Day 60: Observatory

You know Dad, but you might not know Chuck. He’s one of Mom & Dad’s best and smartest friends. Chuck is an engineer who makes aircraft navigation systems for Northrop Grumman, and is also a volunteer rescue guy for Sierra Madre Search and Rescue. As you might imagine, when he tells stories, they’re excellent.

Today, the three of us are beginning a special project.

In the San Gabriel mountains near Pasadena is the Mount Wilson Observatory.

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The sign says “Authorized Vehicles Only” but today that’s us.

When the Mt. Wilson Observatory’s 60-inch telescope was built, it was the largest telescope in the world. This upcoming December, it will be 100 years old, and still in daily operation.

One of the controlling computers, the Encoder Server, needs to be replaced, which is why Dad and Chuck and I are here. We’ve volunteered to build them a new one. This is Secret Plan 174.

The project involves hardware and software work for the system which tracks the telescope’s position, the dome position, the timers, and then calculates the telescope’s direction in space adjusted for the Earth’s rotation, and allows the astronomer to offset it if necessary.

The telescope is managed, maintained, and constantly improved by William Leflang and Gale Gant. We are meeting with both of them today.

Gale meets us at the telescope, and takes us inside.

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This isn’t just a private tour; this is a “see every single system, understand how it works so you can write one of the control systems for it” mega-goosebump-orama.

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Oh. My. God.

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The telescope itself weighs 44,000 pounds. For reference, a Boeing 737-100 jetliner is about 62,000 pounds.

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There are lockers downstairs for telescope users, and one is permanently marked “Hubble.” Einstein used this telescope. Zwicky used this telescope. Instead of being paid for this job, Dad and Chuck and I will be allowed to use this telescope.

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The tour covers every system, mechanical and electrical. Note to self: Bring the muse here for sure.
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All of the electronics were recently rebuilt by Gale and Bill, our hosts. They’re beautiful.
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…so when Gale says “Let’s power it up and acquire a target” we don’t offer any objections. Watching such a large object move with such accuracy is very impressive.

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After a few hours, we’ve got all the information we need, as well as goofy ear-to-ear grins.
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After our time at the telescope, the three of us hold a meeting over tacos and margaritas to plan the operation, and to talk about the different female characters in A Knight’s Tale.
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The result is a pretty good plan for the first few weeks, and a general agreement that the blacksmith is much hotter than the princess.

Random assertion: Some things are done for love, others for money. Working on a hundred-year-old telescope only offers one option, and it’s a good one.

Steganographic data: 1834/2.1

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Published in: on July 18, 2008 at 11:06 am  Comments (4)  
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Day 22: They Started It, Really

My parents arrive today.

Dad is teaching a statistical analysis in the laboratory workshop at a local biotechnology center next week, so they’re using our place as a B&B and base of operations. I need to stop by the Ferry building to pick up some special ingredients so my muse and I can make dinner for them.

First things first, time to stop to hang with acrobats for a few hours.


Alan, E-Beth and Kendra are a blast to fly with.


Michael is doing some setup for the upcoming shows.

I wasn’t able to find everything I was looking for at the Ferry Building, so we had to improvise a bit, but it turned out really well. Dinner at home:

  • A tasty Burrata (my muse’s idea, and a good one), with tomato, basil and olive oil
  • Steamed clams in a spicy wine sauce
  • Seared grouper and asparagus
  • Gelato, macaroons and a blueberry tart
  • Wine we brought back from Ingrid’s vineyard

Over dessert, we tell them about Secret Plan 170, which involves them (and will likely require an armed escort, but just for a few days). They’re up for it. In fact, they can’t wait.

Random assertion: If you enjoy cooking and traveling with your parents, they have surely done their job well.

Steganographic data: 1864/2.2

Published in: on June 8, 2008 at 9:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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