Friday Night Observations

Friday evening was very enjoyable indeed, with some arts and literature near the start, and live scientific research toward the end. It began with a nice trundle across town on the 920 bus, when it eventually arrived (why are there still so many long gaps in the 720 and 920 schedules at crucial times of the day?) heading over to Westwood to the UCLA campus. I listened to music, read Jonathan Gold’s column in the LA Weekly, and listened to conversations around me. I got to Westwood and Wilshire after half an hour or so and walked up to campus and to Royce Hall, getting coffee on the way and even stopping in to an AT&T store to check on something. The campus was surprisingly quiet at 7:30 or so and I made my way over to Royce Hall, sending a text to a friend about later.

Besides the environmental reason I like to try to take public transport, it is also nice to plan it out and then be 15 minutes early and nice and relaxed before an event, and not be arriving all stressed due to traffic and then worried about parking and so forth. The show started late (as everything does in LA because there is a tacit assumption that everyone will be late due to traffic and parking and so people mostly were late because, of course, they know this assumption is in place. (At the 8:00pm actual official start time only about 20% of the audience that would arrive in the next 15 minutes were actually seated.)

atwood_gods_gardenersThe event, you’ll recall, was all about Margaret Atwood’s new book Year of the Flood. The author and the actors and musicians came onto the nicely decorated set and started with one of the songs specially written for the event. There is a limited set of engagements in 16 or 20 (I’ve forgotten) cities performing this reading and this is one of them. Margaret Atwood was the narrator and there were three actors reading the parts of three characters from the book. A central cult/religion that appears in the book (and the previous book with the same setting, Oryx and Crake) is called God’s Gardeners (they try to reconcile science, environmentalism, and religion), and the role of the musicians was to play some of their hymns (specially put to music by Orville Stoeber, and sung by the Sonos Choir with musical accompaniment). (Click the picture above left for slightly larger view. MA is on the right.)

I thought it was a pleasant event. Yes, I’d probably have preferred it if there was more Margaret Atwood reading and less of the others, but it was in interesting idea to do it this way, and I was happy that some of my ticket went to support the environment (at least it said that in the program, without specifying exactly what aspect).

I did not stay for the signing (the line was too long and I’ll wait for the paperback anyway – easier to carry around on my commute, for a start) and placed a call to a friend of mine nearby who I’d earlier mentioned I might say hi to before heading back across town.

Sure enough, Alice Shapley, an astronomer friend of mine at UCLA that I have keck_telescopes_rick_petersonnot seen in ages, was able to take some time out to say hi, with her students. They were just starting a night of observing at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. No, I did not fly over there – there was an easier option. They were doing the observing remotely, in a room over in the Physics department not far from Royce Hall. So I went over to say hi to them all. (Click image – by Rick Peterson – for larger view.)

It was great! There were three groups connected by a teleconference device: The observers (Alice and two of her students, Kevin and Kristin) at UCLA, two people on duty at the base of the mountain (Mauna Kea), and one fellow up at the mountain top helping operate aspects of the telescope. I stood on the side and watched them in action, working together to calibrate the instrument(s) they were pointing at a foreground guide star, before then re-pointing it (using a guiding script pre-written by the observing team) at a distant galaxy for which they were planning to gather spectral data (the first of a number they’d do through the night, finishing at 9:00am).

(Click the pictures for larger view. The whole observing group is in view in the first photo. Kevin is analyzing the raw data on this computer in the foreground and Kristin is up front working on the telescope controls and talking to the remote operator (see also the second photo).

alice_keck_observing_1 alice_keck_observing_2

Another enjoyable aspect of the whole session (the small part of it I saw) was watching the relationship between Alice and her students. She’s training them in the science (and the art) of the observing and the real-time data analysis that feeds back into the observing run itself. I really enjoyed watching that aspect, and seeing the joy on the faces of the students as they looked at the results of an operation they just performed.

I stayed for a while, chatted with them, caught up a bit on what Alice has been up to since I last saw her, and then eventually bade them goodbye and headed for my 720 bus at about 11:30pm to make the journey back home across town.

An excellent evening indeed.


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3 Responses to Friday Night Observations

  1. Plato says:

    She’s training them in the science (and the art) of the observing and the real-time data analysis that feeds back into the observing run itself.

    Maybe you could say more about this Clifford? I was thinking in terms of Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigmatic changes” but what your saying is more specific I think to what scientists are looking for in terms of anomalies in the data?

    Nice article.


  2. Clifford says:

    It would be better to hear it from someone who uses the instrument, I think. Certainly not me. I was just watching and forming my own hypotheses.



  3. I keep meaning to ask you for Atwood recommendations. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad, and loved both. But I sometimes feel I need to be in a position of particular mental/emotional resilience to read others by her. However, more experienced Atwood-ers tell me this is not the case for some of her earlier books. Is that your impression?