Astronomers and Their Crypts

As we close out the year, I’m revisiting a couple of posts that I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order blog before I started posting exclusively here on the Web Journal. In the autumn of 2015, I wrote a post entitled “Haunted Observatories” and discussed how I got the inspiration for writing a ghost story set at an observatory.

As it turns out, I know of three observatories where astronomers are interred either at telescopes they helped to build or nearby. lowell-crypt One is Percival Lowell, whose mausoleum is right outside the 24-inch telescope on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the photo, you see my daughters and I standing beside his mausoleum. Another is James Lick, who funded the University of California’s Lick Observatory and is interred under the observatory’s 36-inch telescope. Also, John and Phoebe Brashear are interred under the Keeler Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh.

However, it’s not just bodies near telescopes that gave me the idea. My first job in astronomy was at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island. The building is an old-fashioned Gothic structure right next to the house once occupied by America’s first woman astronomer. My fellow research assistants and I would scare each other by telling stories of Maria’s ghost walking through the building. One night, one of my fellow research assistants even climbed on the roof while I was observing, made thumping noises, and sprayed Lysol in the dome to make me think I was smelling the perfume of Maria’s ghost. In a dark, cold dome in the middle of the night, it was pretty effective! This particular incident even inspired a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where one telescope operator scares another in a darkened hallway.

4-meter-alcove

Even today, when I walk around the main floor at the base of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, I sometimes feel like I’m being watched. I look up to an alcove at a darkened stair landing shown in the photo to the right, where I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye. It always proves to be empty, and my skeptical mind always knows its just my mind playing tricks on me but every now and then, I wonder if a ghostly presence haunts the dome.

One astronomer was killed at the Mayall 4-meter almost thirty years ago in a tragic accident. Several people have died over the years on the twisting mountain road to the observatory, and a construction worker died while excavating the tunnel for the McMath-Pierce Solar telescope just across the mountain from the Mayall. There certainly is a potential for ghosts at the observatory.

I’ve only discovered one observatory that describes itself as haunted and that’s Perkins Observatory which was built for Ohio Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college near Columbus. Ohio State University partnered with OWU to run the facility for a number of years, but finally terminated the relationship in 1998. The history page for the observatory tells us that the ghost of Hiram Perkins, the math and astronomy professor who founded the observatory, haunts the site out of frustration that he could never use the site his money funded.

I’m a skeptic who believes science helps us understand our amazing universe and our place within it. However, being a skeptic doesn’t mean I dismiss things like ghost stories out of hand. I believe the paranormal deserves serious investigation. What’s more, I love a good spooky story and believe they tell us something about ourselves.

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The Astronomer’s Crypt is now available as an ebook at the following retailers:

In honor of the season, I’m giving away a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt for Kindle. Click the following link to see if you’re an instant winner: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/c1ab0e67aed8c0d9 .

The giveaway ends on January 6, 2017.

Imagining a Haunted Observatory

I’m excited to have a new book out as we go into the holidays at the end of 2016. I thought it would be fun to revisit a couple of posts I wrote at the Scarlet Order Journal when I was writing The Astronomer’s Crypt that discuss the inspirations for the novel. Also, I’m giving away a Kindle copy of the novel. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to find out how to enter! The novel takes much of its inspiration from my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Southern Arizona. One of the telescopes I operate is the observatory’s flagship telescope, the Mayall 4-meter shown here.

4-meter

Since I wrote my original post, I have heard stories that chairs in the old lounge on the so-called Utility floor could sometimes be seen to be rocking by themselves, as though occupied by ghostly inhabitants. Also, one night back in the 1990s, I once could have sworn I saw a flashlight beam from the catwalk. When I called the telescope operator on the radio though, I was assured no one was outside.

Even without these scary stories, the Mayall is eighteen stories tall. On a typical night, only three or four people inhabit the building. It’s a big space that literally moans in the wind. One night, the power went out and I had to climb the staircase in the dark, accompanied by nothing but the sound of creaking vents and the thudding of my own heart.

4-meter-stairs

When it was built, the plan was for astronomers to stay in the building. Later, it was found that heating the rooms made for poor images at the telescope. So, the rooms were abandoned. They still exist, and are used for storage, but it can be a little unnerving to walk down an empty hallway that curves around the building, frozen in time from the early 1970s.

4-meter-dorms

Large as the building is, there are also some rather cavernous spaces. Again, some of these spaces are used for storage. You can find computers from the 70s, 80s and 90s, plus parts from outdated instrumentation. When you walk into a space like this, is it so hard to imagine something lurking in the shadows?

