January 2011

The following post is from Catherine Weigel, an undergraduate student at Hartwick College and a member of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team.

From January 16-20 I was one of seventeen undergraduates, 13 faculty, and 2 graduate students to have partaken in the 2011 undergraduate workshop at Arecibo Observatory. The workshop was an invigorating and fulfilling experience that allotted both time to make connections and to acquire knowledge. Each day students and faculty were connected through discussion over the scavenger hunts, waking up in the earlier hours of the morning to do some observing, or enjoying the culture of the cinema, with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as one of the more popular choices. Besides these events, students could be seen gazing over a star chart while professors would point out the more prominent stars and constellations.

Throughout the workshop, we were an audience to many great talks. These talks varied in subject, some pertaining to the UAT Groups project, while others gave students an idea of additional projects that used the largest radio telescope. Along with these sessions where students and faculty were together, there were also times when faculty and students would be separated into beginner sessions and advanced sessions. Faculty would go off and discuss the progress of the project and other projects that could happen after this one has ended. Having done a bit on the project, me and another student were invited to a couple of these advanced sessions. Upon attending these sessions, I found that it is important to look at what is going on now and to make sure that there is a purpose to any project that you find yourself a part of, because without a purpose the project would just be a waste of time and money. During the sessions, me and my Hartwick counterparts (Jaclyn Patterson and Dr. Parker Troischt) would take notes and upon returning to campus, are using these notes as building blocks of what the project is and what we can do in analyzing our group. These will be useful to all of us and potentially any newcomers to the project. Between the three of us, we have over 30 pages in notes in which we can build upon.

One of the bigger things that was taken away from this workshop was learning how to do remote observing. This summer, the Hartwick team was one of three that had a chance to get to do some on-site observing and we got a refresher during this workshop. Remote observing follows the main procedures of on-site observing with some variances (such as communication with the operator) as we will be located 34 degrees north latitude of the Observatory. Being able to do on-site observing has given us the confidence and ability to remove ourselves from the site and having had that first observing run within the environment of the telescope has given us the experience and belief that we will be able to do a remote run very successfully.

The following post is from Steven Mohammed, an undergraduate student at Colgate University and a member of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I am Steven Mohammed, a senior at Colgate University. This was my first time to Arecibo and I arrived to learn more about ALFALFA and overcome my fear of heights (more on that later). We arrived and immediately began what would be a series of “scavenger hunts” which introduced us to material related to ALFALFA. We signed up for observing shifts in the early hours of the morning and despite a severe lack of sleep, we were able to learn how the telescope works and how to take data using it.

We also had a tour to the Gregorian dome, which was amazing and scary. I am, of course, really afraid of heights. I made my way along the catwalk pointing my camera at the ground and taking blind pictures so I wouldn’t have to look at the floor. It didn’t help that the catwalk was shaky. We saw some of the workers hanging from wires over the various structures that held the platform together.

As I walked through the platform I finally was able to put my fears behind me and peek at the dish below us. We were so high up we could see the ocean as well as the now miniature-sized cars that laced the Observatory grounds. We made our way to the room containing ALFA and found a cute kangaroo named Pat on it.

We have one day left but this experience has been absolutely incredible. The amount of material I have learned from the talks, scavenger hunts and talking to professors is overwhelming but it will eventually soak in. I have had only six hours of sleep in the past two days but who needs sleep with an opportunity like this?

The following post is from Aileen O’Donoghue, a professor at St. Lawrence University and member of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team.

I, too, am at the 2011 undergraduate workshop at Arecibo.  One of the tasks of the old people — those of us who are no longer students but bring students — is to think about submitting for a renewal of the NSF grant that has paid for all of us to come to Arecibo for observing and workshops.  After starting the observing run last night with Jeff, Rose, and Eric under Ann’s supervision, I got to bed about 4 am and slept until a leisurely 8 am.  At that time, I got up, made coffee and sat on the deck of Family Unit 1 where I am staying to enjoy the Puerto Rican morning.  My thoughts turned to why it is so important for all of us to come to Puerto Rico instead of connecting to the observatory through the web from, say, Ithaca.  Here are my thoughts:

The undergraduate workshop at Arecibo engages our students as a communty of scholars with each other, their faculty, and the instrument in a more profound and lasting way than any cyber connection could.  Starting with the collaboration on the observing proposal and continuing through all the “scavenger hunt” excercises that require inquiry beyond Google, our students interact with students from other institutions with interests similar to their own yet different levels of astronomical and cultural knowledge and experience.  The expertise and insights they discover in themselves and each other form some of the first tendrils that will link them and draw them into the web of the great communal effort of understanding the universe.

It cannot be overstated how important a role the reality of Puerto Rico and the Arecibo Observatory is in their experience.  Our students live in a world of cyber representations truly beginning to rival actual experience.  They text each other across the room instead of speaking, they “friend” each other on Facebook instead of over coffee, they visit the planet Pandora intead of observing Jupiter and its moons.  The reality of the experience of physically traveling to Puerto Rico from across the United States and the drive on freeways and narrow twisting roads to the observatory site begin to pull them out of their cyber world.  The first sight of the telescope awes them with its immensity, an awe that grows as they explore it; walking the steep karst hills to the visiting scientist quarters and conference center, the steps to the administration and control buildings, the suspended grate of the catwalk and the intricate pathways of the Platform and Gregorian Dome.  It is an experience of reality that has a profound impact on most of them and cannot be replicated over the internet at any bandwidth.

