Sunday, September 18, 2016

Bring Your Mom to Work Day(s)

Every since I started observing at Las Campanas, I've talked to my mom about how amazing it is -- the views, the facilities, the people, the food. She loves hearing about my adventures and seeing pictures, and closely follows Yuri Beletsky (whose pictures surpass mine by far). She also has a deep appreciation for nature and how awesome the universe is. Thus it was my great pleasure to treat her to a trip to Las Campanas! I'm here for a two-night MIKE run to observe stars that host cool Jupiter exoplanets. I'm working with Jonathan Fortney and Daniel Thorngren to understand how the composition of these stars may be related to the heavy element mass locked up in their gas giant planets. You can read more about the project in Daniel's paper.

What this post is mostly about is Las Campanas from my mom's perspective. Here is our mini interview:

1. What brings you to Las Campanas?
First and foremost, to spend time with my daughter, Johanna, watching her work. Secondly, to see the night sky. I have seen pictures, but I wanted to see the night sky and stars with my own eyes. And the empanadas. Cannot forget the empanadas! 

2. How was your travel to the telescopes?
The travel was long! I traveled from Harrisburg, PA. Johanna and I had adventures flying from Miami to La Serena, sleeping in little pods on the plane. But the drive up to the telescopes was amazing- the road kept getting steeper and steeper until there was no more road. We reached the top of the earth! I kept thinking about all of the amazing people who build these telescopes and how challenging their journey must have been.

Johanna and Diane/mom in sleeping pods on the plane to Santiago.

 3. What were you most looking forward to? Has that happened?
I was most looking forward to seeing the Milky Way. We saw it last night and it was amazing. Dizzying, in fact! A lifetime event for me. And watching the sunset was unlike anything I have ever seen. Ribbons of reds and oranges with no cloud interference. And SO MANY STARS! I will never forget that night sky. Lastly, hearing about Johanna's adventures so far and her ideas about her future. She inspires me!

4. Has anything surprised you so far?
The temperature has surprised me -- I expected it to be cooler during the day, but it is actually quite pleasant. Another thing that surprised me is how astronomers "share" data and "time" with each other. Johanna is actually using some of her time tonight to "pay back" a colleague who got some observations for her earlier in the year. It is a concept that is not common across other sciences -- folks
can be territorial about their data. 

5. What have you done at the Observatory so far?
We took a nice long walk this morning and I got to see all of the telescopes. I heard a bit about the history behind each one, which I enjoyed. I also saw some new flora and fauna, which is always of interest to me. I also have enjoyed the meals at Las Campanas and was happy to be here for Empanada Sunday! I am looking forward to seeing Johanna in action tonight as she observes. But the night sky and time with my daughter are the highlights so far.

Clay Telescope, with Johanna for scale

6. How would you describe Las Campanas Observatory to other people? What does astronomical observing look like (to someone who does not do it for a living)?
It is not what I thought it would be like. There is a lot of sitting at computers doing compter-y stuff. But last night, I was witness to some exciting science happen. One of Johanna's colleagues found some important stuff for his research, and while I was not clear on what it was, there was an excitement in the room that was palpable. I also am now aware that the observing runs are just PART of the work. For example, I am spending the afternoon with my daughter as she "calibrates" the instrument she will be using tonight. Then she does the observations, then the analysis, then the writing of the paper. I am learning that astronomical observing is just part of a larger process.

7. Any tips for first-timers?
Ask lots of questions, drink lots of water, rest after walking uphill, take lots of pictures. And look up at the night sky every chance you get. The excitement starts after sun down! 

Viscacha at sunset!

Sunset on our first night. Can you spot Venus?

8. Anything else you'd like to share?
My gratitude for the staff and scientists who allowed me to come and be a part of this awesome experience. 

Chef Hector treats us so well!


  1. So so so fun! Yay! Also, as of a few hours ago, Daniel Thorngren has a shiny web site: