Thursday, 25 November 2010

Where in the world am I? Part V

OK, last one. I think this isn't working out quite as I hoped because I haven't had the time to take my own pictures, but I'm in this place at the moment:

Some people have said one or two of my pictures look like paintings rather than photos. That's HDR for you but I can assure you this isn't a photograph I took!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Where in the world am I? Part IV

I've not had a chance to take pictures and probably won't be able to before I'm traveling again. So I've picked something that I think people will recognise - the best detective show the UK has ever produced:

People in the UK should hold off on commenting because it has to be so obvious to you guys! So, where am I?

This is also an extra-special place to me. I spent this evening walking around my old haunts and can't describe my emotions. I don't want to explain or describe them here but I think I will do one day - I just want to avoid bursting into tears while writing this post! That's how special this place is to me.

Anyway, the next leg of the trip happens tomorrow. I probably won't be walking around the next city because I stand a good chance of being shot in a drive-by shooting, so I'll just take shelter in a wonderful friend's house and poke my nose into the physics/chemistry/astronomy depts every so often!

It's been a fun trip so far...

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Where in the world am I? Part III

This one isn't difficult at all. I even posted about this place here. Enjoy the video below, it's from my childhood when American accents were so cool!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Where in the world am I? Part II

This is probably really easy and is another view from a room. Personally, I wouldn't have got it because it's the first time I've stayed a night here.

PS. The bar in the hotel sucks. No draft beer because their compressor broke. Secondly, it's full of people wearing suits. Thirdly, the suits and even those not in formal wear seem to prefer a conversation with their iPhone than talk to a human being over a beer (admittedly, not draft beer and most of them are drinking silly cocktails anyway and making sure the barman gets them absolutely correct to the nearest milliliter. Jeez, there are other things to worry about).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Where in the world am I?

It begins with "T".

A desert sunset.

Local flora.

A room with a view.

Local business.

Law enforcement.


Friendly locals.

The rental car.

Think you know? Bonus points are available to anyone who identifies the specific locations (the license plate doesn't count!).

Thursday, 11 November 2010

So I've gone and done it again...

Eddie and Bubbles are safely tucked away with some very caring people halfway up Kilauea volcano. I'm still a little stressed over the amount of deceit I used to get them into the pet carrier - let's just say it will be a long time before they jump on the bed again to say "morning!". Only a week ago I got them into the carrier at dinner time so now they know no time is safe for them.

After dropping the cats off I head into Hilo Town to get a couple of things I need and then remember I have to go into the office to get my laptop and some documents. This throws the left hand side of my brain into utter confusion of course, so after visiting the office I buy some stuff I don't need and forget to buy what I do need. For instance, what I really needed was some washing powder so I could take some clean clothes with me on the trip.

What actually happened is that I visited the section in Long's that's designed for travelers and spent 10 minutes there deciding which small tooth cleaning package I might take and hey, since they had them, a travel-sized pack of washing powder and a mini-pack of bounce clothes conditioners.

I forgot to buy what I really needed but fortunately I was able to use the travel packs to wash my clothes at home this this evening.

Now it's packing time for the upcoming trip and the one thing I really need is an adapter so I can plug my laptop into a British electrical socket. Not a problem I thought, I have about a dozen of these things around the house. You see, every time I visit the UK, which isn't actually that often, I've had to buy a new adapter. This time I thought it wouldn't be a problem because on the last trip I took two of them and I'd be able to find one at the very least. Yeah, right.

Like socks, the two dozen adapters I've bought over the years have vanished into the aether. One day, if I have to move, I'll clear out this house and find that mysterious shelf which holds an airport-shop's worth of adapter plugs and wonder why I thought I'd never forget I put them there. Finding my socks is another matter of course.

So, a final couple of pictures from my trip to the summit last week. The first is Keck 2 opening up after the sun had set. The night before we could see Maui's coastline off in the distance, but within 24-hours that had changed and only the top of Haleakala was visible. The winds down below were pretty strong as well but fortunately weren't that bad at 14,000 feet.

