Steampunk CommuniTea Weekend

This coming weekend, I’m honored to be one of the participants in a great virtual event and everyone is invited! The event is the Steampunk CommuniTea Weekend, which is presented by the Tucson Steampunk Society, the Tea Scouts, Madame Askew and the Grand Arbiter, and the Temporal Entourage. This will be a weekend full of virtual panels, performances, and sundry adventures. To register for the weekend and receive a complete schedule of events once it’s available, go to:

Registration for the event is free and includes access to the Zoom panels and Discord chats. There will be additional performances that will include an extra charge. You can get all the details on the event’s Facebook page at:

Guests for this event include a number of my favorite writers, including Gail Carriger, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Karen Carlisle, and Beth Cato. There are also events with makers, artists, and costumers. I see many familiar faces from other steampunk events I’ve attended in the past such as my alter ego, David Lee, the Airship Ambassador, Kevin Steil, and costumer, Tayliss Forge. I’m especially excited to see that there will be a concert by Nathaniel Johnstone, one of my favorite musicians. The concert does cost extra, but it’s a very reasonable price.

You can see a complete listing of the guests along with information about them at:

As of this writing, I will be participating in at least three events this weekend. At 7pm Pacific Daylight Time on Friday, April 8, I’ll join a discussion called “Libations with Literati.” I gather this will be a social hour where the guest authors and publisher will be on hand to chat about their work and and be available to ask questions. At 9pm, I will give my presentation “Mars: A Land Across the Aether” as Mars itself sits high in the sky. This has been a popular presentation at several steampunk events and this is a great opportunity for folks who can’t ordinarily travel to events to watch the presentation. At 2pm Pacific Standard Time on Saturday, I’ll join some of the other authors for “The Care and Feeding of Great Steampunk Stories.” I will certainly be sitting in on other events as well through the weekend.

I do hope you will join us for this wonderful, virtual steampunk event. It will be an opportunity to connect with steampunks from around the world and learn more about the fun of steampunk literature, arts, craft, and music.

Saturn’s Shrouded Moon

I love a good mystery and I love exploring new places. These two facts go a long way to explaining why I love astronomy. The universe is vast and we know so little about it. The NEID spectrograph at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak is just getting started on its mission helping to learn about planets around other stars. The DESI spectrograph on the Mayall telescope is starting its mission of mapping the northern sky with hopes of understanding dark energy. Of course, dark energy is one of those fundamentally great mysteries because we see evidence of its existence, but we really don’t know yet what it is. Fun space operas like Star Trek or even my Space Pirates’ Legacy series make space exploration look inevitable and even easy, but in fact, we’ve barely started. People have only been to the moon a few times and robots have just visited a few of our neighbor worlds in our own solar system. We have almost a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I want to focus on one small world within our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and one covered with a dense atmosphere. It’s a place of real interest for those people seeking life in the solar system. The Cassini mission discovered that Titan has a salty sea underneath its icy crust. Its atmosphere is teaming with organic molecules that get deposited on its methane-ethane lakes and seas. We’ve sent a probe to Titan’s surface and we’ve even made good headway at mapping the surface. We’ve even started naming some of the features on Titan’s surface as you can see in this map from the US Geological Survey.

Map of Titan

By the way, you can download a good, high resolution PDF of this map at: It’s the one called Titan with VIMS Bacground and Radar Strips. I love that we have a map of Titan with this much detail, but this map also makes me think of old maps of the Earth with great undefined places. You can even imagine the legend “There be dragons here” somewhere on this map. We have learned a lot about the solar system and the universe in the last century, but this map makes it clear we still have a lot to learn about Titan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing science fiction. I like to dream about the things we might find in the solar system and in the galaxy. I like to consider the more blurry places on the Titan map and wonder what might be there that could surprise us. In my novel, The Solar Sea, I imagine scientists discovering particles that travel through time on Earth’s moon. Once they understand the energy signature of these particles they go looking for them throughout the solar system and discover them in great abundance on Titan. This becomes the reason the Quinn Corporation decides to build a solar sail spacecraft to go find these valuable particles. The thing is, when they get to Titan, they look beneath the shroud and find…

