Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the less fun side

So, five years ago now as a freshman in my "freshman colloquium" class, the as-boring-as-it-sounds-but-saved-by-an-amazing-professor "Structure of Scientific Revolutions"--I thought, you know, I might want to be an astrophysicist, really.

And now here I am, swiping my visitor card to get into authorized personnel buildings at the National Radio Observatory in Green Bank, diligently staring at graphs of temperature verses frequency, and pasting sets of one hundred and twenty nine output numbers into an array without the benefit of keyboard shortcuts.

Sitting in front of a computer and hearing, from the scientist I'm supposed to be working with, the difference between a B.S. degree and a doctorate plus years of experience,  seeing that difference as I try to make sense of ions and dust clouds, arrays and the default arguments for functions whose names are not self-explanatory, help-files that explain jargon with even more jargon.

There's a big difference between a B.S. and a doctorate, and yet there is a difference, too, between a professor and a national lab scientists, in terms of realizing that what you just said was in no way illuminating to someone who hasn't worked here for years.  There's also a difference between someone who is on top of her work, and someone who is too lost and too unwilling to admit she is lost to ask or even be able to form the necessary questions.

I don't actually want to be an astrophysicist, really.  I want to install solar panels, write books, and save the environment.  But I didn't get that job--though I did get a personal commendation and a promise to be considered for future employment--so for now I will keep swiping my magnetized keycard and pretending I'm a real scientist.

It's not so bad as that, I already know a lot more than I did.  I find myself wasting a lot of person-hours trying to get oriented in a whole host of details so alien to me I can't yet separate the ones that are important from the ones that aren't, and the specifics are where the work is.  It's a good thing I get financial compensation for person-hours, but I loathe not spending my person-hours efficiently.

What can I tell you about Green Bank?

It houses an unique instrument; the world's largest steerable radio telescope, with a feed (that's where the incoming radiation focuses, after reflecting off of the dish) that is off-set so as not to obstruct part of the dish, rather than centered as in conventional radio telescope construction.   It's surface consists of many small panels that can independently move to create the right reflection for a large range of radio frequencies.

The Bryd telescope was built to replace a former, 300 ft (that's diameter) radio telescope, which collapsed in 1988.  (See before and after pictures).  My advisor had a friend who was working there at the time, and, like a good natured astrophysicist, claims it fell because his friend broke it.

No comments:

Post a Comment