Observing, Day 3

Tuesday, 9/29/98 9:25 PM Hawaii time [3:25 AM Eastern] Honolulu airport

It's been a busy day. I'm coming up on 22 hours since I last slept, and soon I'll be on the plane and sleeping peacefully. But right now, fortified (temporarily) by a stop at Starbuck's, I'll finally take the time to tell you about the last day of my observing trip.

(Allow me to stay in the present tense while describing my past day - it makes it seem a little bit more immediate...)

Last night:

I'm sleeping peacefully, but gradually I become aware of a rhythmic scratching of something against the side of my bed. My first thought: one of our two cats is clawing something. But then I realize, in my sleepy state, that I'm in Hawaii. My second (very brief) thought: what are the cats doing in Hawaii? Then I finally wake up enough to realize what's really going on: it's an earthquake, and my backpack is scraping against the side of the bed as the whole bed (and all the rest of the furniture) sways back and forth! After about 15-20 seconds it subsides, and I go back to sleep.

Despite the interruption, I sleep soundly until around midnight, when it's time to get up to get ready for the final night's observing. Walking from the dormitory to the building with the dining hall, I can see Orion just starting to come up over the eastern horizon: time to go to work, since we're observing stars in Taurus, which Orion chases across the sky. I pack myself another night lunch, and we head up the summit road.

Amy Barger is on first shift again, and she's glad to see us so she can head down and get some sleep. It hasn't been a very productive night for her - the weather isn't great - so she is happy to turn control of the telescope over to us. (Even if she had given up completely on observing, she couldn't have left until we arrived. Safety rules forbid anyone being alone at the summit, so she couldn't leave the telescope operator there by himself.)

The telescope operator asks if we felt the earthquake, and he says it was magnitude 5.5, centered on the active lava flow over on Mauna Loa. Apparently they are fairly common, though this one was bigger than most.

We quickly settle into a groove with the night's observing; it mostly consists of choosing a target binary and observing it for 45 minutes or so, but ultimately not detecting any measurable emission. It seems that these binaries have really cleared away a lot of their disk material. There are a few exceptions, but by and large we detect very few systems.

While the telescope works away, collecting data, Bob, Gary, and I work on various parts of the next observing proposal. Our goal is to finish it before we leave the mountain. I revise the target list, pulling up various research papers on the web to see what other astronomers have found about these stars; Gary writes a new section describing the results of this observing run; and Bob revises the main text to extend the scope of the program a bit based on our new results. Periodically we print out versions of our respective sections and swap them, reading, commenting, revising. By the time the Sun comes up, we're all fairly satisfied with the result, so we stitch it all together into what we hope is a coherent whole.

The weather has steadily improved during the night, and we've been able to finish essentially all of the observations we proposed. And what have we found? That most of these systems don't seem to have enough material to form planets, but that the broader picture (like most things in nature) is complicated: a few binaries apparently do have massive disks, and a few others, in spite of independent evidence that gas and dust are continuing to fall in onto the stars, don't seem to have much disk material nearby, a puzzling result. So the run ends without an earth-shaking discovery, and with perhaps more questions than answers. But this is how science works 99.9% of the time. It's not usually about big discoveries, but about tiny incremental additions to our knowledge of the universe.

These new bits of information, taken together, eventually lead to bigger advances. (Whether the advances are sudden leaps, or just a slow, steady progression, is the subject of much debate.) Aside from the big picture, though, there's a personal (selfish?) side to this work that is part of what keeps me coming back for more. It's a real thrill to make an observation, look at the result, and know that, just for a moment, I know something about the universe that no one else knows. Like most secrets, part of the fun is in the initial knowing, and part comes in telling people about it later.

The observing done, and the next proposal written, we head down the mountain in the bright sunlight to face a long day in transit back to our respective homes. In Hilo, we stop at the Joint Astronomy Center (which handles administrative aspects of running the JCMT) to pay our bills. The use of the telescope is free - like most large telescopes, it is supported by government research grants - but we pay for our room and board at HP. Then we go our separate ways, hoping to meet again next summer if our new proposal is successful.

The day after the last night of observing is always tiring: stay up all night observing, spend the morning and early afternoon getting back to Hilo and over to Honolulu, then catch an overnight flight back to the East coast. By the time I arrive in Philadelphia at 3:42 PM tomorrow, it will have been 34 hours since I've slept anywhere but on a plane. But I'm not complaining - few people get to have an experience like this, and it's worth a little sleep deprivation.

See you soon,


Day 1 | Day 2, part 1 | Day 2, part 2 | Day 3 | Back to the main page.

Eric Jensen <ejensen1@swarthmore.edu>
Last modified: Sun Jun 8 16:14:58 2003