Just Another Night at the Office

29 May

My office is ten feet from the edge of a cinder ridge on the west side of the summit of Mauna Kea, 13,522 feet above sea level and forty miles from the nearest town. I can see that town, Kamuela, my home, from where I sit, for my office is outside, exposed to the elements. When there are no clouds blocking the view the orange lights of the main street are plainly visible. I can even make out the softer green lights of the observatory headquarters building where the astronomers I serve work.  My hours start when the sun goes down and end just before it rises again many hours later.

The only piece of furniture in my office is a sturdy reclining beach chair securely mounted to the top of a motorized revolving turntable. From this spot I have seen the canvas of the atmosphere painted by the master in sunlight and wind and cloud. I have watched Maui floating on a silver sea of cumulus that turns to red and fades in glory as the earth rotates eastward into darkness. One by one the stars appear as dusk gives way and the curtain rises on the night. The constellation’s brighter stars tell me time and date and allow me to place myself in the grand scheme of things. Full dark comes in an hour and the night is revealed to be not truly dark at all. The sky is alive with stars and their light fills the air with radiance.

My office.

Scorpius rises around an hour before midnight, its curved tail hoisting with it the thickest part of the Milky Way and the Galactic Center. During the next five hours it will climb to zenith, skim the top of the dome of Keck-1 and the Subaru telescope and then dive into the Pacific just before dawn. In the darkness before sunrise I will see satellites and shooting stars and watch the eastern sky begin to brighten as the terminator races west.

I wear a special suit of clothes to hold the cold at bay and sit holding a pair of 25×100 astronomical binoculars in my thick gloved hands. As the hours pass I imagine myself a Mayan priest or a Druid studying the skies for signs and portents, when in fact I am only there to watch for airplanes overflying the summit. If I see any my job is to press a button, shuttering our adaptive optics laser and then reset it after the plane is gone. In the long course of many nights I have slowly come to see the night sky as though there were no Earth rotating in space and me upon it. I am beginning to become conscious of our place in the Universe.

In the deepest night I talk to my father who is two years dead but by no means gone. I talk to his new companions, the ancients who have gone before and who still listen if you but speak. I talk to myself and imagine beauty and I think of Haiku. Life is grand and the view grander.

I am not bored. I am not cold.

I am grateful.

Just another night at the office.



47 Responses to “Just Another Night at the Office”

  1. TheOthers1 May 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    Wow. I was thinking as I read how you have a way with words. It’s seductive almost. I’m not overly fond of being outside when it’s cold, but the urge to observe the stars at night was very strong after reading this.

    • Douglas MacIlroy May 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

      Dear CC,

      Your comments are especially meaningful because of your way with words. Thanks for reading. Go out on a warm night. The stars will be there.



  2. susielindau May 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Beautiful description of your “work space!” Who knew it was so cold there!

    • Douglas MacIlroy May 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      Dear Susie,

      Thanks for dropping by. ‘Work space.” I like that. May steal it from you, with your permission. Would make a better title, hmmm?



      • susielindau May 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

        Go for it! You don’t ever need my permission!

      • Sandra May 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

        Now that lends a whole new meaning to ‘outside work’. What a terrific way to spend the night. This is a unique piece of work Doug, and I enjoyed it. I even disobeyed instructions, (You-Tube eats up our monthly mobile internet allowance) to snatch a peak at the motorized turntable and your chair. The whole concept leaves me breathless. Thanks for that snatch of your life.

      • dmmacilroy May 30, 2012 at 2:03 am #

        Goodness, Sandra! I hope you didn’t chew up too many minutes of your Interweb time on the Laser Susan. Thanks for stopping by and leaning on the fence with me.



  3. Justin Case (@LocoFringe) May 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Nice bit of a expository writing and narration there Mr. Douglas. Your sentence fluency is smooth and expressive, worthy of the literary greats. I feel inspired by your words. Your writings sometimes remind me of Hunter Thompson who said – For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled. And until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘ You are nothing ‘, I will be a writer.

    • Douglas MacIlroy May 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      Dear Justin,

      Thank you.

      Your response made my day and I will think of it every time I sit at night and stare at the stars. Powerful and poignant stuff for a writer. I am humbled.



  4. Claire 'Word by Word' May 29, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    Its not Friday 🙂

    • theforgottenwife May 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Amazing. Absolutely amazing! I love watching the stars, but I can only imagine the amazing views you have from your “office.” I admit, sir, to a bit of jealousy when reading your post. You have a great job! One of the items on my bucket list is to visit your “workspace.” Maybe, someday soon 🙂

      • Douglas MacIlroy May 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

        Drop me a line when you’re in the neighborhood. I’ll spend an afternoon with you on the way to the summit and then we can watch the sunset and the stars come together.

        Thanks for reading.



      • theforgottenwife May 30, 2012 at 1:33 am #

        I will so take you up on that when I get to Hawaii!!! Thank you!

