Monday, March 24, 2014

GWPAW 2013: Impressions from India

In the latest issue of the LIGO Magazine I have a short article on my (relatively) recent trip to India to attend the Gravitational Wave Physics & Astronomy Workshop. Below I reproduce (a partially un-edited version of [apologies to the editors for reverting some of their changes here]) the article, with added links!
Family constraints have meant I’ve been off the conference circuit for a bit, so the 3rd Gravitational Wave Physics & Astronomy Workshop (GWPAW, formerly the Gravitational Wave Data Analysis Workshop, GWDAW, which ran on 14 occasions) seemed like a good opportunity to get back into the swing of conference attendance. Plus, its location at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune, India presented the chance to visit a new country. Due to the location of the meeting, many of the other non-local attendees were able to experience a bit of India, including a group that organised a tour round Mumbai (and subsequent train journey to Pune), a couple who started their trip with a holiday in the backwaters of Kerala, and others visiting family or friends. While it would have been a great opportunity for me to see India, I was unable to bookend my trip with any site-seeing, so my experience of India outside of the confines of IUCAA mainly came from my taxi ride from Mumbai to Pune. The taxi ride itself was an interesting insight into travel in India - the first half of the approximately three and a half hour ride (it’s about a 170km journey) was just in leaving Mumbai, where the roads that are about as chaotic as they come. The system seems to be to spot a gap in the traffic, even if it looks too small for the mode of transport you are in, and then squeeze into it. Astonishingly this method (accompanied by liberal application of the horn) got us through the traffic unscathed. The freeway between Mumbai and Pune is apparently one of the best roads in India, and can supposedly offer great views as you climb up into the rocky hills, but a combination of jet lag and low clouds/smog meant that I couldn’t appreciate the trip/views fully (from the plane on my flight back from Pune to Mumbai I was able to see the views I'd previously missed). 
In Pune I stayed at the very pleasant Seasons Apartment Hotel, which as the name suggests offered large apartments with a lounge and kitchenette (and free bottled water, which is a must for travellers there). Not feeling very adventurous on my arrival I just opted for dinner at the hotel, but it was definitely worthwhile as the open air rooftop bar/restaurant offered great views of the city. The hotel was just about within walking distance of IUCAA, where the meeting was held (which I had briefly considered as a travel option), but the organisers had put on a taxi service to and from the hotel every day. On travelling to IUCAA I was thankful for this as negotiating the roads, many of which lacked pavements, may have proved daunting. IUCAA itself is situated on the Pune University campus, but is fairly self-contained with its own “housing colony” for guests, students and postdocs to stay. During the meeting we didn’t have to go far between talks in the Chandrasekhar auditorium, coffee breaks (which consisted of strong black tea really) breaks and meals. 
As well as our taxi service the organisers provided breakfast, lunch and dinner within IUCAA under a large marquee. The food was great, although you may have been hard-pressed if you didn’t like curry - not a problem for me though! Some of the dishes were pretty spicy, but I suspect they were they were probably still toned down from their usual standard heat levels. We also had freshly made roti cooked in a tandoor oven by the side of the marquee. 
Kathak dance recital
On the first evening we had entertainment put on in the form of a Kathak Dance Recital in the meeting auditorium. The singing and musical accompaniment was mesmerising. Afterwards Sathya presented the dancers and musicians with houseplants, which I can only assume is the standard thank-you gift.
And what about the science? The meeting was weighted towards compact binary coalescences (CBC) and electromagnetic follow-up, but that’s not surprising given that these are the most likely sources of the first advanced detector observations. In fact it was good to have a GWPAW where many of talks were about things that could be done in the near future, rather than having to look ahead decades, further cementing the idea that gravitational wave detections are on the horizon! A couple of standout talks were Parameswaran Ajith's overview of the status and prospects for modelling CBC waveforms and Jocelyn Read’s talk on the potential for measuring neutron star equations of state with advanced detectors. Most sessions had lively discussions following the talks, with one particular participant always ready to provide some vigorous questioning. 
The breaks and poster sessions in the grounds of the auditorium (which amongst other things contained a giant sundial and a set of swings connected as a coupled harmonic oscillator) were always buzzing with conversation, which for me yielded a potential future collaboration with an IUCAA postdoc. There were many interesting posters, but I particularly liked a couple: one was Chris Messenger’s describing a method to extract redshift information from neutron star mergers by observing modes of a potentially short-lived post-merger hyper-massive neutron star; and another was Shaon Ghosh’s on electromagnetic follow-up of CBC signals. During the meeting my own poster was upgraded to a talk (due to passport related issues for one of the invited speakers causing him to miss the meeting), so I had to quickly put together my own slides. 
The meeting turned out to be incredibly productive and fascinating, as well as welcoming and well-organised. The organisers and IUCAA staff were really friendly and helpful. It was a great chance for many Indian students and postdocs to attend the meeting and share their work, and for people from the LVC to interact with them. This was particularly useful because the distance means many collaborators in the USA and Europe got to discuss topics in person, and allowed us to develop these relationships in the run-up to LIGO India. This will be good for bringing through new local people into the field in the run up to LIGO India. There was a great deal of enthusiasm from the IUCAA director Ajit Kembhavi to keep up the efforts with the suggestion that IUCAA and other Indian institutions host summer school-type events in the future. The next GWPAW to look forward to will be in Osaka, Japan in June 2015, closely followed by Amaldi in South Korea. 
It’s a shame I didn’t get to experience more of the country, but I did I get to discover a taste for the Indian Coca-Cola equivalent, “Thums-Up”, while discussing exciting science halfway around the world.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Direct or indirect?

