Friday, 29 October 2010

A remote possibility

It's been a little while since I last wrote something here but I can certainly promise you it's not because I've taken a break from writing. In fact it's the complete opposite. During the last week I managed to figure out how to disable the touch pad on my laptop which has been the bane of my life recently. I can't tell you how many important documents my palm and fingers have destroyed or reformatted just because they wanted a place to rest, and the touch pad is the ideal spot for them. Even my lunch joined in one day - a nice dollop of egg mayonnaise moved an important plot of science project completion into the middle of a paragraph about weather statistics and then, for desert, disabled the undo option.

It's UKIRT Board writing time and this is the first time I've had to write the reports. Fortunately, the board agreed last time round to lessen the burden on us and are OK with somewhat briefer papers with less details and more humour. OK, I lied about that last bit. There's not a shred of humour in the reports I've written but it's been tempting to add some. To avoid doing so I think of the US Inland Revenue Service and how they would react to someone writing "I don't know" when reporting their income. Instead of that, I've written "we have nothing further to report".

(Jeez, I hope no members of the board are reading this!).

I hope it'll work. I'm much better answering questions in person than writing them in advance and that's one nice thing about this whole process. I get to visit the UK again and in particular, this time round, Oxford, which is a very special place for me. More on that later as there is nothing further to report at the time of writing. A fully documented account and full discussion will be provided at the appropriate time.

Oh damn, there I go again.

In the meantime it's all hands on deck in preparation for the move to "Minimalist Mode". I've set a firm date for the switch from summit operations to remote observing from Hilo and so far no one's told me I'm being an idiot. This worries me because everyone tells me I'm an idiot all the time, so surely something is wrong. But it has to happen, and happen soon.

Given the upcoming changes, I decided to abuse my newly found powers. In August I mentioned that I was up for my last official full night on the summit of Mauna Kea. Like a well-trained politician running for the senate, I knew what I wrote was likely untrue, but was factually correct when I wrote it and now have the opportunity to flip-flop. I'm up again next week, I changed the schedule myself, and will certainly regret my decision at four o'clock in the morning - on both nights - especially as I forgot I have to give another verbal and written report in the middle of the run to the senior management team. Oh well, I never sleep well on the mountain anyway.

And I'll be up again in December when we switch to Minimalist Mode. This time with an observer but our telescope operator will be 14,000 feet below us in Hilo operating both the telescope and the instrument. I guess I just can't let things go but it seems the right thing to do. Who knows what I'll have forgotten to do in preparation for remote observing? I have to be up there to fix whatever problems occur. Or perhaps it's just a last opportunity to watch a sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea? You choose, I couldn't possibly answer!

The final irony? On those nights in December I'll be accompanied by an observer who was one of the first visiting astronomers I worked with at UKIRT way back in the 90s. He was a student in those days but showed a lot of promise and was a pleasure to support. At the time I thought he'd do just fine in astronomy.

He's now a member of the UKIRT Board. He'll read my board papers and I'll be presenting those papers to him later this month in Oxford.

And I think he still owes me a beer...

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Black, dark and moody part II

In a very unexpected turn of events the UK government has not cut the science budget. Well, it has in real terms but nothing like as much as we all expected. This is clearly good news! The problem now is what happens to the STFC, the research council that funds facilities such as the one I work at:

"One research council that is particularly vulnerable, however, is the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which has the largest proportion of capital expenditure of all of them."

This will all be decided in the next couple of months and I haven't the energy to explain or describe how this happens right now, but will do soon. In any event UK physics and astronomy facilities funded by the STFC are still under a grave threat.

Anyway, in my previous post, "Black, dark and moody" an anonymous poster suggested the picture I took was a perfect opportunity for a high dynamic range (HDR) picture. It turns out I took the photos to do this and that's what you see above. I'm not sure if I like it, it's a little too "painterly" for me, but it does look nice, at least in my opinion!

