Kodaikanal Observatory

2 03 2013
Kodaikanal Observatory

Kodaikanal Observatory, c. 1907.
Image courtesy IIA Archives.

I think this photo demonstrates why I’ve lost interest in my current project and wish I could start working on a new one. The only caption I’ve seen attached to this image is “John and Mary Ackworth Evershed, Kodaikanal.” The Eversheds arrived at Kodaikanal Observatory in January 1907. John had (reluctantly) accepted the position as “European Assistant” to the observatory’s director, Michie Smith, arriving in India after a productive visit to the solar observatory on Mt Wilson. Not surprisingly, most of Evershed’s time at the observatory was spent installing and then using spectroheliographs to study the spectra of sunspots. He became the observatory’s director in 1911.

All very interesting, I’m sure, but what I want to know: how can this possibly be a photo of “John and Mary Ackworth Evershed” when it includes sixteen other people, fourteen of whom are obviously not “European Assistants”? Colonial astronomy drives me crazy, it really does.





Wallpaper Wednesday (Aristarchos, Helmos Observatory)

27 02 2013
Snow on Mount Helmos. Photo credit: Helmos Observatory/National Observatory Athens

Snow on Mount Helmos. Photo credit: Helmos Observatory/National Observatory of Athens

This astonishing image of Helmos Observatory (look closely) introduces the news item posted by the Royal Astronomical Society. Panos Boumis of the National Observatory Athens and John Meaburn of the University of Manchester have published the results of their research based on observations made with Aristarchos, the 2.3 m telescope at Helmos Observatory. Aristarchos only saw first light in 2005, so that Boumis and Meaburn are revealing their conclusions so soon is pretty exciting. In order to measure the distance and age of three lobes of the nebula KjPn8 (in other words, three parts of the gaseous shell that was ejected by a star as it collapsed into a white dwarf), they attached a narrowband camera to the telescope. By comparing the imaging results over the course of several months (years?), they were able to track the velocity and expansion of the lobes; from there, they calculated the distance and age of the nebula.

It’s interesting enough to learn that KjPn8 is some 8000 light years away from Earth. Even more interesting, however, is the conclusion that the lobes were created at different times: 3200, 7200 and *50,000* years ago. That’s…what…the Paleolithic? Homo neandrathalensis has another 10-20,000 years to go extinct and Homo sapiens has just arrived in Europe. That’s seriously cool stuff.

Click on the image to go to the original, posted by the Helmos Observatory.





Wallpaper Wednesday (Ice Cube South Pole Neutrino Observatory)

20 02 2013
IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory

IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory

The IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory is seeking candidates for its “Winterover” positions. If you’ve got wicked UNIX skillz, don’t mind living in isolation, and aren’t particularly attached to sunrise, take a look at the advertisement. If you’d rather just fantasize about working at the South Pole, click on the image above to download various sizes of wallpaper for your computer.





Wallpaper Wednesday (Pierre Auger Observatory)

13 02 2013
Surface Detector, Pierre Auger Observatory. Photo credit: Pierre Auger Observatory

Surface Detector, Pierre Auger Observatory. Photo credit: Pierre Auger Observatory

It was surprisingly difficult to locate an image to illustrate today’s post. I was inspired by the March 2013 cover story in Astronomy magazine. Written by Yvette Cendes (follow her on twitter at @whereisyvette), the article outlines the structure and research goals of the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina. As you can probably see from the image above, Pierre Auger is a different sort of facility, more akin to the neutrino detectors I discussed last year than South America’s more famous observatory, ESO at Paranal.

I read Cendes’ article a few hours after one of our weekly “Networks of Exchange” colloquia, the focus of which tends to be the  materiality of science. This week, we were back on the subject of astronomy and how the tools—and the movement of tools—shape practice. I’m not sure anyone is ready to attribute agency to the instruments, but I feel like we’re moving closer to the default position of architects/designers, which is that objects shape experience and subjectivity in unexpected ways that have little to do with human or social intent.