This week has seen the potentially momentous result from the BICEP2 experiment indicating the detection of gravitational waves from the inflationary era of the Universe, just a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. It's a fantastic result, and if/when confirmed by other experiments (e.g., Planck) will be huge leap in developing our understanding of the beginnings of the Universe. Many other people have discussed the background (that's just a scattering of a few of the many links to some scientific and more general descriptions of the results) and potential implications of the results, and a few areas for some considered scepticism, but I wanted to briefly talk about whether this classes as a direct or indirect detection of gravitational waves. I'm mainly interested in this because, to be clear up front, I'm part of a large scientific collaboration (the LIGO Scientific Collaboration [LSC]) that is currently trying for direct gravitational wave detection using a set of specially designed detectors/observatories (LIGO, Virgo and GEO600) here on Earth. I should also point out the views I'm giving are entirely my own and definitely not those of the LSC.

I should note that on BICEP2's FAQ the word "direct" gets used in the answer to the question "Have you detected a gravitational wave?" to which they answer "The frequency of the cosmic gravitational waves is very low, so we are not able to follow the temporal modulation. However, we are indeed directly observing a snapshot of gravitational waves through their imprints on matter and radiation over space." Whether this fits into my description of direct or indirect below is another question!

What do I mean by indirect or direct detection? Well in 1993 Hulse and Taylor won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their earlier observation of a pulsar in a neutron star binary system, which was losing energy exactly as predicted through the emission of gravitational waves. This has always been said to be an indirect detection of gravitational waves, i.e., it wasn't physically measuring the waves themselves, but was inferring their presence through the energy they carry away as observed by the binary system's evolution (since their original observations this effect has been measured in many other binary neutron star systems, which also provide other tests of general relativity). With the gravitational wave detectors (such as the aforementioned LIGO, Virgo and GEO600) they aim to directly detect the waves by actually seeing their effect in stretching and squeezing the distance between parts of the detectors. So, the former uses some observations to measure the properties of a source (the orbital evolution of a binary system) and from that infer the presence of gravitational waves, whilst the later directly measures their effect within a detector system. [On a slight aside there could be much discussion on the semantics of "direct" observation/detection - in pretty much all observations (including a persons senses) you could say that you're variously removed/abstracted by a number stages from directly measuring/experiencing the effect of something. In scientific observations it's pretty much always the case that you're having to use proxies to convey some information to you. In most astronomy photons are counted by a CCD, processed by a computer and then displayed, whilst in particle physics you're often measuring the decay of one particle through the products it produces, which themselves are relayed to you through tracks left on silicon detectors, or energy deposited in calorimeters. However, in most cases using "direct" observation/detection is probably a fair term.] 

