Friday, 30 January 2009

The Galactic Centre (over Hilo of all places)

I'm certainly no Wally Pacholka when it comes to photographing the night sky; about a hundred times worse I reckon - his photos are absolutely incredible, even awe-inspiring and I absolutely hate the word awe (and absolutely). Still, I can't help thinking that he's actually oil painting them but there you go, I'm jealous of his talent. What keeps me going is that I guess he knows as much about infrared spectroscopy of the interstellar medium as I know about photography, so I'm calling things even! I'd love to learn his secrets though.

Then again, I'm a beginner photographer with a $200 camera (with functions that still confuse me), so I don't think I'm starting off too badly. Last night was the first time in my life that I actually had a real go at photographing stars. Don't get me wrong, I do that all the time, but it's using scientific instruments and large professional telescopes (and in the infrared) and a tripod and camera has me baffled most of the time. Let's not forget that taking photos on a high mountain means freezing your butt off whereas just about every professional telescope has a nice warm control room.

Last night was one of the most beautiful nights I can remember on Mauna Kea. The atmosphere was dry, so pesky emission from OH ions in the upper-atmosphere that can ruin dark nights was limited, and it only took a couple of minutes to get dark-adapted and the sky was glorious. So out came the camera.

Gemini-North was busy shooting down alien space ships with their laser and the picture in my last blog entry wasn't what I hoped for, double-vision and all, so that was my motivation. Unfortunately my latter effort was equally crap, but when trying to find a good place to take a photo of Gemini I saw the lights from Hilo Town and thought I'd take a few pictures.

So, my first efforts at real night-time photography (the last photo is my favourite by the way, I'm getting the worst ones out of the way first):

A panorama of the night sky and Milky Way over Mauna Loa with the UKIRT dome to the right. Just two weeks ago I got told off by one of the Mauna Kea rangers for taking pictures from this exact spot, but they aren't around at 3am, so there! Don't anyone tell them that though...

My crap second attempt of taking a photo of Gemini shooting down aliens with their laser. I hear they have the shoot-down score on the side of their dome somewhere. I've yet to find it.

I was pleasantly surprised/shocked with this one. While walking up to the Gemini dome I saw Hilo Town down below to the east and it was so clear. There was a glow in the sky above Hilo (above the few clouds that is), nothing to do with light pollution, and thought it might be the zodiacal light and decided to take a few photos.

It turns out it was our Galactic centre rising above Hilo. I know Hilo isn't exactly considered the centre of the Universe, but at 4-am it was certainly close to the centre of the Galaxy! For those that have got this far and don't know what the centre of the Galaxy looks like from earth, well, look at the brightest lights of Hilo Town and then go 45 degrees up to the right. It's that bright bulge complete with dark (dust) lanes all over the place. Hilo is about, what, 30 miles away? The Galactic centre is almost 30,000 light years away. I'd hate to have to go shopping there every week.

Do you know the very odd thought that entered my head when I was taking the Hilo pictures?

Something to do with the cold? It was well below freezing and quite windy, I couldn't talk for 10 minutes when I got back in the warm because my lips were frozen. Altitude? Well, a few days and nights in a row at 14,000 feet does strange things to your head, believe me. Shift work? Yeah, that screws you up.

Anyway, my thought was: did I forget to turn the lights off in my house?

The last night on the mountain for a while

If anyone was wondering I'm still alive although very busy but looking forward to a couple of months off the mountain. There's just a couple of hours to go tonight and then it's breakfast, a fitful sleep and back home for a day off - and back in the office on Sunday! Sigh. My vacation can't come soon enough.

Anyway, no time for any picture processing, these shots are essentially straight off the camera (and reduced in size), so hope to have some really nice pictures soon. I took a whole bunch of them!

Sunset on Wednesday evening. Unfortunately this was a frustrating night for us. The clouds eventually cleared but it was too humid to open the dome, so despite seeing stars overhead there was little we could do.

