Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal

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”.

9 Responses to Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal

  1. Tom says:

    Thanks for visiting, Andy, it was appreciated by everyone here, even those who no longer work at the JAC. This has certainly been a very tough year. I miss the summit as well although had the chance to spend a little time up there a few weeks ago, which was really nice and during that short time while WFCAM was off for maintenance we took great data with a visiting instrument in cassegrain mode. Shows we can still do it despite having a skeleton staff.

    Just to add, although the official line is if something breaks we’ll get to it when effort is available, it’s not really like that in real life, We will still try, and do, fix things in real time if it’s at all possible. Those of us here still have that UKIRT mentality of the past couple of decades.


  2. Omar says:

    Nice post Andy. The mystical awe you describe does produce better science I think, because it motivates people. What better way to inspire a young PhD student than a trip to use the amazing telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea? You also get to witness a whole team of dedicated people working hard to get your data, which for me is even more motivating. Getting a tar file over the internet just isn’t the same…

    Do these subtle motivational factors justify the extra cost? I really don’t know, but it makes me very sad to think that future generations of astronomers may never get to visit a real telescope.

    • Tom says:

      Excellent comment, Omar, and will say that visiting UKIRT several times as a PhD student really motivated me.

      I do wonder sometimes how the ELT and TMT will be run assuming they’re both built. Will it be by people who know how to observe using a ground-based observatory or by people who get their data via the internet and are happy with that?

      It’ll likely be a mixture of course, but suspect that over time those with real observing skills will be harder to find.



    I don’t know how I got there (the wonders of the internet) but I have to ask: is that you at #9?

  4. Gary says:

    Thanks for that summary of your recent visit Andy. I agree with just about all of it. We are immensely proud of what we have achieved over the last 18 months; when measured in terms of science papers per pound spent, UKIRT must now be the most productive telescope on the planet. You are correct to observe, though, that this came at a cost, both in terms of dedicated professionals who lost their jobs and a profoundly different, and poorer I think, user experience.

  5. John Womersley says:

    Andy – great post, great sentiments and very well expressed. The team at JAC have done – and continue to do – a great job under difficult circumstances, and the science output from UKIRT in the last couple of years is really impressive. Let’s hope SCUBA-2 performs just as well. Thank you all, it’s greatly appreciated.

  6. Martin E. says:

    just remembered a graph NRAO showed to an NSF panel a few years back that showed a similarly huge factor 2-ish boost in papers thanks to the FIRST + NVSS surveys. surveys are good.

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