Thursday, January 31, 2013

Guest Post: Eilat Glikman on 'In Praise of Remote Observing'

This week's guest-blogger is Eilat Glikman. Eilat holds an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University.  She studies dust reddened quasars and their role in quasar/galaxy co-evolution, as well as faint quasars at high redshifts.  Eilat has two young children ages 7 and 4 and is dedicated to finding that elusive formula for work/life balance.  

When I decided to pursue a career in astronomy (and academia) I was not aware of the incredible amounts of travel required.  I hate to travel, get stressed in the run up to a trip, am terrible at packing and get homesick quite easily.  Of course, when I arrive at my destination I usually enjoy myself, whether it is observing and getting awesome data or going to a conference and having stimulating and vibrant discussions.  Still, it was a rude awakening when I realized the extreme amounts of airline miles that some astronomers rack up (and the frequent flyer culture that ensues).

In graduate school, I made the best of my trips by adding Hawaiian vacations to IRTF runs.  But toward the end of graduate school, when I was pregnant, traveling to a remote mountaintop in order to go observing was no longer tolerable and I started taking advantage of remote observing whenever possible.  And maybe it is because my first remote observing experiences were with the well-tested interface at IRTF, but once I got a taste of observing without travel, I was hooked.

During my postdoc at Caltech, I used the remote observing facility to observe with the Keck telescope, and delighted in the fact that I could put my toddler to bed, kiss him good night, drive to the office, work all night and come home to sleep during the day.  Comparing this routine with one that adds two days of travel and being completely away from my family, the work-life friendliness of remote observing becomes completely apparent.

I have since written entire papers based on remotely obtained data, from Keck and IRTF.  More recently I have been using WIYN’s remote observing capabilities to do my science at Yale.  And last night I used a new, quite complicated (on paper) instrument on WIYN for the first time.  The first half of the night was for my science, after that my observing partner and I handed the reigns to the next team.  I drove home, within 30 minutes was asleep in my own bed, and am now back in the office ready to go for another half-night.

I cannot express enough how wonderful that feels.

(I will leave for another post some tips on how to maximize good rest during a remote observing run, especially with children.)

The IRTF offers an ideal model to follow.  Anyone with an approved observing program can observe remotely, from anywhere.  The last time I observed with IRTF, I did it from the comfort of my own home.   The data were beautiful and it might have been the best observing run I ever had!
Observatories, astronomy departments, listen up:  If you want to maximize productivity from your facilities, be accessible to more people, and level the playing field for astronomers with different work-life situations and (I didn’t even mention) funding situations, invest in remote observing.


AJW said...

I don't find it that easy to disengage from daily family life while remote observing. I always try to do all my normal routines like carpool and family dinners while also staying up all night and trying to concentrate on my observing plan. The family finds it difficult to get used to Mom being in town but not available, whereas when I'm actually out of town, they have no choice but to deal with it. It's hard to explain to a small child that what he's getting is better than nothing!

It's also hard to sleep at home. Now I try to schedule my nights for mid-week so at least the children are off at school when I want to sleep, because I quickly learned that none of the sources of white noise I could devise would drown out my noisy children on a Saturday morning.

All things considered, for a short run on an instrument I'm familiar with, I much prefer remote observing. I appreciate the fewer days away from my family and the lower toll on my body. But if I really want to concentrate and focus on my observing, I still prefer to be at the telescope in person. OK, don't tell the kids or my husband, but it might also feel a bit like a vacation. When I'm at the Observatory, I have no responsibilities other than to show up and work! What a luxury!

Anita Cochran said...

I can certainly understand the sentiments expressed in this post as far as dealing with travel and family. However, the last sentence that observatories should invest in remote observing shows a lack of knowledge of what it would take to retrofit an older observatory for this. As the Assistant Director of McDonald Observatory I have thought of this a lot.

Our observatory does not have a lot of funds such as they have at Keck or IRTF (yes I know those budgets are lean but ours are much leaner). Also, with older equatorial mount telescopes, the asymmetry makes obstacle avoidance much more difficult. Our control system is not well suited to running without someone there (note that Keck and IRTF have staff astronomers on site - we just have the scientist observer). Indeed, our 2.1m does not even have the dome slaved to the telescope!

So, we would have to update the control system, map the obstacles (not too bad on the 2.7m, quite complicated on the 2.1m) and work out foolproof operations. This would mean eliminating working near the pier or over the axis (tube on the west to achieve regions in the northeast you cannot get to normally), all of which are currently done by that intelligent computer known as a human. This is a time consuming and $$ consuming task.

Alternatively, we could hire night time telescope operators but that is a very large and recurring cost.

The other less tangible costs are that our support staff who live at McDonald would be isolated (McDonald is 450 miles from Austin and not near any large town) and not able to interact with the observers. Thus, they wouldn't get the critical feedback on issues and cannot help the observers as much, not do they feel as included.

Another real but intangible cost is if astronomers do not go to the telescope, the don't stay at the Astronomer's Lodge. This would force us to either raise the rates tremendously (it must pay for itself with no funds taken out of the research budget) or close the facility. If we close it, then people who do need to visit the observatory (engineers, teachers in workshops, classes, etc) would have to stay in town 16 miles down a mountain road.

As a long time observer, I definitely believe that you can learn about and appreciate more the data if you go to the telescope at least occasionally. This is especially true for less experienced observers.

So you see, the idea of remote observing may suit the needs of many people but there are downsides to it also.

Nicolle Zellner said...

On a related note... I just finished a 1.5-day NSF proposal review panel via videoconference. ALL of the panel members interacted remotely from each other. We were told by the program officer that this will be more and more common, at least with the NSF, in the era of smaller budgets.