Recharging the Spirit

My routine during much of this COVID-19 pandemic has involved getting up early in the morning and taking a three-mile walk in my neighborhood before settling in for work at home for the rest of the day. This month, I have returned to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in a mode, we hope, is as safe as possible. When I returned to work, it was amazing to have the sense of little time passing and working in spaces just as familiar as those at home. As someone who enjoys traveling and seeing new things, this has been a challenging time.

Because of this, my wife gave me a terrific birthday present. As soon as my first shift at Kitt Peak finished, we made plans to visit the Chiricahua National Monument in Southeastern Arizona. I have driven just north of the monument on I-10 to and from work for a little over twelve years and I’ve passed the turnoff to the monument many times. However, I have never before taken the time to visit. In a pandemic when we we’re discouraged from gathering and where outdoor spaces are safer than indoor, this seemed an ideal time to visit. I’m glad we did. We started our visit at Massai Point, which gave us a wonderful view not only of the rock formations the Chiricahua Mountains are noted for, but a look back into New Mexico.

Massai Point Overlook, Chiricahua National Monument

On the recommendation of the ranger, we decided to hike the Echo Canyon Trail. Unfortunately, when we drove over to the parking lot, we found it full. After a quick look at the map, my wife and I realized the Massai Nature Trail connects to the Echo Canyon Loop trail. So we returned to Massai Point and started our hike.

Rhyolite pillars

The distinctive pillar formations of the Chiricahua began their life when a volcano erupted in the region 27 million years ago and spewed ash over 1200 square miles. The ash compressed and has been weathered by wind and rain. The Echo Canyon loop trail gives a good view of these pillars and takes you through countryside where you can see grottoes looking into and through rocks. With our little addition, we ended up hiking 4.3 miles. It wasn’t bad in light of my routine 3-mile hikes in the neighborhood, but still a little challenge since there was more up and down than my nice circuitous path through the neighborhood.

Because we were in the area, we decided to visit some nearby historical sites as well. We stopped by the grave site of gunman John Ringo, most famous for his involvement as a member of the Cowboy faction in Tombstone, Arizona in the events leading up to and after the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. We also took time to visit Fort Bowie. This was my second visit, but my wife’s first. When I first visited, it was a spur-of-the-moment visit on my way to work one shift. It was also monsoon season, so I ended up making the hike very fast. This time, we were better able to take our time and take the ridge trail that gave us a good overview of the site. As it turns out, Fort Bowie had two locations, which you can see in the photo below. You can likely make out the foundations of the later Fort Bowie on the left in the photo below. A little harder to see is the smaller, original encampment, only used for six years, on the hill to the right.

Both Fort Bowie Locations

Fort Bowie features in my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. In the novel, I imagine the Chiricahua Apaches end up capturing a mining machine from the Clantons, also famous from their involvement in Tombstone, Arizona. With the help of machinists in Mexico, they replicate the mining machine and turn them into war wagons. Using them, they’re able to capture Fort Bowie, putting them into a position where the United States government is forced to negotiate with them. You can learn more about the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html

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.”

Rhythms and Transitions in Life

This pandemic year of 2020 brought us a long, hot, dry summer in Southern New Mexico. Usually we get some relief when the monsoon rains come in July and August, but this year, the monsoon only made a few fleeting attempts at getting started. During the long, hot summer, I fell into a regular daily rhythm. I woke up in the morning, ate breakfast and checked my email, then took a three-mile walk through the neighborhood where I plotted out my goals for the day before the temperatures climbed back over 100 degrees. I would then come home and set to work. I usually wrapped up in the late afternoon when dinnertime rolled around. Dinnertime was generally enforced by my daughter who had just graduated from high school.

All in all, this has been a healthy life rhythm. I’ve been getting regular sleep and exercise and I’ve been making a real effort to make healthy diet choices. This has paid off for me. According to the scale at home, I’ve dropped fifteen pounds this summer.

The campus observatory at Northern Arizona University

As the summer comes to an end, I find myself going through several transitions. My daughter has moved away to college. So far, her school, Northern Arizona University, has done admirably well at keeping any COVID-19 outbreaks from occurring on campus, so it looks like she’ll be away until winter break, which begins this year starting on Thanksgiving weekend. A cold front moved through, breaking the streak of hot weather. The forecast indicates temperatures will heat up again, but right now, we’re looking at 80s and not 100s. Also, I’m writing a new longer work, plus starting edits on another novel. What’s more, there’s word that Kitt Peak National Observatory plans to transition to having more staff on site as soon as local authorities give approval, so I’m on alert that I may begin shifts at the observatory again soon.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I often do my best writing first thing in the morning before I’ve had any significant interaction with other people. In short, the story flows without the clutter of other life business getting in the way. If I wake up, have breakfast, then sit down and write about 500 words, I have a much higher chance of continuing writing later in the day. Even if I don’t, I at least have the satisfaction that I completed that much. Once that’s done, I then check my mail. From there, I usually get at least one work task done and then go for my walk. All in all, it’s still a healthy rhythm, but one that may shift if I do indeed add observatory shifts into the rhythm.

These thoughts about life rhythms and transitions at a time I’m starting new writing and editing projects also has me thinking about rhythms and transitions in storytelling. I’ll dive into that subject in Tuesday’s blog post. In the meantime, remember that you can learn about my books by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Documentation

Kitt Peak National Observatory is one of many large observatories around the world shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, I was part of a skeleton crew scheduled to be on site making sure there were no problems with site infrastructure during the shutdown. However, management decided to reduce that crew, pulling our team from the rotation for the time being. So my main job at the moment is working on telescope documentation from home.

