2019 Storms In

I spent New Year’s Eve at Kitt Peak National Observatory as a snow storm blew over the mountaintop. Operations are scheduled at the observatory every night of the year except for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, we have staff on the mountain during the holiday to service the instruments and keep an eye on the site. My job requires that I be at the telescope even during inclement weather. That’s partly because the weather is capricious and we need to be available in case the weather unexpectedly clears. I also need to service the instruments and I’m also the guy who calls the Arizona Department of Transportation to let them know how much snow they can expect at the top of Highway 386, which is the highway that leads to the top of the mountain.

Partly because I was working and partly because Kitt Peak is located on the land of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, no alcohol is allowed on the site. So, I toasted the new year with a strong cup of coffee. Because it was a stormy night, I had a good book. I was working with an observer in Wisconsin, logged into the telescope remotely from his home. He got to see the new year come in an hour before I did. When the new year came in, I received celebratory emails from my family in New Mexico and Missouri.

For us, stormy nights are an exercise in watching the weather. As I say, we want to be ready to take advantage of any clearing. Also, even if it doesn’t clear, I need to report the conditions to the highway department and fellow staff who will drive up the mountain the next day. I’m also on standby to respond to any weather-related emergencies at night. I’ve had nights at the observatory where the wind has knocked out power but the generators haven’t turned on. In that case, I need to investigate. We need the generators so we can stay in touch with remote observers and clear skies don’t care whether or not we have utility power. Also, though it’s not the most exciting aspect of my job, I’m also the guy who compiles usage statistics for the mountain during a night, which are then reported to our funding agencies.

At the end of the night, I shoveled the snow from around the door to the telescope where I was working, drove down to the main parking lot, then tromped through about four inches of snow to my dorm room. I woke up later on New Year’s afternoon to find that the road to the summit had been plowed and to see our supervisor of mountain operations using a front end loader to clear the roads on the mountain’s summit.

If we had been observing, we would have been taking images of Comet 46P/Wirtanen as it made its closest approach to the Earth. Essentially comets are dirty snowballs that provide a window into the conditions and materials available in the early solar system. Instead of watching a dirty snowball in space, we got to watch snow fall right here on Earth.

Stormy nights like the one we experienced on New Year’s Eve were part of the inspiration for the storms in my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, one of my jobs is to keep the bad things that happen in that novel from happening at Kitt Peak. You can learn more about the novel and watch a short trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

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My Adventures Without Coffee

Anyone who reads my books can probably guess that I love my coffee. Daniel the vampire astronomer cannot imagine being undead without coffee to warm the blood he consumes. Where would Ramon be without Fatemeh’s strong coffee to prime him for adventures in the wild west? Even my spacefaring adventurers make sure their ships are stocked with coffee.

As for me, I started drinking coffee during my senior year of college. I had housemates who made coffee, plus that was the year I worked at the Very Large Array radio telescope. Out there, the beverage choice was soda you could pay for or free coffee. As a college student, you can bet I took the free coffee. I hardly lived a caffeine-free existence before that. My mom always kept a pitcher of iced tea available. As a kid, if I wanted something to drink, it would be iced tea. As an almost nightly treat, she would let me have a Pepsi while I watched TV.

A few weeks ago, my doctor noted that I have an oddball heart rhythm. This is nothing new.  It was first diagnosed when I was in my 20s and as far as I knew, that was the way my heart rhythm has always been. Cardiologists have told me there’s little chance of it developing into anything worse. Despite that, my general practitioner was a bit worried. He immediately asked about my coffee consumption, and I told him I was a coffee drinker. He suggested I might want to give it up to see if it affected the heart rhythm. Given that the men in my family have a history of heart disease, I decided I should give it a shot and see what happened.