I suppose I'll have to explain what HDR is again but forgive me for not doing that now, I'm so busy and quite tired. On the other hand I wouldn't mind if you told me which you prefer - this picture or the one in "Black, dark and moody".

PS. Apologies if anyone sees this multiple times - problems with blogger.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Thunder and lightning

It's clear all over the islands except here! The noise of the thunder is awesome but the lightning is freaking me out so time to switch everything off. And the house is shaking. This isn't nice.

Black, dark and moody

No, not my mood, although it's not that far off the mark given what's going on in the UK right now. It's just that I find taking pictures with Hawaiian lava rock so frustrating because it is as black as you can get and am convinced it sucks light from the environment. One nice thing about trying to take pictures of it is that you need a long exposure and it makes the water look so cool!

Anyway, after a sleepless night the other day I took a stroll around Coconut Island in Hilo and took this shot. It wasn't meant to be dark and moody but it's how it turned out I think!

Talking about omens (oh, was I?), just as I started typing this post there was a flash of lightning outside quickly followed by a long and quite loud roll of thunder. My mood went from just being normal to one of anxiety. Those of you who have followed my blog for a long time might remember that I used to love thunderstorms but after my house was struck several times I'm no longer a fan of them. I really feel I should put on some spooky music waiting for the UK government's CSR announcement and sit in the middle of my house waiting for that violent lightning bolt again!

It's actually very early in the season for thunder here - let's hope it isn't really an omen!

And there's another flash of lightning just outside my window. The cats are under the bed and I wish I could fit under there as well! Anyway, I'm off.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The approaching storm

Red sky at night, shepherd's delight,
Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning.

The shot was taken in the morning (actually, at dawn as you may have guessed) with a large shower approaching but is it a sign of things to come? The UK government is set to announce the results of its comprehensive spending review (CSR) on Wednesday and it is not looking good for science. Peter Coles and Andy Lawrence have both been writing posts about this on their blogs, the latest are "Astronomy Cuts Rumour Mill" and "Place your bets". It is very difficult to predict the eventual outcome although I think most people expect the UK will have to give up something very big and prestigious and there's little doubt our current excellent reputation in science will be damaged - if it hasn't already.

The double whammy is the recent announcement by Her Majesty's Government that student fees for university tuition costs will no longer be capped and could rise as high as £12,000 per year, a sum simply unaffordable for most students. Although many in the US education system may argue that it's how higher education works in the US and it's just fine, families in the US know these costs ahead of time and often start saving for college education as soon as a child is born and of course wages in the US are generally higher making these costs a little more affordable. What do UK families do now when they find out next year a college education for their son or daughter is just too expensive?

Couple these two together: the very real possibility of a brain drain from the UK and unaffordable higher education, I suspect the UK is looking at a lost generation of talented scientists and engineers. Of course, those bankers who helped get us into this mess to start with will have their bonuses to spend on their children's education, so that's alright then.

On another note, the approaching storm picture might also be appropriate for another reason - there's a good chance the summit of Mauna Kea will experience its first snowfall of the season tonight. It's not likely to be heavy, maybe just a dusting and if it does happen will likely melt during the day. The summit webcams are a good place to watch the snow if it happens.

Changing times...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Hawaii Five-O

I'm not sure if the new version of Hawaii Five-O has reached Europe yet but it's well into its first few episodes of the new series here. I haven't managed to watch any of the episodes all the way through yet and to be honest what I've seen so far hasn't impressed me, but most US TV series don't impress me. (Don't get me wrong, there are some US sitcoms I adore!).

One thing I do like - they have made a real attempt to re-use what has to be one of the most memorable TV theme tunes of all time.

Maybe I'm just thinking of my childhood, but Steve McGarrett's Hawaii Five-O is what I grew up with - my father and I used to sit down together and watch it every week when it was shown on British TV. Little did I know that a couple of decades later I would actually live there.

Well, I live on a different island, most of the original series was set on Oahu and in the city of Honolulu, but just occasionally they'd venture off to the neighbour islands. I think I might watch one of the new episodes if I knew in advance it was set on the Big Island.

