The battle between nature and astronomy

June 29, 2009

Today we dragged the kidz up to the Maroon Bells for a healthy hike. The driver of the bus up to the “Wilderness Portal” announced that an aspen grove in a neighbouring valley is the largest single organism on Planet Earth. Apparently there is a rival claim for some kind of  vast fungus in Oregon, but in Colorado they know the truth. Of course astronomers and sci-fi junkies know that the Black Cloud was much bigger.

Lifeforms on a more modest scale can cause problems for astronomy. Snapping shrimp can fake the effect of high energy neutrinos in underwater acoustic detectors. Astronomers from Arizona just hate them pesky squirrels. (Compare this and this .)  Auger apparently had problems with cows using the detectors as scratching posts. (Can’t find a web reference…)

On Friday in Aspen we heard from Brian Schmidt about a new example. The Australian Skymapper project is going very well. Telescope commissioned, camera nearly ready. But whats holding them back is ladybirds. They crawl all over the structure, get inside the optical dome encoders, and poor ole skymapper can’t figure out how to point out of the slit. Gaaaghh.

Of course the old timers will remember the infamous gold spot problem. Some people think it was a purely chemical problem, but I know it was caused by an alien virus that leaked out of Roswell.

Wise Vibrations in Purgatory

June 17, 2009

My sabbatical is nearly over. Midnight approaches and the shadow of teaching looms… Fair Nature’s eye, rise rise again and make perpetual day; or let this hour be but a year, a month, a week, a natural day, that Faustus may repent and save his soul ! The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, the Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned !

Err.. oh. Sorry. Got carried away. Luckily, before I am dragged down into the dark, I get to spend a few weeks in Aspen. I suppose this is a kind of inverse of Purgatory. Its achingly beautiful here in Colorado, but expensively chic in Aspen itself. Last night I walked past a building with smoked windows and no sign of anything to buy. The sign said “Franck Muller : Master of Complications”. I thought maybe this was some kind of spooky secret society, but Google later revealed unto me that in fact Franck Muller is a Swiss geezer wot makes fancy watches.

So here at the Center for Zen Physics I am attending a workshop on Wide Fast Deep Surveys of the Future. Like most Aspen workshops its rather loosely organised, but there have been one or two actual talks. One of these was by Roc Cutri, updating us on the status of WISE, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer. This is a MIDEX mission due for launch November this year, which will make a mid-IR survey of the sky. It recently passed its vibration tests. I have often heard about these, but never seen what happens…

Roc showed us a picture of the WISE spacecraft surrounded by a ring of 20 foot tall loudspeakers. He said that big trucks turned up and a gang of roadies set up this giant PA system, loaded up their favourite Led Zeppelin CD, and then ran for cover. Really. Nearly as good as Disaster Area.