Well, that would be spoilers. Fortunately though, you can get the book as part of the amazing Expansive Futures SciFi Bundle. The bundle includes eighteen great science fiction novels curated for the SFWA by Amy DuBoff. This is last call. The bundle is only available until Thursday March 4 at

The Masque of the Red Death

In November 2020, I resumed my regular commute to Kitt Peak National Observatory to operate the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes. The observatory is quieter now than it was in March 2020, when I worked my last shift before the observatory closed for the pandemic. Only approved staff, tenants, and contractors are allowed on the mountain. The visitor center is closed and no tours are given. Still, twice a month, I make the drive to the observatory from my home in Las Cruces, New Mexico to the observatory west of Tucson, Arizona. I have an old iPod Classic that keeps me company on my drives. Sometimes I listen to audio books. Sometimes I just put it on random shuffle and see what plays. This week, after a nice assortment of songs, the iPod played Basil Rathbone’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” While it may seems a little silly to worry about spoilers in a 179-year-old short story, I may share some in this post. If you haven’t read the story, here’s a link to it at Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia:

I’ve always enjoyed this story, but it seemed to take on a more personal meaning now that we’re living through a pandemic. Poe’s “red death” is fictitious, but COVID-19 is real. I’ve known several people affected. Also, when I walk through my neighborhood, I often walk through the local cemetery, which is a quiet place with little traffic. However, I have noticed that it’s been much busier during the months of the pandemic. There have been times when I’ve seen the grave diggers preparing three or four graves in a single day. Before the pandemic, I typically saw them digging fewer than one grave per week.

As the story opened and Basil Rathbone described the crenelated abbey and all of its compartments, I found myself thinking of the remote observatory, high on a mountaintop. Each dome and building a little like the compartments of the story.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

While at the observatory, I tend to be alone in my “bubble,” whether that be in my dorm room or at the telescope. However, when I’m outside of my bubble, I wear a mask. Though my mask may not be a festive one, it still struck me when Poe described the masked revelers Prince Prospero invited to the abbey. Also, while I may be alone, I’m often on a video conference with several people taking data, so it can be something like a revel. I’m far from a prince like Prospero. Some days I feel more like the jesters or the staff in the abbey, still I know I’ve been fortunate to have relative job security during this year that’s been difficult for so many people.

Donning my mask for the festivities

The rooms where I work have new air cleaners and UV lights. Again, these new features bring to mind the eerie atmosphere of the apartments in the abbeys, but I stay alone in my bubble and these things have been installed to keep away the uninvited guest who crashed the party in Poe’s story.

This little exercise just goes to show how the best stories have a lasting power and can maintain a personal relevance. It also shows how I sometimes can see beyond the ordinary world around me into something fantastical. It’s much the process I used when writing my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I took what I had experienced at observatories I’d worked at and stretched those experiences just a little bit and asked what could be. The hope is that I produced something that’s both realistic and scary. And I hope the scares work because they seem like they could happen. If you want to learn more about the novel and watch the book trailer, visit:

Perseverance on Mars

It was exciting to see the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover in Mars’s Jezero Crater this past week. Although I don’t study Mars as part of my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the red planet has long fascinated me. I love the journey of discovery we’ve taken in learning about the planet from the nineteenth century through the present day, from early observers who noted linear artifacts on the planet’s surface and thought they were canals to modern day engineers who are sending robots to explore the red planet. I have been asked why we need another rover to drive around a crater rather than going to a more exciting place like Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system or Valles Marineris a canyon that dwarfs Earth’s Grand Canyon. The simple fact is that the primary mission of Perseverance is to look for evidence that life existed on Mars. No mission has looked for direct signs of life since the Viking landers in the mid 1970s, a mission I followed with keen interest as a kid!

Close up of a river delta in Jezero crater Perseverance scientists hope to explore. Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin

Perseverance’s landing site was Jezero Crater, which shows evidence of once having held water. There are inflow and outflow channels, plus a river delta. This makes it a great site to look for evidence of either existing or fossilized microbial life. Not only is the landing site interesting, but the rover is not just a copy of previous successful rovers. It also includes the ability to gather samples, save them, and put them on a rocket which can be blasted into orbit, where a future mission can bring them back to Earth. This is a truly exciting aspect of this mission. When I heard geologist and astronaut Dr. Harrison Schmidt speak at Bubonicon a couple of years ago, he emphasized how valuable samples in an Earth-based laboratory can be. He pointed out that geologists are still making discoveries from the lunar rocks he brought back in the 1960s. Getting some Martian rock samples back on Earth would be a real treasure.

Perseverance also includes some cool features. My personal favorite is the Ingenuity helicopter. As I understand, this little helicopter is currently stowed in Perseverance’s belly. When it’s deployed, it’ll give engineers the opportunity to test powered flight on Mars. If this works, this might allow us to send more sophisticated flying craft to Mars in the future that could go farther and learn more than the wheeled rovers we’ve been sending. Another cool instrument on Perseverance is a microphone. Believe it or not, for as many times as we’ve been to Mars, we don’t know what it sounds like to be on the surface. As a writer, I look forward to that extra layer of sensory experience.

You can follow Perseverance’s progress on NASA’s website. This map shows where Perseverance is and will chart it’s progress as it begins it journey of discovery:

You can learn more about the rover and its mission objectives at:

Although this mission doesn’t take us to some of Mars’s more dramatic sites, it does pave the way for future journeys to those places. I really want to see those places and I imagine a visit to both Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris in my novel The Solar Sea, which is available until March 4 as part of the Expansive Futures StoryBundle. In that bundle, you get eighteen excellent science fiction books for one low price. Learn more at:

Revisiting Space: 1999

I’m sure everyone remembers where they were on September 13, 1999. Or, at least, they would remember that momentous day if the events of the television show Space: 1999 had come to pass. In the show, that’s the day a nuclear waste dump exploded on Earth’s moon sending it out of orbit and on a long, harrowing journey out of the solar system. I recently found myself thinking about Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s series. I remember watching it when it first aired, but it occurred to me that I didn’t remember many details about the series, so I went back and watched most of the first season’s episodes.

The first thing that occurred to me as I watched the series is how much it owed to two sources: Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s previous live-action television series, UFO. The show reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the sense that it’s less about space as a setting for the story’s action as it’s a place where mankind will encounter phenomena that will stretch the mind and maybe even spur the next stage of human evolution. The uniforms, the moon base, and the overall feel of the show reminded me a lot of UFO and I’ve read that some elements of the series were, in fact, originally developed for a second season of UFO, which never materialized.

The science of Space: 1999 is much maligned. Isaac Asimov once famously remarked that an explosion big enough to knock the moon out of orbit would destroy it. Physicist Kevin Grazier has taken a much more balanced approach and calculated the energy it actually would take to knock the moon out of Earth’s orbit. He notes that enough energy to knock the moon out of orbit would be highly improbable and also remarks that getting the moon to leave Earth’s orbit isn’t as hard a problem as getting the moon to leave the solar system. You can read Grazier’s thoughts here:

In his article, Grazier does point out one way in which Space: 1999’s science was ahead of its time and that was it’s presentation of rogue planets. In the series, the moon encounters numerous planets away from the sun wandering by themselves with no nearby star. Rogue planets were pure speculation when the series was created, but we now know them to be something that does exist. We still do have a science issue in that some of these rogue planets seem to support human-like life, despite the lack of a nearby star.

Part of how Space: 1999 sells its improbable physics is by giving us some of the most believable tech I’ve seen in a science fiction series. The Eagle spacecraft look like the kind of things you might have expected NASA to have developed if they had continued building on the Apollo program. The only real problem with the Eagles is their use in atmosphere and high gravity worlds as the series progresses. I believe them on the moon, but not necessarily flying through dense planetary atmospheres. The comlocks that people use to unlock doors and talk to each other feel like the kind of combination remote control, video cell phone that could have been developed in the 1990s.

One of the things I found remarkable about revisiting Space: 1999 was the quality of the cast. Of course, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse all had wonderful, understated performances. They felt like humans coming to grips with the weird reality they found themselves in. I had forgotten that actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared in the series. Speaking of Cushing and Lee, I had forgotten how well the series did at presenting science fiction horror. The denizens encounter some truly frightening situations such as aliens who take over people’s bodies, or implacable tentacled aliens who dine on people’s flesh and spit out corpses.

