Creative Break Workshops at Gemini Offices

I haven’t taught very much in life and now find myself in the position of teaching creative techniques to scientists and engineers. I felt strongly at the start of this residency that I didn’t want to just come, experience and make my own art but rather have a dialogue between art and science with the people who work here.

A couple of days back, on Saturday, we had a ‘family creative break’ where spouses and relatives of people who work at Gemini came by to try out some of the exercises. My translator didn’t show up for the first hour and so I just winged it in my beginner Spanish. I had excellent scripts which a native Mexican friend in Vancouver had helped me prepare (thank you Melania!), so although it was a bit ponderous to read from the scripts, everyone told me that everything was ‘claro’ or clear.

We started with cyanotype printing — using the largest star in our own solar system to make art. I asked everyone to bring small, flat personal items which worked well in the prints. (Engineers have an edge on this one as most of them are walking around with tiny wrenches in their pockets or bits of wire or other interesting tools.)

The children, as children will do, just waded in and tried things — as a child, that is pretty much your modus operandi — learning new stuff all the time. The adults were more tentative but as the afternoon wore on, everyone tackled one or more of the four exercises on offer — sumi-e, which is Japanese calligraphy — we created visual poems using the Japanese characters for stars, astronomy, outer space, planets and other Gemini-themed ideas. Shodo– the ‘way of writing’ is actually a martial art practised competitively in Japan between rival monasteries in the Kyoto area. It requires the participant to adopt an uncomfortable bent-kneed position over a large swath of paper, a large broom is dipped into a bucket of ink and the shodo-iste must paint their large Japanese characters on the paper, walking backwards. Although it takes years of work to become good, even a beginner can achieve some interesting effects and well, heck, it is just fun to slosh around a gallon of ink in a bucket with
a broom!

The fourth exercise was texture mapping of an environment — which doesn’t sound inspiring but is actually rather fun. The artist takes a piece of paper which has been divided by folding into about sixteen rectangles. They then take soft graphite and rub each small rectangle against a different texture in the room. In this manner, they map the entire environment via textures only. The result is a lovely, silvery abstraction of a large piece of paper covered with rectangles of different textures rendered in graphite.

This is my final week of active art-making and I am hoping to get most of my projects at least to the point I can finish them off at home, so vamos, vamos! [/caption]

Constanza Araujo, engineer, makes gorgeous cyanotype prints

Constanza Araujo, engineer, makes gorgeous cyanotype prints

Talking to Telescope operators and astronomers

Land-based telescopes are in the challenging position of justifying their existences. As soon as a really huge, powerful telescope is built, something else is about to overtake it technically. The science pushes instrumentation forward and smaller, earlier telescopes must give way to their progeny. Clever telescope management looks ahead as to ways and means of applying different instruments onto the original telescope in order to help it keep pace with innovations.

Eduardo Marin, Science Operation Specialist, with a background in operations as well as astronomy, is uniquely qualified to speculate on future directions. “A lot of the smaller, early telescopes are going robotic. They will be controlled remotely.”

This is my final day at the summit of Cerro Pachon — I return today to Gemini’s office complex in La Serena. After five days at altitude I am both grateful at the unprecedented access to the telescope itself and the gracious astronomers who invited me into their world and also happy to be heading back down to a place with more oxygen for my brain!

looks like wrinkled aluminum foil but it holds the information map of the make up of a distant galaxy

looks like wrinkled aluminum foil but it holds the information map of the make up of a distant galaxy

Two astronomers enjoy the sunset while disparaging the clouds which obscure observations

Two astronomers enjoy the sunset while disparaging the clouds which obscure observations

the clouds obscure observation but make a pretty night view

Night Tour of the ‘Scope

Eduardo Marin points out the oil systems upon which the telescope rests

Eduardo Marin points out the oil systems upon which the telescope rests

Re-coating the mirror area
Astronomer Eduardo Marin and telescope operator David K search for results

Astronomer Eduardo Marin and telescope operator David K search for results

a place to test a newly arrived instrument before attaching it to the telescope

a place to test a newly arrived instrument before attaching it to the telescope

Gemini chief astronomer for the evening, Eduardo Marin, took a break from the evening’s frustrating weather (clouds) to give the visiting astronomers and me a tour of the telescope. What a tour! Although I had been trotted through the facility and given a perfectly decent tour last Monday by Outreach worker, Manuel Parades, this was a tour in a million. Eduardo knows every screw on every instrument on each of the four floors of the complex. Even the shipping department is fascinating. There are hoists and machines for getting the mirror down to its re coating tank for some fresh silver and other compounds and hoisting it back up to the telescope and these are mighty. The back up power system is ready for the power cuts that happen during winter storms. Glycol for basic chilling of things and helium for others — the chemistry, electrical parts and the mechanical elements are all complex and beautiful. The engines to move the tons of engineering which constitute the telescope are fairly modest because the whole thing is resting on a bed of oil, so there is very little friction. Because this night the telescope was still struggling to obtain some data, a lot of the tour was in the dark with flashlights because no light must get in the way of the telescope. So the overall impression was that we were a small band of people trailing around with flashlights and probing this temple devoted to outer space. Sort of like a Grimm’s fairytale, with Gothic lighting.

Astronomy Night

time lapse photographs show the abundantly clear viewing from these mountains

time lapse photographs show the abundantly clear viewing from these mountains

I have spent time watching an observer manipulate a telescope remotely and capture the science data necessary for the evening. But nothing prepared me for the sheer thrills of being at summit, with an astronomy team making decisions in the moment about what to watch and where and how. We watched the sun go down and then the work for the evening was started. First, of course, we all wanted to check on the the world’s most famous comet. Although it only showed up as a fuzzy little bright blur, it was still thrilling to think that there it was and mankind landed a spacecraft on it last week.

Next we started in on the specific project for the evening — a spectrographic look at dense galaxy environments. A lot of consideration of what to look at and to what purpose goes into the science at this level. Different masks have to be designed to cut out all the light that might be confusing to the results. The project leader applies to the telescope corporation for a time slot in an optimum viewing window for the specific objects being viewed. The project observing team, consisting of astronomer Julie Nantais, Allison Noble and Ricardo Demarco, have only so many hours for their project and they have to optimize their telescope time as much as possible. There are nights which are clear and perfect and lots can be achieved and then there are nights with clouds which obscure the sky and make observing difficult. Sometimes instruments can ‘go mechanical’ and need help, all while the clock is ticking. In spite of a slight instrument malfunction the night is off to a good start and before 3 AM the project team has everything they need for this evening’s observations.

The areas of responsibility and how everyone works together is like a sort of scientific choreography. The astronomer team — scientists from various universities — has their goals and ideas for the evening. Then the astronomer in charge of the telescope (Mischa Shirmer — first night/Eduardo Marin –second night) takes their directions and sets up the ‘queue’ (the line up of stuff being looked at for the night). This information, in turn, is relayed to the person ‘driving’ the telescope — the operator, who sets up the tons of engineering in the dome and aims it at the correct position in outer space for the specific objects being observed. The operator for the two nights I have been at summit is David Krogsrud.

When the initial findings started coming in they looked like ribbons of aluminum foil with small krinklings. The spectra are a way of mapping the elements making up the object. These mappings can be fitted together with other findings to make a much more complete picture of what is out there and how it behaves.

Having been up for just over 24 hours and also dealing with the effects of altitude means that sleep is now necessary!

Chatting with the Head of Engineering Ops at 9,000 feet

It is a

maintenance during the day to make sure everything works this evening

maintenance during the day to make sure everything works this evening

bright, sunny morning as usual at the top of Cerro Pachon at the Gemini Telescope and I was fortunate to have a chat with the Head of Engineering Operations, Michiel Van Der Hoeven.

It is a fascinating time to be discussing the engineering challenges facing the Gemini team. In the past, the engineers operated in specialty teams for specific instrumentation but with funding cutbacks, it has become exigent to figure out another way. Michiel has teamed up specific engineers with scientists to let each of them know more about what the other is doing. The main notion is to make the telescope operate for the science needs. The engineers need to know what is needed to produce the needed data and therefore conversations with astronomers and astro-physicists are important. When the telescope shuts down, there are many jobs to be done in less than a few weeks and now the engineers show the scientists what the jobs are and ask what the science priorities would be for the time frame.

The Andes

vista from the top of the world in Chile

vista from the top of the world in Chile

The Andes mountains run through Chile and up into Peru. The Incas build roads through these mountains 400 years ago, worshipping their celestial star gods. Now scientists and engineers traverse the same mountains, also seeking the stars as they expand our knowledge of the universe.