So, starting just before mid-November, I stopped drinking coffee. I also avoided caffeinated sodas and tea. I know I did consume some caffeine in chocolate and even in the occasional cup of green tea, but by my estimate, my caffeine consumption was the lowest it had been since I was a very small child. The first week without coffee wasn’t easy. The first day, I had a migraine-like headache. After that, I developed muscle aches in various parts of my body—my arms, back, legs, and hips all hurt at one time or another. This isn’t surprising given that caffeine does act as a vasodilator and giving it up would mean at least slight constriction of blood vessels. Despite that, I found I didn’t miss the coffee as much as I thought I would. It didn’t take me that much longer to “wake up” in the morning without it than it did with it. I really missed it on weekend mornings when I was most used to taking some leisurely time to read before starting my day. Also, after that first week, the pain finally vanished.

I didn’t get grumpy during my break from caffeine, but I did find myself feeling a little more prone to giving into my introvert tendencies and withdrawing to myself, especially during the first week when I was dealing with the pain. It’s hard to say whether this was a direct effect of stopping caffeine, or a side effect of the pain.

During this period, I looked into the effects of caffeine and learned that there, in fact, is little correlation between stopping caffeine use and correcting heart rhythm. Despite that, I personally have felt that I probably consumed a bit too much coffee on occasion and it seemed like it would be easier to return to moderate consumption if I started from “ground zero” so to speak. Sure enough, when I returned to my doctor this past week, he noticed essentially no change to my heart rhythm. I celebrated with a cup of coffee. Still, as I say, I hope this will be a first step in using a little more moderation in my coffee consumption.

Periodically a news story will come out about caffeine research. Sometimes the research indicates problems. Other times it indicates benefits. Most of it seems to agree caffeine, like most things in life, is best if done in moderation. Of course, any changes you make should be done in consultation with your doctor. I’m just a guy who tells thrilling tales of the imagination and studies distant galaxies, stars, and planets. Still, I found it empowering to know that I could give up caffeine with no problems if I desired.

If you want to read some of my coffee-inspired fiction, be sure to visit my website: http://www.davidleesummers.com.


Sandman Mystery Theatre

When I first discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic in 1989, I may have been one of the only people disappointed that it wasn’t about a guy in a suit, a fedora, and a gas mask who fought crime. Of course, I’m alluding to the Sandman from the Golden Age of comic books, who was actually mentioned in that first issue of Neil Gaiman’s comic. In time, Gaiman’s comic would win me over on the merits of its own great writing, but it still didn’t satisfy that interest to see more stories about the Golden Age version of the character. Just a few weeks ago, I learned that there was a comic that would do just that.

Sandman Mystery Theatre, written by Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle, ran from 1993-1999. In its 71-issue run, it returned to the 1930s to follow the adventures of Wesley Dodds, a quiet stay-at-home millionaire by day who donned a suit, trench coat, fedora, gas mask and gas gun by night to fight crime on the streets of New York City. Looking at the years of its original run, it’s no surprise why I missed it. It coincided very neatly with the early years of my marriage, family life, writing, and astronomy careers!In the Monday of Thanksgiving week, I think it’s fitting to say that I’m very thankful for the existence of digital back issues of comics!

I first discovered the Sandman character when I was a kid, reading comics featuring the Justice Society of America. This was the superhero team that preceded the more famous Justice League. Sandman was one of the team’s founding members and I found him interesting. Like Batman, Sandman has no super powers. He’s basically a detective who carries a gun that puts people to sleep. The similarities between Batman and Sandman don’t stop there. As I mentioned, Wesley Dodds is a millionaire, like Bruce Wayne. He also has a loyal butler who knows his secret. As it turns out, the two characters were introduced to readers at nearly the same time. Sandman first appeared in New York World’s Fair Comics in January 1939, while Batman debuted in Detective Comics in May 1939. Of some note, Wesley Dodds always had his loyal butler Humphries, while Alfred didn’t join Bruce Wayne until 1943.

Another interesting element to the Sandman character is that he’s one of the first comic book heroes to have a sidekick who is not simply a miniature version of himself. His sidekick was a woman named Dian Belmont who was not written as a damsel in distress even in her earliest comic appearances and often shared dangers with Wesley.

