Why would anyone volunteer to spend 4 nights over New Year halfway around the world from home, at the top of a mountain, staring at computer screens all night?
This is the best question I’ve heard all year. When I signed up for this observing trip 4 months ago I thought it would be fantastic. I could get completely comfortable with mounting and using ULTRACAM, gain more valuable observing experience, and enjoy a warmer winter holiday with a bit of diving, hiking and general beaching. Obviously I didn’t anticipate how tough it might be.
I arrived in La Palma on Sunday evening, just before 9pm, having left home over 12 hours earlier. The journey wasn’t particularly worse than usual, but I’d definitely forgotten how unpleasant it can be. I’m certain that Ryanair are constantly installing more and more uncomfortable seats on their planes, but I must admit that the customer service has become less grumpy. This time I changed in Lanzarote and Tenerife North, before finally touching down in La Palma. It was my first ever time in Lanzarote – it was rather windy, but there’s really not much else to say about that. I did enjoy sharing some time in the airport with some cheery local musicians who sang the entire time they were waiting to board their flight.
The transit to Tenerife North was the only time I’ve ever been genuinely frightened in an aeroplane. Coming down to land through extreme turbulence had everyone on the flight sat in silence with nervous smiles on their faces. Even the cabin crew looked worried. Knowing that Tenerife North is statistically one of the most dangerous airports in the world didn’t help me much. It was the location of the worst accidental aviation disaster in history, and recently saw an inter-island Binter flight (very much like the one I was on) skid off the runway in high winds. Of course, the landing was totally fine, if a little delayed, and I was quickly off the plane and in the transfer terminal. Less than a minute after entering the terminal, my connecting flight to La Palma was called, and I went back out onto the runway and straight back into the plane I’d just disembarked. I spotted my luggage on the ground below the plane, having obviously just been taken off, only to be put straight back on again. I was even greeted by the same cabin crew. The flight to La Palma was even shorter, and less scary, and I was soon boarding the familiar bus to Santa Cruz, with the same old bus driver as always, enjoying being back on my favourite Canary island. I had just enough energy to enjoy dinner and a good catch up with a few old friends, before going to sleep in the same room I’d spent 8 months living in when I was here in 2011/12.
The following morning I was up early (again), and shared a taxi with Stu up to the observatory. On arrival we didn’t even have time to check-in to the residencia before rushing up to the WHT to begin mounting ULTRACAM for the coming night. We’d both been under the impression that we wouldn’t actually be observing until the following night, but had just learnt that we might well be working that night too. The scheduled observations, using the adaptive optics instrument OASIS, would only be carried out if the seeing was below 1.1 arcseconds. It turns out that the back-up observations were to be done by ULTRACAM, which meant we had an entire 24 hours less time to prepare and sleep before starting the “real work”.
We had the instrument installed and cabled up in good time, but quickly encountered a serious issue with the instrument control system as soon as we tried to power up. We spent the remainder of the afternoon/evening running around trying out every spare piece of hardware available, with no success. We eventually managed to get the system working after replacing the GPS antenna interrupt cable with a spare one, even though we couldn’t come up with a good explanation for why this might have been causing the issue. This afternoon when we had a bit more time, we tried the old cable again to try to work out what had happened, and the system started perfectly. So we’re still unsure as to exactly why we were having problems, but hopefully if it happens again we can get straight to fiddling with the GPS cable without having to take out all the spare parts!
Whilst the seeing for most of the night was actually quite good, there was some high cloud around that meant the OASIS observations were completely impossible, and we had to stay up and observe with ULTRACAM for the whole night. This was particularly painful not only because we’d started work at 10am that day (making it a 22 hour shift by the time we got to bed at 8am the following morning), but also because the high clouds meant that most of the data we collected was fairly useless anyway. I accidentally had a 2.5 hour nap on the sofa and missed the only exciting part of the night – searching for lightning storms on Jupiter in H-alpha. Great. To make matters worse, my slowly developing cough/cold progressed to include a headache and a sore throat, so any plans for diving and hiking next week are now in jeopardy.
Tonight is New Years Eve, and after a slightly posher than normal dinner at the residencia, we were offered a glass of champagne before heading up to the telescope for what looks to be a nice, clear night. I could list many places I’d rather be this evening, but with Stu’s cynical but amusing sense of humour, some pretty-looking eclipses to observe and a box of Christmas chocolates to look forward to, it certainly could be worse.
Tomorrow will mark 9 months since I started my PhD, though it feels like a lot longer. I’ve made a lot of progress already, but I know there’s still a lot to come, and I’m very keen to improve my work ethic. This is no “new years resolution”, because I don’t subscribe to that rubbish, but I will be trying harder to work more efficiently and productively. Weaning myself off of social media during work hours will be the first major hurdle, and shifting the hours a little earlier in the day will probably be helpful too.
It’s been a turbulent year, and although I spent several weeks wondering what the point of everything was, I’m heading into 2014 with a reasonably positive outlook. I’d say I feel 70% good about what I’m doing, and I’m 60% confident I’ll finish on time. Here’s to a scientifically and personally productive and enjoyable year.
¡Prospero Año Nuevo!