Then Subaru decided to join in the act. I haven't seen them open the dome for months but they have been doing some heavy engineering over the last few months, so hopefully they're now back in business.

I just hope someone turned the light off on their way out. There is nothing more annoying to an astronomer than stray light and not being able to charge a laptop. And forgetting things.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Things I'll miss: the sequel

For the last decade or so my brain has felt fuzzy. Weird work hours, lack of sleep, complicated things to think and write about, altitude, no oxygen etc. The list goes on. Then there's the cats. There used to be three of them but now only two, and those two have to be taken to their "vacation" home tomorrow and I'm dreading it. They know I'm up to something no matter how much advanced planning I do. Getting them both in the pet carrier is challenging and even though I've tried to do nothing different this evening, they know something's up. They've both found places to hide I've yet to discover. My tactics will have to change again I think...

The fuzzy brain syndrome may not last too much longer though (but I wonder if it's to be taken over by jet lag). I'm down at sea level with the coqui frogs, the sound of waves crashing on the cliffs and lots of rain, but that's OK! Trouble is, I don't think I can take photos like these down here, so really don't know what to do. Another problem to add to the list!

Anyway, hope you like these two taken while I was up last week. The one at the top is of course the shadow of Mauna Kea at sunset and the one below is a fiery sky above Hualalai well after sunset and about the time I should be starting to take some data with the telescope.

No missile launches to report I'm afraid, and even if there were it's too cloudy down here to see them.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Looking back in time: The Ultra Deep Survey

Image courtesy of the UDS team

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our upcoming move to "Minimalist Mode" and also how I'd be on the summit while we switch to remote observing. Omar, one of the people I first supported at UKIRT, will be there as well which is fitting, because his research team have just released some stunning data based on data taken at UKIRT.


The UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) has been running for five years now and has produced some fantastic data, yet despite not being an extragalactic astronomer, of the five sub-surveys we've been running, Omar's Ultra Deep Survey (UDS) is the one that has attracted my interest the most (although the Galactic Plane Survey (GPS) is the most fun to actually observe since even the raw images are beautiful!).

The UDS team have recently released some stunning images at their website in Nottingham. The top one of the two is the most interesting I think (it includes optical data taken at the Subaru Telescope as well as infrared data taken at UKIRT) and at first glance doesn't look particularly impressive, but start zooming in and moving around the field. Almost everything in that field is a galaxy and as a rough rule of thumb, the redder the galaxy the further away it is. Due to the expansion of the universe, light from distant objects is "redshifted" or expanded making it look more red. The further away a galaxy is, the faster it's moving away from us, the more the lights is stretched and the redder it looks. Bear in mind that for most of the galaxies in this image, their light started off on a journey to us before the Earth was even formed 4.5 billion years ago. Light from several hundred of the galaxies in the image started their journey roughly 13 billion years ago, not long after the universe was formed. The numbers are impossible to imagine. Only the US deficit is harder to picture.


What I find even harder to comprehend is the enormous scale of the universe. Next time you're outside at night and the moon is up, hold a penny between your fingers and at arms length hold the penny up against the moon. It's roughly the same size, yes? That's also the approximate size of the UDS field. Now, think about how many pennies you'd have to hold to cover the whole sky. Remember, there's also a whole hemisphere below you as well, so multiply your guess by two!

If you had superman-like eyes, in every one of those penny-sized patches of sky you would see the same thing - countless galaxies in each patch. Maybe the mind-boggling size of the universe will become apparent. Unfortunately, it hasn't done so to me yet. I think my brain is too small.

Mystery "missile"? I don't think so.

I can't believe the amount of fuss being made over this story. I'm flying into Los Angeles in the next few days and hope my flight makes as nice a show as this aircraft did!

It's an aircraft and contrail. It's fairly clear the contrail is at a steady altitude from the sunlight reflecting off it and at the far end of the trail high-level winds are blowing it apart. If it were a missile launched just off the coast the far end of the contrail would be lower, in the earth's shadow and not reflecting sunlight. But "What a Pretty Contrail" would make for a very boring news story...

