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Mist at the MMT

Mist Blows.
Wind wails.
Small cold rain that won’t quite turn to snow flies with that wind.
The cold has seeped into my bones.
And now it’s over.
Even if the sky cleared now, at 2:30,
We could never recover before dawn.

And so I look back:
Three nights – no stars.
The code1 I wrote but could not use.
The instrument failure we still can’t understand.

The hours trying.
Fearing the sky would clear.
Partially fixed at last, we were ready,
For the stars that did not come.

Of this no word is breathed,
In books of popular astronomy,
Or science shows on television.
This effort to be ready.
This fearing our desire.
Until at last, worn out but ready we wait,
For the stars that do not come.

Their pages and segments fill with star trails:
The dreams and real discoveries,
When from the wild tops of the mountains,
Our sight leaps to the depths of space.

But not of this they tell:
The halo round the cloud-blurred moon.
The T. O.2 playing video games.
The stubborn waiting or the frantic work,
To make all ready,
For the stars that do not come.

No dreams came true this run3.
And yet – and yet, to be here – is that not a dream?
To speak as we have spoken of Your heavens,
Mysteries we may yet seek another time.
Though I and one other alone may own them Yours,
Yet not the less Your star-watchers we are.

And in between the nights,
I have seen the ranges with names I do not know,
Rugged, beneath the flying clouds that cast,
A light that shows their wildness as the Sun,
Or Moon of starry nights could never show.
One morning over one nameless peak,
The dawn glowed with a red that touched my heart,
And stirred my blood with what I cannot name.
Another, nearer peaks,
And dizzy slopes were clothed,
In flying swaths of wind-torn cloud.
And as they flew the clouds told,
Wonder of airy gulfs and strong ramparts of stone.

So Lord, You Who denied my dream,
Have You denied it?
Or from Whom came the dawn-glow and the wild clouds?
Or strength to ready for what did not come?
The chance to stand beneath this steel and glass,
And speak with other watchers of the stars?
Frail if we be, and frail all our work,
Yet here, and a few places else,
Least frail our tools and least (oh how!) unworthy,
To search the depths of heaven where You wrought,
Wonders You hid, that we might now disclose,
If with our trembling art of glass and wire,
Steel and charge4 and air5 and mind and force6,
The thought of many, and their genius,
Brought to bear upon one common task –
If with this feeble, mighty best that we can do,
You combine skies that let Your secrets pass,
Another time.

1. Code: that is, computer programs written in a programming language ('code'). In this case, the programs were for processing and analyzing astronomical images.

2. T.O.: Telescope Operator. All large astronomical telescopes are controlled by telescope operators, rather than astronomers. In this line, I am not criticizing the T.O., only emphasizing that the weather was so hopeless he had nothing better to do than play video games. I have great respect for T.O's. Each one is an expert on his or her specific telescope, and can operate it more effectively than an astronomer, who focuses instead on understanding the science of stars, galaxies, etc. The astronomer tells the T.O. what he or she wants the telescope to do, and the T.O. makes the telescope do it, unless it can't without risk of damage. This scenario happens frequently: one of the main purposes of a T.O. is to protect the telescope from over-eager astronomers asking it to do the impossible (like observe while it's snowing, for example).

3. run: Astronomers typically talk about telescope time in terms of observing runs. A run is a set of contiguous nights alotted to a given astronomer, or research project. This poem was written at the end of run in which I got no good data at all: I could not try again the next night, because it was another astronomer's run.

4. charge: Modern astronomical cameras (and your digital camera at home) record images as patterns of electrical charge, often on a silicon chip. The charge is read off and encoded as an image file on a computer.

5. air: The mirror of a large telescope like the MMT must be kept at the same temperature as the surrounding air. Otherwise, eddies of different-temperature air billowing off the mirror blur the images. Because a 6.5 meter diameter disk of glass doesn't warm up or cool down easily, air is always being blasted at high speed through the hollow, honeycomb structure of the mirror, forcing the glass to equilibrate quickly to any changes in the air temperature.

6. force: Among other things, this refers to the magnetic force actuators that are used to finely control the shape of the MMT's adaptive secondary mirror hundreds of times each second. This cancels out much of the blurring from Earth's turbulent atmosphere, allowing the MMT to give sharper images than the Hubble Space Telescope (though Hubble retains other advantages, such as ability to use wavelengths the MMT can't). The process of rapidly deforming a telescope mirror to sharpen images is called Adaptive Optics (AO), and is used at many telescopes. The MMT's magnetically actuated deformable secondary mirror, however, is still unique as of 2009. The poem was written in December 2005.