My Biggest Science Goof

No question is insignificant.

It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m wide awake. I started my “day” roughly twelve hours ago, had breakfast at dinner time, and I just ate “night lunch.” This is the inverted life of an astronomer: work all night, squinting at a computer screen, and try to catch some sleep at dawn. I’ve been told humans will adapt to almost anything, which must be true because this now seems normal. Regular, even. However, tonight is not a normal night and I’m alert, excited, and nervous. Alert because I actually slept soundly this morning; excited because it’s my first time operating the 1.3m telescope; and nervous because my advisor is sitting four feet away, operating his own telescope, and expecting results.

And I’m getting them! “Should I stay on this one? It looks weird,” I ask. He glances at the data on my screen and smiles mischievously. “Oh yeah. Drive it into the ground. But be careful of the western limit – don’t go too far.” What does he mean by ‘western limit? I don’t bother clarifying; I assume he’s talking about the hour angle: a measure that essentially tells one how far to the east or west an object is to one’s line of sight. Astronomers tend not to look at things at large hour angles, because the images get blurry. Okay, I think, ‘drive it into the ground’ means observe it as long as I can, but ‘don’t go too far’ means not to waste time on a blurry image. But how far is blurry? Is that really what he means? I should know this. My embarrassment keeps me quiet as I glue my eyes to the screen, assuming I’ll know it when I see it.

An hour goes by, and then two. But it’s not getting particularly blurry and I’m starting to worry. Suddenly, a message pops up on my screen: “Western limit reached”. It’s not red, flashing, or anything, really. I press “Okay”, it disappears, and I have the wheel again. I decide that’s a good stopping point, and start to re-align the telescope. But nothing happens. In fact, none of the controls are responding at all. “Uh, the telescope said I hit the western limit, and now… nothing works,” I mutter aloud. My advisor rolls his chair over, looks at the screen and offhandedly says, “Oh, well, of course. Look at that. You’re too far over. You crashed the telescope into the dome’s support beam.”

I what? I start stammering an apology, but he cuts me off. “I expected you’d do that.” He swings back to his station, talking as he goes, “We’ll go fix it once I’m done with this observation.” I’m in shock. Fix it? After I incredulously repeat those words to him, he keeps his eyes fixed on his screen as he responds, “Sure. The beam has a tripwire mounted in front of it for just this situation. It cuts power to the entire operation, which is why nothing’s responding. I’ll show you how to reset everything.” He finally turns to look at me, continuing, “I didn’t tell you when to stop, and you didn’t ask. Never be afraid to ask a question, even if you think it’s simple.” I nod in agreement and sit in my chair, deflated, deciding that even though it’s effective, abject terror might not be the best way to learn a lesson. Next time I’ll ask.