So, in the case of the BICEP2 results, where they're measured the imprint of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), where does that fit on the scale (if there is some scale in between!) of direct or indirect detection? Initially I was biased against calling this a direct detection. As mentioned above this is mainly due to working as part of a collaboration hoping to soon directly detect gravitational waves with ground-based detectors. I (not wanting to speak for the rest of the collaboration) would like us to be the first to claim a direct detection, so there's a level of guardianship (or unjustified feeling of ownership!) over that claim. However, I think (obviously I'm not the sole arbiter) the CMB measurements deserve the right to be called more than an indirect detection, so for now I'll go with the compromise of semi-direct detection (as used by Andrew Jaffe here).

So, why not indirect? Well, the gravitational waves that are observed in the CMB have (redshifted) frequencies of order 10-17 Hz, which corresponds to wavelengths of ~1 Gigaparsec. To measure such waves you'd need a detector about the size of the Universe. There's obviously no way you could build a physical detector to measure that, so using the CMB's the only way to do it - it is the only "detector" you could have available. In this sense they don't seem to fit with the indirect pulsar binary system paradigm above. [Note that there are also efforts to measure gravitational waves with frequencies around 10-9 Hz using astrophysical objects (in this case pulsars) as the components of a "detector".]

But, why only semi-direct then? This is maybe a technicality that could be argued over, but I suppose it comes down to the basic fact that despite the CMB being the only way to perform the measurement of ultra-low frequency waves you still aren't physically measuring the wave in a detector on Earth (another example might be dark matter, who's effects are imprinted in various astronomical observations, but you still want to see them in a detector on Earth to claim detection). You're also having to use the effect of the gravitational waves on density perturbations, which in turn affect the light intensity, which then affects the CMB polarisation signal received; in a laser interferometric detector the gravitational wave affects the position of mirrors, which in turn effect the phase of reflected and detected light, which you could argue (an I may be pushing it here) is a step less removed than the case with the CMB. There's also the case (which may not be entirely relevant in a direct/indirect argument) that given that the CMB polarisation signal (by the very nature of how it had to be formed during a short period in recombination when photons could diffuse far enough that they would encounter different temperature regions, but that there were still enough free electrons to scatter off and give a polarisation signal) was imprinted within a short space of time, it is just a single snapshot of the gravitational wave signal. Gravitational wave detectors on the other hand (including those using pulsars) are able to measure the variations as the waves pass them, so give a complete time series of the signal. My hand wavy analogy (also implied on the BICEP2 FAQ) is that the CMB measurement is like seeing a photograph of the shadows of water waves on a ripple tank, whereas gravitational wave detectors are like continuously measuring the position of a cork floating on top of the tank.
Shadows of waves on a ripple tank. Analogous to the imprints of gravitational waves in the CMB polarisation? [Credit]
Whether the BICEP2 result is indirect, direct or semi-direct detection of gravitational waves it doesn't take away from the fantastic work they've done and it's still an amazing feat of observation and analysis.

Anyway, that's my view. What do you think?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The origin of carbon

Last summer I was asked to write an article on the origin of carbon for The Geographer, which is the quarterly newsletter of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. The original article can be found here (see page 8), but I've been given permission to reproduce it here (any comments/corrections are welcome):

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the Universe (after hydrogen, helium and oxygen) and is the sixth lightest element. To understand it's origins and relative abundance we first have to go back to the origin of the Universe itself.

