By Guest Author 30/11/2016

In this guest post series astronomer Dr Yaël Nazé details her experience traveling from Belgium to New Zealand for the International Astronomy Union Symposia – The Lives and Death-Throes of Massive Stars.

A meeting wouldn’t exist without organisers. Of course there are the committees (the local and scientific ones) which help, but an overall guide is needed. For IAUS 329, the conference divine soul is JJ Eldridge. Now, who’s that? I had never heard of them before all that meeting business, so I was a little curious to know more. Here’s the result of a little chat so that you know can JJ too!

Conference organiser: JJ Eldridge
Conference organiser: JJ Eldridge

Could you present yourself ?

I’m a British and a kiwi. I’m also a sci-fi addict as well as… an astrophysicist (much more appropriate than “astronomer” since I’m trying to understand the inner physics of the cosmos!).

What the hell are you working on?

I like everything in the Universe, but I’m particularly fond of stars and more specifically binary stars. They’re funny! Now, you know, to understand galaxies, close or in the dark reaches of the cosmos, you need
to understand stars. Usually, people try to interpret the observations of supernovae, clusters, or galaxies using stellar models, but these models consider stars to be single. It’s not very realistic – many stars, in particular the massive ones, actually are couples and that affects all aspects of their lives. One can get way off if binaries are not included. So I wanted to build models including such objects, I’m not the first one to do so, but we’re really only a few working on that. My particularity was the wish to make these models available to everyone.

You’ve not slept for days so you must now be wondering where the crazy idea of making a conference came from…

Well, I was at the previous big massive star conference – the infamous “beach” meeting as they’re called. It was in Rhodes in 2011. I met Paul Crowther, from Sheffield University, and as he likes Auckland, he suggested me to organize the next conference at home… I didn’t realize the work it would represent, so I enthusiastically say yes and put on a proposal.

Why do you think your proposal won ?

Location, location, location – a wonderful location… isn’t it? The massive  star “beach” meeting try to move in different places: the last places were Canary Islands, Hawaii, and Rhodes, so Auckland would make a change, it had never been tried! I also think people were quite excited to come here. A ‘Peter Jackson’ effect, or maybe just the attraction of a mysterious distant place…?

Only thing is the date: I would have like to have the conference in February 2017 for the 30th anniversary of SN1987A, such a big event in stellar astronomy (it challenged so many ideas!). Maybe for next anniversary…

How did you choose the place in New Zealand?

Auckland was the easiest place considering plane connections: going anywhere else in New Zealand would have required one more flight or some driving, which would have incurred additional costs. Now we could have it organized in downtown Auckland, but Takapuna has an important ingredient for a “beach” meeting: a nice beach, just 10m walk from an hotel having rooms for organizing a conference. It’s actually the sole place in Auckland like this!

Takapuna Beach, New Zealand. Credit: Wikimedia / Mark
Takapuna Beach, New Zealand. Credit: Wikimedia / Mark

How much time did it take to organise all this?

If I take everything into account, this conference has occupied several years of my life. Of course not 100% of the time, but still quite some time. And in the last months, it’s become quite a burden – besides teaching, I couldn’t really find time for doing research! OK, maybe that’s my fault, I wanted to make it perfect…

Were you alone in all this?

Basically yes, but the university was quite supportive: they provided me with one person specialized in conference organizing, Aimee Cranshaw – she’s doing this all the time, so she knows all the tricks and this was very useful.

Will you do it again ?

No… but yes. Though I would certainly do it differently, improving some things (yes, I’m a perfectionist!).

What are your hopes for this meeting?

Nothing… but proceedings (if a participant reads this, please remember sending them in time!). You know, I’m interested in many things, and I wanted to get all those different people to come together and interact. I want them to have a good time. And who knows, maybe there would be something coming from all this interaction going on – an idea for a new research, new models, original proposals for observations, or a new instrument, why not? I’d be delighted to see an acknowledgement to the meeting in a paper!

What do you prefer most in NZ?

Lots of things! Food, coffee, wine, but also the students who are very dynamic. Plus the fact that I can support the All Blacks! Also, amateur astronomers are really good here, I know several ones doing microlensing observations, and a farmer attending cattle during the day and searching for supernovae at night! Finally, you know, it’s an exciting time here: the astronomy department is growing, so it’s great to participate to this “Big Bang”!

What do you hate in NZ?

Being far away from everywhere, sometimes I feel quite isolated scientifically. I also miss my family and my friends…

How many kiwis do you eat every day? is there a minimum daily quota to become a real New Zealander?

Actually, I’m allergic to kiwi fruits, so I have to answer zero…

What’s the most difficult: making simulated stars explode, understanding the rules of cricket, or playing rugby in THE rugby country?

Playing rugby, for sure. When I saw all these people playing rugby in the park after the big earthquake in Christchurch, you understand why they’re the champions!

One thing to add: JJ has recently more open about not fitting only into being only male or female. JJ identifies as genderfluid and how they want to present changes with time. They hope it would help younger students feel more comfortable with whom they are – it wasn’t really the case when JJ was a student (see here for more details). Another thing to mention: JJ also pays attention to equity issues (it’s the first time I see a real “guide of conduct” for a conference), so we have a very nice and unprecedented male/female ratio in speakers, committees, and session chairs (from 1/3-2/3 to 50%-50% on the first day!). Big thanks! Really, JJ, even if you deny it, you’re really being a good role model !


Dr Yaël Nazé

Dr Yaël Nazé is a FNRS research associate at the University of Liège (Belgium) where she studies massive stars, be them alone or in couple, and their winds. Her interests also concern the history of astronomy, the cultural impact of astronomy, and scientific outreach.

Previous posts include:

Astronomical travels: From the land of chocolate to Aotearoa

Astronomical Travels: Getting to New Zealand


Featured image: Wikimedia / Tomwsulcer