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The Russian-speaking astrophysicist dancer from Johannesburg

By 1 June 2022February 26th, 2024Stories, team and partners

Jacarandas from South Africa

Light up

In early 2021, we received an application for our internship on gravity field. And what a pleasant surprise it was. The announcement for the internship was sent to the full list of students in SUPAERO, with a picture of the geoid, and the following image:

Cover image for the Stellar internship on gravity field

The picture of the geoid was obvious. Then we truly enjoyed the poetry of the lamp. When we first found this image on Pixabay (our favorite cave of wonders), we were immediately struck by it. First, it reminded us of the great short clips made by Pixar, and second, we liked the idea that the lamp was plugging itself into the electrical outlet. It was a perfect example of a proactive approach with immediate results. You need to lift yourself up in life. You need to be an actor of your own future. If you don’t do it, then who else will? In 2004, when we interviewed the famous polar explorer Jean-Louis Etienne before his expedition to Clipperton, he told us « You have to do the first 50%, and life will do the other 50% for you ». So, the light bulb made the 50% effort to connect to the power socket, and life made the other 50% for it as a response. See how beautifully it is now. Brightly lit up. Furthermore, we thought the picture would strike the imagination of people who share the same philosophy (and repel those who think that image is ridiculous). It would act like a magnet without even having to say a word. To our great delight, we received a consequent number of applications for the offer. What follows is the story of one of them.

Talking over the modern Telephone and Telegraph Company (Zoom)

With a few hundreds of kilometers of distance and an ongoing global experiment to keep everyone locked up in their house, we initiated the discussion over the new embodiment of the Telephone and Telegraph Company (a.k.a Zoom). We clicked on the “Allow camera” button, and waited for whatever would happen next. We met a smiling enthusiastic young man, rather wise for his age, with a broad and open-minded perspective about the world, eager to learn and discover, definitely well versed in science and with a passion for astrophysics and for space. A pleasant personality and a promising first contact. Now get ready for the rest.

The Johannesburg ballet company, a robotics prize on TV, and the Institute of Cosmology of Moscow

So let’s tell you now about the talents and experiences of this young fellow. This is not your regular graduate:

  • The gentleman goes by the rare name of Gonzague, and reads astrophysics books before going to bed at night.
  • As a Frenchman, he grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has seen European culture and African culture. He has seen the good and the bad in each of them, with all the contrasts. The advanced and the backwards, the rich and the poor, the safe and the dangerous, the highly regulated and the completely wild, the arrogant and the humble, the consume-everything and the create-anything-out-of-nothing. How interesting. This kind of experience produces a wise and balanced philosophy, whose company is both pleasant and enlightening.
  • He was a member of the Johannesburg ballet company, and he toured professionally all over the area. A classical dancer? Have you ever met one before? Fascinating. Do you have the slightest idea of the effort it requires to train for hours as a classical dancer? This alone gained our respect. And the pictures of the ballet company, costumes and all, were certainly spectacular.
  • He is a piano player. A brain wired with musical intelligence. One more point on the scoreboard.
  • He is studying at SUPAERO, a reputed school for space and aeronautics.
  • He made an appearance on French national TV, with a star journalist (Jamy) to receive the prize for a robotics contest he won with his teammates. Have you ever won a robotics prize? Have you ever been on TV? We haven’t. But we certainly would be very proud to welcome one in the team.
  • He followed the Astrophysics class at the Cosmology Institute of Moscow, in Russian, via Zoom. Astrophysics in Russian? Isn’t that uncommon and impressive? You definitely need to be courageous, patient, bright and a little bit crazy to choose astrophysics in Russian. All the traits we like.

We were immediately enchanted by his one-of-a-kind background. We had several meet-ups to discuss more in depth, and the answer to the application was an obvious yes. We are honored that people with such backgrounds choose Stellar Space Studies, and we will continue to be a home for such characters (check here, here and here for other specimens). After all, he could have gone anywhere he wanted, so why Stellar?

A night view of Moscow
Russia has been the home of extraordinary mathematicians and space engineers

Are you a fan of robotics?
(If yes, have a look at our Humor page in the inspiration section,
there is a special dance by Boston Dynamics, scroll down to the middle of the page)

Simulations of future gravity missions

The internship went great, as expected from the interview. We had a great time and we had fun all along. We worked on the simulation of future gravity missions (don’t miss that piece, it is better than James Bond playing poker). We studied several concepts such as a polar pair of satellites, two pairs combined (BENDER), or a more exotic pendulum design with one polar pair and another single polar satellite with a shift in right ascension of the ascending node and anomaly. We simulated the measurements, the noise, the orbits. We learnt to code in Fortran 90, and we made our hands dirty with some archeology on old Fortran 77 codes written by our good colleague and brilliant historical figure of French geodesy (the one who had breakfast with Feynman). We had also the opportunity to collaborate with our German colleagues from GFZ, and to closely compare our results. There were meetings with NASA/JPL and ESA too. Icing on the cake, we did a little bit of interactive web design in Javascript to deliver our results more elegantly, we practiced oral presentations as much as we could, and we also did a little bit of prospecting work and marketing, in order to fully experience the life of a startup. It was an intense and refreshing journey. We laughed a lot, we learnt a lot, we made great work and great progress on our topic.

The Friday evening bug and the twelve strokes of midnight

Let’s tell you one entertaining story before wrapping up this article. The last day of the internship was a Friday. The last Friday of July, just before the summer holidays. Don’t you know that Friday afternoon is typically the time when blunders happen? Surest than Newton’s laws, Murphy’s laws. « Everything that can go wrong will go wrong ». So at 15:18, we received a message by Gonzague saying that he and Hari (our other teammate) found a bug in the very last round of simulations. Are you kidding? That meant we had to go through it all over, one more time. Of course, there was no way we could leave this work unfinished. So we kept going. The last message from Gonzague that Friday night was at 23:21, just before the twelve midnight strokes. At midnight, the whole team would have turned into a pumpkin. Good news, the main bug had been solved. There were still a few final touches to make the next morning, but by Saturday afternoon everybody was happy with a work done nice and clean. So the lesson is this: beware the Friday evening bug, and don’t turn into a pumpkin!

What next?

We have been in touch since the end of the internship, and will continue for the foreseeable future. He is now is working on a PhD in astrophysics and artificial intelligence. Neuronal networks applied to the dynamics of plasma inside stars (not in Russian though). What a vast program. If you liked the story and are interested to do anything with him, contact us, we might be able to organize something. And if you are a student looking for a good company to work in, this story tells you exactly about the Stellar spirit!

Hari (left) and Gonzague (right) working from a SUPAERO classroom, before the Stellar offices.