Tonight I finally managed to take a picture of Gemini firing off its laser! The sky was so dark that it was a struggle to expose enough to actually see the dome, but the laser is pretty obvious! That's the UH 88-inch observatory to the right.

Finally, it was such a wonderfully dark night the Milky Way was obvious without much dark adaption at all, so I took a few photos that I'll work on in the next few days to see if I can get something nice to post. In any case, the Milky Way over Mauna Loa.

Unfortunately I missed taking a photo of the stunning view of the moon and Venus setting tonight. The thin crescent moon was a deep red and Venus a noticeable orange as they sank behind the clouds in the Pacific.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Venus setting and something else

I've recently spent fewer evenings at home than I would normally prefer, and those that have been at home have found me on call. This is going to continue for another week or two and the body clock is not what it ought to be right now. I had planned to do a lot of work around the house today and instead slept in until midday, cooked a small breakfast and fell asleep again afterwards. I'm back on the mountain working nights this coming midweek and I'm sure by then my brain will be back on a daytime schedule only to have to re-adjust again - quickly. As I get older this gets more difficult to deal with but the current work schedule is a particularly bad one.

Then again, I'm responsible for the telescope and 50% of the instrumentation and that'll change soon to being responsible for everything. Perhaps I should hire a night-time secretary. The next year or two is going to be unpleasant.

Anyway, this evening Venus was very bright in the western sky, so tried to take a shot of it setting through some trees from home. That's the top picture. I also took a few others because I really didn't know what exposure settings to use. When it comes to photography I'm clueless. The last one was interesting though. It's out of focus but as Venus was setting behind a tree there are several trails of something else which are more obvious if you click on the picture below. I thought I'd captured a couple of shooting stars or a satellite or something, but duh, I then realised the answer was much more simple. I was using a 30-second exposure time and they're simply the effect of using a long exposure time and no tracking. It surprised me that the trails were so long but then remembered the zoom was high, so the effect of the earth's rotation would be magnified. But why weren't those trails visible in any other shots? I think that's because in every other picture I took Venus wasn't being vignetted by a tree, so its light drowned out any nearby stars in the other shots.

So, no strange UFOs to report after all and just a sleep-deprived and muddled brain to deal with instead...

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The end of the world

Prompted by Protege's post about a rare video capturing a meteorite striking the earth's surface and a request in the comments, here's a video I first saw a few months ago - it's a simulation of a massive asteroid colliding with the earth and the somewhat catastrophic after effects. I'm not sure where the simulation originates from, I think it might be from a show on the Discovery channel. Bear in mind that in the video Protege posted the meteorite was probably pebble sized and certainly not very large at all.

I have one or two issues with the simulation and not being a massive impact expert I certainly can't vouch for its accuracy. For instance, I have no idea why the asteroid appears to be glowing red before it collides, I think that's just some artistic license to make things look a little more dramatic. The likelihood of the planet colliding with a 500-km diameter asteroid is also extraordinarily unlikely, that's the sort of thing that happened during the formation of the solar system but is just so unlikely now it can be ruled out. The simulation ends with a claim that impacts such as these have occurred six times in the earth's history, but I suspect they really mean six extinction events, not six collisions with 500-km asteroids.

Having said that, you don't need such a big asteroid to destroy life on our planet. There's an interesting site that lets you input variables (with some hints) and calculates the results of possible impacts. In any case, collisions will occur again, and even ones with small asteroids, or comets, might cause some considerable inconvenience. It's why the study of asteroids is actually very important - firstly we find the ones that have the potential to collide with the planet and secondly we will learn how to deal with the threat - can we blow up an asteroid on a collision course, divert it or simply start praying?

For those that suffer nightmares or other unfortunate effects from watching apocalyptic videos, don't watch but just listen to the music! It's "The Great Gig in the Sky" by Pink Floyd - one of my favourite songs of all time and a good choice by the editors given the nature of the song.