Monday, 8 November 2010

A bloody nuisance

This is doing the email rounds so some of you may have already seen it. My apologies in advance to those people and those that take offense easily, but I think this is funny. I don't know who the original author is so if you have any complaints, let him or her know.

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats, and have therefore raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved". Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross". The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940, when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance". The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards". They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide". The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender". The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France 's white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country's military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout Loudly and Excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing". Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides".

The Germans have increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs". They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbour" and "Lose".

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Americans meanwhile, and as usual, are carrying out pre-emptive strikes on all of their allies "just in case".

Canada doesn't have any alert levels.

New Zealand has raised its security levels - from "baaa" to "BAAAA". Due to continuing defence cutbacks, New Zealand has only one more level of escalation, which is "I hope Australia will come and rescue us".

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be alright, mate". Three more escalation levels remain: "Crikey!", "I think we' may need to cancel the barbie this weekend", and "The barbie is cancelled". (So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level..)

I like to imagine that the Irish listened patiently to calls to raise the threat level, then collectively said something like "Fuckin' Brilliant! Paddey, pull me another pint while I'm still alive to enjoy it!"

An unusual Pacific view

The sun set some time ago and I was taking a couple of shots before heading back inside for the next 12 hours of observing. It wasn't obvious to the naked-eye at the time but when I looked at this picture I realised it was an unusual evening.

Keck 2 just starting to open, but that's normal. What wasn't usual was the view of Kohala, the oldest volcano on the island (it's about a million years old and as extinct as volcanoes on this island can be). It's just to the right and slightly below the Keck 2 dome and not normally visible in the evening due to low-level clouds.

Even more unusual, especially at that time of day, is the view of Maui and Haleakala volcano in the distance. I can't remember the last time the coastline of Maui was visible at sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea, but it is in this shot. Normally vog and low clouds prevent seeing Maui's shoreline in the evening but not this time.

Maui's coastline is most easily discernible to the left of the Keck dome. Click on the picture if you need to see a larger version!

Strive for the heights

"Strive for the Heights" was our logo a few years ago. Normally I hate company logos but I think this was a good one. It was in Hawaiian as well but don't have access to the Hawaiian version right now so won't insult anyone by trying my poor Hawaiian language skills.

This picture was taken about four minutes before sunset. I'm afraid the folks at the bottom of the trail won't make it in time but it's always amusing to watch the orange-clad brigade attempt the summit. The exposure time was one-second so none of the hikers are in sharp focus, but for those that want to click on the picture for a larger view you'll see that those nearing the summit are struggling.

That's what 40% less available oxygen does to your body! It's a short hike to the summit but a bloody hard one. I did it once and haven't been back.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Things I'll miss (and others I won't)

It's not long now before we switch to remote observing from our offices in Hilo. I've set a date of mid-December for the change but as you might expect the actual date is not something I'll share here! Local staff already know and so will the UKIRT board very soon as I'm off shortly on a trip to tell them. I can't wait to experience November in England again, I still remember how wonderful the weather is there at this time of year...

This got me thinking though. What will I miss after the switch?

