A Computer Science Major at Kitt PeakTim Douglas | October 20, 2010
I’m Tim Douglas ’11, and one of the seven students enrolled in Observational Optical Astronomy, ASTR341. Previous posts have given a pretty good glimpse into our trip to Kitt Peak National Observatory, but I come from a slightly different background, so I’d like to add some of my thoughts as well.
Unlike many others in the class, I’m not an Astronomy major, nor a Physics major, nor an Astrophysics major; rather, I study Computer Science. That being said, I’m pursuing a Scientific Computing concentration, and an Astronomy minor, so I didn’t show up in Tucson completely out of left field. While my true passion may be CS, my concentration and minor yet encompass a serious interest of mine.
I love getting my hands dirty when doing Science (with a capital s). I’ve never been too keen on theoretical studies or purity. Rather, I want to twiddle knobs, hit switches, and read LCDs when doing research. This was my primary drive towards taking ASTR341, for a good portion of the class is spent in Strawbridge Observatory, using the school’s 16″ telescope.
Imagine my happiness, then, when told during the first class meeting that we were to take a trip to Kitt Peak in order to use one of their telescopes. The primary mirror of the WIYN telescope we used is “just” double the diameter — 36″, or 0.9 meters –of what we have at Strawbridge, but the support systems are much more involved.
One of my favorite moments on the trip was when we entered the “Computer Room.” Inside were racks of equipment, with the following highlights:
- An old SPARCstation running SunOS 4.1.4 with a 150 MHz processor and a 2.1 GB disk. I couldn’t have imagined that an old machine from the early ’90s did anything especially important. In fact, it is the machine that controls the CCD and its output!
- A fiberoptic uplink that gave us many megabytes/second worth of bandwidth outside of the mountain, which came in handy when uploading our data back to Haverford.
- Multiple rack units worth of power supplies. Some were for the lights used to take dome flats, others were for the right ascension and declination motors. Upon looking behind the racks, I spied capacitors larger than my fist. I didn’t dare get close enough to see how many Farads they were rated for…
- A few 4U computers. “This one’s dual boot, so you’re going to want to make sure what you’re doing at the lilo prompt,” our guide told us. “Surely,” was my response, having dealt with those circumstances many times in the past.
It wasn’t just the gear that we used I found exciting; the manner in which we went about data collection, in addition, aligned well with my interests. After showing up at KPNO on our first night, Professor Willman told us to “stay up as late as possible, and sleep in as much as possible.” Considering I’m quite the night owl, I was ecstatic that a professor was telling me to do this!
Through out all the fun, games, and serious science, this trip further solidified in me an approach that Haverford takes towards academia: that research is inherently interdisciplinary. The school embodies this ideology not just in the name of its science building, the Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center, but the way in which it structures class requirements as well. Major requisites are usually a fraction of those taken by a Haverford student in order to graduate; this has allowed me to take many classes in other departments, e.g., Astronomy and Physics.
Practically, having a group with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise came in very handy. I remember pounding away at one of the terminals, figuring out how to manage Haverford’s firewalls so we could export our data, and overhearing a “we should have a Computer Science major here always.” I didn’t say this, but at the time I thought, “we should have many Astronomy majors here too!”
At the end of the day, each of us pitched in whichever ways we could, and when the clouds weren’t obscuring the sky, we collected a lot of good data. But for now, it’s back to the classroom to figure out what to do with it! Huge thanks to the generous support of the Green Fund for providing us with this opportunity.