Monday, 19 January 2009


It's a full-scale emergency here, I'm surprised Civil Defense isn't broadcasting right now.

The temperature has dropped below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and I can't find my fan heater. I know it's here somewhere but in the meantime I'm going to have to close all the windows. That's simply unheard of.

The coquis are frozen and haven't been vocal tonight. For the first time in a couple of years I can hear the ocean surf again and it's wonderful. It's what helped me fall in love with this place and it's so nice to hear again. Occasionally I can even hear a whale out in the bay.

This is such a magical place, I hope someone can find a way to kill the coqui infestation for good.

On the other hand, the summit winds have finally dropped below hurricane levels. Earlier tonight the observers evacuated once again because the winds were above our safety limits but they may be back for the second half of the night. I'm the one on call so the telephone might start ringing soon. Perhaps, just for once, I should turn my phone off and pretend I'm not at home.

Sunday, 18 January 2009


It's probably another sign of the tanking economy, but I seem to be receiving a few more uninvited visitors than usual in the last few weeks. The visitors have offered to replace my roof, build me a nice driveway and a gate to go with it, re-landscape my yard, build a nice stone wall around the yard, sell me a year's supply of steak and trim my trees.

The latter two were a little tempting, I negotiated my way down from a year's supply of beef to a small selection that 1) I could fit in the freezer and 2) cost me much less than a day's wages. The tree trimming guy, as delightful a person as he was, will likely not get my business as I suspect he isn't insured and the last thing I need is a credit-destroying lawsuit when he falls off a tree, but we have each other's numbers and if he's legitimate I might ask for his business in the future. The norfolk pines in the yard are getting awfully tall.

The other two visitors, both returning ones and with no knowledge of the economy, I'm sure, appear to both be harbingers of doom. Firstly, the Black Witch returned, and that's the picture at the top. I've written about the moth before and in many cultures it's a bad sign (hence the name!), but it's still a magnificent looking animal. This one was particularly large with a wingspan well over 6-inches.

The other visitors, and particularly unwelcome ones here, were the two ladies that used to insist on calling by each Saturday to talk to me about religion. Now, I'm generally a very polite person and someone who'll treat anyone with respect even if I disrespect them, especially face-to-face, and there was no exception when they used to bother me each weekend, even when they called at 7:30 in the morning after I'd got down from the summit at around 2am. I got pissed off with them regularly, however, and politely told them each time to leave. I have a Darwin symbol on my front door, a fish with legs with the word "DARWIN" in the middle which I was told would deter these people from knocking on the front door. It never worked.

Now for a change of mood...

Jehovah's Witnesses are a seemingly unintelligent, intransiently stupid and willfully ignorant group of people that love nothing more than to annoy other people at home in order to force thier religion on others, at least in my opinion. You'd think that after so many of their predictions over the years that the world was coming to a sticky end and all of those predictions failing, that they may have revisited their beliefs. It's clear, however, that the evidence the planet is still here as well as the human race is being ignored by this clue-free ultra-religious bunch of numbnuts.

Years ago I managed to stop their visits by leaving a lot of empty wine bottles and beer cans out on the front porch (they have a problem with alcohol, apparently Jesus didn't, but that's another argument), but I couldn't do that indefinitely. In any case, it stopped them. But now they're back, and when I'm not home I get left with their newsletter called the Watchtower or similar. It always goes straight into the compost heap, so am grateful to them for that but not for them waking me up again the other day.

Any ideas on how to stop these people from visiting? I've had one or two ideas in the past but never followed them through due to indecency laws. For example, one of them was to leave a sign outside saying "Saturday morning orgy, all welcome", but I wasn't brave enough to do that.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Snow covered summit

Many people think that the telescopes on Mauna Kea are at the summit. That's not quite correct, the true summit is undeveloped but it certainly attracts some of the more athletic and fit hikers. This picture was taken a few days ago when the snow and ice was still somewhat pristine, although the ski tracks and footprints would suggest, some might argue, that we weren't the first group to visit the summit region after the recent storm.

