Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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Hawaiian Weather

And the weather report from Hawaii today is: temperatures -5 to -7, windspeed 60 to 100 mph with gusts up to 120 mph. That means with windchill it would feel like -28. Eat your heart out Edmonton!

Those are the real figures, but that’s because I’m on the top of Mauna Kea failing to get any observing done because of the wind.

It’s an astronomer’s life.

In the meantime I’m carrying on work on the Infrared Astronomy book. Today I learned that Titan has a methane cycle the way the Earth has a hydrological cycle. Maybe it should be called the mythalogical cycle?

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Last Night on the Mountain

Tonight is my last night at JCMT. Things have gone well and I’ve got most of the data I wanted for my project. The weather has been very helpful, with only one night that was too good for my project. The forecast for tonight looks as if it was pessimistic at this point, so I should be able to finish off the last bits before I go home.

The last night of an observing run is a bit like the end of term at school. You’re tired, but buoyed up by the knowledge that some relaxation is ahead. And there is the prospect of getting down to sea level and a real atmosphere with intoxicating levels of oxygen. The trip down is almost like a drug, as your chest can relax, as breathing stops being a chore, an finally your oxygen starved body gets what it needs.

It doesn’t last long, but I think coming down from the mountain is a pretty good drug. Maybe observing is addictive?

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Observing Time – not like other kinds of time

Observing time isn’t like ordinary time. You’re working nights, for a start, and in many cases arrive at the observatory with a significant level of jet lag. That’s certainly the case for me at the moment. And then, for Mauna Kea at least, there’s the effect of the altitude. At 14000 feet you’re missing about 1/3 of the usual level of oxygen so nothing, and especially your brain, works properly.

For an impression of what it’s like, have a look at this video – Hotel Mauna Kea.

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Armchair astronomy – the downside

One of the nice aspects of the modern high level of computer control and automation of telescopes is that sometimes you can get data just by sending in a script and then sitting back and watching, in your armchair at home, as the observations come in. But it doesn’t always work that way.

Over the last week I’ve had observations attempted several times for a particular high priority project, only to see them weathered out. Last weekend they had to close because of 60 mile an hour winds on the mountain.

They’re trying again today, and I just checked the reports to find that they’re now having technical troubles with the control system.

Excuse me while I sit here and chew my fingernails…

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And breathe…

Having spent the last 5 days living between 10000 and 14000 feet on Mauna Kea, I’m now back at sea level and enjoying the balmy feeling of there being enough oxygen in the air.

When you’re on the mountain you don’t realise how much extra work your body is doing to make sure it gets the oxygen it needs. Yes, you notice when you walk up a flight of stairs too fast, but you don’t notice that your lungs are inflating more and that you’re breathing faster than usual.

Until you get down to sea level, that is.

Suddenly everything is much easier.

It’s a good reminder that we live in a sea of air, held onto our planet by gravity and nothing else. And we need to take some of that sea with us wherever we might wish to go.