This is What Observing Feels Like

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 16, 2010 11:26 am

Very lovely time lapse video from Mauna Kea, home to many of the world’s best optical telescopes:

The White Mountain from charles on Vimeo.

For me, it really captures the best parts of how observing feels.

It misses the not-so-good parts, where the instrument breaks, or you’re shut down for wind in perfectly clear weather, or you’re trying desperately to stay awake on a diet of nothing but reheated bagel dogs.

I suppose I’m feeling rather maudlin about it, because its now been years and years since I’ve set foot at an observatory. During the past decade, almost all of my data has been ordered up from satellites or the observing queue, in contrast to my years at Carnegie, where I was observing for more than a month each year. My scientific life is much more “family friendly” as a result, but I still do miss the cold nights and big skies.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

  • Eivind

    Thank you for sharing this Julianne, and your thoughts.

    I’ve never observed from a pro observatory. But I’ve spent cold nights, way up in the norwegian mountains with my cheap telescope and ditto camera, plus liberal amounts of coffee. It’s been decades since I did that though, but this reminded me.

  • Doug

    But Julianne, the clear nights with high wind at least let you hear why you’re not observing. The worst are the clear nights, no wind, and the single cloud/small fog bank which is covering only your telescope dome and not the rest of the mountain.

  • Cusp

    I’ve been trapped in snow covered domes, failed to observe on clear windless nights due to to much water vapour (the joys of submillimetre observing), woke up choking and gasping for breath after faling asleep at JCMT, and almost brained myself after nearly falling over a kangaroo in the dark.

    I’m over it – as soon as I get awarded time, I go hunting for a fresh-faced student/postdoc who can do it instead of me :)

  • Martin

    Feels so lonely.

  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    I (vividly) remember cold January nights in our HS Physics teachers backyard in Newtown Square, Pa. working with 3 inch Newtonian reflectors we ground ourselves, identifying and observing constellations and important astronomical objects.

    Later, I remember observing 3 near total solar eclipses within a 10 year period in the western Pacific Islands…a National Geographic team was on Kuop observing totality on one and I was on Fono about 30 miles north and saw the “Bailey’s Beads”. In total darkness on that same island, I stood on a sand bar and looked out on a glorious universe that took my breath away…could see the “Coal Sack” and other clouds of dust toward the center of the galaxy…a virtually unobstructed and panoramic view of the universe, Polaris hanging 7 degrees above the northern horizon.

    Touring the Keck was one of the most impressive experiences of my life …the folks were working on the galactic center project…threw snowballs up on the mountain and then went down and swam at Black Sand Beach the same day. As micro-climates the big island has all but two or possibly 3 of the worlds climates- within a two hour drive…a little universe unto itself.

    I’m looking forward to being in Hilo next month. The college students told me the snow was early on the mountain, but melted off quickly this year…

  • Anne

    As someone who’s currently on several observing projects, I have to say it’s often not like that at all. We do almost entirely remote observing, which mostly means sitting in front of a terminal keeping half an eye on the data coming in. Sometimes I even give the operator my cell number and go to sleep. On the other hand, bad weather is good news for me, since I compete with the high-frequency observers for telescope time: any time it’s too windy or snowy for them, we get to observe (unless it’s so bad they have to stow for safety or dump snow out of the dish). It’s been a good winter for us.

    For a much longer video like this, take a look at Hawaiian Starlight, a professional full-length film of timelapses of the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope.

  • Pingback: Video from Mauna Kea « Learning is beautiful()

  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    Of course, observation is a foundational part of the scientific method and science itself. A logical “thought experiment” is a kind of observation…we relate what we have learned, tested and previously applied to the unknown and try to extend our understanding by imagining what might happen given a different set of circumstances. Other observations may be general- or very precise in nature, and our measurement may be qualitative or quantitative with a wide range of precision.

    I think it is very important to properly respect the part each kind of observation plays in extending our understanding of reality. We might think the more precise measurements we do in science would be the most challenging (and they certainly are very challenging and important- even critical), but some of the biggest surprises and discoveries come when we more generally relate what we observe and develop concepts.

    In Sean’s book, he very carefully related what he asserted to events in the history of science. He retrospectively investigated errors and even included personal items of interest regarding the scientists who have made contributions to our current understanding of reality… Sean made it clear to the reader that the history of science is also a very human story.

    There is a conceptual link between observation and entanglement. When we make a group of observations and relate information, that process brings things together conceptually…there is a potentially important synthesis somewhere along the line which creates conceptual, and then, potentially, technological advances.

    When I stood on that tropical beach and looked out into the center of the galaxy, I knew the distances involved…35,000 light years or so. Yet at that moment, the heart of my galaxy seemed so close I could touch it…I felt like I was out there among the stars.

    Yet, I was also aware that I was protected by the womb of the Earth, especially the atmosphere and the breeze on my face, but also I could hear the tiny waves of the lagoon lapping at my feet and the voices of my friends, quietly talking and sitting on the sand near me.

    One of the things I really like about the ancient culture I participated in is the very special reality of social entanglement. The stars, the universe, one’s island, friendships, clan, family, love, food, birth, death, sickness, health- everything about ones unique location in space and time entangles into a powerful experience of existence. There is a feeling of belonging to the universe- and each other- which is indescribable. Reality takes on a very special meaning!

    I’m looking forward to gaining an improving understanding of what quantum entanglement really means and implies about the nature of existence. However, if what we learn even approximately relates to my experience of social entanglement as a participant in an ancient culture, the future of science will be very bright and productive indeed!

  • locke

    I’m with Cusp and Doug: few things worse than perfectly clear, windless, cloudless nights when the humidity it too high to even open. Like many things in life, the romance of observational astronomy is best observed in retrospect. I’ve had many runs where I could take a 1 a.m. nap and just let the undergrads do the boring, routine work of observing (after a week observing, they start getting bored too). Of course boring is better than the type of excitement that comes when some software, hardware, or wetware breaks…..

  • spyder

    Back in the late 80s and early 90s my second oldest, a daughter, was the snowboard cross champ of Mauna Kea. The season was short by snow standards, and sometimes the snow wasn’t all that deep, but she rode stunningly well. Eventually she moved to her mom’s condo in Mammoth to give her passions real winters; she still lives there.

    There are a few astronomers and observatory personnel who also enjoy riding down the mountain on skis and snowboards after a night of work. Just another pleasure on that rare 39,000 foot mountain of igneous rock.


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