Things I'll miss (in no particular order):
  • Sunsets and sunrises from Mauna Kea.
  • Working at a place most people on the planet haven't been to.
  • Being at the coalface of world-beating observational astronomy.
  • Talking to visitors about Mauna Kea and astronomy.
  • Dark and beautifully clear nights where one can see the Universe and Milky Way with their own eye while not even being dark adapted.
  • The out-of-this world experience of stepping outside the dome in the middle of the night, looking at the sky and just saying "wow!". (Moonlit nights excepted).
  • The vivid and rather pleasant dreams sleeping at 9,000 feet provides.
  • The company and conversation of good friends and colleagues during a long night and catching up on news from the old country.
  • Brilliant scientists and observers visiting and keeping us informed of all the latest research and discoveries in their area.
  • Watching a first-time observer run up the stairs from the bathroom to the control room and then collapsing into a gasping, helpless and oxygen-deprived heap and me saying "I told you not to do that!" (maybe that should be in the next section).
  • The drive down at the end of a long night watching the sunrise and the remarkable show the atmosphere puts on.
  • Winter snow and ice.
  • The comradeship of Hale Pohaku staff.
  • The cookies Hale Pohaku cooks bake for us to take to the summit.
  • Breakfast at Hale Pohaku (this is one I'm going to really miss).
Things I won't miss:
  • The 2am "wall". You think working the night shift is bad in your job? Try it at 14,000 feet!
  • The commute to Hale Pohaku and the bone-breaking dirt road above Hale Pohaku.
  • Being stuck in a 15-vehicle convoy on the way to the summit while dodging the speeding day crews on their way down to sea-level.
  • Phone calls every few minutes asking "how's it going?.
  • 16 to 17 hour "workdays".
  • Clearing winter snow and ice from the doors.
  • Tourists asking "Can we have a quick look through your telescope?", "Have you seen any UFOs?" and "Are black holes real?".
  • Evacuating people from the summit who are really sick due to the altitude. I can tell you it's not a lot of fun and extremely stressful for all concerned.
  • The vivid and very unpleasant dreams sleeping at 9,000 feet provides.
  • The fried chicken dinner at Hale Pohaku (do you want fries with that?).
  • The Captain's Platter dinner at Hale Pohaku (with extra napkins to soak up the grease).
  • Mashed potato for dinner at Hale Pohaku (Do you want a sick bag with that?).
You know what? I'm going to miss the place dreadfully and suspect I won't really know what I'll miss until it happens in December. I will be up there from time-to-time and will be at the summit again mid-December during my secret "switch-to-remote-observing" dates, but since they won't be full nights spent at the summit they don't count. Or maybe not. I've a hankering for watching another dawn from the summit...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

200 miles due west

The sun has set, some high clouds are overhead but nothing like those 200 miles away to the west. There, a thick band of cirrus glows orange and red. My camera lens is at the limits of its zoom while being held steady by a cheap $30 tripod from Target. Ironic, really, as on the mountain I'm surrounded by technology worth hundreds of millions of dollars - part of the human race's investment in understanding who we are and where we come from. All the tourists have left or are leaving the summit and once this picture is taken I'll leave this spot as well, only to head back into the dome for the start of the night shift and a chance to picture the rest of the universe.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Shadow over Hilo

My last scheduled full night on the summit and the skies are clear, so no spectacular sunset shots to post, although I'm sure the tourists up here this evening watching the Mauna Kea sunset for the first time would argue about the level of spectacularness.

In the east though, away from the sun, the shadow of Mauna Kea was sharp and distinct and unusually the coastline was visible. There was a clear view of Hilo Bay (top right), Kaloli Point just to the right of Hilo Bay (KP is where I live) and then to the extreme top right that point of land, almost 50 miles away, is the eastern most point of Hawai'i, Cape Kumukahi. (Click on the picture for a larger version).

It seems my footwear also knows the schedule - my left steel-toed boot disintegrated shortly after sunset. Temporary repairs were made and I should probably stay away from high voltages for a while, but it's the end of the road for this pair...

It's another 6 hours or so before we leave at the end of the night. Right now we're collecting photons from some of the most distant galaxies in the universe - data that will go into the Ultra Deep Survey. In two or three hours we'll switch to observing much closer to home, clusters of pre-main sequence stars in our Galaxy. These are young, newly formed stars, adolescences you might call them, that are still to reach adulthood like our own sun.

Just another night on the mountain I guess.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Election night sunset

14,000 feet below people have voted in the mid-term elections and wait for the results, as I do! In the meantime, this is one of my last scheduled summit nights at UKIRT and fortunately the sunset was a good one! Unfortunately all the cloud is giving us real problems getting any useful science done. It's going to be a long night...