4-meter-storage

The 4-meter telescope is a large, sophisticated machine. A lot of power is needed to run it, and pipes carry such fluids as water, glycol, and even oil throughout the building. There are numerous service facilities throughout the structure. Some of the spaces remind me of something from a science fiction film. What could be lurking around the corner in this photo?

4-meter-tunnel

The Mayall 4-meter is an amazing facility. It’s the place where the observations that led to the discovery of dark matter were made. It’s about to undergo a refit that will put it on the forefront of dark energy research. Personally, I’ve seen everything from asteroids to distant supernovae to gravitational lenses at the telescope in this building. However, on some dark and stormy nights, I’ve walked down some of these corridors and wondered if I really was alone!

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The Astronomer’s Crypt is now available as an ebook at the following retailers:

In honor of the season, I’m giving away a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt for Kindle. Click the following link to see if you’re an instant winner: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/c1ab0e67aed8c0d9 .

The giveaway ends on January 6, 2017.

On Turning 50

Over the weekend, while at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. It’s one of those points in life where I find myself looking back to see where I’ve been as well as looking forward to see where I’m going.

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In my first fifty years, I’ve written and published nine novels, eighty-four short stories, and fifty-four poems. I’ve edited three anthologies, plus two magazines for ten years each. I contributed to the commissioning of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope and the NMSU 1-meter telescope. I’m co-discoverer of two variable stars and I helped take data that contributed to the discovery of dark energy. Most of all, I’m proud to be the father of two incredible young ladies, one in high school, the other in college, who have a wide range of talents in such areas as computer science and mathematics.

Looking ahead, my tenth novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, is nearing release. I have two anthologies in the publication queue: Kepler’s Cowboys and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. I have four short stories accepted and awaiting publication. Beyond that, I’m in the early phases of writing a new novel and I have a “fix-up” novel a little over half completed. Plus I have story treatments for four more novels. Presuming no major funding shifts, I expect to be involved in commissioning two new instruments at Kitt Peak in the coming years.

As I reach fifty, I’m arguably in the best health I ever have been. The arthritis that plagued me for years is in remission and I regularly take long walks through my neighborhood. Nevertheless, one specter looms over me. My dad was only fifty-two when he died suddenly of a heart attack. In the plus column, my doctor is helping me watch my heart health and both of my brothers have now outlived my dad by over a decade. I have no immediate reason to fear for my imminent demise. Nevertheless, I find myself grieving for how truly short my dad’s life was cut and watching my health has taken on a new urgency.

In short, as I turn fifty, I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. My regrets are minimal. While there are some harsh words and rash actions I’d take back if I could and some friends I’ve lost touch with over the years, it’s hard to say I’d have a better life if I’d taken a different path. I have several exciting things to look forward to in the coming months and years, plus plans and goals for the years beyond that.

Thanks to my readers for sharing some of this fifty-year journey with me. I look forward to sharing the coming years with you as well.

Synchronicity & Inspiration

I returned to my job operating telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in February 2008. That same day, another operator also started. Her name is Krissy, and she took her leave this week because she and her husband Tom are expecting their first child. Here we are on Christmas of 2008 at Kitt Peak along with my daughters and Krissy’s dog, Sushi.

Christmas-2008

As I mentioned, I returned to Kitt Peak in 2008. I originally left in October 1995, almost exactly twenty years before Krissy’s departure, to take a job that allowed me to be home most evenings because my wife and I were expecting our first daughter, who is lying on the couch in the photo.

Krissy’s departure comes as I’m working on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. One of the novel’s characters is a telescope operator who happens to be a mom named Kendra. Despite the fact that they both have “K” names, Kendra isn’t based on Krissy. In fact, I created the character long before I knew Krissy would be a mom. Kendra, like any good character, is built from an assortment of people I’ve known over the years, including many amazing women who have operated telescopes at Kitt Peak, Apache Point Observatory, and elsewhere. As it turns out, two of those operators are moms, and both of them are named Karen. Another “K” name. Thing is, Kendra’s name was inspired more by my wife Kumie than it was by any particular telescope operator I knew!

The character of Kendra isn’t the first time I’ve been inspired by my co-workers. Vampires of the Scarlet Order Jennifer was a telescope operator in the 1990s who coined the phrase “vampires of the mountain” to refer to telescope operators who were rarely seen except between sunset and sunrise. She also encouraged me to read Dracula and introduced me to the works of Anne Rice. All of that started me on the path to the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

My co-worker Bridget left Kitt Peak to pursue graduate work in marine biology. Her interest in marine mammals inspired both the whale character Richard in Children of the Old Stars and the marine biologist Myra Lee in The Solar Sea.

