Aztec Quasar Pilgrimage

Twice each year, at the equinox, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl returns to his home at the Great Pyramid of Cholula. I was there with my family to welcome him this Saturday, having travelled to INAOE in Mexico to give my UKIDSS/VO colloquium. Quetzalcoatl must be a shy chap. It seems it needs a few thousand people to encourage him home by singing, dancing, eating gorditas, drinking pulque, and jumping over fires wearing absurdly large head-dresses. At twilight, we climbed the ancient pyramid towards the Christian church planted on its top. Halfway we turned and looked back towards Popocatapetl, smoking in the middle distance. It is just so huge and dramatic. How can you not feel stirred ? The church was full of icons of Mary / Diana / Earth Mother, and several images of the Sacred Heart, which seemed gruesomely appropriate. These things are so powerful, I think it is a mistake to think of religion simply as ignorance. Rationality is an insight, a liberation, that battles against some of our wiring.

Back down among the festival tents, there were in fact many astronomers in attendance, showing the locals how to make paper models of the Moon and of Stereo A and B. I am glad to report these stalls were very popular. Almost as popular as the pulque.

This morning I walked into INAOE, in the nearby village of Tonantzintla. I walked past the old Schmidt telescope, part of the original 1940s observatory founded by Guillermo Haro. Like my visit to Byurakan almost two years ago, this was a kind of historical pilgrimage. Haro was I believe the first to use the idea of a Schmidt objective prism to search systematically for blue things. He found all sorts of fascinating things, including discovering the jet-like structures in forming stars now known as Herbig-Haro objects. But his lists of blue things included star forming galaxies, and blue “stars” which later turned out to be quasars. (Ton 202 is a favourite of mine, being one of the quasars where my colleague Makoto Kishimoto uncovered the Balmer edge expected from an accretion disc atmosphere, and the nu**1/3 SED in the infrared – see post here). Today Roberto Terlevich told me that Haro worked with Ambartsumian, and actually convinced Markarian to undertake his historic survey – at first Markarian wasn’t interested. Apparently Haro was eventually awarded the Lenin Prize.

It is so strange to think of those quasars sitting there, in a list in Haro’s office, all those years until somebody knew what they were. What mysteries are hidden today, unrecognised in an anonymous list on somebody’s laptop ?


6 Responses to Aztec Quasar Pilgrimage

  1. Tony says:

    Ah, if only he had the VO in those days. Just a click of a button (well, if they’d had mice – the non-furry kind – in those days) and all problems are solved.

  2. Tom Shanks says:

    Further south in the Americas, more gifts are also being requested to pay homage to the great southern sky god, ESO, to pay for the late arrival of the previous golden VISTA offering. Word has travelled back that the prayers of high priests Qeithmasonstfc and Rwadestfc from the Great Pyramid at Swindon have not been well received by ESO nor by the demi-god Zeeuw. Golden gifts up to value of 18 million euros may now be due. New pilgrims to the southern Gemini shrine have also not been found. So retired royal high priest of god RAS now to examine entrails and rationalise ground-based temples, possibly for multidisciplinary worship.

  3. andyxl says:

    Tom you are a Master of Digression. So your guess is Gemini down plug hole and STFC in deeper doo-doo than ever ? But scientifically we need not worry as VISTA is just fantabbydodo.

  4. Tom Shanks says:

    Rumour is that VISTA is basically OK in terms of image quality etc but has run into some small teething problems – broken filter wheel etc so it may not be working currently at least. I dunno if STFC is in real trouble but think some improved diplomacy with ESO from Great Pyramid at Swindon might be needed to avoid vast penalty charges. I assume someone has pointed to the continuing delay with VST as being a balancing factor for the not-that-late VISTA arrival, for example. Fact that there is now another STFC ground-based review so soon after last one again seems ominous.

  5. Tom Shanks says:

    I suppose if ESO did play hardball and we did have to pay even part of the 18 million euros penalty then we might suggest that we at least get something out of it. So there were a few presentations at the ESO Spectroscopic Surveys meeting a fortnight ago about wide field spectrographs for ESO telescopes. For example, I talked about an extreme multiplex optical spectrograph for VISTA itself that would deliver 12000 galaxy redshifts an hour over its 2.1 deg diameter field -see The spectrograph designer is R. Content and this would be for 5 years time after NIR imaging surveys finished – W Sutherland approves! There were also presentations about ESO getting access to LSST, for example.

    Any of these routes would give ESO access to survey facilities for the future which would make Guillermo Haro proud. (So no real digression here either?)

  6. […] rumours abound of a review of ground-based facilities by STFC. (OK I know thats only one rumour, but Tom Shanks […]

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