Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal

August 24, 2011

I just finished my first ever sea level UKIDSS observing run on UKIRT. I emerged with a weird mixture of feelings…

Science. I gave an afternoon talk to JAC staff – not just astronomers, but secretaries, engineers, etc – which meant I had to really explain what we have been doing with a thousand nights on their telescope. They soaked it up, goggle eyed – distant quasars, tiny failed stars, vast clusters of galaxies. It made me realise we really are doing something good. I showed them the UKIRT publication history, which Gary Davis made. I think you can see that doing an ambitious survey has been good for UKIRT.

Refereed publications resulting in part or whole from UKIRT observations, 1992-2010.

Money. UKIRT is now very cheap to run. Most of the time there are no observers at all – just a Telescope Operator and an eavesdropping web page. No observer plane tickets. No Hale Pohaku bills. Much smaller support infrastructure in Hilo. If something goes phut, tough. It can wait until next time somebody can get up the mountain. Of course STFC love this, because UKIRT is still putting out press releases but for much less money ! But before they decide other telescopes can do this .. Its possible because a massive survey with a single instrument is a very simple problem; because they have dedicated, skilled, and experienced TOs; and because over many years UKIRT has slowly ironed out its technical issues. It just works slightly better every year.

People. Well it was cool talking to JAC staff, and seeing those familiar TOs. The TOs love the new sea-level ops. Brain works. Less travel overhead. They can buy their own snacks. They have more responsibility, and have risen to that challenge. But the bare bones UKIRT has a downside. People got fired. I had dinner with old chum Frossie. She wrote the Query Tool, but now she spends her evenings listening to the frogs.

Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal. Mostly, I loved the new observing style, for the same reason as the TOs – the brain worked, I could come and go, have dinner wherever I liked. But of course I missed the mountain, especially the mystical experience of descending from the roof of the world at dawn. Also I love walking round the dome, placing my hand on the huge cold metal machine, and understanding that this is all real. Not a computer game. Photons have travelled for 13 billion years from that direction there and got swallowed up inside here. Of course this is very groovy for me, but does this mystical pleasure produce better science for the taxpayer’s money ? I doubt it.

History. I found myself flooded with memories of 25 years of going on UKIRT runs . Somehow, things that have changed make you even more sensitive to things that haven’t. This must be why I found myself taking a photo of my favourite sign at the Hilo Bay Hotel, aka Uncle Billy’s. It says “In case of tidal wave : (1) Stay calm (2) Pay hotel bill (3) Run like hell”.