Anyone know if such an episode is coming up?

Book 'em, Danno.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Trade wind earthshine

My stress levels are as high as I've ever known and thanks to a bad back and two very dodgy knees my health isn't what it should be. The UK government is soon to release the results of its Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and I'm unsure if I'll have a job next year. This seems to have been going on for two or three years now ever since the STFC was formed and although that crisis had nothing to do with the global financial meltdown the CSR might result in a disaster for UK science and especially for those who work in pure science such as astronomy.

Arriving back home today, edgy as always with the current situation, I noticed the moon setting behind my neighbour's trees. I could see the dark side of the moon illuminated by sunlight reflected from the Earth (earthshine) and for a few minutes my mind was distracted enough to have a little fun! Shame my camera just isn't up to it though!

From the lanai:

You can see some of the craters in this shot but not a lot of earthshine. Our trade winds have become strong this evening thanks to a high pressure system north of us over the Pacific Ocean but strangely enough the winds at my place were relatively calm. Just a few hundred feet above me the clouds were zipping through, so I guess the trades are back they just haven't got through the tree barrier just east of me!

The clouds made it difficult. The moon was there one moment and gone the next.

Finally a shot of earthshine - it did mean the illuminated bit of the moon was overexposed but it's almost impossible to avoid that. And it meant a few minutes being distracted from everything that's going on at the moment, and for that I was very grateful!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Harry the Hawaiian green turtle

I almost stepped on this fellow it was so dark. The camera lies here because it was actually very dark but I took a couple of long exposure photos of what I originally thought was a small rock and hoped he wouldn't move (it might be a she, I don't know how to tell). Harry kept as still, er, as a rock.

Harry is a very small Hawaiian green turtle. When fully mature they are massive - 200 to 300 pounds and three to five feet long. Harry is a juvenile at just over a foot long and seems to enjoy disguising himself as a rock at twilight. This particular beach is my favourite spot for watching these turtles as they often leave the water to sunbathe on the rocks or sand, but Harry is by far and away the smallest I've seen there.

These turtles are an endangered species and you're not supposed to get too close, so as soon as I realised Harry wasn't a rock I backed off and took these pictures. Fortunately he didn't seem too upset by my appearance and was quite happy to pose. Maybe he was happy to see that all the sunbathing tourists had left and like me wanted to watch the beautiful sunset.

And it really was quite dark. The rock photo above was from the exact same point just afterwards but looking the other way.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

You know where...

It seems like months since I was last on the summit for a night of observing but I was back up there yesterday. I didn't take my camera though because I was supporting some visiting observers and knew I'd be busy at sunset. Instead, these are some pictures I took a month or so ago while acting as tour guide for some locals and Pam who wanted to visit Mauna Kea.

I think the trip went well and I met a bunch of really nice people who I hope will visit again the next time I can offer a tour. Unfortunately I can't do this kind of thing too often because it's quite a big deal (it's a day out of my rather busy life these days, I have to arrange things with both the summit and sea level staff and make sure everyone on the tour understands all the arrangements and the dangers of altitude).

The trip was worth it. The sunset was stunning so I'm glad my new friends got to see a spectacular Mauna Kea sunset as well as visiting a very special place and seeing the insides of our two telescopes (JCMT and UKIRT). Pam has been up there before but don't think she saw such a nice sunset before!

Because I was acting as tour guide and watching out for everyone I have to admit my picture-taking wasn't quite up to my own standards, but still managed to take a couple of nice shots of sunset. Above is the Keck 2 dome while the sun was still above the horizon giving the clouds a strange orangy-red colour. The sunset is reflected on the Keck's dome.

To the south the Hualalai volcano was poking above the low-level clouds as usual. It's amazing what a different perspective altitude gives you because we drove past this volcano just a day later and you wouldn't know it was there. Above the clouds it's very prominent.

