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Observations about astronomy

Week of November 9, 1998

Before we get to this week's snack, let me remind you that Leonids meteor shower peaks November 17. This may be a tremendous shower, so please check that link!

When it comes right down to it, I am not your typical astronomer.

Astronomers come in three general categories: observer, theorist and experimentalist. Observers are the ones that actually go out and observe, whether it's with an optical telescope, a radio telescope or even a neutrino detector. Theorists take that data and work mathematical models, trying to see if they can get the known laws of physics to mimic reality. Experimentalists are the ones that actually make observing possible; they create the detectors and devices observers use. Of course, there is liberal mixing of these categories, and few astronomers stand completely in one division.

I am more of an observer than anything else. I have an understanding of how the data get taken and what to do with them to get them into shape so that theorists can get a crack at them (and before you ask, 'data' is plural; 'datum' is singular!). Yet, for all that, I've only actually gone out to an observatory once, for my Master's degree. Except to visit, I haven't been to an actual observatory to observe for nearly ten years.

Such is life using Hubble. An orbiting telescope is inconvenient to visit, as well as expensive. At a cost of thousands of dollars a pound to orbit, even a peanut butter sandwich costs more than eating at the most extravagant restaurant. Instead of me going to it, I get the data sent to me. Hubble takes its observations and sends them to Earth via radio waves, and eventually they get placed on my hard drive where I can see them. When I look at the STIS parallels (observations taken by the Hubble instrument I use) I don't even know where the telescope is pointed until I use a star map to look up the coordinates!

This happened the other day. A colleague of mine had an observation he didn't understand, and I happened to ask him what was up. He told me about it, and we discussed it, and although we have looked at the images in detail we are still not sure just what we are seeing. Others got involved, and now several of us are trying to figure out just what that blip on his image is. Out of curiosity, I asked him where Hubble was looking, and he told me. I was surprised; usually it's some weird, esoteric sounding target like BPM 16274 or some such. It so happens that his target was in an area with which I am familiar as an amateur; the general area is seen by the naked eye on any winter night.

It was seen by my particular eyes just a few minutes ago. As it happens, I was taking out the trash as I always do Sunday night, and I spotted the familiar constellation rising over the trees. I have looked at it every clear fall and winter night my whole life. Yet there are still treasures hidden there, purloined letters hidden in plain sight, if only we know where and how to look. I am constantly amazed at my profession. The sky is only so big; over the course of one year it's possible to see the whole thing. Yet it can hide astonishing objects, objects so intrinsically luminous that at the distance of the Sun they would blind a human instantly and permanently, yet so far away that the glow of the neighbor's garage light wipes it out completely. Other objects are more subtle, and can hide easily anywhere they lurk.

It was an interesting feeling to actually see that area of sky with my own eyes. The stars were bright and clear, and somewhere in there was a mystery. Usually I don't get to see even the general area of where the observations are; either it's in some indistinct section of sky, or it's in the southern hemisphere, forever below my horizon. I am hoping that in the next few weeks we'll figure out what that blip in my friend's data is. No matter what it turns out to be, it is a surprise, and I am firmly of the opinion that surprising data are the best ones of all. We learn the most from them, even-- no, make that especially-- when they turn up in places with which we thought we were already comfortable.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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