By the mid-20th Century Edwin Hubble's observations of an expanding Universe suggested that it had started out from an extremely dense and hot initial state: a "cosmic fireball" produced by the Big Bang. However, a question for the Big Bang model was how it produced the known elements in their currently observed abundances (called Big Bang nucleosynthesis). In 1948 a PhD student called Ralph Alpher, working with the renowned physicist George Gamow, published a paper called "The Origin of Chemical Elements" claiming to solve this problem. But, the title slightly overstated the outcome of their work. It was ground-breaking and correctly predicted that in this "comsic fireball" the three lightest elements (hydrogen, helium and lithium) would be made in the abundances that are observed today. However, their work couldn't produce any heavier elements and it was in fact the problem of making carbon that was the stumbling block. The basic process of forming elements is that you take nucleons (protons and neutrons) and fuse them together to create heavier atomic nuclei. You can then fuse further nucleons, or atomic nuclei, together to produce heavier and heavier elements. This is complicated by several facts: the rates that fusion reactions take place can differ enormously for different nuclei; the rates depend very strongly on temperature and density; and, certain nuclei are unstable to radioactive decay and are very short-lived. To create carbon you require six protons and six neutrons, so it can be made by fusing two helium nuclei (two protons and two neutrons) to give a beryllium nucleus and then sticking on another helium nucleus to give carbon. However, Alpher and Gamow found that because the beryllium nuclei only has a lifetime of ~10-16 seconds there wasn't enough time during the hot and dense early stages of the Universe for it to fuse with another helium nucleus and produce carbon. They were therefore left with a Universe containing only the three lightest elements, which was contrary to all observational evidence!

This problem with Big Bang nucleosynthesis was jumped upon by opponents of the Big Bang as a failure of the model. One such person was Sir Fred Hoyle, a forthright theoretical astrophysicist at Cambridge, who, along with others, put forward Steady State models of the Universe (i.e. an infinite Universe with no beginning). However, his models still required that there was some way that elements could be produced, so the problem of creating carbon from lighter nuclei still needed to be solved. In the calculations for trying to fuse three helium nuclei (called the triple alpha process, since helium nuclei are also known as alpha particles) he still found that only insignificant amounts of normal carbon could not be produced during the short life of beryllium, but the production rate would dramatically increase if carbon nuclei were created in an "excited" state i.e. a nucleus with additional potential energy in it. There was no theoretical reason why such an "excited" state should exist (in fact it is still unknown [sorry for the non-open access article link] why this state exists!), but Hoyle argued that because we exist and we require carbon for our existence, then if this is the only way significant amounts of carbon can be produced then this state must be possible. His calculations gave him a precise number for the amount of energy in this state, but he had to convince someone to run an experiment to see if it was true. While visiting the California Institute of Technology in 1953 he persuaded the nuclear experimental groups led by Willy Fowler and Ward Whaling to look for this excited state and soon after it was confirmed that it did indeed exist1.

This didn't mean that Big Bang nucleosynthesis could now produce carbon and the heavier elements as the process was still far too slow given the expansion of the Universe, but there were other environments where it could take place - the cores of massive stars. Hoyle and Fowler, along with the married couple of Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, were able to show how all the elements from beryllium up to iron were synthesised in the cores of stars (called stellar nucleosynthesis). In these massive stellar cores there is a high enough temperature and density of helium nuclei so that even though the beryllium produced from fusing two helium nuclei is extremely short-lived there is enough of it that some will fuse with another helium nuclei to form the excited state of carbon. Since carbon was required as the starting point for production of all the heavier elements this allows the large variety we see today. The deaths of these massive stars in supernova explosions has since seeded the Universe we the huge quantities of carbon we see today.

The evidence now shows that the lightest elements were indeed produced during the Big Bang and the Universe has had enough time to produce all other elements (including Carbon) in their observed abundances, via processing in stars.

1A more detailed account of this and the many other people actually involved in the work can be found in H. Kragh, (2010) When is a prediction anthropic? Fred Hoyle and the 7.65 MeV carbon resonance.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

How high are pulsar "mountains"?