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I’ve worked with some pretty cool guys, too, such as Doug who spent a valuable day at the observatory showing me various sword forms. That time helped me better visualize the Samurai Hoshi’s swordplay in Lightning Wolves and my other forthcoming novel, The Brazen Shark. Doug’s a writer in his own right and you’ll find one of his stories in the anthology, A Kepler’s Dozen.

People often ask if my astronomy job inspires my science fiction. I think you can see that it has, and that the inspiration goes well beyond the realm of science fiction into my steampunk and horror writing as well. It’s important for a writer to get to know people and learn from them. I’ve been very fortunate to work in a place that not only lets me explore the universe, but lets me hang out with some very talented people. Now I’m just waiting to see if synchronicity takes effect and Krissy returns in a few years!

Summer at Kitt Peak

In a typical year, July and August bring monsoon rains to Arizona and New Mexico. The rain is much needed in the desert, but it does mean poor observing conditions for most of those two months. Because of that, the observatory typically shuts down its major telescopes for ongoing maintenance and upgrades that help keep them state of the art.

WIYN in Rain

Those of us who work principally at night, often get a more relaxed schedule, which enables us to take vacation time. When we’re at work, we often get a chance to lend a hand on projects around the observatory. This past week, I worked during the daytime, helping with a couple of projects at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. One of those projects was cleaning, tuning, and testing the actuator control cards on the back of the WIYN telescope.

Actuator Work

Here you see the back of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. Each of those disks at the back are attached to a motor and a rod, which deform the telescope’s primary mirror so it has the optimal shape, no matter where it’s pointed in the sky. With time, the electronics in each of those actuators becomes less reliable.

So, for example, the WIYN primary mirror weighs about 4200 pounds. When working properly, the actuators should measure that weight pretty accurately. However, with wear and tear, they reached a point where they were measuring the weight as 4570 pounds. As I write this, we’ve tuned about about one third of the cards and now the weight is reading 4370 pounds, much closer and an indication that we’re doing much-needed work. Here’s one of the control cards in its test bench setup.

Actuator Card

Another project I helped with this week was upgrading the drives for the filter arms on the One-Degree Imager at WIYN. In essence, the whole objective of having a camera on a telescope is to accurately measure the amount of light coming into it from distant stars and galaxies. However, visible light is made up of all the colors of the rainbow. Red light, blue light, and violet light are all jumbled together. So, the best way for us to measure light accurately is to take black-and-white pictures with colored filters in front that allow light of precise frequencies to pass through.

The One-Degree Imager has filters that are approximately one-foot by one-foot square. It takes a lot of force to move those pieces of glass and hold them rigidly in place.
ODI-Filters In the photo on the left, you’re looking down on the filter arms. The filter arms used to be held in place by a series of gears. However, the force required to move those arms was so great, the gears were literally grinding themselves to dust. So the gear system has been replaced by a system which utilizes a chain drive like that you might find in a motorcycle! You can see the chain on the bottom of the photo. I’m looking forward to the new observing season when we get to use this new filter drive system. It promises to move and hold the filters much better than the old system.

Another project that’s moving forward is the Extreme Position Doppler Spectrometer which NASA is contracting for the WIYN telescope in order to support space missions searching for planets around other stars. This week, I was asked if I would provide input into how to practically operate this device. It sounds like I’ll learn more this autumn, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and hoping I’ll have something good to contribute which will both help achieve the mission objectives and make it a user-friendly instrument.

In the meantime, I have not forgotten my literary endeavors. I just finished editing a four-short story collection called Sugar Time written by Joy V. Smith. Hadrosaur Productions published an audio book edition some years ago, but this will be an ebook and chapbook containing the four original stories with new cover art by Laura Givens. Look for more details in next week’s blog post.

Also, if you live in New Orleans or will be visiting on the weekend of August 22, please drop by Boutique du Vampyre in the French Quarter between 3 and 6pm, where I’ll be signing copies of Vampires of the Scarlet Order and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order.

A Visit to Palomar

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending my niece’s wedding. It was a delightful event held near the beach in San Juan Capistrano, California. I was pleased not only to be part of my niece’s special day and meet my new nephew, but to spend time with my brothers and their families as well. On the way back to New Mexico, we decided to make a side trip to see the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mt. Palomar.

Hale Dome

It’s rare for me to visit observatories during my vacation time from Kitt Peak National Observatory. Much as I like astronomy, the whole point is to get away from the day-to-day routine just like anyone in any other job. However, Palomar is a special place. When it was built in 1948, it was the largest reflecting telescope ever built and it held that record up until 1976. Because it was built in 1948, the Hale looks very much like a battleship. In its ArtDeco dome, the telescope seems like something that belongs in a steampunk or dieselpunk story.

