders of Mars. Marc couldn’t physically be with us today either, but after our break, he phoned in via Skype to tell us we really don’t have an excuse not to participate in the Disc Detective project. It’s easy and cool because you can “help scientists comb our galaxy to look for stars that could be harbouring planet-forming disks”.

Becky, who started out as a Zooite too but ended up as a Zoo PhD student, showed us her latest results (I loved her enthusiasm) and Ali phoned in to talk Snapshot Serengeti. Apparently, we have now learned that hyenas actively track lions, while cheetahs actively avoid them. She also showed us the last picture taken by a camera, which showed the inside of the mouth of a hyena! Meanwhile (after the juice and cookies), Dr Phil had joined us in the audience, but also via Skype. In his talk he showed us some new lens candidates missed by computers but found by Space Warps volunteers.

And lastly, Chris (the voice from above) spoke to us about the importance of our community. They know Talk is not the perfect tool to communicate, but they’re working on it. There’s also the issue of running out of galaxies. By which he meant that setting up new Zoo projects takes time and they’re thinking of a way to involve the volunteers in this process too. This is all very new territory and there’s even a vacancy for a job to make this happen now.

After that we could all look back at a successful ZooCon and Grant concluded we should continue this meeting in the Royal Oak. (I’ll share more pictures and anecdotes of that part of the day in the next blog). Oh and one of the best parts of this year’s ZooCon? We already have a date for the next one: 11 July 2015!

Welcoming Christine, David and Geoff

Grant and I

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The Zoo lot

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The voice from above

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The programme

Rob’s Talk infographic

Surprising discoveries

Dr Tom showing the cameras

Geoff and I trying out Penguin Watch

Lucky me, in between Anders and Nathanial during the break

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The inside of the mouth of a hyena

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Dr Phil in the audience

Chris talking about the future of the Zoo

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The team (I want to be a Rob when I grow up too)

ZooCon 2014 part I travels

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You can see a selection of all the pictures taken at this event on my Flickr account.

Due to a couple of insecurities in life, I wasn’t sure I could make this year’s ZooCon in Oxford actually. Fortunately, due to an unexpected helping hand, I managed to book the trip to Oxford a couple of days prior the event. I had then wondered if I would be able to keep up with my act as weather goddess. Confidently I didn’t bring a coat and eventually I didn’t need the brolly I had found on one of the trains. (I figured out that besides a bit of luck my ‘superpowers’ are probably linked to the fact I just don’t mind rain that much and forget ‘rubbish’ weather days).

The crisp Moon view from my cabin on the ferry was perfect. So is life in general, I think. I had looked forward to this weekend very, very much. Some of my Zooite friends had already stayed the night in Oxford, when I was on my way last Saturday morning. I arrived at the station alone and managed to find Grant’s place on my own too, while I was reminded of why I love Oxford so much. It was about time I/we would properly meet the Zooniverse’ community manager, who had kindly offered me a place to stay too.

Just like the talk sessions and the pub sessions last year (and the year before that and in 2009), we would start with a series of updates on the Zooniverse and some of its projects. Afterwards we’d all go to the Royal Oak, where the idea of the very first project was born, seven years ago already. Those who would still be around on the Sunday, would gather for lunch again too and basically start journeys home together. Since I just got back with an even more serious case of post meet-up blues than last time, I have started sorting out pictures straight away.

In the next two blogs I’ll write about the events in the lecture theatre as well as at the pubs. With this message for my diary, I’m just sticking a few photos of my trip. Basically to preserve the memories. Of that moment I said I wish we could do it all again and Annie said she’d then need a liver transplant soon. And of Bunny saying it must have been two years since I last saw him (I just checked my blog and it’s shocking but correct). Of that moment the four of us left on the train just sat there quietly. And how I waved to Graham and Julianne from the other side of the platform, even though I knew they wouldn’t be able to see me anymore.

It had almost seemed as if I could start the trip all over when the route to embark the ferry had changed so it seemed we could check in at the border again. This seemed a bit cruel to me at the time. I had slept well during the crossing for a change, but then I was rather sleep deprived (I’m not complaining – carpe diem, carpe noctem!) The next morning at the Dutch border control, I greeted the officer, accidentally saying ‘good morning’ instead of the Dutch ‘goede morgen’, which made him smile. I don’t remember much of the last bit of the trip as I snoozed, thinking about the awesome weekend…

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A beautiful sunrise in Harwich

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Walking through lovely Oxford

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The Sunday lunch pub

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Geoff captured my “dark side”

The lovely Graham, Brooke and Nathanial

Handing over Marcello’s CD


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So Q said: “That only leaves group sex then”

Last night’s interesting looking bar…

Space Recipes Finale

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More pictures of this day can be seen on my Flickr page. They were taken by Kayleigh Kölker, Joey Roelands, Roel Witvers and yours truly.

