The Week in Review – 4/11/2009

Galaxies Near and Far

This past week found me back at Kitt Peak. I spent Tuesday through Thursday supporting observing programs at the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Astronomers were using the observatory’s newest instrument, the wide-field infrared imager called NEWFIRM, to look for the most distant galaxies in the universe. On Friday, I moved over to the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope to support a program collecting infrared images of dark matter galaxies that are close to our galaxy.

I find the concept of dark matter galaxies to be especially interesting. Basically these are galaxies that only have a few stars. Most of their matter is composed of stuff that doesn’t glow. Why didn’t these galaxies form many stars? What is most of the matter that makes up a dark matter galaxy?

Now, lets look at this from a slightly different perspective. There’s actually evidence that there is more dark matter in the universe than luminous matter. This represents a big paradigm shift from how the universe was viewed only 20 years ago. When I was in college, the thought was that stars and the galaxies we could see easily composed most of the matter in the universe. However, there’s not enough matter there to account for how the universe is observed to behave. This may mean that there are actually more dark matter galaxies than galaxies with stars. wow

Think about that for a moment. Why did our galaxy form lots of stars? Life as we know it probably needs starlight to develop and thrive. Could there be life around the few stars in those dark matter galaxies? Could there be very alien life in the dark reaches of those galaxies?

A lot of big questions there. Lots for scientists to explore and more than a few story ideas start coming to my mind when I think about all of this.

Wind and Snow

Interesting as these things are to think about, there’s more to my “day” job than pondering the mysteries of the universe. Much of my job involves telescope operation, instrument maintenance, and troubleshooting problems when they occur (and the problem with troubleshooting is that trouble often shoots back!). Large and impressive as the telescopes are at Kitt Peak, they are still precise scientific instruments and must be treated as such. Weather conditions such as high winds, blowing dust, or even high humidity can damage the optics and mechanical parts of telescopes. So, part of my job is to watch for such conditions and close down if the weather threatens the instruments.

This week was a challenging week as far as the weather was concerned. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the wind was quite high. However, the anemometer at the 4-meter hasn’t been working very well, so when it gets close to our closure limit, I have to go outside with a hand-held anemometer to check the speed. So on Tuesday, I got to go outside periodically on a near-freezing night in what ultimately became 60 mile-per-hour winds with a hand held anemometer. Really, that wasn’t so bad (except for the part about trying to stand in one place in 60 mile-per-hour winds). The real problem is that it’s spring and those 60 mile-per-hour winds carried a LOT of pollen. My sinuses were not happy.

I got to spend the next two nights coughing and sneezing while pondering the mysteries of the universe.

Then, on Friday night, when I moved over to WIYN, the skies started out clear, but the humidity started rising rapidly and the temperature started dropping. By midnight, it was snowing on Kitt Peak. At 1am, the phones went out and fire alarm panels around the mountain started going nuts because they rely on the phone system. By 2am the internet connection went out.

Now, those of us who support telescope operation at night are also responsible for responding to emergencies. We had no phone and no internet. Because there are two radio telescopes at Kitt Peak, there are no cell phone towers near the mountain and most cell phones don’t get a signal. You’re actually not supposed to use cell phones at Kitt Peak because of the radio telescopes. However, we were in a situation where we had no communication off the mountain unless we used a cell phone. So, one of my fellow staffers and I spent part of Friday night driving around the mountain in a raging blizzard trying to find a place where we could get cell phone service on one of our personal phones to no avail. Fortunately as we were driving down the mountain road, we found one of the fellows who works in electronics who was on his way up, but hadn’t expected the storm. We followed him up the mountain and he ultimately got the phones fixed.

The best part of the storm, though… it froze all the pollens out of the air and I could breathe again!

Planeswalkers and Talismans

In between the wind, snow, and actual observing at telescopes, I continued work editing B.T. Robertson’s third Chronicles of the Planeswalkers novel. We’re now most of the way through. I’m hoping to wrap that project up in the next couple of weeks.

The Tales of the Talisman print vendor contacted me this week and informed me that there was a problem with the cover. It turns out they had made some slight changes to the way covers need to be formatted for printing and I had missed that. So, I had to reformat the cover file and send it back to the printer. Checking the site today, it sounds like things are fine and prepress should be complete this coming week. Usually the actual printing takes about another week, then copies should be on their way out to people soon after.

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