Tag Archives: Keck Observatory

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.



“Just some galaxy.”

25 Oct


So I’m up late in the Keck-1 telescope control room listening to the observers down in Waimea (they observe remotely) talking about oxygen absorption lines of a light source somewhere ‘out there’. The instruments they use have the ability to parse light in amazing detail and the astronomers have to stay on their toes to make sure that the data they’re gathering conforms loosely to their expectations for the target they’re observing. The universe is both vast and empty and crowded at the same time. Light sources can be separated by many thousands of light years but overlap in the field of view. The two observers were trying to discern some semblance of order from chaotic emission lines of an object being imaged and amid all of their speculation and postulation I hear the following:

“What is that object?”

“Just some galaxy.”

They went on sorting out what they were looking at and whether it was the right object and I found myself chuckling (after checking to see that the Polycom video link that connects us was muted). There are one-hundred billion galaxies in the Universe and here were two humans from the planet Earth staring at one of them, puzzling over spectra from light that began its journey untold millions of years ago. The galaxy they were looking at might have as many as ten thousand stars out of a hundred billion which support intelligent life and foster countless civilizations of beings I can only begin to imagine…. 

It’s mind boggling and fantastic and I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be part of the insane and insatiable curiosity that keeps humans looking skyward and wondering. Sends chills up and down my spine.

“Just some galaxy.”