Friday, 16 January 2009

TV analog to digital conversion

What a confusing few months. The USA is switching from analogue to digital TV on Feb 17 2009 and Hawai'i is the experiment, we've just switched - the date was 15-Jan. I'm one of the few people in the state that receives my TV signals over the air (i.e., via an antenna) and have always been quite happy with that.

I was working on Mauna Kea when the switch was made and was a little worried. No matter where I looked there was no information about what digital station would be broadcasting to my area. There was plenty of stuff about buying a converter and you'd be OK after that, but no actual useful information to those of us that understood the physics but couldn't find out where the new transmitters would be.

Worryingly, just about every website I could find, Hawaii or national, said that the TV stations have been broadcasting digital signals for months, so you'd know if the change affected you.

Well, for the last few months the only digital stations I could find were 11-1 and 14-1. The former is FOX, the latter LeSEA. I'm more than happy not to get LeSEA as it's frighteningly religious. The only good thing that channel broadcasts is Hawaii Five-0 and I loved that as a kid and still love now. Even just the other day I watched an episode that I hadn't seen before, but I knew Steve McGarrett would get the villain in the end.

What have I got now?

Well, actually it's not too bad. I receive all the major networks apart from NBC. That channel appears to be blank although my TV knows, somehow, that's it's NBC. What I don't understand is the bit that says: NBC.4LA. I'll figure that bit out later, I'm sure.

PBS isn't available yet, the equipment hasn't arrived yet. That's OK, this is Hawai'i, that's how this place works - a wonderful cross between the developing world and the developed. I love Nova but have not been able to receive PBS since the 2006 earthquake here, so I can wait a little longer.

KGMB is available which is good news to me, because I actually like their news, local and CBS national stuff. If Palin runs for president in 2012 then I'll be able to watch another Couric-Palin interview, and to be honest I'd pay for that. Anyway, that's channel 9-1 which I couldn't find before the transition, so assume it's just become live. Thanks for leaving me on tenterhooks!

The channel that broadcasts ABC has me completely baffled right now. I think that's KITV. Their weather channel broadcasts shows such as Judge Judy whilst their main channel appears to be continuous weather updates. I think someone needs to check the configuration file.

On the whole I still have the channels I used to get and the picture is an awful lot better, but I hope to be able to watch NBC in a few weeks as that's who's broadcasting the superbowl. Oh well, it may not matter, I may well have to be at work that day. Ho hum.

And 14-1 is no longer available, so no more McGarrett. That's a disappointment. I'll have to rescan tomorrow right in the middle of a religious show.

A little breezy today

For a change I have no photos from the summit; just try taking a nice sunset photo in hurricane force winds and I bet you wouldn't either! All I got was a shot of a lenticular cloud forming in the pre-dawn sky from the Vacation Resort Hale Pohaku lower parking lot (around 5,000 feet below the summit) on Thursday morning. I've written about lenticular clouds before, they're an indication of high winds, so this wasn't a promising sign. Even so far below the summit I had to lean against the car to avoid blurring the shot due to the winds coming off the summit. A tripod would have been useless, it would have been blown away down the mountainside before I could have said "it's a bit windy, isn't it?".

We went to the summit on Thursday evening despite the winds. At around sunset I made a suggestion to our visiting observers that they may want to go outside and watch it knowing that they'd be back inside soon - it was like one of those comedy movies when the star asks someone to do something and starts counting down knowing they'll fail and will return shortly. In fact they came back sooner than I expected, it must have been a minute at most! I didn't join them outside. No way.

For the next hour or so I tried to train the visitors on how to use our observing software and we pretended to observe despite the dome being very tightly closed. They've been here before so at least they have seen the software before, but it's never the same if you can't see a star or two.