Just a quick post to highlight a paper that I (and others in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration, and a selection of radio, X-ray and gamma-ray pulsar astronomers) have been working on recently. The paper gives the most recent results from the search for gravitational waves from pulsars using data from the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors. A summary of the results from this search can be found here, but I also reproduce it below (see the link for the result plots from the paper):
Einstein's General Theory of Relativity predicts that the motion of masses can lead to the emission of gravitational radiation, commonly called gravitational waves. These waves, which are distortions in the fabric of space-time, ripple out from their sources at the speed of light. Far away from the source their effect is tiny. The distortions from even the strongest sources (which are some of the most violent events in the Universe) stretch and squeeze the distance between any objects they pass by a fractional amount (called the strain) of order 10-23. That is equivalent to a change in distance between the Earth and the Sun of just a few times an atomic radius! However, scientists have built detectors, based on laser interferometry, to perform very high precision distance measurements that are capable of measuring these extremely small distortions. In the US there are two such detectors called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), in Italy there is the Virgo detector and in Germany there is the GEO600 detector. These are operated, and their data analyzed, by hundreds of scientists from across the world as part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration.

An artist's impression of a pulsar. Image credit: Michael Kramer (JBCA, Unversity of Manchester).
An artists impression of a pulsar
One of the ways we are taking advantage of the fantastic sensitivity of these detectors is to search for continuous gravitational waves from pulsars. Pulsars were first observed in 1967 at the University of Cambridge by the radio astronomers Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish. They are neutron stars, which are the collapsed cores of massive stars that have run out of fuel and gone supernova (up until this discovery they had just been theoretical objects first proposed by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in 1934). They are very rapidly spinning, with rotation periods ranging from a few seconds to a few milliseconds, so their surfaces are rotating at up to ∼10% of the speed of light! With a mass of slightly more than the Sun (∼2.8×1030 kg) packed into a sphere of radius ∼10 km, they are about 40 000 billion times denser than lead (this is equivalent to squashing the entire population of the Earth into a thimble). They also have magnetic fields a billion to a few thousand billion times that of the Earth. So, these are very extreme objects! The pulsed emission comes from beams of radiation emanating from the magnetic poles of the stars acting like a lighthouse. If the magnetic and rotation axes are not aligned then pulses are observed as the radiation beam sweeps across the Earth once per rotation.

To generate gravitational waves a pulsar must have some non-symmetric distortion that is not along its rotation axis, i.e. a "mountain". This distortion could have been: frozen into the crust or core of the star after it was born in the supernova; formed from material falling onto the star; or, be produced and maintained though extremely large internal magnetic fields (larger even than the external fields described above). However, due to the huge gravitational field at the star's surface the material forming the "mountain" needs to be really strong to not be flattened out (a mountain on Earth made of jello would not get very big before collapsing under its own weight, but one made of solid rock can become as large as, or larger than, Everest). For a pulsar with a crust made up of normal neutron star material the maximum deformation that could be sustained before collapsing is about 10 cm, so not very high for a "mountain" (scaling up in height only this would be equivalent to a ∼50 m hill on Earth). If the star was made up from more exotic materials, e.g. if it were a solid quark star, then it could possibly sustain a "mountain" up to ∼10 m in height. The "mountain" size can also be expressed in terms of the star's ellipticity (ε), which is a measure of its size as a fraction of the star's radius.

Making a few reasonable assumptions we can estimate the maximum amplitude of gravitational waves being emitted by most pulsars. To do this we use the law of conservation of energy. Pulsars are seen to slow down (spin-down) over time. This spin-down takes a very long time, and even the most rapidly spinning-down objects only decrease in frequency by less than a hundredth of a Hertz (or equivalently, increase their periods by less than ten microseconds) over a year. But, given the huge moment of inertia of the stars this still represents a very large loss in rotational energy, corresponding to a power of ∼1031 Watts, or well over ten thousand times the Sun's luminosity. If we assume that all of this energy is being lost by emission of gravitational waves we can calculate the amplitude with which we would observe them at Earth. This is called the "spin-down limit". If we can achieve detector sensitivities that allow searches to reach below this limit then we are probing interesting new territory, where gravitational wave signals could be detectable.

