One of the questions I’ve asked myself over the years is whether I would be proud to tell my kids what I do for a living.
Much of the time the answer has been yes. When I worked for Academic Computing at the University of Texas I spent close to a year working in the Student Health Center. We took care of the servers that maintained medical records, handled customer satisfaction surveys, and made sure the desktop and handheld computers of the doctors, nurses, and administrators all worked. We helped them help the student body of UT stay healthy. Feel good about it? You bet!
Some of the time the answer has been a resounding no. The last year I was with IBM my job was to spy on my co-workers. I was the weenie who read all the logs from all of our servers and flagged “security risks”. During that time we never had an actual outside attack, and I think we had fewer than ten internal “ethical hacks”, all of which we caught. But I lost count of how many times my co-workers had a typo or tried to do something as root out of innocent ignorance. I had to report them all. Not one was a malicious act, and yet my job was to ding them for it anyway. Feel good about it? You gotta be kidding me…
Working at CFHT is solidly in the yes category. I’ve had downer days. Heck, I’ve had downer months, if not years. But at the root of it all we’re in the business of exploring the universe to better understand how the whole thing works. When people ask what I do for a living I tell them that my job description basically amounts to doing whatever is required so we can collect science-grade photons at night. Sometimes this means designing and building new instruments; sometimes it means sweeping the floors. When things get floor-sweepy it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all of the things we do here contribute to our understanding of the universe.
Yesterday I brought in my camera bag and lighting gear so I could photograph a set of filters for customs paperwork. We’re shipping the filters to France to be scanned on a better spectrophotometer than the one we have here. Customs had a set of requirements for the photographs, so I was taking my time to make sure I got everything right. Toward the tail end one of our resident astronomers came in to see what I was doing. I explained about customs, about their need for documentation and serial numbers, etc. Not exactly sweeping floors, but documentation photography is pretty mundane stuff.
He listened patiently, then said, “You understand the importance of what you’re doing?”
“What do you mean?” I asked as I moved the last of the filters from the lighting scoop, back to its packing crate.
“Right now the tightest constraint on the cosmological constant is the SNLS survey, made with these filters. The scans they’re planning to do will further refine our understanding of the cosmological constant.” He pointed to the filter I was holding, the r’ filter. “That filter is key.”
Yeah. Even the act of photographing these filters so the customs agents can identify them and their serial numbers was helping to contribute to our understanding of the universe. No “Eureka!” moment. No lone genius. Just a lot of people doing a lot of seemingly mundane tasks, all of which is further refining our knowledge of how the universe works.
Today I’m processing the pictures, putting together documentation packets for customs, and packing the filters lovingly in their cases for shipment to France. Am I proud to tell my kids what I’m doing for a living?
You bet your ass.