Anyway, we evacuated shortly afterwards as the wind speed touched hurricane force. Tonight I'm back at sea level because observing is simply out of the question, the winds slowly increased throughout last night and today and on occasion were very close to 100-mph (160-kph). We may have just reached the peak as in the last hour or so the winds seem to be decreasing, they're only a steady 80-mph right now (130-kph)! Unfortunately the predicted moisture appears to be moving in, so blizzard conditions might be our next problem.

The night sky was beautiful though, it was stunningly clear and dark. That's the way it goes in astronomy sometimes.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Mountain yoyo effect

The sunsets at home are never as spectacular as those seen from the summit, for one thing I live on the wrong side of the island and have jungle and mountains in the way of the setting sun. This evening's sunset looked nice though, the sky was a vivid yellow-orange due to all the muck in the atmosphere (vog) from the Kilauea volcano. Still, I'll get to see another superb sunset tomorrow evening, and again next week and again the week after.


After a couple of days down from Mauna Kea I have to head up again tonight to Vacation Resort Hale Pohaku and then to the summit for tomorrow night. Then back down again at the weekend only to have to go back up for more observing next week. Again, down for the weekend and back up the week after. Add into that all the work I need to do in Hilo at sea level, and possibly some daytime work at the summit during the next couple of weeks, I suspect I'll turn into a complete wreck by the end of the month. If you notice any of my blog entries becoming incoherent including an obvious change in my state of mind, do please let me know!

It's one thing working at the summit during the day, as I quite often do, the whole process of three to four hours commuting each day and working in an oxygen deprived environment takes it out of you. For people who dislike early mornings such as Andrew, it can be quite unpleasant! What I find worse, though, is continually changing between day and night shifts, you're not only confusing your body clock, the lack of oxygen at altitude disrupts your sleep, you become dehydrated and to further confuse your body, on the mountain you're now in an arctic-like climate zone whereas a few hours ago you may have been in the tropics. To make matters even worse, the night shift can be very long. Quite often at this time of year the shift can last 14-hours. Add in an hour or two of preparation before you even head to the summit, the shifts soon turn into 16-hour working days, sometimes even longer.

So this is the month from hell as far as I'm concerned and comes just after a particularly busy period last year, so I'm not a happy bunny! The schedule was supposed to be changed but as is often the case other factors came into play and it wasn't. Oh well, I have a long vacation coming up and think I'm going to need it!

So what am I heading up to this time? It's pretty calm down here this evening but the winds at the summit are around 60-mph, 20-mph higher than the forecast. I doubt any observatory is open right now. The temperature is well below freezing and the windchill factor must be high (or low?). As I mentioned in a previous post I hoped to take pictures of Subaru firing off their lasers tomorrow night, but I have a feeling that may not happen. Even if they open, I'm not sure I want my camera lens sandblasted! Still, it looks as though I may have a few other opportunities.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The Red Rectangle

The Red Rectangle, courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech and ESA.

It was great to spend a little time at the summit last week on my own science project. Actually, it's not my own, it's a collaboration with researchers at The University of Nottingham in the UK where I spent a couple of years as a post-doc., but still, it felt as though I had a little bit of telescope time for myself.

We observed an object called the Red Rectangle, one of the most unusual objects in our Galaxy. We've been observing it for a number of years now and it's certainly become a bit of a pet project, but it's such a fascinating thing.

It's called the Red Rectangle because that's what it looked like on photographic film when it was first discovered decades ago. Technology improves all the time and the above image is one of the latest images of this protoplanetary nebula - this one is from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Planetary nebulae are quite common. The name is a little bit misleading as these nebulae have little to do with planets, the name is a historical accident. They're formed by stars similar to our own sun reaching the end of their lives, and due to complicated processes which I won't go into here, blow off their outer layers to form nebulae - some of them are particularly beautiful. The Red Rectangle, however, is a protoplanetary nebula, that is its central star (actually, there are two of them orbiting each other) has just entered old age and is blasting off its outer atmospheric layers in an old age-induced grumpy temper fit. That's one of the theories behind the ladder effect in the image above, each step resulted from nuclear fusion driven eruptive episodes deep within the star over the last few hundred thousand years.