There are just over 350 pulsars (see the Australia Telescope National Facility catalog) spinning fast enough for their gravitational wave emission to be in the sensitive frequency band of the current detectors (∼20 to 2000 Hz). We have searched for a total of 195 of these pulsars using data from the LIGO, Virgo and GEO600 science runs, with the most up-to-date results for 179 of them coming from the most recent LIGO S6 and Virgo VSR2 and VSR4 runs. To help reach the best sensitivity we have used information about these pulsars obtained through radio, X-ray and gamma-ray observations; these have provided very precise knowledge of the pulsars' frequencies, positions and how their frequencies change over time. This information has allowed us to accurately track any potential signal in our data over the whole length of the science run (called coherent integration).

From these searches we were not able to detect evidence for gravitational radiation from any of the pulsars. But, we have produced the most sensitive upper limits yet, and for seven pulsars we are starting to probe an interesting regime within a factor of five of the spin-down limit. For the Crab pulsar and Vela pulsar we have surpassed the spin-down limit. From this we can say that, respectively, less than ∼1% and 10% of their spin-down energy loss is due to gravitational radiation. We can also say that there are no "mountains" on the Crab pulsar greater than ∼1 meter, and none on Vela greater than ∼10 meters. Among the other pulsars, we found eight more within a factor of ten of the spin-down limit. From the gravitational wave observations alone we can limit the "mountain" size for some of these to less than ∼1 mm, although the spin-down limit is more stringent for those pulsars.

When the current upgrades to the LIGO and Virgo detectors are complete we expect to be able to beat the spin-down limit for many more pulsars. This includes pulsars where we could limit the maximum mountain size to less than a few tenths of a millimeter! It also means we will be in a regime where we can make the first direct detections of gravitational waves from pulsars.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Consider Phlebas

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                 Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


from The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot

I've been reading less than I used to over the last few years, but despite that whenever there's been a new Iain M. Banks book out I've been quick to get it. It just so happened that when I heard the news earlier this year that Banks was suffering from terminal cancer I was reading his latest Culture offering, The Hydrogen Sonata. And now he's died.

Banks has been one of my favourite authors in both his science-fiction guise and mainstream fiction. My formative sci-fi education as a teenager was pretty much all from reading my dad's Clarke and Asimov books. That was until I came across Banks' first sci-fi book Consider Phlebas. It opened up a more gritty, adult and far more richly charactered world than I'd previously enjoyed. His Culture universe was such a fantastic setting that I was quick to read his other available novels and eagerly anticipated each new release (Culture and non-Culture). Back then my book collection was limited, so I re-read some of his earlier novel several times (The Player of Games was my favourite book for many years and still remains one of my top recommendation), always getting more out of them and enjoying meeting and re-meeting the always excellent Culture Minds and Ships. Indeed the non-human(oid) (non-biological) ships and drones were always a huge draw of the books.

I have Banks to thank for opening me up to a whole new range of modern sci-fi and fiction in general (I think Complicity may have been my first non-sci-fi novel that I'd read other than books I was made to read for school work, and The Crow Road amazed me that I could be so drawn into a book about a Scottish family). I'm lucky that I haven't exhausted reading all his works and can still enjoy seeing what else he has to offer. I'd recommend anyone start reading his works and if you've never read any sci-fi before you'd do far worse than to start with some of his - try the short story collection The State of the Art for a dabble.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Munro bagger

There are 283 Munros in Scotland (mountains over 3000 ft or 914.4 m) and in my almost 10 years living here you might have thought I'd have made it up at least one by now. But, it actually took until two weeks ago for me to "bag" my first one. However, I thought I'd tackle the biggest one first, so can now tick Ben Nevis off my list. As with all the rivers I've kayaked on I'll post up any new ones I climb and hopefully there won't be another 10 year wait.

There was a small group of us making the climb together, so we made a bit of a Fort William weekend of it by heading up on Friday evening (just making it in time to see most of the Olympic opening ceremony), climbing of Saturday and leaving on Sunday. We stayed at a very nice and new B&B called MacLean House.