Remember the space recipes contest? Two of my students won the first round and were invited to the finale! This would take place at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy in Dwingeloo, which is about a five hour journey from the very south east of the Netherlands. On top of that, the event would take place on a day in the week of our school’s finals, so it was a tricky one to organise. But, this teacher’s pleased to say that both the parents of Kayleigh and Joey said ‘yes’, as well as the head of our school. So off we went for an unexpected school trip, which was a lot of fun as well as educational.

Since it was the week of the school’s finals, I did promise my boss and the parents that I would make Kayleigh and Joey study on the train. And after all, they did have a teacher all to themselves all day. But since we weren’t officially in class, smartphones, games and music were allowed too. I am used to travelling long distances, but I didn’t know how my students would like it. They didn’t seem to mind this journey though. Plus it was extra special we were travelling on the school’s business passes. When we arrived in Hoogeveen, there was a taxi waiting just for us. So we felt very ‘VIP’. Selfies were taken and I explained the programme for the day.

When we arrived, the contestants got cool name badges, which said on Kayleigh’s that she’s a Milky Way Cocktail Shaker and Joey was a Dark Matter Maker (which meant he had made a recipe for a mysterious dessert). There were tables with the ingredients and the contestant’s names on them. Anke, who organised this event as one of the winning recipes will end up in her new book, had made sure there was enough help around and I was allowed to lend a helping hand too. Joey’s Dark Matter Dessert (which contains raspberries because we had learned space smells a bit of raspberries and also chocolate, because “it’s the best thing in our universe”) had to be prepared and put back in the freezer. Meanwhile Kayleigh put her green and healthy-for-astronauts smoothie in the blender.

There were many other kids around, mostly younger than both Kayleigh and Joey, and mostly from this neighbourhood. Joey had noticed how well prepared some of them had been and he complimented his neighbour on her E=mc2 cake. Meanwhile a lovely band (a whole family) played some lovely Irish music and I bumped into a few familiar faces. As you may know, I have an honorary affiliation with ASTRON, so it was nice to catch up with some of the people working here.

Before the competition started, we were welcomed by ‘Professor Melkpak’ and Ilse van Bemmel gave an excellent lecture on the Milky Way and on what they do at ASTRON. Then Anke presented the (many) people of the jury, which was a group of astronomers, professional bakers and shakers and some who would judge the creativity of the contestants. Kayleigh heard she would have to go first, which made her a little nervous. Maybe even more so because none of the younger kids seem to worry about it. She did very well though and the jury loved her not-too-sweet smoothie, with the clever details of star fruit and strawberries (Earthberries in Dutch!) as decoration.

The kids had all been very creative indeed. After the shakes it was time for the mysterious Dark Matter dishes and Joey would have to go last. He had been relaxed all day, but suddenly reminded me of how nervous he was for his show and tell back in school and you know, in this case it was about five times more people in the audience. The poor kid was literally hyperventilating, but still wanted to do it. If I’d go with him, which I did. In this state, he forgot how to draw a star on his dish, so it didn’t get the highest points for presentation, but the baker of the jury told him later he got a 10/10 for taste! It was great to see both my students being proud of themselves too, for having participated.

Although it was a close call, neither of them eventually won. That didn’t matter much though, as they had already said on the train that if they wouldn’t , they still would’ve had a great day. Needless to say I was proud of them as well. I did ask them though, at the end of the day, if they still thought it was worth the trip and they both wholeheartedly said yes. Before we headed back, Professor Melkpak let them use his Segway, which was a popular item naturally. I also quickly showed them the telescope, which they thought was impressive too. And they got a nice little reminder of the day.

On the way back I was told we were sat on a train which looked like the Harry Potter one and they noticed how the landscape was different from back home (really flat). Joey also remarked how I’m quite nice outside the classroom and he thought it was all taken care of very well. I did of course sneak in a few extra lessons, saying I had no idea which train to get on next and let them figure it out. It was also great to see Joey taking his headphones off when the conductor came as apparently I had told him in school once that it was not polite to keep them on when talking to someone, even if you don’t have any music on (THEY DO LISTEN TO ME)!

It was past bedtime when we arrived back in Heerlen. Proud parents were waiting to pick them up. And the other day Kayleigh came to school with a present: she had framed a photo of the three of us, which now has a place on my desk. It really was a great day!

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