Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Spooky goings-on at UKIRT

It was almost midnight last night when the first spooky apparition was picked up by one of UKIRT's thermal infrared security cameras and triggered the motion sensor. It had been a cold, dark and quiet night up until then but suddenly the software sent out a burst of images capturing our warm friend ghosting across the field of view.

A second later it had drifted to the right, its unearthly body and eerie limbs glowing brightly in infrared light.

And before you could say "Is it Halloween yet?" it was gone.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

UKIRT gets a shove

Just after two o'clock this afternoon a magnitude 4.5 earthquake struck the Big Island, located about 9 kilometers north west of Mauna Kea's summit and at a depth of approximately 19 kilometers. The earthquakes haven't stopped since then although none have been as strong as the first one. Although not a big earthquake anything over magnitude 4 on Mauna Kea has the potential to do some harm to the telescopes at the summit.

Fortunately the earthquake struck while we had a crew at the summit so they were quickly able to inspect both the JCMT and UKIRT. The JCMT was unscathed but a broken shear pin on UKIRT's south column was discovered which meant the telescope had been shoved out of alignment by the event and if it wasn't fixed we'd have no idea where the telescope would be pointing tonight. The amount of movement necessary to break a shear pin is tiny, less than a millimetre perhaps, but that small movement is multiplied several times on the sky and we could literally spend hours just trying to find out what we are looking at without a quick fix.

Fortunately our engineers and technicians were able to put the telescope back where it should be although this was a crude readjustment and we'll have to do a proper alignment in the next night or two, but it's currently good enough for government work! Still, this event is very unusual. We do experience earthquakes underneath Mauna Kea from time to time, but a cluster like this is very rare, I don't remember one like this occurring since I arrived here 15 years ago, but that's not to say it hasn't happened before, it's just unusual.

I think the following video was taken about a year and a half ago by a visiting observer from The University of Nottingham in the UK - they experienced a magnitude 4.4 earthquake underneath Mauna Kea during the run and the shear pins broke requiring a night-time fix by the observers. I remember being on the other end of the phone during this event! The stuff about the earthquake starts at about the 5-minute mark (and you'll see how physical effort at the summit is difficult!) but the whole video is interesting if you're curious about life on the summit!

Monday, 10 October 2011

California's Pacific Coast Highway - the sunny version

Alright, a lot of pictures here so I won't say too much. Although the weather wasn't so good on our trip the fog did disappear on our last full day in Cambria so we took the opportunity to head back up north on the PCH to see what we missed in the fog. It was in the middle of the day so the light is a little harsh - I'd love to do this trip again around sunset - but it was nice to see the sun again! The panorama above was taken a little north of Cambria near San Simeon where elephant seals just love to hang out.

And make a lot of noise. And very strange noises as well. There's the honking you get from regular seals plus lots of chatter and then the most bizarre low-pitched gurgling noise from some of the bigger males. Maybe female seals find that sort of thing attractive, who am I to say?

The really weird thing about these animals is that you would watch one of the males spot a competitor or perhaps a female and start rushing over to it as only massive seals can do, but halfway there they would just stop, collapse into the sand and go to sleep. Twenty minutes later they would wake up and go at it again just to stop as suddenly as last time. Sometimes one would get as far as their target only to stop and fall asleep with their head resting on the seal they were after. Utterly bizarre but compelling viewing.

No gurgling from these guys. We stopped a little further north and met these bikers on their way south. Nice guys - they asked if I would autograph the picture I took of their bikes!

Time to stop and take a stroll down a trail. It didn't go anywhere other than to the edge of a cliff so I turned back (wuss!) and took a photo of the trip to come. Unfortunately this time of year the grasses and flowers are pretty colourless in California but it still looked pretty to me after all that British fog.

Nearby a remarkable white rock. Its colour is due to all the layers of bird shit guano that has built up over the years. There was me thinking it was some sort of interesting geological phenomenon. I think if I were a sea bird I might have moved on a few years ago...

No sea bird here. A couple of turkey vultures were circling way above us. Probably waiting for me to fall off the cliff.

Another stop, another photo of the drive to come and no restroom in sight (a loo for British readers).

I saw these grasses all over the place, at least I assume they're grass. Anyone know what they're called? I'm too lazy to look it up.

Pam told me that this had been a strange summer and early fall and that the coastline wasn't looking as brown as normal for this time of year. Well, you can make your own mind up, but I call this pretty brown. I'm hoping to visit again after the monsoon season.

This is as far north as we got on this particular drive - an overlook of the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and the famous waterfall. This place was recommended to me some time ago as a great place to take photos, and suspect it is - at sunset and without half a million tourists milling about (don't you just hate tourists?). Unfortunately the sunlight was still harsh so I've added a little vignetting to make it look half-interesting. I don't know what the designers of this place were thinking - you need to be there at sunset but it's miles away from a nice hotel room and decent bar, so given our priorities we headed back south for a night of debauchery with the locals at Mozzi's Saloon in Cambria and some verbal abuse from the Irish barman.

What a wonderful day!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Are you an optimist?

I simply can't believe this article on the BBC website -maybe I'm being too pessimistic.

Brain 'rejects negative thoughts'

According to the article "They rated 14 people for their level of optimism and tested them in a brain scanner." Incidentally, the link in the article goes nowhere either, it just tells me that the DOI I asked for can't be found in the Handle System, whatever that is.

Fourteen people? They can't be serious, surely? I'm optimistic that a mistake has been made by the BBC, but if not can you really do a medical study and make a conclusion based on such a small number? The article says that 80% of people are optimists but how on earth can you say that based on 14 people? There's something wrong here...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Am I really back?

Can't believe three weeks went by so quickly! I played this song a lot during the trip. I think Pam liked it although I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd got a slap on the face towards the end of the trip for playing it yet again...

California's Pacific Coast Highway - the foggy version

I apologise for my apathy in not posting anything for the last two or three weeks but quite frankly I had better and much more enjoyable things to do! I've been back at work for the last few days which I'll admit has been very difficult to adjust to after such a wonderful trip, but anyway, let me go back to just after my last post...

So one thing I was really looking forward to was the trip south along the PCH from Carmel to Cambria - I know the drive but have only done it going north in the past and was told it's better to do it the other way simply because you're on the right hand side of the road and therefore nearer the ocean. What that person didn't tell me is that it meant the whole drive involved a rather intense feeling of vertigo throughout the drive and unfortunately not made any better by the thick fog we experienced. At least I knew what views we were missing but it was a real shame as this was going to be one of the highlights of the road trip. The picture above is what the place looked like last time...

...and this is how it looked on this trip (it's essentially the same spot and same view). Well, you know, it didn't matter, I had wonderful company which was the most important part of the journey and it's still a special drive, even if the conditions were distinctly British. At least it wasn't freezing cold and drizzling - that would have really reminded me of my home country!

Still, the coast looked interesting as long as we were down on the lower sections of the highway, out of the fog and the regime of vertigo (I never used to suffer from a fear of heights until a few years ago. Odd, isn't it?).

I would have tried to sit on this chair or whatever it is but it was far too close to the edge of the cliff so just used it to lean against (on the side away from the cliff edge) to take the photo above this (feel free to call me a wuss if you really must!).

The fog finally gave way to sunny skies when we were close to the small town of Cambria but the views aren't so spectacular here, so it was a quick trip down to the state beach in San Simeon to take in a little sun and watch the surf before checking in at our next hotel - and wasn't that the most wonderful place!

More later...

(As ever, you can click on the images to see larger versions).