Cosmic Matters

Thursday, July 14th, 2011
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Imagine scanning the Help Wanted ads and finding this: “MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

Yes, this was a real employment ad, but not from this newspaper and not for any job in Hawaii. It was published in England a century ago by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who got his crew. How about this one:

“WORKERS WANTED for hazardous tasks in isolated location with bitter cold, thin air that will change the chemistry of your blood, skew the fluid balance of your brain and lungs and temporarily alter your personality – if you are lucky. Success measured in scientific papers given by others.”

Nope. This is not a real ad. But it could be, since it describes some of what happens to workers who maintain the 13 telescope facilities up near the almost 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea. These workers drive up to work, day and night, and do their jobs breathing air that contains only 60 percent of the oxygen, by volume, of sea-level air. The thin air is only part of the challenge, however, and sometimes disguises itself as a benefit.

“I tend to get a little euphoric,” said Keck Observatory telescope support technician Joe Gargiulo, describing how the rarified air makes him feel. “My sense of humor is better.” The effect shows on the daily commute of the summit crew, he said. “When we’re coming down we crack a lot more jokes than coming up.”

But you have to pay the piper when you return to lower elevation at the end of the day.

“When you come off the summit there is a fatigue factor,” said Gargiulo. “A lot of people experience that. For the first half-hour when I get down I don’t want to be around anybody.”

Keck employs about 120 people, 35 of whom make the daily trek up the mountain to maintain the telescopes and instruments. At night a skeleton crew operates the two Keck telescopes while Keck’s astronomers conduct their research remotely from Waimea or their campuses elsewhere in the world.

The short-term effects of elevation posed a special challenge for Gargiulo, because the first thing his daughter wants to do when he gets home is give him a big hug. “But after that, just leave daddy alone for a while. I’m just a grouch for about an hour.”

“I think that’s pretty common,” agreed veteran Keck Observatory observing assistant Joel Aycock. Observing assistants have the additional stress of working several nights in a row, thereby throwing off their biological clocks for days at a time.

Aycock has a long history of working at high elevation. Before coming to Keck Observatory, he worked for eight years on Haleakala. On Maui Aycock lived at 4,000 feet and worked at 10,000 feet.

“I didn’t think it would be different on Mauna Kea,” said Aycock. “I was surprised when I went up. The effects of altitude are geometrical.” And after a few 13 to 16-hour shifts in a row, it takes a lot more than an hour to get back to normal.

“It takes me at least 36 to 48 hours to recuperate,” Aycock said. That’s why his work weeks run about 60 hours, and then he gets a week off.

There are other elevation effects that can be surprising, noted Gargiulo. One of the most startling was to his vision. When working at night one of his colleagues encouraged him to try looking at the fantastically starry sky above Mauna Kea while breathing some supplemental oxygen.

“I could see probably double the amount of stars when I was on oxygen,” he said. It was like someone had added fresh batteries to a diming flashlight – only the flashlight was Gargiulo’s optic nerve.

Supplemental oxygen is also a good idea for visiting scientists and engineers who have to do other thought-intensive work while on the summit. Otherwise they could find themselves more prone to errors or just plain stumped by problems that would be easy to solve at lower elevation.

As for the social scene: “It’s severely limited,” said Aycock. “But I’m kind of a hermit by nature.”

What socializing does occur at night is among the observing assistants and visiting astronomers. Those astronomers are only virtually present via a video link. So there’s no water cooler where they can hang out and talk during breaks. Not that anyone takes breaks when they are spending every minute racing to catch light from objects in deep space before the sun comes up.

Which bring up perhaps the most misunderstood part of what happens up at the telescopes:

“A lot of people have the misconception that those of us up there at night are looking through the eye piece of a telescope,” said Aycock. “That’s a romantic image.”

Actually all the images come in via specialized digital cameras to computer screens and are initially black and white, Aycock says.

“In general layman’s terms, it’s not very exciting,” Aycock said. On the other hand it’s thrilling for astronomers. “I’ve seen astronomers who get five minutes of good time (on an otherwise cloudy winter night), and leave with a great big smile on their faces. Five minutes of time on one of these big telescopes, in the pristine skies of Mauna Kea, can make an astronomer’s career.”

Ultimately, it’s that kind of thing that makes all the other challenges so satisfying.

“Despite the hardships, it really is a wonderful place to work, and quite enjoyable,” said Gargiulo. “I was drawn to Keck because I love the mission, and I think it’s exciting to be a part of it. I always feel like I accomplished something worthwhile at the end of every day.”

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