Observatory Life

Mar. 14, 2002

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer


The Observatory is like a navy ship.  As long as the mission is underway and discipline holds, everyone knows their battle stations.  But when a receiver goes bonkers, or some piece of heavy steel machinery seizes up, the astronomers – who, unlike the engineers, are useless at making repairs – are suddenly left to their own amusements.

This can be a problem, for without a telescope to wield, there’s little for them to do.  Yes, there’s a pool near the cafeteria, but paddling around at night – when we are normally awake – is a bad idea.  The pool is a hangout for 300 quadrillion mosquitoes (probably because the lizards, who keep such pests under control elsewhere, don’t float).  The last visiting scientist to swim at night came out a few minutes later looking like a prune, thanks to the involuntary transfusion of several quarts of blood.

Other entertainments are hard to come by.  Somewhere on the site is a solitary TV, but I’m told it’s encased in half-inch wire mesh to minimize interference. Viewing is frustrating, although the sound works fine.  One astronomer sought diversion by taking a midnight walk under the antenna in 1978.  He’s still not returned, and while no one’s particularly worried, the telescope operators occasionally grouse about wanting the flashlight back.

The Observatory now sports more terminals than the French Railways, and off-duty astronomers can frequently be found surfing the Web. There’s e-mail – roughly as exciting as stewed broccoli, but always available in large portions.  Some of the older folks, who learned reading as children, bring books.

The usual American pastime – eating – can be problematic.  I’ve described the cafeteria cuisine in these dispatches before, and as a consequence have been offered a “generous consideration” by the local Poultry Council if I refrain from railing yet again at the endless chicken dishes, or even the mountainous helpings of rice (which, I suspect, are part of a make-work plan for water buffalo).  But like it or not, the cafeteria closes early, especially on weekends.  Of course, if the hour isn’t too late, famished researchers can drive a half-mile to the nearest, off-site restaurant.  It specializes in vulcanized pulpo and fried plantain chips.  The latter are also useful as furniture shims.

Most of our work is done at night, long past the hour at which such salutary culinary experiences are possible.  The alternatives are to either subsist on body fat (usually available) or the offerings of the snack table.

The snack table has been moved from its former lock-and-key location in the electronics shop to the Project Phoenix control room. This has been a mixed blessing.  The good news is, there are snacks available all day long.  The bad news is, there are snacks available all day long. One can choose from an evil assortment of candy, crackers, cookies, confections, and chips.  Many of these feature synthetic cheese and barbecue flavor made from dry lubricants.  The snacks are inexpensive, habit forming, and a good source of rare earth metals.

When all else fails (a not-infrequent occurrence), there’s always the opportunity to simply opt out, and make yet another doomed attempt to pay off the sleep deficit with an early night to bed.  The cabins look superficially comfy.  Beds, baths, and bureaus – all the standard accoutrements.  But there are hidden features which – like jungle snares – can sabotage any attempt to sleep.

The bed linens, for instance, aren’t tucked in because moving the beds away from the walls requires a winch.  The linens quickly end up in a heap on the floor, leaving the bed about as cozy as a morgue gurney.  If, despite this small inconvenience, you still manage to drift off – well, you won’t drift far.  Any attempt to leave the windows open will only encourage a screech owl to take up noisy residence on the eaves.  Or perhaps you’ll be favored by one of those black cuckoo birds known as ani’s, whose call resembles a car alarm.  You can always turn on the air conditioner to mask the birds, but this has its own dangers.  The cycling of the compressor – roughly every 30 seconds – makes a curdling, chthonic “clunk” that resembles barbells dropped a foot from your head.  Curiously, this heavy pounding does not wake the dead, which is fortunate, ‘cause there’s no food for them anyway.

In fact, rather little spare time has been available so far during this observing run.  It’s true that an oscillator in the down-converter (don’t ask) went ventral side up three nights ago, but our engineer-extraordinaire John Ross had it fixed in a matter of hours.  Other than that, the Arecibo scope and the Project Phoenix system have been working like champs.  It’s been a real dry spell for the mosquitoes down at the pool.