One of the episodes I found especially interesting was one called “The Guardian of Piri.” In it, Catherine Schell plays an alien who convinces the Alphans they can have complete contentment if they settle. Much of it reminds me of the kinds of visions John Mark Ellis experiences in Children of the Old Stars and the Cluster’s eventual takeover of Earth in Heirs of the New Earth. The structures on Piri are even spheres, reminding me of the Cluster. Although I don’t remember the episode specifically, it does make me wonder how much the episode seeped into my subconscious and was reprocessed in my story.

So, where was I on September 13, 1999? I was working at New Mexico State University on the 1-meter telescope project based at Apache Point Observatory. We were about a month into a new semester, which meant that I was probably busy getting classroom demonstrations ready. I was also working on the novel Children of the Old Stars and thinking about some of the more metaphysical topics I wanted to explore in my series. You can help me create the new edition of my novel by supporting my Patreon campaign at:

How I Botched the Acetylcholine Test

I am a textbook introvert. As many sites on the internet will tell you, this is nothing unusual. All it really means is that much as I find interactions with people necessary and even rewarding, I can also find them draining. This would seem to be true of anywhere from 30-50% of the population. An upshot of being an introvert is the holidays can be especially draining with parties and gatherings. You would think I wouldn’t have found this year as draining given that gatherings have been discouraged. In fact, I didn’t go to any in-person events. While I did go to several online gatherings, as I noted in High Tech New Year’s Eve post, those were all pretty comfortable affairs with people I know well.

As a writer, I’m interested in what motivates people. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated to learn how much our brain chemistry affects who we are. I’ve found several articles that suggest that the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine play a strong role in who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Simply put, introverts seem to thrive more on acetylcholine which makes us feel good when we turn inward. We feel gratified by long periods of time focused on a single task. Extroverts thrive more on dopamine, which can get released when you have positive interactions with others, such as a phone call that pushes your career forward or a strong romantic engagement.

A beautiful, quiet moment – the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as seen from outside the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope.

Now, I’m an astronomer, not a neurochemist, so I can’t vouch for how accurate this is. For that matter, I’ve come across some articles that suggest that dopamine and acetylcholine are far more intertwined in the brain than my simple description above would suggest. Still, it does mesh with my experience of really enjoying quiet tasks where I work by myself for long periods of time. It probably goes a long way to explaining why I like to write. So, I suspect there is some truth to something about my personality liking acetylcholine.

So, how did I botch the test? First off, I should explain that this post’s title is a reference to the classic Star Trek episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” In the episode, Mr. Spock has to fly a shuttlecraft into a giant space amoeba to save the Enterprise. While he’s there, he’s supposed to conduct some tests. Of course, he saves the day and everyone is happy, but Dr. McCoy points out that Spock didn’t do everything right. He tells Spock, “You botched the acetylcholine test!”

To this day, I’m not sure how Spock botched the test. I “botched the test” at a more personal level. At the moment, my work days at Kitt Peak National Observatory start around 4pm with a Zoom Meeting with various project collaborators. This meeting usually only lasts a few minutes, but then resumes again around 5:30pm with those collaborators who are observing. The Zoom meeting then lasts all the way until sunrise. Now, I’m not talking or interacting with the collaborators the whole night, but they are often interacting with each other and I do have to pay attention to plans for the night. I have no problem with this, but it can keep me from engaging in long, deep periods of concentration.

Also, I had planned a nice quiet period between Christmas and the New Year. I wasn’t scheduled to be at the observatory and I arranged a break from a collaborative creative project I’ve been involved in. As it turns out, I got a call on Christmas Eve from one of my editors, telling me notes on a story would be arriving that night. In short, the week turned into an intensive, albeit productive and gratifying, session whipping a story into shape for publication. I’ll tell you about that story in Saturday’s post. Once that was done, I had the nice New Year’s Eve that I talked about, then went back to work for more long observing nights with their accompanying Zoom sessions. Needless to say, I reached the first break of the new year feeling pretty wiped out.

