Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A laser, a folding lawn chair, a hula hoop, and Peter Gillingham

Today was, as expected, my training (using the term somewhat loosely) as a laser spotter at Keck.

A laser spotter does not spot lasers. Nor does a laser spotter use a laser to spot other things. No, a laser spotter tries to spot things before they run into the beam of a laser.

In my town, laser spotters are available as temporary employees from one of the local employment agencies. Just call them up and tell them that you need a half-dozen laser spotters on a certain date, and you too can have laser spotters!

(Yes, I do live in a slightly unusual town.)

Anyway, there were a few purposes to the training:
  1. Make sure that hanging around the facility where the laser is for a few hours wouldn't make me keel over or anything. (Considering that I've hung out at facility around the corner, with very similar environmental hazards, for the last year, this was more of a formality than they knew.

  2. Show me where things were. I can now find the first-aid kit, a bunch of fire extinguishers, portable oxygen tanks, a folding lawn chair, a hula hoop, and quite a lot of snacks.

  3. Brief me on all the safety rules and requirements. (Again, given my experience at a similar facility, this was a bit of a formality.)
Unsurprisingly, it all went smoothly. The guy who was supposed to keep an eye on me to make sure I was doing okay did kinda doze off a couple times during a talk, and he had to "introduce" me to at least one person I already knew, which was a little amusing, but anyway.

So, come Thursday evening, I'll be sitting in a lawn chair, holding a hula hoop, and watching the pretty laser!

Oh, I did mention Peter Gillingham, didn't I? Australians might care about this more than most. Anyway, Peter's an Australian fellow who's worked in astronomy since the late 1960s. He was the Operations Director at Keck for the first 5 years it was in use, and he was the one who gave the talk today, on "Life after Keck" (for the most part), talking about some of the stuff he's done since.

His current big thing is "Dome C" which quite a lot of science and technology sorts in Australia are terribly excited about. "Dome C" is the third-highest mountain in Antarctica, and the "seeing" - how fine the visible detail is when looking at the sky - is quite good there. Also, it's well-situated for observing the Magellanic Clouds and the galactic center. And I think it's a shorter trip from Australia than the big observatory complexes in Hawaii and Chile.

There are, as Peter noted, a few complicating factors:
  1. Bedrock is under 2 miles of ice. So any observatory is anchored in ice, and will gradually move over time.
  2. The weather gets a mite nippy at times.
  3. Observing anything north of the equator is pretty much out of the question.
I'm unsure whether he mentioned the sun refusing to set properly for half the year. My guide and I discussed (amongst ourselves!) whether penguins could be trained to be laser spotters, and agreed that it would depend on their ability to pass an eye exam.

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