Saturday, March 1, 2014

The 4am Mouse

FLWO Observatory, Arizona (December 14, 2005)

The 4am mouse came out every night, reliably on time. Everybody knew about the mouse: it was a celebrity in the close-knit circle of graduate students spending their nights at the FLWO 48-inch telescope. And the mouse knew about the students too: always munching something, while they were desperately trying to stay awake. Where there are students, there are plenty of crumbles to share.

The 4am mouse was one of the features of the smallest among the telescopes at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. Whippe was the revered scientist that discovered what comets really are: loose mixtures of ice and rocks that hurls through space leaving a trail of shooting stars and glowing ions. Dirty snowballs, he called them, that the sun makes pretty. I remember Fred, still working in his eighties at the central facility in Cambridge, never missing a Colloquium on Thursdays. Always climbing the stairs leaning on the side, to let young people pass in front of him. Because young people have a lot to do and should walk fast, he used to say.

View from Mt. Hopkins
The other feature of the telescope was its own dual-channel infrared camera. Designed to take images simultaneously at two different colors of light, it was equipped with two sensors: a "blue" channel tuned to recording (you guessed) bluer light, and a "red channel" capable to make images in redder light. Except that, since both channels were only sensitive to the invisible infrared (redder than red), these were more like the "black" and "blacker" channel, from the point of view of human sight. The problem with the camera was that it was moody. Every night, at about the same time the mouse got out of its hole, the blue channel stopped working. The first time it happened I panicked. Oh my, what did I do wrong? Did I break it? Should I call the support astronomer in Tucson, wake him up in the middle of the night, and tell him I screwed up? Then I remembered the manual: everything has manuals that nobody reads, and the solution of my problem was there, first line in the FAQ. Apparently it wasn't something I did, or the camera having a sudden attack of musophobia. It was just the "blue" channel being lonely. The solution spelled in the manual was to go to the telescope chamber, hug the big electronic box attached to the cryostat with the detectors, and the blue channel would mysteriously restart to work. Sometimes it just takes a spoonful of sugar.

As a graduate student, I spent many nights at the 48-inch telescope, its mouse and the marvin-esque camera with its blue-channel blues. It is a great telescope, simple enough for a student to use without the assistance of an operator. That's when a student learns more: when the camera gets moody and one has to troubleshoot its depression without the safety net of a "grownup" astronomer. Until recently, access to similar telescopes was offered to the community through the National Optical Astronomy Observatory: these facilities were essential for the training of students from small institutions, that do not have guaranteed access to private telescopes. With the funding cuts in last year's sequestration and the flat research budgets following the great recession, the National Science Fundation has however reviewed the portfolio of facilities that is capable to support. While this was necessary to allocate the funding for the new large telescopes of the future, it had the consequence of dramatically reducing the available "public" time on these same small telescopes which are the bread-and-butter for the training of graduate students. This will not affect large universities and organizations that have their "private" telescope time, but will be felt by the smaller institutions, increasing the gap between the "have" and "have not" in astronomical science.

Souther Arizona, view from Mt. Hopkins, FLWO (December 14, 2005)

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