At any rate, I was inspired by Cendes’ article to think more intently about the construction of scientific spaces. One one hand, it seems as if cosmic-ray detectors are minimally invasive, small-scale structures with low profiles slotted into what Cendes describes as a “truly remote and empty corner of the world.” On the other hand, the observatory is backed by a multi-national contingent of 500 scientists from 55 institutions, which means that regardless of the physical location of the detectors, the exchange of data also requires a robust communications infrastructure with a global reach.

I was completely intrigued by one of the graphics that accompanied the article. It shows the distribution of particle detectors on the pampas northeast of Malargüe. Here is a very similar graphic, published a few years ago in the CERN Courier:

Distribution of water tanks, Pierre Auger Observatory. Image credit: CERN

Distribution of water tanks, Pierre Auger Observatory. Image credit: CERN

As Cendes explains, we can expect a ultra-high energy cosmic ray (UHECR)  strike only once per square-mile of Earth’s surface every 39 years. The distribution of 1,600 water tanks over an area of 3,000 sq. km with a 1-km module maximizes the chances of detecting a UHECR strike. This graphic raises more questions for me than it answers, though. That is, it illustrates quite well the system for detecting UHECRs, but as a historian, I wonder about labor processes behind the land survey, the construction and placement of the tanks, the cadastral maps that must have determined the boundaries of the observatory, the rationalization and flattening of the landscape into an instrument of measure, and the occupation of “nothingness”.

Some of my questions were answered by the “Voices of the Universe” video issued by the observatory. I was intrigued by Paul Mantsch’s assertion that the project transcended nationalist aspirations. As I’ve noted elsewehere, there is a significant number of NASA supporters in the United States who want us to return to the “glory days” of a U.S.-dominant space program. While I wish we as a people would do a better job supporting NASA, projects like the Pierre Auger Observatory demonstrate that “national” science, if it ever existed, is almost extinct.

Okay, this was a rather loosely constructed post (and I didn’t even get to the part about Auger North or ESO’s Deep Space Antenna 3, 30km south of Malargüe), the point of which was just to say: cosmic ray research is very interesting, Cendes’ article lead me to new questions, and you should probably pick up a copy of the March issue of Astronomy.





Wallpaper Wednesday (Peach Mountain Observatory)

6 02 2013
Peach Mountain Observatory. Image credit: James Rotz, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Peach Mountain Observatory. Image credit: James Rotz, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

As a consolation prize to Michigan for their loss to the Now-Number-One-Ranked Hoosiers (in both polls!), today’s post features the University of Michigan 26-meter Radio Telescope at Peach Mountain Observatory. Built in 1958, this dish supplanted an 8.54-meter radio telescope that had been built just three years earlier. If you zoom in with Google Maps (here, I’ve already zoomed for you), you can see the smaller dish at the south of the observatory’s cleared property, with the large dish at the north.

The most interesting thing I discovered while trying to ferret out primary sources documenting the construction of the radio telescope was a stack of technical papers from the 1970s related to the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO) and Interplanetary Monitoring Platform (IMP-6). For instance:

I love that a search for construction documents can lead to random readings on low frequency solar bursts and orbiting observatories.

Right click on the image above to download it or go to Michigan Engineering’s Peach Mountain Observatory set on flickr.





Unprogrammed Observing

28 01 2013
Alamere Falls and the Milky Way. Photo credit: Rick Whitacre

Alamere Falls and the Milky Way. Photo credit: Rick Whitacre

Rick Whitacre spent eleven hours composing and capturing this image. All of that planning and waiting produced stunning results, but funnily enough, when the photograph popped up on my twitter feed, it reminded me that taking the opposite approach—no planning—also has its benefits. A few weeks ago, I was in California, spending time with my wife’s family in a lovely rental home at the top of a hill overlooking Monterey Bay. Twice I wrapped myself in blankets and sat out on the (cold) metal deck furniture to watch the stars. I can’t remember the last time I sat outside without some sort of agenda to guide me. I go outside to do the #ISSWave, to watch meteor showers, to (infrequently) use one of our telescopes to look at pre-selected targets… I plan a lot, too much.

Sitting outside a few weeks ago, enjoying the best view of the Milky Way I’d had since the last time I was in Monterey, I followed no plan. I didn’t have a star chart (well, my iPhone, but its light messed up my night vision, so I kept in my pocket) or a schedule. Just me, my blankets, and the wind. That’s how I used to observe when I was a kid, staring up at the sky every night without much of a goal other than to eventually fall asleep. I seem to have lost the ability to just watch the stars, I’m too busy trying to fit them into the game plan for my career, or my need for self-improvement, or whatever. Mr. Whitacre’s photograph, for all the work behind it, reminded me that occasionally I should just look at the sky, not study it.





Wallpaper Wednesday (Observatories in the Snow)

23 01 2013
Lick Observatory

Lick Observatory, 1944. Photo courtesy San Jose Research Library

Because I know you’re sitting in front of your computer complaining about the cold, today I’m posting some images to make you feel even colder. Or maybe they will make you feel better: you could be sitting under an open dome in a non-temperature-controlled room, trying not to disturb the instruments with your shivering hands and chattering teeth.

mountwilsonobswinter

Mount Wilson Observatory in Winter. Photo courtesy Mount Wilson Observatory, Zach Behrens

Washburn

Washburn Observatory, University of Wisconsin, c. 1900. Charles N. Brown, Photographer. Photo courtesy Wisconsin History Images.

Atmospheric Research Observatory in the snow, Flagstaff, AZ, 2010. Photo courtesy NAU Observatory.

Atmospheric Research Observatory in the snow, Flagstaff, AZ, 2010. Photo courtesy NAU Observatory.

This one is my favorite and probably makes the best wallpaper:

Greenwich Observatory, 2009. Photo courtesy of The Greenwich Phantom.

Greenwich Observatory, 2009. Photo courtesy of The Greenwich Phantom.

And don’t forget the last snow image I posted—Paranal is always beautiful, regardless of season.





Daniel S. Schanck Observatory, 1865

21 01 2013
Daniel S. Schanck Observatory, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Photo credit: JR

The Daniel S. Schanck Observatory may be the loneliest building on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus. Perched at the edge of a parking lot overlooking George Street, the observatory occupies as little space as the university could possibly give to it. Unlike many historical university observatories, Schanck doesn’t have much of a role to play in outreach for the Physics and Astronomy Department: public viewings are conducted at the Robert A. Schommer Astronomical Observatory on the Busch Campus. At one time, the Schanck Observatory looked as if it would be abandoned to the ravages of time and weather, but recently the university commissioned Wu & Associates to restore its exterior. When I arrived on campus last semester (Fall 2012), construction crews were still working on the last details. Today, I noticed some brackets are still unfinished, but the new flashing and downspouts are looking very nice.

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

 

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Unfinished brackets, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Finished brackets, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

The observatory is actually two buildings, the passage between them is at the lower level. It was the smaller of the two buildings that captured my attention when I finally noticed the extremely modest observatory. I’m always fascinated by transit instruments (meridian circles and zenith telescopes) and the architectural accommodations that need to be made for them. The design of Washburn Observatory at University of Wisconsin is elegant, with the doors flanked by double-hung windows. Schanck is slightly more utilitarian, but of course, that was the idea, to shelter the instrument in a way that made it easy to use.

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

As you can see, the doors are still in bad repair. One of the panels had a pencil notation on it, though, so I’m hoping that work is just paused until winter is over. I admit, I started using my camera’s automatic settings today because my fingers were too cold to manipulate the shutter speed. Most of my bracket photos are blurry because I was shivering too much to hold the camera steady. If I was a member of the restoration crew, I’d be agitating for a break until spring thaw.

I’m just starting to sort through primary documents for this building, but here’s an excerpt from an oral history I found today. Speaking is Professor Paul L. Leath, Physics and Astronomy, during an interview conducted in April 2011 for the Rutgers Oral History Archives:

SH (Interviewer Sandra Stewart Holyoak):  Since I’ve been at Rutgers the Physics Department is continually in the news in some fashion.