I was suffering what some people know as an “introvert hangover.” For me, this takes the form of almost every interaction, no matter how benign, getting on my nerves. I try not to get to this point, but it does happen sometimes. Fortunately, we’re a family of introverts and we do our best to take care of each other when this happens. Also, I’ve been able to have some quiet time at the end of this most recent break from the observatory and I’m starting to feel myself again.

I hope your new year is off to a good start and you’re doing your best to stay healthy and well.

A High Tech New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is often a quiet affair for me. In a normal year, Kitt Peak National Observatory attempts to have telescopes pointed at the sky, doing science-related tasks on as many nights as possible. The only exceptions are closures for weather, engineering tasks, and we’re often closed on Christmas. Over the last decade, I’ve toasted the New Year several times at work with a nice cup of coffee. This year, proved a rare exception and I was able to ring in the New Year at home. In years past, New Year’s Eve at home has involved cooking up a big pot of a red chile, hominy, and pork stew called posole, then either playing games, working on puzzles, or watching movies until near midnight, then sharing a toast of sparkling cider with the family.

The posole still happened this year and, if I do say so myself, it was one of the best batches I’ve made in a long time. I credit that to my wife making stock for the base from some leftover pork bones we had in the freezer. The meat on those bones also became the meat for the stew. This is really the way posole is supposed to be made, but we often shortcut this step and cook the meat on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

Another thing that made this New Year’s Eve special was the opportunity to connect with numerous friends via video chat. On top of that, the band Abney Park performed a live streaming concert from their home studio in Seattle. I’ve seen advertisements for Abney Park’s New Year’s Eve concerts for several years now and I’ve always wanted to go. Among other things, one of their frequent venues for those concerts was quite close to the neighborhood where my brother used to live. So this was like a wish come true. What’s more, this concert came just a couple months before the tenth anniversary of seeing Abney Park play live the first time at Wild Wild West Con in 2011. Shortly before that, my family and I had seen a YouTube video of the band giving an impromptu performance of the title song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. When my youngest daughter met Captain Robert, she asked him if they could play it at the concert. He told her they hadn’t rehearsed it and didn’t have the music along, so they couldn’t. However, at the New Year’s Eve Concert, ten year’s later, with my daughter home from college and in the audience, Captain Robert and the band actually played Chitty Chitty Bang Bang live. It was a delight.

My daughters and a friend meeting Robert Brown and Nathaniel Johnstone at the first Wild Wild West Con

The other parties we attended were just as much fun, if for different reasons. I spent time with several college friends in one call. It was a relaxed time where we chatted casually as friends are wont. This party ended about 8pm and then we joined Madame Askew and her Temporal Entourage for their New Year’s Eve festivities where I connected with friends from all across the country and around the world. Author Karen Carlisle confirmed for us that the sun really did rise as expected on January 1 in Australia. If all goes well, I hope you will be able to purchase a new anthology this coming year with stories by me and Karen. Performing at the event was burlesque dancer Eve Riot. I will note, all the links so far in this post point to the Patreon pages for these amazing artists. I encourage you to visit their pages, learn more about them, and support them if you’re able to!

This has been such a difficult year for many people, but one thing I’m grateful for is the way people have found new ways to use technology to reach out and connect to one another across the globe. Even once the pandemic situation improves and we are able to gather again, I hope we don’t lose all of this ability. I’ve been able to attend events and connect with people I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to otherwise.

On the subject of remote chatter, there has been recent news of a strange radio signal from Proxima Centauri. It’s at a frequency not typically used by spacecraft. It disappeared when the Parkes Radio Telescope moved away from Proxima, then returned when it pointed in that direction again. There is no known astronomical phenomenon that broadcasts at that frequency. Also, there’s a habitable zone planet around Proxima Centauri. I’ve even imagined people living there in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. That said, there’s a good chance this is just an undiscovered natural phenomenon. Still, I find myself wondering if someone out there wants to get on our video chat action. If you want to follow this story, the Planetary Society has set up a page discussing the detection at:

Magic, Science, and Vampires

The first time I remember hearing about nanotechnology or nanites was in 1989 in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Evolution.” At the time, I was in graduate school at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology working on a way to use an automated telescope to search for dwarf novae. In the episode, nanites were presented as tiny, self-replicating robots used to repair damaged human cells. It was an interesting idea, but one that seemed very science fictional even to me who was working in the field of robotics. My office at the time was on the fourth floor of a building called Workman Center, which I show below. This was actually the tallest building in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. I had this office by virtue of needing access to microwave transmitters and receivers on the tower that communicated with our automated telescope.

