I’m frequently asked by students why I love chemistry. Actually, I’m asked at least as frequently if I love it. Work, as most people who’ve done any know, can really tamper with the passion that might have gotten you into a field in the first place. About the 23rd time each spring I have to explain that water doesn’t take a proton from an alkane to make a cation, I seriously question my love of the field. But watching something work out in lab, seeing beautiful crystals or the right coupling in an NMR that confirms an idea and I’m right back to the first time I successfully made a compound in lab.
So it was at about 0500 this morning, as I made my way down a steep, curving, dusty road from the observatory to my room using only a dim red flashlight and my unerring sense of direction as a guide that I asked myself, as one tends to do a lot in life, what in the hell I was doing here. Here is the Hacienda Los Andes (go ahead, google away), an inn on the Rio Hurtado, about 7 miles from a small town of the same name, in the dry, rolling foot mountains (hard to call these hills) of the Andes. If I’d rented a better car and gotten more sleep, I could reach a mountain pass into Argentina at about 15,000 feet that is supposed to be out of this world.
Alas, I did not get much sleep.
The inn is lovely, far lovelier than I expected. The meals are great, far greater than I expected. The scenery is tremendous, far more than I expected. The night sky last night was indescribable. I think most people, put in a dark site and given time to adapt to the darkness can’t fail to be moved and awed. It’s just that, today, very, very few people live in such a place and most everyone else doesn’t care so much as to make the effort. I’m not judging. You all do things I think are weird and pointless, too.
One of the wonderful things about the inn is that you can rent really nice gear, meaning I don’t have to use my homebuilt, shaky but much beloved travel Dob. It’s the first really pristine sky I’ve witnessed in the southern hemisphere, darker than the remote parts of southern Utah. And much harder to reach. I will possibly share more later on the trouble I had reaching the inn. I’m still not quite over it. Everyone who thinks they want to be a pilot should have the experience of waking from a nap to see the runway about 100 meters below them before pulling up, hard, back to a holding pattern. Good times.
It was glorious and I spent my time mostly at the eyepiece of a 12.5″ Dob, which is within hailing distance of the scope I use back home. Given that the sky is so much darker here, it was, altogether, a better experience than one has in the driveway. I spent last night looking at the “showpiece” objects. The Large Magellanic Cloud and it’s Tarantula Nebula, which I spent an hour sketching. Probably rivals the spaghetti plate I made when I was 3. But it’s mine and I love it. Eta Carinae. Omega Centauri. The Jewel Box. The last two are, respectively, the finest globular and open clusters in the sky and, in my opinion, it’s not particularly close. I also checked out a number of objects I’ve seen before but which are too low at home to be very impressive. Tonight, I plan to hunt down less well known targets which, in my experience, tend to always hold their own special charm.
Professorial aside: the lower an object is in the sky the more air, and really, the more dirty air, its light must pass through to reach you. Hence, it looks dimmer. It also is less sharp. You’ve all seen how city lights waver and shimmy when seen from a distance. The same effect plagues astronomical objects. Some are so faint that they can only be seen near the zenith, the top of the sky.
I also spent a little bit of time playing with my photo travel rig. I’m also proud of this thing, despite the fact that a) I bought all of it and b) I’m not very good at using it. Yes, many of my friends and family reading tell me how great my pictures are and I sincerely appreciate it. It’s generally a sign of love and respect for a person when you say that. But, held against the state of the art, my images are…decent. Planetary images above average. Wide field shots are average. Long focal length DSOs are noticeably below average. But, whatever, the photos are mine, taken by me and are, for me, more about memorializing a trip or an night than making a pretty picture others will admire.
That is, I am, first and foremost, an observer. I love to look at objects, teasing out subtle detail. Seeing something just at the edge of visibility that is, in fact, larger than our home galaxy and which hasn’t looked like that since before dinosaurs were a thing. I gain a tranquil feeling when I see a beautiful landscape – here the dry, desert Andes – in front of the bright Milky Way, maybe with a planet or slim sliver of the moon thrown in.
I am the only observer here. The rest of the guests, there are about 8, mostly German and two Canadians, are primarily imagers. They’re great folks. We’ve had great conversations with our various languages and the camaraderie is excellent. However, when we all got to business, I set my up my rig – seriously outclassed by my fellow guests – turned it on and gave my attention to the telescope. It took the imagers a good bit longer to get going – actually caring that their gear operates correctly, for instance – while I was well into my Tarantula Nebula sketch before they were going. When one of the imagers came down, he took a quick peak in the eyepiece said something about it being nice and then started a detailed investigation of my imaging rig. We talked about gear for awhile and it made me notice that the imagers, once they had their gear running, mostly sat around talking. One guy went to bed at 11.
I was up until 4:30.
On my way down the hill, I asked my question: Why do I do this? Because I love it. Well, okay, but what does that mean? There are times, of course, where it is a pain. It’s cold, or the conditions aren’t good enough (the imagers all agree that last night wasn’t as good as the three previous and one took it as a reason to go to bed), I’m uncomfortable. I’m also 46 and that means my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. I looked at M46 last night, one of my favorite objects because it has embedded in it (well, behind it) a cute little planetary nebula. It was great last night – remember, it was higher in the sky, a better scope than I had in my youth, in a darker sky – BUT, it wasn’t as good as when I looked at it when I was 16. A lot of yellow crap accumulates in the eye in 30 years. So why look at it again? I probably looked at it for 20 minutes, made some notes, a quick sketch. It felt like a minute.
Why do I overlook the discomfort, cost, loss of sleep and long travel to spend 20 minutes looking at something I saw better 30 years ago? The answer is obviously love for we overlook a lot of crap in the things we love. In one of my favorite astronomy books, one of the more influential books I’ve read in my life, Ken Fulton asks basically the same question: Why do we do this? In my memory, he basically comes to the same conclusion I made last night (which is perhaps why I reached this conclusion) which is that you either love it or you don’t. You can work to learn about astronomy, or any field, but you can’t learn to love something. That comes from somewhere fairly indefinable inside all of us.
When my students ask me how to learn to love something, I always struggle to answer. But the line of thinking inspired by my sleep deprived walk down the hill last night reminded me of another quote from a wise writer. When Shepherd Book is dying he tells Mal, “I don’t care what you believe in. Just believe in it.” I would paraphrase that as advice to students: It doesn’t matter what you love. Just love it.” It may not make you a living and people may look at you funny when you wax poetic about it but that love will carry you through more bad times and bring more good times than the most well crafted strategic plan from any career counselor.