PL:  Yes, it does a lot.  Actually, they’re in the news more these days than in the past because we’ve developed a strong astronomy program.  Astronomy is something that the public is very interested in, so that you find lots of articles on the astronomy.  That’s a very exciting field right, now. This is a golden age of astronomy, with the Hubble space telescope and other major telescopes.  There weren’t astronomers here back in those days.  We had an astronomer back, long before my time, we had one astronomer, but we didn’t have any astronomers when I came.  Well, we had a guy that taught an astronomy course, Maurice Bazin, but we really didn’t have any astronomers.  … In fact, I taught the astronomy course once myself, early on.  … Do you know the Schanck observatory?

PC:  Yes.

SH:  Tell us about that.

PL:  Well, it’s in dire disrepair now.  What happened, more than once, is that people broke into the building and stole parts of the telescope.  … Its final demise was somebody came in and actually stole the objective lens out of the telescope, and it wasn’t worth replacing.  So, it’s just a shell of a building now.  … Well, there’s the frame of the telescope maybe, but we have a new telescope over on the Busch campus, so if you want to see the stars and planets that we used to see, we can do it up on the physics building now.  [Editor’s Note:  The Robert A. Schommer Astronomical Observatory is located on top of the Serin Physics Laboratory on Busch Campus.]

SH:  The Schanck Observatory is at the corner of George and Hamilton.

PL:  Right.  The other thing that’s happened there, is that they have let trees grow up around it, and the other thing that’s happened is that they put street lights along there, and a parking deck across the street, so the light pollution is impossible there.  So, it’s not a good place anymore, but … in its day, in the nineteenth century, it was a very important place.  It was a place where they actually, accurately, measured time.  There is a little building that’s associated with it that has a little slit of a roof going across, and they would measure the transit of the sun precisely, they’d measure the time there.  [Editor’s Note:  The Schanck Observatory was built in 1865 to study astronomy at Rutgers.  Named after its donor, Daniel S. Schanck, it was patterned after the Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece.]





Wallpaper Wednesday (Snow at ESO’s Paranal)

26 12 2012
Dark Sky and White Desert. Photo credit: ESO/Yuri Beletsky

Dark Sky and White Desert. Photo credit: ESO/Yuri Beletsky

It’s difficult to find a snowy shot of the observatory at Cerro Paranal. The air is so dry in the Atacama Desert that precipitation is a rarity, even at the elevation of 2,600 meters (8,500 feet). In addition to the domes of the VLT, this wintry scene includes a satellite trail and a meteor trail. Such good fortune for a photographer!

Right click on the image to download an image for your computer desktop (right sidebar of the ESO page).





Wallpaper Wednesday (Sydney Observatory)

28 11 2012

Sydney Observatory, Sydney, Australia. Photo credit: Andrew, HDR Cafe

Today, I’m directing you toward a nice HDR image of the Sydney Observatory. Actually, I’m directing you to something even better; the flashy, crowd-pleasing image is just a diversion. Last night, I stumbled across a small treasure trove. Scattered across the Sydney Observatory’s blog are several reproductions and transcriptions of letters written by past NSW Government Astronomers: G. R. Smalley (1864–1870); H. C. Russell (1870–1907); and H. A. Lenehan (1907–1908). My favorite was the first one I found:

Letter by H. C. Russell, 4 June 1869. Image courtesy: Sydney Observatory

June 4th [186]9

Sir

I am directed by the
Government Astronomer to inform
you that he is put to very great
inconvenience by the smoky
state of the chimney in his Computing
Room, the smoke from which
sometimes drives him out of the
Room, while at others
everything in the Room gets covered
with soot and ashes; I am further
directed to ask you to carry into
effect with as little delay as
possible the requisition dated May 18
for the performance of this work.

I have the honor to be
Sir
Your obedient servant
H C Russell
for the
Govt Astronomer

The Colonial Architect

Follow this link to read more letters, click on photograph of the observatory to go to the image download page.