Although built in 1948, the Hale telescope is still active today. Among its achievements, it was used to determine an accurate distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. It identified the optical counterparts to the first quasars. Today, it is one of the few telescopes that has successfully imaged planets around other stars. William Fowler, using data from the Hale telescope is the man who figured out how stars synthesize heavier elements from lighter ones. Years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, I would enjoy a beer with Dr. Fowler at the Capital Bar in Socorro, New Mexico.

Hale Telescope

The Hale Telescope’s primary mirror is 200 inches in diameter, or just a little over 5 meters. The telescope is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology, which means only CalTech astronomers or their collaborators get a chance to use the facility. The Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope was built with Federal funding to give all astronomers an equal chance at access to a similar telescope. So, the two observatories are definitely cousins of a sort. In fact, one of Fowler’s collaborators, Dr. Geoffry Burbidge, was Kitt Peak’s director from 1978 until 1984.

I recently signed a contract for a new horror novel called The Astronomer’s Crypt. The observatory in the novel isn’t real, but rather an amalgam of observatories I know from around the Southwest. That said, it really struck me that Palomar has a lot in common with my fictional Carson Peak Observatory. Like most observatories, they’re in remote locations. There are small towns nearby, down the long, winding road away from the observatory. There are even nearby Indian casinos, like the novel’s Sacred Portals Casino! What’s more, the primary telescope in The Astronomer’s Crypt is a 5-meter, just a smidge smaller than the Palomar 200-inch! Also, like Palomar, the mountain has few telescopes. The Hale only shares the mountaintop with two other active telescopes. The 5-meter in The Astronomer’s Crypt only shares its mountain with one other telescope.

Hale Stairway

Also, as far as I know, there are no bodies buried in or near the Hale 200-telescope, but it does have a cool stairway worthy of good horror movie!

Day Jobs and Talismans

I spent last weekend at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona, where I had a great time presenting science talks and speaking on steampunk panels. The convention was large enough that I kept busy, but small enough that I could have some good productive conversations with people. Tales10-4-cover-big I came home to find the final illustrations waiting for the last issue of Tales of the Talisman Magazine. So I spent much of this week finishing the layout. Today, I wrote my final introduction for the magazine. We’ll be proofreading in the coming week, then sending it to the printer. Needless to say, this has been something of a week for reflection.

When I started Tales of the Talisman in 2005, I was working as a full time writer and editor. No one was more surprised than me at the end of 2007 when I received a call from Kitt Peak National Observatory asking if I would be interested in returning to operate telescopes. To be honest, I thought it would be a short-term job. The funding situation for the national observatory looked bleak and it was unclear how much longer the National Science Foundation would continue to operate the facility in an era when bigger and better telescopes needed construction funds.

I left astronomy in 2001 because I’d moved into a position that ate so much of my time I had little left over for my own writing, much less Hadrosaur Tales, the predecessor to Tales of the Talisman. I returned because I thought I could help out, I thought it was short term, and a regular paycheck looks good to banks when you’re trying to get a mortgage! I also had the promise of a regular schedule that effectively gave me every other week off. (Just as an aside, I’ll note that I average 80 hours of work in six nights at the observatory. It’s an intense schedule!)

Seven and a half years after I returned to Kitt Peak, the situation has changed dramatically. The Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument (or DESI) is being developed for the Mayall 4-meter telescope. Also, NASA is pushing ahead with the Extreme Precision Doppler Spectrometer (or EPDS) for the WIYN telescope. In these volatile times, it’s hard to say what will happen in the coming months and years, but right this moment, Kitt Peak’s future looks bright and I’m excited to be a part of it.

In this era of promise for astronomy, I also find my writing load has increased. I just turned in The Brazen Shark, which is book three of my four-book Clockwork Legion Steampunk series, and I signed the contract for the horror novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. If all goes well, that latter project will be the first of a series. I was already finding it challenging to keep up with a relentless, quarterly publication schedule. Also, publishing has been evolving in the past decade and I’ve recognized the need to create a sustainable electronic edition of any book I publish. It’s not much more work than creating a print-only edition, but it’s enough extra that I haven’t managed it regularly.

So, volume 10, issue 4 is the last issue of Tales of the Talisman … for now. Who knows quite what the future will hold as both publishing and astronomy evolve. What I can say for sure is that I will continue to find ways to publish short fiction, but in a way that I can manage with the astronomy work and my writing commitments. At LepreCon last weekend, I had a great discussion with Jennifer Brozek, who has been nominated for the Hugo Award for best editor.

Jennifer-and-David-S

We also got to play with a really cool Star Trek transporter prop. I can’t say too much about our discussions until more discussion happens, but I can say a viable project is in the works, and it might just be as much fun as playing with a working transporter console. Stay tuned.

Here’s wishing all of you a Happy Independence Day!