Occupational Hazards

Astronomy has some very odd occupational hazards.

  • At the Mauna Kea observatories, you’re banned from going to sleep(!). The problem is that, at high altitude and an air pressure of ~ 600mb, some sleepers don’t wake up again.
  • There’s a radio telescope facility in India. A colleague of mine who did some observing there was warned not to go outside at night, due to the risk of being attacked by panthers(!).
  • The Roq de Los Muchachos Observatory is the most scenically-beautiful that I’ve yet been to. It’s also the most convenient, being (in principle) about 4 hours’ flight from Europe. (It’s longer from the UK because there aren’t any direct routes – you change at either Madrid, several places in Germany or in Tenerife.) But, it also has just a bit of a body count. The week before I was there in 2008, someone fell to their death off of the back of one of the MAGIC telescopes. Also, people keep driving straight off the roads – and the roads zig-zag up a very steep hillside. Going off that will hurt.
  • Although I’ve never been there myself, apparently the safety advice at the VLT in Chile is something to the effect of ‘Don’t go outside at night, because if you fall over and break something you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no way to get help to you’.
  • I imagine that if you visit the South Pole Telescope, there might be just a small problem with hypothermia. (Oh, and maybe rabid zombie penguins too…)

Basically, observing is less sedate than you might think.

Also (perhaps sadly) we don’t actually look through the telescopes any more. In fact, I’m not aware of any research-class instruments that have an eyepiece attached. (You can usually see the output on a screen in the control room, though.) Saying that, I think there is an old finder-scope bolted onto the side of the INT, but I’m not sure if anyone’s used it in a long time.

An 8-metre with an eye-lens would be cool … until it accidentally points at anything bright, that is, and the unlucky viewer gets blinded, of course.


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