Space Studs

By Phil Plait | November 17, 2005 10:49 pm

This blog entry may strike some people as sexist. If you think so, then hear me now and believe me later, I will pummel you.

Because astronomy is for real men. Okay, fine, women, too. But wussies need not apply.

At least, I try to convince Mrs. Bad Astronomer of this. She’s skeptical. But professional astronomy isn’t for scaredy cats. Think about it: you’re up all night, which takes some stamina. You have to stay sharp, keep your wits. You’re around very large, heavy machinery which can be dangerous. There can be extremely caustic and scary chemicals involved (early exoplanet searches used hydrogen fluoride, a very scary chemical indeed). To top it off (literally!) you are usually on the apex of a very tall mountain, and observatories can be several stories tall, with easy access to the outside via a catwalk.

This is macho stuff.

Still don’t believe me? Well, then you should read the latest press release from the Keck Observatory. This premier observatory houses the giant twin 10-meter telescopes perched atop Mauna Kea — at an elevation of 14,000 feet. That is seriously way up there.

So far up there, in fact, it’s hard to breathe. What can you do? Well, as the press release notes, Keck just received a grant from the Hudson Foundation so they could buy air. The atmosphere is so tenuous at that height, that they need to ship in air just so people can breathe.

Now tell me again how astronomers are wimps. Take a deep breath of your mix of 78% N2 and 22%O2 at one atmospheric pressure so you can expound at length at how macho I am not. But don’t be surprised if I’m holding a 50 liter tank of liquid nitrogen behind my back, or an 80 square meter mirror, or a 64 megapixel camera, or a rocket capable of a million pounds of thrust to get my satellite orbiting the Earth. And don’t be surprised if I know how to use ’em.

My toys are so better than yours.


Comments (37)

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  1. Scott

    Right, astronomy isn’t for girly men Phil, you tell`em!

  2. What about those of us who’ve observed up there for 12 straight hours without extra oxygen? Are we supermen (and superwomen) then? :-)

  3. Nigel Depledge

    Ah, Phil, I have used HF. It is indeed a very scary substance. But only slightly more scary than chromic acid (very strongly oxidising acid) or aqua regia (a mix of concentrated nitric and sulphuric acids which is stronger than either acid on its own). I’ve made and used both of these (for cleaning glassware, would you believe).

    And I have maneouvred half a tonne of a buffer solution on a dolly (OK, a buffer solution contains salts and/or a weak acid or base that limits changes in pH; a dolly is a set of wheels).

    But, probably the scariest thing I’ve done was a hydrogenation reaction using tritium gas generated from tritiated water (one Curie thereof). So biochemistry is hardly for wusses either.

  4. Nigel Depledge

    Hang on a second. Just read that link. $28000 for a “summit employee breakfast programme”? Can’t they just have bacon and eggs like everyone else?

  5. To Nigel,

    Silly you, don’t you realise that it has to be high altitude pigs and chickens? Not to mention high altitude coffe, potatoes, tomatoes, beans etc etc….

  6. Oh yeah, BA you seem to have some allergic reaction, you are all swollen.

  7. Take a deep breath of your mix of 78% N2 and 22%2

    Here, have a spare “O” on me.

  8. Mark Martin

    I accompanied a lady to the Perkins telescope near Flagstaff a few years back, to help out as she did observations all night.

    First thing on the menu was for her to manhandle the liquid helium to refrigerate the CCD. We had to made frequent trips out to watch for storms, because they were in the neighborhood. Later on we spied a thunderstorm rolling in fast. So we made a made dash to shut down everything & close the dome. Driving back to Lowell in the pitch dark we very nearly got clobbered by a herd of humongous elk. And on top of all that, the TV in the dome only got one channel, NBC. Not for the lazy or faint of heart.

  9. Berkeley

    I once read a slogan that said:
    “My microcontroller is better than your microcontroller.”

    I used to use it like kind of a witticism (much like “my toys are better than your toys”), but nobody ever got the humor of it.

    Some toys I get to use, show me what is inside of people, like bones and kidneys and stuff (although, being a student, they usually only let me measure peoples’ blood pressure).

    BTW, this reminds me of an anecdote from the chemistry department of a Norwegian university. There was a graduate student who was doing an assignment, and had to obtain a special chemical that was hard to find. His professor asked around, and finally got it from a colleague. On delivering it to the student, he remarked: “If you ever gonna put a metal spatula in the jar, tell me in advance. I will be miles away.”

    He had borrowed it on the condition that he would *not* return it… Talk about dangerous chemical.

  10. ByTheWay

    I don’t see what the big deal is — 14,000 feet really isn’t all that high up there. In fact, I’ve heard of people doing Everest without hauling up extra O2…

    Of course, I’m from Colorado …

  11. Bill

    That picture at the end was priceless.

  12. Kim

    Are you trying to say that astronomers breathe more rarified air than the rest of us? That makes you elitist, not sexist.

  13. Doug

    Phil –

    … you really need to cut back on the steriod use … it’s affecting your hair line.

  14. Jeff

    To Nigel,

    Silly you, don’t you realise that it has to be high altitude pigs and chickens? Not to mention high altitude coffe, potatoes, tomatoes, beans etc etc….

    Flying pigs and chickens? Are they insane? Do they not realise how many improbable events are destined to occur the moment pigs become able to fly? It’ll be madness! Anarchy! They’ve doomed us all!

  15. Bad Albert

    I’ve always known Schwarzenegger pasted his face on a picture of Phil’s body but nobody would believe me.

  16. Blake Stacey

    So **that** is what we missed seeing in those shower pics?!

  17. VisionEngineer


    Usually I charge of fee for being used as a body double! This one’s on me.

  18. What exactly is the hydrogen fluoride used for? And it is in gas form or in solution? (Not that it would stay out of solution very long if some escaped to an ordinary atmosphere or your lungs or something.)

  19. Don’t forget the long cold night of amature observing (Which some Pro’s still do for fun :))
    There not very easy on you if your not prepared… as i found out myself -_-

  20. Scho scho scho

    People really say astronomers are wussy? Who said that? Where? Obviously the BA in that picture could beat them up.

  21. Mou Mou

    Say, is Keck still waiting for permission to go ahead with the Outrigger Project?

    Talk about the separation of church and state.

  22. This is totally off topic, but I was wondering if you or the readers could clear something up for me. LAst night ( Nov 18th ) I saw something streaking across the sky that looked like Venus in brightness. Was there a chance that it was the Space Station ? Viewing from near Greensboro, NC just after darkness set in around 6:10 pm EST. thanks !!

  23. KingNor

    Something about this blog makes me want to GET TO THA CHOPPA

  24. (Hmm, should you rename this blog as “Badass-tronomy?”)

    In April, my wife and I took a week-long vacation in Hawaii. One of the highlights of the trip (for me, at least) was a trip to the Mauna Kea summit. The tour outfit took us up just before sunset and we watched the sun set from 14,000 feet. Keep in mind that this is Hawaii: They provided parkas for everyone on the tour, and there was snow on the ground! They also had an oxygen tank in the van, just in case someone needed it.

  25. Buzz Parsec

    James G in NC: according to the Sky and Telescope “Almanac” page, the
    space station was visible Friday night at 6:10 PM, rising in the NW and
    setting in the E about 4 minutes later. It is about as bright as Venus,
    so that was probably it.

    The web page is at

    You can set your location (and date; it defaults to the current time) and get
    a quick list of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, visible planets, and ISS
    passes for the next several days.

  26. Stuart Greig

    Astronomy in Norway is not for the faint hearted, the only time its dark is in the winter and in winter it gets COLD. My record is three hours stood outside in -25 Celcius. And that was late afternoon! Its when the LED display on your telescope controller starts packing up due to the cold that you KNOW its time to go in.

  27. Cindy

    Hey, Phil, you’re recycling that picture! Wasn’t that from when you were in grad school?? 😉

    When I became a mother I realized that my 150 nights of observing in grad school was perfect training for the sleep depravation due to a young infant.

    By the way, Phil, have you ever posted a copy of the letter you wrote to the author of the Exorcist? That had to be one of the funniest things you have ever written.

  28. aiabx

    The amateur astronomers of the world tend not to get so much altitude sickness, but make it up in exposure to freezing cold, alarming wildlife and drunken teenagers who want to see the “Rings of Uranus”.
    -Andy B

  29. Ah, the Exorcist thing. I should post that here. Maybe someday; it’s long for a blog. I think I mailed a copy to Blatty, but I never heard back. Oh well.

    Cindy, your memory is excellent. But this picture was when I was already getting a bit flabby.

  30. Except that the truth is that most professional astronomers never need to get out of their swivel chairs these days.

    Service observation, remote observing, space telescopes, data archives, virtual telescopes – and that’s not even counting all the astronomers who do cool stuff with computer models and even good old theory.

    No, this particular macho turn on things is a biiig smokescreen, and of course the women astronomers already know this. If there’s macho posturing in astronomy (excuse me if I go serious all of a sudden) then it’s all about the big idea of understanding the mind of some deity, and escaping the confines of the body to train the brain on higher things.

    I mean, Stephen Hawking hasn’t spend much time messing about with HF at 14000 feet, has he?

  31. Jon Niehof

    “I accompanied a lady to the Perkins telescope near Flagstaff a few years back”
    Curious who it was, Mark. I know most of the people who have been The Official Observer/gradturkey/’scope wrangler for the last few years.

    (More on-topic: there’s a bumper sticker in a corner of our TA office that says “Astronomers stay up all night.”)

  32. Mark Martin

    Hi Jon,

    I was at Lowell for several days in 2000, using the archives, when I went to Perkins as a side adventure. If I recall correctly, I think the lady’s name was Mellissa, from BU.

  33. Harvi

    “Except that the truth is that most professional astronomers never need to get out of their swivel chairs these days.”

    Gee, you are obviously not on my current observing run (13 hours a night, >10,000 ft, ~0 degrees C)! I just had to reset a 1.8 meter telescope by hand when it shut down in the middle of a long slew. That includes moving a derotator 180 degrees twice tonight when it really didn’t want to.

    Oh, and I’m one of those whimpy women… 😉

    (though I did read this entry just before the telescope broke and there I was up there in the dome saying, “Come on, be a macho astronomer!”)

    I feel like eating some raw meat and beating my chest, but I think I’ll just go to sleep… I hiked 18 miles this weekend through hot desert and now this 5 night marathon for my thesis.

  34. Mark Martin

    “I feel like eating some raw meat and beating my chest”

    Just coincidentally, King Kong does this a lot. But you know what? It’s a little known fact that Kong is… a professional astronomer. (His PhD thesis was in telescopic “banana” mounts, granted by Skull Island University.)

    It turns out that’s why he climbed the Empire State Building; he was checking out the seeing conditions up there. If only he’d known that astronomy in New York is forbidden by a local ordinance. Thus, a squadron was dispatched to wave him off…

  35. Hydrogen fluoride is for girly men! Wake up and smell the chlorine pentafluoride! If you can figure out what to put it in, that is.

  36. moonflake

    $28,000 for a breakfast program does not sound like a bad idea. Anyone who’s ever observed at Sutherland in South Africa knows that bad food only makes the inhumane conditions worse. I mean, they deep fry the steak, boil the fries, and the dessert is sometimes so weird the japanese astronomers have been known to take photos of it. For me, that was worse than the cold, the altitude, and the isolation put together.


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