In Sandman Mystery Theatre, Matt Wagner took the source material and brought it into a gritty, noir world written for adults. It starts in 1938, just before the time period of the original Sandman comics. The story follows Wesley and Dian as they get involved in a series of murder investigations. It’s hard to call these “cozy” mysteries because the comic does not steer away from racism, child abuse, and real social issues of the time period, many of which still resonate today. We also see Wesley and Dian grow closer together and a romance blossom between them. Unlike so many comic book romances, this is not one that flickers out every story cycle, but deals with characters learning about each other and making decisions about what to reveal and not reveal about their pasts. In many ways, the story reminds me very much of the Thin Man movies of the 1930s, but with less rampant alcoholism.

Like heroes such as Batman and the Green Hornet, Wesley Dodds is essentially a masked vigilante. He has some martial arts training. He’s not as powerful as Batman. Villains can hurt him—badly. While he has money, he doesn’t affect a playboy persona like Bruce Wayne. The overall effect is that Wesley Dodds becomes a much more relatable character, like many of the noir detectives. I’m having fun catching up on back issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre. You can find digital copies at places like Amazon and Comixology.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

On May 19, my daughter graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans. The day’s events included an amazing unified commencement ceremony in the morning where all the graduating students gathered in the Super Dome. That afternoon, we watched her walk across the stage as she received her diploma from the College of Science and Engineering. Honorary doctorates were conveyed to notable people at the unified commencement. Among them were Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who sang her song, “It’s Raining.” The unified ceremony also included an inspiring and thoughtful commencement speech by two-time National Book Award winner, Jesmyn Ward.

While my wife and I had visited New Orleans several times on previous trips, visiting the campus and taking our daughter to school, our visits had, for various reasons been limited. This time, we saved up some money cleared our calendars and decided to spend a week in New Orleans, exploring the city and its surroundings. Even a week in New Orleans might have been beyond our means, except that we had a place to stay where we could make many of our own meals. The food in New Orleans is terrific and part of the experience that should not be missed, but it can be expensive.

Among the highlights of our trip were visits to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, the Voodoo Museum, and the Audubon Aquarium. One morning we drove down to Jean Lafitte National Park and took a swamp tour, where we saw numerous alligators and turtles. While we were frugal with our food budget, we did splurge on a fine dinner at Muriel’s on Jackson Square. The food was fabulous and I especially appreciated the care the wait staff gave to our daughters and they’re challenging suite of food allergies. They went the extra mile to make sure everyone went away happy. One highlight of Muriel’s is the haunted room upstairs. I took several photos, but never saw any ghosts. There were sarcophagi, which seemed fitting given the release of After Punk the day we dined there.

What makes New Orleans truly special for me is less the touristy stuff and more a magical blend of the people and the overall atmosphere of the city and its surroundings. New Orleans essentially exists in a wetlands environment and life surrounds you. Not just human life like you’d find in a big city like New York or Los Angeles, but magnolia trees and pines, insects and small animals. Of course, you do see a wide variety of the human condition from the desolate, to many people struggling to make a living, to people of privilege throwing cash around at every opportunity. Of course, it’s a city in peril every time a hurricane or even a drenching rain comes through. Global sea level rise could threaten the city. Yet the science fiction writer in me has a hard time imagining the city vanishing forever. It’s versatile and it changes and adapts. There is literal magic in the air. Sometimes it’s just a helping hand from a stranger when you didn’t expect it. Sometimes it’s sitting on a balcony and listening to a trumpeter a block away giving you the gift of his songs. Sometimes the magic comes in walking down the street and seeing a parade break out for no reason that you’ve heard about.

It’s probably fitting that we spent our final evening in New Orleans actually watching a magic show presented by Dr. Joe Dalgo at Potions Lounge. The show captured a lot of what I love about New Orleans. He drew me in with storytelling and history. It felt less like a “show” or an “event” and more like a gathering to appreciate Dr. Dalgo’s talents and knowledge. It was entertaining but I also felt I went away having made new friends.

Speaking of friends, Marita Crandle, who runs Potions Lounge also runs Boutique du Vampyre. She hosted a marvelous signing for me and is one of the people who truly makes me feel at home in New Orleans. If you visit the Crescent City you should visit the Boutique and also pay a visit to Potions. If you can’t make it to New Orleans, you can still shop online at: http://feelthebite.com. Not only will you find signed copies of my vampire novels in the Vampire Library section, but you’ll find my wife’s Monster Eye Bag Charms in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

My daughter has left New Orleans and that makes it hard to say when I’ll be back. I’ve been gone less than a week and yet it beckons me back. I don’t know when the next trip will be, only that there will be a next trip because I have indeed learned what it means to miss New Orleans.

Returning to the VLA

One of the reasons I decided to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was its proximity to the Very Large Array, which at the time, was the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope. In my senior year at Tech, I got my dream job, and spent the year working at the VLA. This past weekend, My wife and I took our daughter out to visit my old stomping grounds.

The VLA was an awesome place to work. As you can see from the photo above, the scenery is dramatic. It’s an alto plano in central New Mexico. In fact, the VLA is at higher altitude than Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. I went out to the VLA site every Friday of my senior year to work. What exciting, groundbreaking science did I do with the world’s largest radio telescope? I observed clouds. Yes, clouds on Earth.

Here’s the thing, at the time the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was looking to build something called the Millimeter Array or MMA. Millimeter Array may not sound very spectacular when you’re talking about the Very Large Array, but the name referred to the frequency of light the telescope would observe. My job was to support the site survey work for the MMA. In other words, we were trying to find the very best place in the world to build the MMA. The reason for observing clouds is because while radio waves can travel through clouds, clouds can cause something called phase instability. With a big telescope like the VLA or the MMA, you can have clouds over one part of the array and not the other. The ideal site is phase stable, meaning you don’t get a lot of variation in the cloud cover across the site.

As it turns out, the MMA was never built. Instead, in 1997, the MMA project in the United States joined forces with the European Southern Observatory’s Large Southern Observatory project. The new project was called ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In 2003, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan joined the project. So, my work at the VLA observing clouds was an early step in the development of ALMA, which is now on the air. You can read about it here: http://www.almaobservatory.org/en/home/

One fun display they had set up at the VLA now was a radio receiver. This actually was one of the radio receivers used when the VLA received data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft at Neptune. I actually watched that data come in at the Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. On our visit, my daughter and I got to use the receiver to detect radio waves from the sun.

As it turns out, the VLA plays an important role in my novel The Solar Sea. The second edition will be released on the first day of spring. You can learn more and preorder it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/.

March Madness

No, this isn’t a post about basketball. It’s more a look back at the first two weeks of the month, which have felt more than a little crazy and hectic. I spent the first weekend of the month at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios, which was, as always, a great experience. Panels went well and we sold a lot of books. I then went home for a day, unpacked from the convention, and repacked for the Tucson Festival of Books and a shift at Kitt Peak. I spent the next three days at Kitt Peak, then went down to the Tucson Festival of Books where I had more awesome panels, albeit fewer book sales, returned to Kitt Peak for a night and a half of work, then finally returned home.

Since returning home, I’ve been proofreading some projects that I’ll talk about in more detail in the coming weeks, restocking books for El Paso Comic Con, and doing a little work around the house. One nice thing about how my schedule has worked out this month is that I’m off work for the week of my daughter’s spring break. So, we’ll be taking a short trip to spend a little time together, see some sights, and visit friends around New Mexico.

Juggling all these events, projects, and even my two careers in the last two weeks has certainly brought to mind the aphorism “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” I don’t know how lamb-like the end of the month will be, but I hope it’ll be a little quieter than the beginning. Of course, all these projects also make me feel “mad as a March hare” at times.