The value of their experience at the Arecibo Observatory, however, goes beyond the physical instrument and their development as scientists as they recognize and discover the great vision and effort rquired for building and maintaining the observatory.  During their stay they interact with many of the Arecibo staff.  Beyond the realtively few staff scientists, they get to know some of the telescope operators, cooks, administrators and Visitor Center staff.  It helps them to realize that the astronomical data we analyze is the product of a great number of unsung, yet vital, individuals with lives as devoted to the work of this observatory as those whose names are on the papers in the Astrophysical Journal.  It contributes some humility to these young people to find people with and without academic degrees profoundly knowlegeable about the instrument and the universe.  It also begins their realization that the activity of science and their responsibility as scientists are human activities and responsibilities that require more than clever manipulations of data.  As well as intelligence and effort, the full work of science requires attention to the mundane realities of physical maintenance and administration and the important human qualities of respect for all the gifts and efforts different people bring to this great enterprise.

Comments and improvements are invited.

This post is by Parker Troischt, a professor of physics at Hartwick College, and member of the ALFALFA Undergraduate Team.

I’m here this week for the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team Workshop with two of my students (Catherine Weigel and Jaclyn Patterson) from Hartwick College.  We arrived from the airport Sunday night and immediately signed up for observing early Monday morning.  And I am very glad that I did!  At little after 5:00am in the morning, I was part of a group of students and faculty who were monitoring the data in the control room at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) as the telescope received the most spectacular signal any of us had ever seen.  We could make out a very bright HI source with clear rotation by examining our frequency vs. time plot while telescope scanned across the sky.  At the same time, there was also a strong continuum signal visible across all the frequencies we could monitor.  The control room was buzzing with excitement!  Students from Union College, St. Lawrence University and Hartwick College used the object’s sky coordinates (RA and Dec) and a few astronomical databases in order to find an optical counterpart and identify the object.  It turned out to a relatively nearby galaxy called NGC 4631.  This spiral galaxy has very interesting HI features with several “spurs” indicating that it is interacting with other nearby galaxies.  It also has a very strong radio continuum.   One student excitedly remarked, “I am all set.  I can go home happy now!”

So far, the workshop has been an incredible opportunity for students and faculty at several institutions to participate in science on a large scale.  The number of hands-on experiences for students has been amazing.  We are learning how to observe using Arecibo remotely in one session, and getting a chance to work with data analysis tools the next.  We have also had a number of good talks.  For example, we just got to hear a great talk about how Arecibo is used as a radar facility in order to pinpoint and track near-Earth asteroids.  I am very much looking forward to more excitement tonight as I will be part of a team beginning a new observing session.  So.. stay tuned!!

Jeff Miller from St. Lawrence University here, giving you the scoop from the 4th UAT workshop in Arecibo. This is my 6th trip here to the observatory, and it’s always a fascinating experience. Here’s a page with the photos I’m taking on this trip.

On Jan. 17, I got up at 5am to go to the last observing session at 6pm. Becky walked me through the shutdown and end of night procedures. I’ve done it before, but each time it gets a bit easier. This morning (the 18th) Aileen O’Donoghue and I went to the first observing session to practice the startup procedures. Rose Finn and Eric Wilcots came along as well. I decided to stay up and get some work done before the session started. Plenty of time to sleep later!

We arrived in the control room at 1 am, 30 minutes before the observing was to start. Lots of time, no rush – until it was time to sit down at the keyboard. Aileen’s reading me the instructions, and suddenly it all looks alien. While trying to sort out the various screens, I hear Ann, who is patiently watching from the sidelines that I don’t screw up, quietly say “15 seconds…”. Oh, yeah – time to get my rear in gear.

Once we started, things went very smoothly. I could tell this, because Ann had started to ignore me. The students in the control took their turn editing the log, and then the next group came in. We explained what was going on with all the displays, and then they took their turn.

Before heading out, I took the second group outside to see the Southern Cross and Saturn. It was humid, but clear – much nicer than Northern New York! I got back to my room about 3:30am, and fell asleep about 4am: 23 hours later. I haven’t done that in a long time. 4 hours of sleep, and I’m ready to go for another day.

Sleep is so over rated.


I’m spending this week at the Arecibo Observatory with the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team (UAT) for our annual January workshop. I like to call these events “Camp ALFALFA” — an opportunity to bring lots of young undergraduate scientists, and their faculty mentors, together at this world-class facility. During the workshop, there are observing opportunities, telescope training sessions, a tour of the Observatory, lectures, and scavenger hunts to get everyone up to speed on ALFALFA. It’s a lot of fun, and a great way to get people involved in ALFALFA so that we can maximize the scientific results of the survey and spread the work around. That’s pretty important when you have a total of 5,000 hours of observing to cover!

Currently, I’m here with Martha and Becky getting everything set up for the arrival of 32 members of the UAT. That involves making sure that everyone, and their laptops, will have a place to sit and to connect to the web. If you’re a member of the team, welcome! That goes double if this is your first trip to Arecibo. For us, Arecibo is a welcome change from upstate New York. It’s 85 degrees here in the day, and at night it dips down to the low 70s (so we can sleep with the windows open and listen to the impressively high-volume sounds of the coqui frogs all night).

Throughout the week, we’ll be updating the blog (and hopefully posting some contributions from members of the team!) to let you know what we’re up to and to give you a better idea of what it’s like to spend time at this amazing facility.