“We capture the lucky photons, the ones that actually hit our giant mirrors and bounce into our instruments and tell their stories.” – Gwen Rudie, astronomer
Standing in front of a telescope that definitely does not fit in my backyard!
Book Thoughts: What do astronomers actually DO?
Despite humanity’s shared love for the stars, most people are pretty surprised by how professional stargazers—observational astronomers—actually spend our time.
We’re often asked if we keep our own telescopes in our backyards, if we work entirely on night shift schedules, or what it’s like to visit a telescope (a delightful question when talking about Hubble). If you search “astronomer cartoon” you’ll find depictions of us as dotty old fellows standing in fields or well-lit domes, peering into the eyepiece of a long skinny tube, and—inexplicably—wearing lab coats.
The reality is often more exciting (if also a bit more haphazard and absurd) than the fiction. Observational astronomy actually more closely resembles an Indiana Jones caricature than that of a white-coated scientist working in a lab. Working at a telescope is a surprisingly high-stakes endeavor and involves travel to some of the most remote corners of the globe for a handful of precious nights spent juggling temperamental mountain conditions and creatures, equipment worth tens of millions of dollars, and an unpredictable cosmos.
All of this effort can then be dismantled by something as frustrating as a telescope malfunction or as simple as a badly-timed cloud. When things go poorly there is also no option to just try again tomorrow. Most telescope time is strictly scheduled months in advance, and another observer will soon be arriving with their own science program, so one lost night can set an astronomer’s research back by months or even years.
Despite all of this, most of us adore observing. Telescopes occupy some of the most exquisite real estate in the world, and the researchers who use them revel in the chance to be on-site, working with hands-on access to the instruments and stepping outside and look up to see the same sky that we’re gathering data from. Whether it’s someone describing their very first stargazing experience or a veteran observer (one of my colleagues has 62 years of observing experience under his belt), I’ve yet to interview an astronomer who doesn’t still get a thrill out of looking up at the night sky.
What’s next for The Last Stargazers?
The winter American Astronomical Society conference—the biggest annual meeting of astronomers in the country—is being held here in Seattle next week. About 2,500 people attend (for reference, there are fewer than 10,000 professional astronomers in the US) and use the week to present their newest and most exciting research. During the conference I’ll continue gathering telescope tales as part of the 100+ interviews I’m conducting for the book; I can’t wait to hear what stories everyone has to share!