In keeping with the season, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon this week. In the movie, Toshiro Mifune turns in a delightfully manic performance which reminded me more than a little of his work in Seven Samurai. It was also a delight to see Takashi Shimura, who would also go on to play in both Seven Samurai and Godzilla. My reason for watching the film is that my friend Eric Schumacher was recently in a film called Tombstone Rashomon which tells the story of the gunfight of O.K. Corral from the eyes of several witnesses, much like the original Rashomon. Eric played Doc Holliday. A picture of him in the role on my wall has been serving as an inspiration for the Doc Holliday scenes in my forthcoming novel Owl Riders.

Although Owl Riders isn’t yet available, the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea is set to release on the first day of spring, March 21. You can get a sneak peak and preorder the ebook today at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/

Thanksgiving at Kitt Peak

For the most part, astronomy doesn’t stop for holidays. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, the only nights we don’t open to observe are Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, members of my team are on hand to tend instruments and keep watch over the site so things are ready to go the day after the holiday. This year, my shift happened to fall across the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter were able to come up and spend the holiday with me.

At this time of year, I work long nights. My “day” starts around 3:30pm and I work until about 7am the following morning. On Thanksgiving Day, I walked into work to discover my workstation occupied. If you’ve seen the trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt you might recognize this as something of a recurring theme in my work life! Al Cabone (the skeleton in the chair) showed up at the telescope a little over a year ago at Halloween time and has become something of a mascot.

We start in the afternoon to allow observers an opportunity to calibrate their data. This Thanksgiving, the early start allowed me a chance to bring my daughter to the telescope. She has a definite interest in the sciences with some thoughts of pursuing astronomy. So, this proved a great opportunity to give her taste of what professional astronomy is like.

During afternoon calibrations, I let her have the operator’s chair to enter some commands and try her hand at moving a 3.5-meter telescope.

After calibrations, we were able to take a break for Thanksgiving dinner. At this time of year, dinner is by necessity brief. We finished calibrations at 4:30pm. I needed to be back before the 5:25pm sunset so we could finish getting the telescope ready for the night. Fortunately, we have a kitchen staff at Kitt Peak and they prepare food for us. So my daughter and I joined my wife at the mountain cafeteria for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I speak to people about my work at the telescope, I sense that people imagine that I get to see numerous awe-inspiring sights in the night sky. In fact, some nights I do. However, some nights, the beauty comes from gaining a deeper understanding than what you see in the usual pretty pictures. On Thanksgiving, our job was to measure the spectra of stars in a couple of clusters to understand their chemical abundances. Now spectra can be very pretty, like this one of the star Arcturus, taken with the Coudé Feed telescope at Kitt Peak.

N.A.Sharp, NOAO/AURA/NSF

In that image, the interesting science is contained in the pattern of dark lines scattered among the rainbow colors. Those dark lines, or absorption lines, serve as a kind of fingerprint that tells us about the composition of the star’s atmosphere. We were using a multi-object spectrograph, which allows us to get up to 100 objects at a time. That sounds awesome, and it is. That said, this is what the raw spectra look like when we take them.

Each one of the gray stripes in the image is the spectrum of a different star in the cluster. They don’t look much like that. They’re more interesting when you use a graphics program to plot them.

That plot may not look much like the rainbow image above, but it actually contains as much information. Plotted left to right, this shows the spectrum of a star from blue to red. The downward spikes correspond to the dark lines in the rainbow images. The depth of the lines gives you information about abundances. The position of the lines relative to the light frequency can tell you such information as how fast the star is rotating, how far away it is, or even whether it has planets, all depending on the specific measurements you take.

So, the pictures we take aren’t always like those you see in the press releases on the web. Nevertheless, they do inspire dreams of faraway places and allow us to ferret out hidden information in the night sky. I’m not certain whether my daughter will ultimately choose a career in astronomy, but I am pretty sure we’ve given her something to dream about.