Monday, November 9, 2015

Proofs, and Proof

This post is by Dr. Jane Rigby, an Astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who studies galaxies that are rapidly forming stars, and the black holes that lurk in the centers of galaxies. She is the Deputy Project Scientist for Operations of the new James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope to be launched in 2018. She is a seasoned Magellan observer (and overall observer, check out her CV!), and offers her perspective in a few posts here.

November 6, 2015

Johanna asked me to blog about my Magellan run, so howdy!  I'm Jane.  When I was a Carnegie and Spitzer Fellow, I used to observe at Magellan two to four times per year.  Now, I'm lucky to get down here once a year. In a separate post, I'll blog about the science I'm doing; it's way cool.  But first, I wanted to share some thoughts about my fist day here.

        My first 24 hr on the mountain featured some of the most boring and most profound parts of being an astronomer.  Boring first:  I owed The Astrophysical Journal corrected proofs of our new paper.  The recommended citation method had changed since the lead author wrote the bibliography long ago, and so I had to retrieve the citations for about fifty papers.   It was a stultifying 90 min of copy-and-paste.  Here I was, at a dark, gorgeous summit, stuck indoors fixing citations.  My first night was just for acclimation -- I wasn't observing until the next day -- and so after sticking it out until 4am, I called it quits and walked down to the dorms.
        The second night, after the observatory staff spent three frustrating hours in the afternoon and twilight playing Whack-a-mole with instrument and telescope problems, we finally got on sky and started integrating.  The first data looked gorgeous, exactly what we need to do the science.  So after starting an hour-long exposure, I headed outside.
        I love that falling-off-the-edge-of-the-Earth feeling of walking from the bright control room outside onto the telescope catwalk.  You can't see a thing, not even the white rails of the catwalk.  You just have to patiently stand and let your eyes adjust.  Gradually, the stars come out -- or rather, the stars were there all along, but now you can finally see them.  I spent a glorious hour scanning the Magellanic Clouds with my binoculars, saying hello to Orion, who stands on his head down here, swatting away at the Bull.

                                                         Taurid Meteor Shower, Brad Goldpaint, not from Magellan

        As I watched the Taurid meteors streak down to the horizon, I was thinking about the podcast I'd listened to at noon.  I'd planned to sleep until 2, but at noon, my body cried "Jet lag!" and refused more sleep.  So, I curled up in the dark with my earbuds.  Dan Savage was talking to a scared 20-year-old lesbian who’d called in — she’d just come out to her parents, who'd screamed at her for hours and then spent the next three months ignoring, shaming, or telling her she was hell-bound.   She had suicidal thoughts, she was in therapy, she was scared to leave her parents' house, and afraid that they were right that she was bound for hell.  Dan told her to leave, to find a couch, any couch, to surf, and then some cheap temporary accommodations.  "You're 20, your cerebral cortex isn't done forming yet, and so you think you'll feel like this forever.  But you won't.  Do you have any friends who are thirty?"  No, she replies.  "Well, get some.  They can tell you that you won't feel like this forever."  And, "Once you leave your parents' house, that shame will lift, and you'll feel better."
        As I stood on the catwalk, I was thinking about that young woman.  I was thinking about how, in the midst of grief, one can't imagining not grieving.
        For me, the best part of observing are those hour-long integrations in dark time.  The guide camera updates every ten seconds, reassuring me that we are exactly where we're supposed to be.  I have nothing to do for 50 minutes but walk out onto the catwalk, blink, and wait for my eyes to adjust until I can see the stars.
        Star-gazing from a dark site reassumes me that we live in a beautiful universe, that there is something majestic and precious about our lives.  That the carbon, oxygen, and iron in our bodies was forged in stars, and to stars shall return.  To me, the night sky is proof that we are part of something beautiful.  That it matters that those of us who are astronomers keep working at puzzling out some of how the universe works.  That what we do on this Earth matters, each of us, in the brief time we have.  Proof.
        I didn't care about the journal proofs, or the work I had waiting for me inside the dome.  I was thinking about that scared twenty-year old.  I wanted to tell her, I don't know if you're going to hell.  I don't even know whether there is a hell.  I do know there's a Universe, and you're part of it, and it's beautiful.  You have to stay strong, and stick around, and wait for the stars to come out.

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