On the day of the climb we started with a good breakfast before driving the short way to the car park at the base of the mountain. As well as being the highest of the Munros the Ben Nevis climb also starts from close to sea level meaning you do have to scale the whole height. The weather hadn't promised to be very good, so we just headed up the main route rather than tackling anything more challenging. The ascent was interrupted by showers of varying length with occasional breaks of sunshine that sometimes lasted long enough to dry you off. The showers got noticeably colder as we climbed though. Near the summit there was a lovely break in the clouds, but on reaching the peak the ice cold rain returned and the wind picked up. We got our photo taken, but didn't hang about long!

Soon after starting the decent we found a slightly sheltered stone circle in which to have our lunch. We then attempted to get down as quick as possible. This took its toll on my legs and hips, with the bottom third (after passing the lochan) of uneven rocks being particularly tough. In all we made good time with the doing the climb in about 7 hours.

That evening we dragged ourselves on our aching legs for dinner that the Crannog seafood restaurant. The food was great, but tired I wasn't able to make a big night of it as tiredness over took me.

It feels good to have achieved my first Munro climb and I hope to tackle more in the future, but I nay not take on Ben Nevis again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Honeymoon: Days 14-16

The Maglev to the airport
23/04/12 - We got up for breakfast and packed before getting a taxi to the Shanghai Maglev station. This train just runs from Shanghai to the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and covers the 30km to the airport in just over 8 minutes. The journey was really smooth and looking at the scenery go past you wouldn't have realised that you were travelling at 431kph - other than the LCD display in the carriage. The airport was very modern and nice and we had no problem getting our flight.

Arriving at Hong Kong we had to queue at immigration, but it didn't take long to get through. We bought ourselves train tickets that would get us too and from the airport and allow us on the underground in Hong Kong during our stay. We then got the train to Kowloon Station. From there there was a shuttle bus that took us to our hotel - it was almost the last stop, so we got to see around Kowloon.

Our room at the Hotel ICON
The hotel we were at was Hotel ICON - a new hotel who's designers included Sir Terence Conran and is ranked very highly on Trip Adviser. It was very impressive on entering, but slightly strange in that the porters were wearing beige combats and tops. We were staying in an executive room, so on going to reception we got whisked away up to the top floor to check-in there instead. They told us that between 4-6pm we got free afternoon tea, and from 7-9pm there were free cocktails and snacks. We went to our room (on the twenty-something-th floor), which had a massive window overlooking the harbour, and were able to check facebook and twitter for the first time of the holiday.

After settling in we went up to the cocktail bar for our free cocktails and filled ourselves up with very nice cheese and biscuits. We then went out to explore a bit. Firstly we went to a restaurant called Lei Garden (on Tsim Sha Tsui) to book dinner for the following night - it was in a bit of a strange location in the basement of a slightly run-down looking shopping arcade, but supposedly did very nice food. We walked to the Peninsula Hotel and then along the Avenue of Stars (like the Hollywood version, but with famous Hong Kong actors and I got photo's of the ones I knew). We then waited around for the famous light show - a laser and light display using a lot of the tall buildings around the harbour. It started raining, but not too heavily and it was still nice and warm, and although the light show was a bit of a let down the view in general was still very good.

We then got the Star Ferry across the bay to Hong Kong island and walked to the covered escalators. We had a look at a variety of bars/restaurants and eventually decided to go in a place that had a beer and pizza deal. We weren't that hungry after filling ourselves with cheese earlier, but it was good pizza. We stayed for another drink and to people watch. When we got back to the hotel we found a bottle of wine and wedding card signed by a lot of the hotel staff in our room. I had a glass before going to bed.

Hong Kong view from the Peak
24/04/12 - We had two options for breakfast in the hotel - downstairs in the main buffet area, or up in the bar where cocktails were served. We decided on the first option and were very impressed, filling up on a lot food.

We got the underground to Hong Kong to go on the Peak Tram. It was busy and I had to stand, which required leaning at quite an angle due to the steepness of the ascent. We followed a route around the peak, which had exercise areas set up around it. It was quite overcast, so there weren't any distant views, but there were still nice views back over the city. We saw lots of interesting butterflies and birds of prey riding the thermals around the peak.