    • Douglas MacIlroy May 29, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

      Dear Claire,

      Sorry. I try only to post when the muse moves me or Friday rolls around. Last night I got to thinking about how a great deal of the starlight whose journey is stopped because the Earth happens to be in the way is of different ages. Most of it is old beyond comprehension, each photon a memory of another time.

      I decided a description of my ‘work space’ was something that my friends might enjoy seeing, so to speak.

      As always, thank you for reading.



      • Claire 'Word by Word' May 29, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

        No problem, we are sharing the reply space just like Earth in the universe, making a community. Good to see you being inspired by the repetitive viewing of a night sky.

        I prefer to talk of these stars and like to share news of new discoveries with my students, increasingly frequent these days. They ask if I think we are really the only life out there, I don’t think we are, but I also don’t think we will ever discover it. Fortunately there is fiction.

        Bonne Continuation Doug, will be watching and reading 🙂


    • Douglas MacIlroy May 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

      Dear Claire,

      I tried to get my reply to appear below your comment but WordPress seems to have other ideas.

      Look a little above this one for the real thing. Thanks.



  5. erinleary May 29, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    If your intention was to make me less satisfied with my own job and envious of yours, well then, you have succeeded. Thanks for sharing a lovely evening – you tell it in a way that makes it feel real.

    • Douglas MacIlroy May 30, 2012 at 1:59 am #

      Dear Erin,

      If I told you what I got paid you’d soon change your mind. I am compensated in other ways; the view, the view, the view….

      Thanks for dropping by and reading.



  6. Kirsten May 29, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

    Just beautiful!
    I can see that I’m not the only one who has a visit to Science City on their bucket list, but when we flew over Haleakala Crater on our helicopter tour, I knew that at least once in my lifetime I wanted to look at the stars through those mighty telescopes.
    Thanks for giving me just a taste of what that might feel like with your evocative writing. Really lovely. It made my day to read your post.

    • dmmacilroy May 30, 2012 at 2:01 am #

      Dear Kirsten,

      Thanks for stopping in and reading. You’re right to put a visit to Mauna Kea on your bucket list. (How did you find this post, if I may ask?) Off to click on your links.



      • Kirsten June 1, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        You actually wrote a comment that resonated with me at Jennifer M. Eaton’s site, so I clicked, followed, and here I am!
        The internet’s so cool that way, don’t you think?
        I’m looking forward to more great content. 🙂

      • dmmacilroy June 2, 2012 at 5:13 am #

        Dear Kirsten,

        Yes, the Interweb is wonderful that way. Thanks for helping me sort that out. I am always surprised when someone shows up out of the blue. Makes my day.



  7. rgayer55 May 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Dear Doug,
    This is a beautiful piece of writing. I felt as if I were sitting right there beside you enjoying the view. We live about 20 miles from town in the Ozark hills and often spend evenings gazing at the stars and watching satelites. These blog post have helped remind me how connected we all are on this planet. This post in particular.

    • Douglas MacIlroy May 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      Dear Russell,

      I appreciate you saying so, my friend. We are all connected by this planet, our minds, love, the human condition, humor; speaking of which, have you seen this weeks prompt? (Smiles wickedly, thinking of Russell)



  8. Russell May 31, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Yes, (deep grimace) you’re killing me. This is the toughest prompt so far. I can’t guarantee how funny it will be, but I’ll post something 🙂

  9. tedstrutz June 1, 2012 at 5:18 am #

    I wasn’t sure if I was reading fiction, or a real story about your job. After checking the video, I see it’s your job. What an eloquent job description. Nice writing… but I must say, I was very disappointed to not find you in an Aloha Shirt! What kind of Hawaiian are you??? I was glad to learn about your job and that you actually work. I thought you just laid on the beach every day, well maybe you do… just asleep. Actually, you are not fooling me… that Laser Susan looked pretty damn comfortable, so probably at night too.

    • dmmacilroy June 5, 2012 at 7:28 am #

      How about an Aloha Jacket, Ted? Kind of chilly up there. Perhaps, though, I can take a picture of me in the chair one night, me in an Aloha shirt just for you.

      The Laser Susan is pretty comfy and we’ve learned how to stay warm. Sleep is out of the question though. Wouldn’t do to slip up. Job’s too nice.



      • tedstrutz June 6, 2012 at 4:58 am #

        I’ll come take the picture myself… I am going to Oahu for a few weeks, to help my son in law finish a remodel, end of July. Planning to take a weekend to see my friend in Volcano… and you. I will be reporting back to Madison Woods on the Real Aloha Doug…

  10. Susan Wenzel (@SusanWenzel) June 2, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    Dear Doug,

    I applied for an electronics maintenance job at the Keck in 1994 (when I was in denial that my time in Hawai’i coming to an end). But it wasn’t time. My husband applied for a job at the Keck in 2010 (when we were ready to make a move from Virginia). But it wasn’t time (and he didn’t have the “preferred but not necessary” cryogenics maintenance experience – haha).

    Some day soon…it will be the time. And, we will be back. In the meantime, I will continue to live vicariously through your pictures and posts.

