The View Up Here

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Posts Tagged ‘Astronomy’

Job Satisfaction

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/09/2016

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.


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SPIE and Poster Presentations

Posted by Tom Benedict on 15/05/2010

I work at an astronomical observatory on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Hawaii is also where I have done the bulk of my KAP work.  For the most part the two, work and hobby, rarely mix.  I sometimes do photography at work, sometimes even high-angle photography.  But rarely do I get to do KAP.  I can count those occasions on one hand without using all my fingers.  Still, I keep looking for opportunities and have fun every time I find one.

At the end of June a bunch of us are heading off to San Diego to go to the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation 2010 conference.  I’m presenting a paper on the cryogenic cooling system for one of our instruments.  We made some fundamental changes in the system over the last two years, and the paper presents our results.  At a conference there are two ways papers are presented: oral presentation and poster presentation.  Oral presentations mean getting up on stage in front of an audience and taking your time slot to present your findings.  Poster presentations mean hanging up your poster, and during the time slot allocated for that group of posters it means standing in front of your poster and answering any questions people might have.

Oh yeah, I went for the poster presentation.  I’m not completely comfortable with public speaking, though I’m getting better at it.  But the real draw was the poster.  A poster!

The SPIE conference rules call for posters no larger than 45″x45″.  We have a large format photo plotter at work that can do 36″ wide prints.  I’m figuring on making a poster 36″x45″.  Most of the posters I’ve seen have been informative, most are easy to read, but very few of them have much in the way of pizazz.  Since my presentation is about a cryogenic cooling system and the instrumentation we put into place to monitor the cooling system, I don’t have much in the way of graphs but I have a lot in the way of diagrams and photographs.

And I also have every bit of that 36″x45″ that isn’t covered by words, graphs, diagrams, and photos to cover with whatever I want.  Yup, whatever I want.

Most of the posters I’ve seen use a color gradient wash as the background, or maybe a pastelized picture that’s related to the subject of the poster.  Not me.  I’m running with the whole “cold” theme, and I figured out how to work KAP into it.

Back in 2009 we had a particularly icy winter.  During one of our mid-winter instrument exchanges, things appeared to be working well, so at lunch I grabbed my KAP gear and headed outside.  The wind really was too tossy for good KAP, but I still came back with 1.3GB of photos to work with.  One set of images was good enough to make a nice wide panorama of the snow covered summit.  Sapphire blue skies above, white white snow below, snow covered cinder cones in-between, and the telescope where I work off to one side.  Perfect.

The rest of the background is going to be a snow texture extracted from the remaining photos in the set.  Hints of texture, but nothing too overpowering.  I still haven’t decided how much I’m going to carry the theme into the boxes that will enclose the various text blocks, diagrams, graphs, and photos.  I think going so far as to hang icicles around the text boxes is probably just a little too much.  But it’ll be fun.

It’s fun to mix work and KAP.  And any chance I get to make a print as large as 36″x45″ is just too good to pass up!

– Tom

Posted in Astronomy, Engineering, Hawaii, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography, Weather | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »