Back in the warm control room, I pick at my night lunch as we wait out the weather. The dome building is 18 stories tall, threaded by a Byzantine combination of elevator rides, doors and passageways. Only the deep hum of the four-meter Mayall's motorized mount is there to remind us of its monstrous presence in the next room. The instrument is 92 feet tall, housing a mirror that weighs 15 tons and is polished to an accuracy of one-millionth of an inch. It is a magnificent telescope - a mid-century marvel of engineering that still remains at the cutting edge of research equipment. Yet many users will never bother to set eyes on the Mayall, though it hums only a few hundred feet away, in the very center of the dome. At some observatories, like the 10-meter Keck in Hawaii, scientists rarely get within miles of the telescope, working instead from computers at the bottom of the mountain.
Just decades ago, observing was a very different process. The astronomer would not only observe from the dome, but rather he would be perched within a cage at the very top of the telescope itself. On a beautiful summer night, there was nothing more romantic than being suspended there beneath the starry sky, the telescope around you like your own giant eyeball into the heavens above. On a cold winter night, though, it was hell.
When I observe, I like to do crossword puzzles online. I find watching movies or reading to be far too distracting because you are unable to switch your attention quickly enough. Astronomer Richard Green, who has been checking our data as it comes in, is chatting with his son over the web-cam on his laptop. Hal, our telescope operator, is playing solitaire. My thesis adviser, astrophysics professor Michael Strauss, is pacing back and forth nervously, an observing habit he claims to have had since grad school.
But as I double check the weather on cnn.com, I wonder if we're really that far removed from that iconic image of The Astronomer, smoking his pipe as he gazes through his brass eyepiece. Indubitably, our comfort level has gone up, but the Mayall is basically just a mirror at the bottom of a tube, a blown-up version of what Newton built hundreds of years ago. We're still looking at the same sky we've been looking at for thousands of years, and we catalogue it using the same ancient constellations. We're still asking those big questions, the same ones that astronomers have been asking for millennia. And of course, we still haven't figured out how to control the pesky weather.
It is now 4 a.m., and the sky has finally cleared. Every few minutes, when an exposure is finished, I type a few commands at the blinking prompt to move the telescope and start the next observation, as a fellow observer meticulously records the details in a paper log. When Green subtracts out imperfections in the equipment and the atmosphere from our data, points and smudges are clearly visible, and the mood in the room is one of optimism and excitement. As we zoom out, those pixilated dots and smudges become good old-fashioned stars and galaxies; even the thickest of clouds have failed to keep them from us. And there are still two more hours left to observe before we are finally thwarted by that age old arch-nemesis of all nighttime observers, ancient and modern alike - the sun.
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