This is an important job. Four years ago, the control system at the Mayall 4-meter went through a major hardware and software upgrade in preparation for the Dark Energy Survey Instrument (DESI) that we’re now using. Those of us who operate the telescope learned how to do things on the fly before the telescope was shutdown for the actual DESI upgrade. During that period, the programmers and engineers who did the control system upgrade were, of course, occupied installing DESI and making it work. The upshot is that it’s now time to actually document how the new control system works.

As it turns out, a lot of the basic “how do you make the telescope go” level of documentation is already complete. That’s stuff I was able to do before and during the DESI upgrade. The stuff I’m working on now is more “under the hood” level documentation. For example, the image above shows two sets of coordinates: Target and Sky. Both are the same in the picture. The kind of information I need from a programmer is what does he mean when he refers to the “Target” coordinates and what does he mean when he refers to the “Sky” coordinates. It turns out, the two should only be different if you know the telescope is slewing from one target to another, or the servos are turned off and the telescope is not tracking the sky.

The other day, I shared a news article about the closure of observatories on social media. I received a lot of surprise from people. Observatories are, after all, remote places and you’d think they’re about as “socially distant” a place to be as possible. In fact, on my last night of observing, I shared a control room with an observer from the UK and one from Mexico and we even joked about that a little. Look back at the previous sentence, though, and you actually see part of the problem. Large observatories attract observers and tourists from all around the world. We may not have a lot of people on site, but they are people who have traveled far to get there, possibly exposing themselves to the virus on the way.

Even if we closed down to just remote operations where only local people were allowed at the observatory, we’d still have a problem. If something breaks, you often need a team of engineers and technicians to get it operating again. You could imagine allowing the observatory to run until something breaks, and then just leaving it at that point until someone could fix it. The problem with this scenario becomes clear if you imagine a situation where the broken mechanism is the dome shutter and rain is approaching, which could, in turn, damage the telescope and instrumentation.

Fortunately, even though many large telescopes are shut down, many smaller facilities are still operating and monitoring the skies for “transient” objects like asteroids and supernovae. Science is still happening. It’s not quite full stop as far as monitoring the skies. Many of these smaller facilities only require one or two people on site to fix problems. So there’s much less danger in this case.

Related to my job at the observatory, I heard an interesting statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US Infectious Disease Specialist. In an interview with CNN, he said, “What we’re seeing right now are some favorable signs. It’s looking like that in many cases particularly in New York we’re starting to see a flattening and turning around. We would want to see … I would want to see a clear indication that you are very very clearly and strongly going in the right direction.” What really struck me in this description of early signs the COVID-19 pandemic may be improving is how much it reminded me of how I describe safe conditions to open the telescope for observing after bad weather has closed us down. Let’s say humidity or wind are too high for the telescope to be open safely. We have officially stated limits for when we can open, but sometimes I don’t open right at those limits and I give an explanation similar to Dr. Fauci’s. It’s all too easy for wind or humidity to have a momentary downward blip, then come up again right away. We want to see a clear indication that conditions are improving. Let’s hope the pandemic turns around soon and we get the clear, strong indications that we’re moving in the right direction.

Pandemic Past

Most of us are working to find ways of coping in the era of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. My friend, Kenneth Silsbee, has come up with an innovative approach to create some social time by hosting a Friday evening “cocktail hour” where friends can gather via a Zoom conference call. It’s allowed me to connect to some of my college alumni friends and make some connections with Kenneth’s Seattle-area friends.

During the first of these cocktail hours, Kenneth asked whether any of the attendees had any family stories from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. All I remembered was a brief mention that my maternal grandfather was serving in the Army Air Corps in France during one of the pandemic’s waves. However, the question did make me think of a book I read two years ago when I prepared to moderate a panel called “Magical History” at the Tucson Festival of Books. The photo below shows me with the panelists, Beth Cato, Mindy Tarquini, and Gail Carriger.

The book I’ve been remembering is Mindy Tarquini’s The Infinite Now. In the novel, Fiora Vicente, the daughter of an Italian immigrant fortune teller living in Philadelphia, loses her parents to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and is taken to live with a friend of the family in a tenement house. She takes possession of a magical curtain that allows her to see five minutes into the future. Afraid that the old man who has taken her in will die, she creates a bubble around the house to keep time from progressing. Meanwhile, a frightening healer seeks to entrap Fiora and take the curtain. The magic is subtle and metaphorical, and the author even introduces a bit of Clarke’s Third Law, the notion that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, at the novel’s end.

I’m sorry to have seen this year’s COVID-19 outbreak force the cancellation of the Tucson Festival of Books. That said, it’s clear from the way the virus is spreading that the organizers made the right call. Still, the Tucson Festival of Books has long been one of my favorite venues to meet and talk with authors from all around the country. In the panel, I not only discovered Mindy’s book, but I read books by Beth Cato and Gail Carriger as well. I highly recommend all their works if you’re looking for something good to read while social distancing.

As it turns out, the 2018 Tucson Festival of Books was not my first opportunity to meet Beth Cato. I had actually published her work on a few occasions in Tales of the Talisman Magazine. Volume 9, issues 2 and 4 along with Volume 10, issue 4 all have poems by Beth Cato and they are still in stock. As long as the post office is deemed an essential service, I’d be more than happy to pack up copies and send them to you. You can find all the issues of Tales of the Talisman at http://www.talesofthetalisman.com.