Workman Center as it appeared in the 1980s.

Over the next few years, I encountered nanites in other science fictional venues. One was the fine novel Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams where aristocrats use nanites to build their dreams. Another was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they’re deliberately presented as a deus ex machina. In all cases, nanites seemed like a concept representing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”

I first began to understand the real scientific basis behind nanotechnology in the early 2000s when I learned that nanites would likely not be literal robots, but as self-replicating chemicals that could carry instructions like DNA. The idea was exciting and I could definitely see how such chemicals could have the medical applications imagined in Star Trek in the 1980s. I could also see how such chemicals might be tailored to attack certain metals and armor. This gave me the idea that they might start being used in weapons research. As it turns out, New Mexico Tech is the home of an explosives research laboratory which has been featured several times in the Mythbusters TV series.

Vampires of the Scarlet Order

Back when I worked in Workman Tower on that robotic telescope, my graduate advisor was a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He got his start there in the 1950s, working on the H-bomb project under Edward Teller. Another professor had been a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who ran the Manhattan Project. Of course, I was familiar with Oppenheimer’s famous paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita where he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Taking all these ideas and putting them together led me to create the physicist Jane Heckman from Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Oppenheimer’s quote brought to mind the history of New Mexico and the little town of Socorro where I lived. Socorro was one of the first places Spanish settlers established a mission when they came into the land that would be the modern United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what if one of those conquistadors who came with the missionaries still lived in the area. If he was a vampire, he would be the embodiment of the phrase, “I am become death.” Jane meeting the vampire Rudolfo became a way for a modern physicist to confront the idea of the death she created by making weapons. By the time I wrote all this, the Workman Center I had an office in had been torn down and rebuilt. Here’s what the new version looks like:

Workman Center Today

This is the building as I describe it in the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Throughout the novel, I continue to explore the idea of science so advanced it begins to look like magic. Jane working with nanites for simple destructive reasons becomes a way to make it seem more likely that someone might use nanites to reprogram cells in human beings. While I can see some wondrous potential in that idea, I can also see the potential for things to go horrifyingly wrong.

You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at:

Once More Unto the Breach

On the early hours of March 16, I walked out of the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, aware that the world had been gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, but thinking I would be back for my next normal shift. After all, a facility like Kitt Peak needs maintenance and care even when things were shut down and my team, the observing associates, were one group standing by to fill that role.

As the following week wore on, plans evolved. The number of people who would be on site would be significantly scaled back. Engineers were ordered to ready the telescopes and instrumentation at the observatory for a long-term shutdown. A very small skeleton staff would come to the mountain to maintain those systems that required attention. My team would work from home.

As it turns out, I had a productive spring and summer. One major job was creating a plan for safe reopening. Unfortunately, right as we started discussions of this plan, cases of COVID-19 began to rise dramatically in Arizona. We made our plan. It was reviewed by upper management and then we waited for cases to go down again. While waiting, I made strides on improving the operations manual for the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Not only did I revise it to discuss updated software for moving the telescope, I took some online courses in Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript and put those skills to use modernizing the look of the manual. It’s even mobile friendly, now, though I suspect that’s a function that won’t get much use! Still, we do have limited wireless in the building and I can imagine a future when people might access the site on phones or tablets.

David at the Mayall

On November 6, I returned to the Mayall telescope. I was the last operator to work during a commissioning run for the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument. I would be the first operator to wake up the sleeping giant and put it through its paces with some pointing and tracking tests. It turned out, after several hot, dry months, we found ourselves with a stormy weekend. Winds gusted as high as 75 miles per hour. We had fog, rain, and even snow. Despite that, we did have a few clear hours. We actually haven’t opened up the main mirror on the telescope. We only used a small pointing camera mounted to the telescope’s side, but it’s good to know the telescope still can point to targets on the sky as it’s designed to. We tracked a few targets for extended times. After my shift finishes, other observing associates will work with the DESI commissioning team to get the spectrograph itself running again. It should not be long before commissioning resumes and hopefully not long after that before the telescope begins regular science.

One thing that has been a challenge, is getting used to working within “bubbles.” As I’ve noted in posts before the shutdown, the telescope operators, DESI scientists, and any needed engineers would gather together in one big control room to do the night’s work. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t even stepped into the new Mayall control room. I’ve done all my work from the old console room, we though abandoned many months ago.

Working in the Old Console Room again.

A lead observer works alone in the new console room and we communicate using conferencing software. My meals are still prepared by the Kitt Peak cafeteria, but they’re delivered to the console room before I arrive. I get to heat them up in the microwave. So my days are mostly going between my dorm room and the console room. In the few times a night I do need to venture forth, I don my mask and check on the radio to make sure I’m not going to get within six feet of another person. It’s a little awkward, but not too different from working with observers who have signed in to work from their home institutions.

All in all, it’s a challenge getting used to this “new normal” while remembering everything required to operate the telescope. Still, it’s good to resume science operations. Shakespeare’s Henry V might look at us getting ready to resume science operations and say: “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.”

Virtual October

October has been a busy month filled with virtual events. I visited the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club and discussed my novella Revolution of Air and Rust about a week ago. Then, I spent much of this past weekend attending and presenting panels for Denver’s MileHiCon. Like most events in 2020, it was held virtually. While many events I’ve attended have been free, this one had a paid membership option, which allowed attendees to interact with people live as panels were presented. In the case of pre-recorded panels, panelists were often available to answer questions on Discord or the MileHiCon website. My reading for MileHiCon was from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust. I read the chapter where Pancho Villa attempts to raid a United States military camp in Chihuahua, Mexico, but then finds himself transported to another world.

Now that you’ve seen the reading, you may be interested to watch the virtual book club meeting where we discuss the book. This video is hosted at Facebook, but you do not need to be logged into see it.

Although there was a paid membership option, MileHiCon has generously placed most of the panels and presentations online at YouTube, so you can watch them, as with my reading above. This gives you a unique opportunity to watch the panels even if you couldn’t attend them as they premiered. You can find the presentations and panels at YouTube’s MileHiCon 52 virtual channel:

Before the convention, I recorded a presentation about Kitt Peak’s NEID Spectrograph which will be used to look for Earthlike planets around sunlike stars. Of course, when I proposed this presentation back in the spring, I fully expected we would have been observing and would have had results to share. I didn’t expect that we would just now be getting ready to return to observations. Still, I give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the spectrograph, describe how it works, and share some of the interesting results from NASA’s TESS mission.

In addition to my presentation, I participated in a panel discussion about “The Year in Science” with Ka Chun Yu, Will McCarthy, Steve Wahl, and Courtney Willis. Most of us on the panel were physical scientists, with two of us being astronomers, so we started out with a heavy emphasis on astronomy, but Will McCarthy steered the discussion to the year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the effort taken to defeat it and how we’ve learned to work in this year.

I encourage you to go over to the MileHiCon YouTube channel and check out many of the other presentation. You’ll find readings by people like Connie Willis, David Boop, Carrie Vaughn, Walter Jon Williams, Carol Berg, and S.M. Stirling. You’ll find even more science panels and panels discussing science fiction and fantasy writing.

As it turns out, I wrapped up the weekend with a couple additional virtual events. I discovered that YouTube streamed a recording of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds over the weekend. I’m a fan of the album, but this was the first time I actually got to see the entire stage performance. Unfortunately, the performance was only available for a limited time and it’s been taken down, but I was glad for the opportunity to watch. Also, I attended a nice interview with Charlaine Harris conducted by Steven Foley of the Vampyre Library Book Club in New Orleans. This interview is still available, but you have to be a member of the club to watch. Fortunately, membership is free and you can join at: My novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order is the featured book at the club for November, so if you join now, you can participate in my interview at the end of next month.