Finally, after the sun had set and all my new friends had said "awesome" (I'm pretty sure they all said that one time or another!) it was time for one last photo - Subaru and clouds. We went back into the warm to interrogate the observers (they were warned!) and then it was back down to sea level.

I hope everyone enjoyed the trip and fortunately they also saw one of the better sunsets the mountain has to offer. I also made new friends so this was definitely a good day.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Sunset at the Fairmont

Sunrise at the Fairmont was fun but of course the sunsets were gorgeous as well although I only spent the first evening there trying to capture one at the hotel. The voggy sky also helped, turning the atmosphere very red, something I'm only used to seeing from Mauna Kea's summit well above the vog layer.

Just a few minutes earlier and the sun was behind this cloud. It was quite odd because the higher clouds were actually moving quite quickly yet there was little or no wind which made the warm and humid evening temperature a little uncomfortable. I like my trade winds and the slightly cooler temperatures on the windward side!

Later on, well after sunset and just before moving onto the beach bar, I took another photo of the beach and cove at the Fairmont Orchid - helped somewhat by a flood light somewhere behind me they'd trained onto the sandy beach. The water was so calm that the reflections of the palms and evening sky were very pretty.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Sunrise at the Fairmont

The Maui trip a few weeks ago was a little stressful for us and certainly not quite what we'd planned, so as compensation I spent a few dollars for some nights at the Fairmont Orchid in South Kohala on the leeward side of the Big Island.

Let's just say the visit was very relaxing, very expensive but very nice! On the last morning I took a walk out into the grounds for some photos at sunrise.

The hotel has its own very sheltered beach which seemed popular for late night parties - mostly honeymooners I think. In the evening those canoes were out on the ocean and the flashes of light meant a lot of photos were being taken!

Not quite the harvest moon but close to it. The moon was setting while I was out on my stroll.

There was a little cloud around but not much.

Pam wanted some photos of the waterfalls in the hotel grounds, so here they are - well before sunrise I might add...

Taking photos of running water in the dark is actually quite cool, the water blurs out and the rocks sparkle. You need a tripod though and I think I was the only guest at the place with one, and got some odd looks...

OK, so the sun has risen, off to the rocks.

Not a particularly awe-inspiring picture, but off at the top left are a couple of birds that had caught my attention in the evenings. They were very big and were perched on some rocks just off the beach. Since it was so dark I couldn't get a good view and asked the bar staff at the beach bar what they were. Herons is all I got back. In Hawaii?

Maximum zoom so the image quality isn't good. But this was one of them in the early morning light.

I managed to get a little closer to the other but still had to zoom in. It was still quite dark so thankfully the bird didn't move too much. One or two people walked by for the sunrise strolls and asked what bird I was taking pictures of and I had to admit I had no idea - it helped having a British accent since they thought I was a visitor who had no idea what I was talking about (admittedly, I didn't).

The bird at the bottom is a Black-crowned Night Heron. It caught a lot of attention after sunset each evening because so many visitors were watching it on the rocks, mentioned how big it was but couldn't identify it because it was so dark. The bird above, a surprise to me, is the same species but a juvenile. That's why I posted the third from bottom picture - you can see them together.

I don't know if the mature heron is the father or mother, but it was fun to do a bit of wildlife photography for a change!

Then it was time to leave and pay the usual extortionate parking fee. Oh well, it was worth it. When I save up a few more dollars I might just go back again. Next time I might be able to afford more than one Mai Tai!

Friday, 1 October 2010

More from Maui

I'm still going through some of the photos I took in Maui a couple of weeks ago. It's a very beautiful place and wish I hadn't taken so long to visit again after my first time there 16 years ago. The place has changed significantly, many more shops, hotels and condos then I remember but the beaches are still wonderful. Especially at sunset!

The island of Lanai is in the distance. I have yet to visit it.

Lanai again in the distance with the rocky shoreline of Lahaina in the foreground.

Last light and the local surfer dudes are catching the last waves, including a paddle surfer. Paddle surfing seems to be making quite a comeback in the islands.