Last night I stood higher on this planet Earth than I think I ever stood before. The Wyoming Infra-Red Observatory is in the proper place for such a thing, atop a mountain, at the end of one of the most hair-raising roads I’ve ever ridden up – rough dirt track, barely ever more than one car wide, hair-pins at atrocious angles, cliffs on one side and the fall right there on the other, always in the corner of your eye – and that end comes in at around ten thousand feet.
I’m a little surprised, a lot relieved to report no symptoms, no altitude sickness. Maybe all this water-drinking really is doing me good.
Anyway: the structure at the top of the mountain is more like a lighthouse than anything else I’ve been in. Small house (which reminded me also of my grandparents’ beach-house, actually: all wood, stairs to the balcony, bungalow beyond and really rather cozy inside) attached to something large and round and purposeful.
The telescope at WIRO is a vasty thing, Big Science through and through: great steel girders and wiring on show like a man in a muscle shirt, barely dressed at all. The mirror’s two-point-something metres, enclosed in an open cage; it’s probably very primitive of me still to feel that a proper telescope ought to have a tube.
There were a couple of students up there, observing binaries in a globular cluster. They’d poured the liquid nitrogen before we got there, the wretches, but they let us watch while they calibrated the ’scope, focused it on the star of the night (log note: “took a long time to focus – Emily’s fault!” but actually I think it was ours, staring over her shoulder) and then took the first few observations. Most of which time their only duty was to nudge the ’scope minutely to keep the star centred. Which is the sort of thing I thought was automated these days, but I guess that undergrads come cheaper.
I’ve always kind of had a yen for actual professional astronomy. My godfather cousin Roger is a senior man at Cambridge in that very science, and if I’d made a couple of different choices, I could perhaps have followed on. I still think I would have loved it. Nudging giant telescopes with a computer, with the prospect of doing the same thing all night ahead and for much of your further career – yup, I still think I could’ve done that. I really didn’t want to leave last night.
Side note, and in passing: we’re not here to muse on biology, but the human body? ’Straordinary thing. I’ve been running on five hours of sleep a night since Saturday, which is a long way short of enough. I was shattered yesterday before we went up the mountain; I was exhausted after. We got back at midnight, I crawled straight into bed – and couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t sleep, and dozed and woke and dozed again, and even so. Up before six, positively eager to get some writing done before the hike this morning.