Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Zen and the Art of Astronomy

Today I showed two Buddhist monks (plus three of their friends) around the biggest telescope in the world. The senior one is the professor of Buddhist Philosophy at the University of Varanasi, in India. Unfortunately I can't remember his name since it was so exotic to me.

I did a bit of a double take when I saw that the university professor was wearing Tibetan robes, like the Dalai Lama. It's not something you often see on La Palma. If anything, the observatory dress code learns towards slightly scruffy, since quite a lot of the people there have been up all night, are living out of suitcases, and are more interested in exoplanets than fashion anyway.

Well, it didn't take long to see past the robes to the people, and to find out that they were very nice. So I showed them around and gave the talk for people who are intelligent, but don't know much science, and they were all very appreciative. And as usual with small groups, we all took photos of each other.

When we got outside, we were all thirsty. We had plenty of water but only two cups. I was just about to go back into the building in search of cups when the monks showed us how to share cups hygienically - you don't touch it with your lips. I got soaked on my first try, but it was only water on a hot day, so that was no problem. And then I got the hang of it.

When I got up this morning, I certainly wasn't expecting drinking lessons from a Buddhist monk.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm on Swiss radio

Back in February I showed a Swiss radio journalist around the observatory. To my considerable surprise, he wanted to interview me.

The programme is almost completely in French, with a few bits of me speaking English before they fade up the translation, but if you're interested, you can find it at Go down to the bottom of the page to "Les télescopes terrestres" (beside the photo of a telescope) and click on "écouter" (to listen) or "télécharger le sujet" (download). It's a bi file, though - 22 minutes long.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Blood Red Moon

Total eclipse of the moon from Llano de la Venta viewpointA Blood red eclipse of the moon from Llano de la Venta viewpoint

La Palma has beautiful dark skies, so I was hoping for a really good view of last night's lunar eclipse. But looking at the low cloud along the horizon, I decided to drive up to the star party at Llano de la Venta, one of La Palma's astronomical viewpoints. In practice, an astronomical vciewpoint means parking space, level ground suitable for tripods, a signpost pointing to the pole star, and an information panel.

Signpost to the  Pole Star, Breña Alta, La Palma.How far to the Pole Star?

Astrotour was offering free stargazing, courtesy of the island government. These viewpoints can be pretty cold in winter - this one is at 1,300 m - but last night it was quite balmy. The first surprise was the number of people who'd turned out. The next was the discovery that we had trees blocking the view of Mt Teide - and the moon was due to rise from behind Teide. It's a good thing I didn't have a saw with me. I'd have been very tempted, which would have been sheer vandalism, of course. So there wasn't anywhere sensible to put my tripod.

We got a splendid view of the moon, when it rose. I found I could get halfway decent photos by setting manual focus (to infinity) and jamming the camera against the Polaris signpost to hold it steady for the 1-second exposures.

One woman beside me was grumbling that she couldn't get any photos with her DSLR, and I confess I felt rather smug. Then she realised that I was getting photos with my compact, and the grumbling turned bitter.

I said mildly, "Well it's a rather good compact and I have practised." (This is an understatement. I've put in thousands of hours of photography practice.)

But she still clearly felt that having a DSLR ought to guarantee good photos, even if you didn't know how to set it to manual focus. I looked, but I couldn't see how to do it either. (I found out later that Canon camera have the manual focus on the lens, not the body)

Then the International Space Station zoomed overhead, looking gorgeous. (Every time they add more solar panels, the ISS gets brighter and brighter). You can imagine the DSLR's owner's reaction when I got a photo of that too, on my itty-bitty compact.

And to round things off nicely, Astrotour pointed their 10" telescope at Saturn, so we could all see the rings. They're as stunning as ever.

You could say it was a heavenly evening.

The International  Space Station passing over La Palma, seen from Breña AltaThe International Space Station passing over Breña Baja

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not so free.

I think I made a reasonably thorough job of item one on my post-Starlight-Guide-course list, which was "Chill". I don't seem to have got much further, though. Well, I managed the overdue haircut before my fringe reached my jaw and I caught up with the laundry backlog and excavated the kichen.

But I've made very little progress on the rest of the list. That's partly because I've been doing a lot of tour guiding, but mostly because many of the items are ridiculous long or vague: "Learn German," for example. That was never going to happen in on afternoon, was it? (Mind you, I have learned a few more words of German.) "Get fit again" - I'll do that on Wednesday, shall I? Only how will I know when I'm fit enough.

So the whole thing needs a rethink, just as soon as I can make enough time to do it.

I'd better put that on the list.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Escape Velocity: The Anthology

Yes, well, better late than never.

This Escape Velocity Anthology published by Adventure Books of Seattle came out while I was up to my eyes in the Starlight Guide course. It's 353 pages long, and contains forty-eight sci-fi stories, including two of mine: "Scream Quietly" and "Zuggyzu and the Humans". The Kindle version's only $5.74, which I think is seriously good value for money.

I think it's only fair to say that I get a small commission if you buy through these links, but it doesn't cost you any extra.

US Kindle Edition


UK Kindle Edition

Friday, June 03, 2011

Free at last!

I've finished the Starlight Guide course. I worked up at the Roque this morning, and went to a first aid course this afternoon. Now I'm free.

After concentrating on the course for the last three months, I have 39 items on my to-do list, ranging from "get a haircut" to "finish the e-book" and "learn German."

It's time for item #1: Chill.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

At Last!

After I got back from El Hierro, it was full speed ahead on my course project. My friend Merche helped me with the Spanish for about three hours, bless her! I finally printed it out at about 10:30 pm on Wednesday night.

On Thursday morning I had a group up at the Roque, so I only had odd moments here and there to prepare my presentation of said project. I had lunch at the Roque, and stopped the car on the way don to tell the heather and laurel trees all about it. I found that I got horribly tongue-tied, and it came out far too long. After about the fourth attempt I had a decent opening, a rough idea of the timing, a couple of ideas to make it interesting to listen to, and some thoughts of what I could add if needed.

And a sinking feeling that mine was going to be the worst presentation of the lot, by quite a wide margin. Oh well, too late now. And it was 10% of the total mark.

And on to the exam. I think I did fairly well. And then the dreaded presentation.

I didn't get tongue-tied, people laughed in the right places, and I finished on time. Not brilliantly organised, but not bad either.

So I think I passed, but in any case, the course is over, the pressure's off for the first time in three months, and we all went out to celebrate.