Why is it such a unique object? Well, although its current protoplanetary phase has being going on for so long, you need to relate that to the total lifetime of the star which is billions of years, therefore the protoplanetary stage is a tiny fraction of the star's total lifetime. Even though we can see millions of stars, it's statistically unlikely we'll be able to observe a star in this stage of its life, especially one as easy to see as the Red Rectangle. We know of a few, but there aren't that many we can easily observe or as beautiful as the Red Rectangle.

It's also unique because of the geometry. The old age pensioner central star has a thick dust disk surrounding it that is edge-on to us and constrains the outflow into an X-shape. There's some pretty complicated physics occurring there as well as chemistry, and it's the latter that interests our small group (actually, I like the physics stuff even more but my research has taken me into the dark and scary world of chemistry in recent years).

The Red Rectangle produces some large molecules and is in effect a chemistry laboratory in space. It creates polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are essentially large molecules made of hydrogen and carbon, as you might guess from the name. You and I create them all the time when we drive our cars or burn a sausage on the grill. They're also important molecules in the formation of life, so are quite important to understand!

So now I'm boring myself. I could probably write a book about the Red Rectangle and don't want to do that here. Suffice to say, we've published a few papers on it over the last decade or so and hopefully there are a few more to come. We've been using an "integral field unit" (IFU) to take spectra of the object at several wavelengths over quite a large part of the nebula looking for molecules and how they're distributed throughout the region. We've already published some nice results and I hope we have more to come. The analysis is difficult though, the picture below shows some raw IFU data from the run last week:

14 spectra and and we have seven different positions where we took data. If the data are treated correctly we'll have hundreds of individual spectra, lots of spectral images and a good idea of the distribution of certain molecules throughout the nebula. Enough for someone's PhD I hope.

You see, I actually do a little astronomical work from time to time and don't just go to the summit to take pictures of the snow and sunsets!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Cute cat contest

Protege took some pictures of her very cute cat. I've always been competitive so I have to respond;)

Peter the cosmologist also has a cute cat.

Although I've lived with cats for the last twelve years or so I was never a cat person, I've always been much more fond of dogs. My lifestyle, however, means I can't own any, so I have to make do with cats instead.

That's fine, they still stress me out but make up for it by being incredibly cute - when they want to be that is. I still hope to own a couple of dogs one day, they're simply the best animals in the world, but in the meantime I guess I'll have to put up with this cutie called Bubbles. Eddie, the other one, is camera shy but one day I'll get a picture of her being cute. She's more than capable of melting my heart but she only does it when I don't have a camera handy. She knows me too well.

Bubbles being cute.

Bubbles being even more cute.

Oh, sod it, here's a picture of them being really cute together. I suspect Eddie really is trying to strangle Bubbles, she has quite a jealous nature and knows that Bubbles has the knack of making people say "awww!".

The night shift

Working at 14,000 feet has some funny effects, not least is understanding simple English. So, when I got an email last Thursday evening saying that the Subaru telescope would be firing off their lasers during the second half of the night, I got my camera and a tripod together and set it out at midnight ready for the show.

I thought I'd try and out-do Ant's laser show, but after freezing my butt off and seeing no lasers, I went back inside wondering if there was a way for us to check when Subaru would be firing the lasers. There's always been a language barrier between most of the observatories and Subaru (they're Japanese) so wasn't looking forward to this.

So I came back into the warm control room moaning like hell only to be told that the email said the lasers would be fired on Thursday and Friday 15/16th Jan. I had missed that last little detail out in my excitement - the show was a week away.

Oh well, at least I now know that 1) I can actually take night shots with my camera and 2) there's a tripod handy at the summit so I don't need to take my own next time.

I'm back at the summit this coming Thursday, so maybe I can out-do Ant after all! In the meantime, just to show that we do actually work at the summit during the night, I took a couple of "practise" shots. These were taken at 1-am on a very cold Friday morning with a nearly full moon.

Left to right: A lot of ice and snow, Subaru and the twin Kecks.

Right to left: The UH 88-inch (badly in need of a paint job), Gemini and the CFHT. You have to look carefully to see the latter! I think the UH dome looks fuzzy because they moved it during the exposure. Thoughtless bastards....

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Mauna Loa just after sunset

The Big Island of Hawai`i is dominated by two massive volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The former is a dormant volcano whilst the latter is active although not right now. They're both around the same height (approximately 14,000 feet or around 4,200 metres or so) and are so massive that they bend the Earth's crust beneath them.

Both are shield volcanoes, that is the lava they tend to produce is generally fast running which results in a volcano that is large and high but not your typical disaster movie V-shape, in fact they resemble an upturned shield, hence the name. Volcanoes such as the infamous Vesuvius produce a lot of ash during an eruption and tend to form a much more obvious V-shape.

Mauna Loa does actually have some astronomical observatories on it, but nowhere near the summit, it would be too dangerous. On average it erupts every decade and if one wants to use that statistic, it's well overdue another eruption. On the other hand, Mauna Kea last erupted over 4,000 years ago, if memory serves, and is classified as "dormant". The powers that be have determined that it's safe to build observatories at the summit - I won't disagree with them, I work there and so far haven't had to run away from an eruption and lava flow.

The image above is of Mauna Loa taken from the summit of Mauna Kea just after sunset. It's still not right, but for the first time I actually got Hugin to produce this panorama with no glaringly obvious seams (trust me, they're still there).

No matter, the vog wrapping around the west side of the mountain looks really cool (that's the right hand side of the panorama) as does the snow at the summit. The dip at the summit is the crater which might give you an idea of the scale - it's about 3 miles wide (5-km).

Did you know...

...that Gemini employs ten people in public relations? That's double the amount of scientists employed at the observatory I work at.

I'm all for PR but it makes you wonder what a PR/astronomer ratio means.

Not so hugin-happy after all

I'm a little too busy to do much more than post a couple of snapshots from the summit and get really frustrated about Hugin. All I can say is that it's definitely cold up here and there's been a lot of snow and more tourists and sightseers than you can shake a stick at. In the meantime, here's Subaru at sunset through a bit of the 4-foot wall of ice on the summit ridge:

The next picture is Hualalai popping up through the cloud and a lot of ice that I guess people have been warned about. I don't like the idea of stepping any further forward - that's a slippery slope if ever I've seen one.

The image right at the top was taken in peace and quiet, it's the shadow of Mauna Kea at sunset, but while I was thinking about the next picture, I suddenly felt very threatened. Out of nowhere the tourists started to approach. Maybe Gemini is spawning them, I don't know, and I wouldn't put it past them. One minute I was on my own, the next minute these guys were clearly after me.

Now don't get me wrong, I think it's great the mountain attracts tourists, but it was quiet one moment and then a whole herd of tourists were heading my way, and none of them could speak English. It was just like those old zombie movies. It was time to run away.

Thankfully, I managed to dodge them without having to find a shotgun, and took a photo of the group they were on their way to meet - it seems I was safe after all, they just wanted to join their friends and watch the sunset.

Feeling relieved, I went back to work. We did worry about zombies knocking at the door for a little while, but we have a cunning way out of the observatory if that ever happens...


Somehow, I've managed to take several hundred pictures in the last three days and yet Hugin has failed each time with the selective sample I've given it. Obviously it isn't my fault (ahem), I have a wonderful panorama of the true summit and a snow-capped Mauna Loa and each time I run hugin it either gives me a disk-busting 400 Mb image which I can't open or a ludicrous picture that only my cats would find acceptable.

There's still a lot for me to learn although on my next summit visit I'll take pictures from east-to-west. That way when I've finished with the bracketing stuff I've become a little obsessed with, the western sky might actually be as dark as the east.

I can't help thinking back to those days when I'd load up with a couple of cartridges of film and think I was lucky to have 72 pictures to take while abroad. I think I took ten times that much in the last three days, but now I have to figure out which ones are actually worth keeping. Swings and roundabouts...

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A new start

I haven't blogged much in the last week or so. Frankly, this was a miserable Christmas and New Year, due to both personal and work reasons. For those that might have concerns about me not commenting on your blog entries or not receiving email, bear with me! I've actually been quite busy and have not had much time to read other blogs.

So, what is the new year bringing? We'll for one thing I will actually be back on the mountain from tomorrow afternoon to carry out a little bit of my own astronomical research - looking for weird and wonderful molecules that may or may not be out there in space. This doesn't happen very often these days as I'm so involved in operations and instrumentation, but it'll definitely make a nice change. What's even nicer, and this is what used to make my job so pleasant, is that I have a couple of observers/collaborators who have never been here before. This will be such an experience for them and I'll do what I can to make it unforgettable. I still remember my first trip to the Big Island, years ago in 1991, and that's when I fell in love with the island.

They've arrived at the perfect time. The bad weather has finally ended and the sun came out over the weekend. The forecast is for good weather at the summit, at least until Saturday and then things look a little dire again, but we should get some decent data by then. I can take them to a couple of good restaurants in Hilo and then stun them with the beauty of Manua Kea while there is still plenty of snow around. They might even get to see people ski in Hawai'i!

So, all in all, something good to look forward to for the beginning of 2009.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Global warming vs. climate change

John over at "Kona - a pedestrian view" writes about his confusion on global warming, and I agree with him, it's a confused press release that probably reports the research inaccurately and leaves several details out. The article he comments on claims that the Earth had a warm atmosphere with freezing temperatures. That's nonsense of course, and I suspect it's down to lazy reporting.

Although I'm no expert on atmospheric science, I do know what effect CO2 has in the atmosphere as it affects infrared astronomy. It is a particularly efficient absorber of infrared radiation which is why it's such an important molecule in climate research - it lets sunlight reach the Earth's surface, but the infrared radiation that's then re-emitted from the surface is absorbed by CO2 and hence the atmosphere is warmed. Not such a bad thing really because without "greenhouse" gases such as CO2 the planet would be uninhabitable. Of course, too much of a good thing can be bad.

This is one of the main reasons I despise the term "global warming". Although it may be correct in a global term - the more greenhouse gases we have in the the atmosphere the more likely it is to become warmer - there are enough studies to show that some areas will become colder, some will become dryer, some wetter and some may not notice a thing at all. On the whole though, the Earth's temperature will rise, unless of course we get more clouds which reflect sunlight and etc. etc. - you get the message.

"Climate change" is a much better and more accurate term and I wish it had been used earlier. I have noticed that the term is becoming used a little more often than it used to and hopefully that's because people are becoming a little more educated about the environment. I'm fed up , for instance, listening to the more loony talk shows that have everyone calling in saying it's the coldest day in 30 years here, so what's all this nonsense about global warming?

As for my own experience with science press releases, well, I rarely believe much that's written in them and always prefer to go to the source if possible. I have actually been (un)fortunate enough to be named in the odd press release, one or two on the BBC website as well would you believe, but I'll never forget the first one.

The initial release said that our group had rediscovered a star that had been been lost for sixty years. Well, the truth was that the group had made a chemistry/physics discovery that shed light on a problem about something called the "diffuse interstellar bands" (DIBs) - astronomical spectroscopic features that today are still not definitely identified, so we don't know what molecules in space are causing them. The first DIBs were discovered about 60 years before the press release was written...

Although it would have been a great discovery, unfortunately we never did find a lost star.

By the way, happy new year everyone. The last one sucked and this one surely can't be worse.