On descending from the Peak we walked to the zoological gardens next to the Government House. Until we got there we hadn't realised there was a zoo, but they had quite a few animals - we saw baby (and adult) orang-utans, various lemurs, monkeys, gibbons, and a raccoon (there was also a ginger cat on the prowl, which seemed to disturb some of the lemurs). After that we had a brief wander around some of Hong Kong, but wanted to get the ferry back to the hotel in time for afternoon tea.

A gibbon in the Botanic Gardens
After some snacks we decided to go for a swim in the hotel pool, which was on the roof above the buffet area. The pool (and changing facilities) were very nice, but the wind had picked up, so it wasn't that warm by the pool. I swam for a bit, but Jen went back inside to the sauna fairly quickly.

We went back for free cocktails, where we chatted one of the staff (who was an American girl who'd studied hospitality and was experiencing working in hotels in China) before heading to dinner at Lei Garden. It was only 9pm, but like in Beijing it seemed that service was almost over as there were very few other tables with people at them and a lot of clearing up was going on. There was a lot of exotic stuff on the menu including sharks fin and birds nest soup, but we played it safe. The service was quite brusque, but the food was decent enough - although not as good as a lot of what we'd had in Beijing.

Cable car on Lantau
25/04/12 - Our final day of honeymoon gave us a full day in Hong Kong before catching our flight just after midnight. We went for breakfast in the upstairs bar area, then got packed and left our luggage at reception. We then got the underground out to Lantau island. We took the cable car up to Ngong Ping villiage where there was a Buddhist monastery and giant Buddha statue. We didn't opt for one of the Crystal Cabins with a glass floor! It was an impressive ride, but quite daunting when the wind picked up. There were good views back down over the airport, but we soon got up into the clouds and couldn't really see anything except the forest below us. The village had tourist attractions and shops, but we walked straight to the Buddha, which required a bit on an ascent up stairs - the cloud hadn't really cleared, so we didn't really see the Buddha until getting up close. It was quite impressively large. We were able to go inside, which had some exhibits about Buddhism and history of the big Buddha's construction in the 1990s.

The Big Buddha in the clouds
After this we wandered over to the monastery and found that there was a display of acrobatics followed by a Shaolin Kung Fu demonstration. This included a guy being lifted on the points of spears and one breaking a metal rod on his head. The temple still had parts under construction and you could pay for new shrines to be dedicated to you. The entry fee to go up to the Buddha included a snack at the monastery (or you could pay more for a larger meal). The snack was in fact rather substantial including some stir fried noodles and vegetables and several sweets. There were a lot of dogs wandering round the temple and village and we spent a couple of minutes petting a puppy. We then went to the bus stop to get a bus down to Tai O, but it wasn't for another half hour, so we managed to catch part of a pogo-ing demonstration by the Pogo Dudes.

When we got the bus the cloud was really thick and visibility was down to a few metres, but we made it down to Tai O fishing village (and out of the cloud cover) safely. The village has large parts constructed on stilts and lots of small alleys. It unsurprisingly smelled quite heavily of fish as most of the shack-like houses had dried fish of many varieties hanging outside of them. There were also a lot of small shrines outside the houses. It was an interesting place. We walked out to what was a former police station (passing a post office with many stray cats outside it waiting to be fed by the postmaster), which had very recently been turned into a fancy hotel.

Tai O fishing village
We got back to the bus stop just in time to catch the bus back to Mui Wo (on the other side of the island) where the ferry ran back to Hong Kong. It was the end of the school day, so the bus was full of kids squeezed into all the seats and sitting along the floor - they were all of varying nationalities and mainly spoke English. The journey took about an hour. We didn't have to wait long for the ferry and once back in Hong Kong we got the Star Ferry back to Kowloon.

Back at the hotel we were still able to use the showers, so we washed and were able to change clothes. We also were still able to get the free cocktails and snacks. We got the shuttle bus to the airport express station where we were able to check-in our luggage and then got the train to the airport. At the airport Jen bought some sunglasses and we went for some dinner at Pizza Express. A thunderstorm had come in over Hong Kong, so planes were being delayed, but it only held up our flight by about an hour.

The flight back was quite uneventful. And that's it!