    Many thanks,


    • dmmacilroy June 2, 2012 at 4:48 am #

      Dear Susan,

      When the time is right it will happen. (Would you like me to forward you any job postings as they become available?)

      Thanks for commenting here. I like knowing that you are reading. It will keep me from waxing too poetic about this rock, eh?



      • Susan Wenzel (@SusanWenzel) June 2, 2012 at 4:57 am #

        I can’t believe I said “time” so many times in one post… (I’m too tired to type, I guess)

        Don’t tempt me with job postings…yet. I need to wait until my youngest is out of school. I can’t uproot them again.

        Wax away…wax away.


  11. Madison Woods June 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    Loved this, Doug.

    • Beth Carter June 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      Loved this post and hearing about your unique job, Doug. I wish I had read this a week ago. Two good friends of ours are in Hawaii right now and the husband is an avid astronomer. He probably would have given a front tooth to sit all night and observe with you.

      Add me to your list of fans. Btw, I found this through Ted Strutz’s FF post.

      • dmmacilroy June 5, 2012 at 7:25 am #

        Dear Beth,

        Thank you for telling me where you found the link to this post. I appreciate you stopping by and reading.

        I’ll bet your friends were up on the summit already. Every evening at sundown the East ridge is packed with visitors watching the earth rotate away from the sun.




    • dmmacilroy June 5, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      HI Mads,

      Thanks for dropping in. You are the best.



  12. Jennifer M Eaton July 11, 2012 at 2:56 am #

    OMIGOSH, this is soo cool. I love astronomy. I also had no idea you’d ever need a coat in hawaii.

    Aloha. I know you are heading to work, but I am heading to bed. Have a good night. Enjoy the stars.

    • dmmacilroy July 11, 2012 at 5:47 am #

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for visiting. Hawaii, even at sea level, can get plenty cold. Up where I’m typing this from it’s a balmy 3.8 degrees centigrade. Warm summer evening. Stars out soon and me with them.



  13. valeriedavies August 8, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    magic. Thought I was reading inspired science fiction at first. When I realised it was your job description deep envy settled on me! But looking at your photo I can see that you are in the right place, you are the one!
    I lost you, and have just managed to negotiate the internet to follow you.. So glad I did,

    • dmmacilroy August 8, 2012 at 9:17 am #

      Dear Valerie,

      Thanks for renegotiating with the interweb and refinding me. Thanks also for checking out a few of my posts. It is nice to have you on board for the ride.



  14. rochellewisoff July 27, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

    Dear Doug,

    It’s fun reading this in retrospect. I’m not sure why I missed this the first time around. In any case I’m looking with longing at your office space. Tell your dad hello for me, he did a good job raising his son.


    Rochelle, SD

    • dmmacilroy July 29, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

      Dear Rochelle,

      My dad says ‘hello’ back to you. i know he would love you as much as I do. I’ll show you why one day. Thanks for reading and commenting here. Nice to see your words here.



  15. sandraconner July 29, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Doug, this is incredible. I did not see this when you posted it originally, but picked it up as I read your FF story for this week. I was fascinated by all of it — and NO, don’t change the title! It’s perfect. I watched the video and enjoyed it as well. Just one question, and perhaps it shows way more ignorance than I’d like to reveal. But unfortunately, I don’t know enough about optic lasers to know how ignorant I really am.
    Question: Exactly what does the laser itself do?

    Also, I appreciated what you said about your father — even more so since I just lost my wonderful dad last week.


    • dmmacilroy July 29, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

      Dear Sandra,

      The laser is tuned to a certain wavelength and hits a mile thick layer of molecules of sodium 56 miles high and ionizes their atoms which creates a 12th magnitude ‘false’ guide star visible to observers using the telescope. This guide star is then used to remove the twinkle of surrounding stars caused by variances in the atmosphere of earth. Pictures of the guide star are taken 2,000 times a second and this information is applied to a deformable mylar mirror in the adaptive optics beam train. The flexing of the mylar mirror is adjusted at the same rate and the result is an image of everything in the field of view that is 400% better than ‘normal. It is an amazing use of computers and technology and it has allowed me to have my ‘cog in a wheel’ job up on the summit. I could not be more grateful.

      I am sorry to hear of your loss. Your father is, like mine, not truly gone. He is ever in your heart now, and resides in your memory, buoyed by your love.



      • sandraconner July 30, 2013 at 10:28 am #

        Thank you for taking the time to explain, Doug. And I think I understand most of the explanation. What a terrific job!

        And thank you for the kind words about my dad. I agree most definitely. And I know he is rejoicing with the Lord Jesus whom he loved and served faithfully from the age of 12 until he passed at the age of 88. It’s a great comfort and blessing.

  16. Life in the 50's and beyond... October 16, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    This is incredible. Sure beats my office.

    • dmmacilroy October 16, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

      Long commute, though…and a tad cold…but, yeah, pretty nice. Thanks for following.




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