Why I’m really in Hawaii

To be honest, when I first arrived in Hawaii I was really worried because I was struggling to get any responses from those who had said I could volunteer for them. Now I’m torn between 4 organisations who want me all at once, if only I had more time to work on my cloning research. Firstly, I had a last minute opportunity to go up to the CSO Observatory at the summit of Mauna Kea, 4070 m high, on the very first Monday after my arrival. I was warned about the fact that there is 60% less oxygen up here, so there is often danger of fainting, dehydration, dizziness and a plethora of other things. My main role with CSO is to be a second person around in case the guy working has a heart attack and can’t call for help. On the way up to the summit we stop to eat at Hale Pohaku (HP) where there is catering for everyone working at the Observatories as well as at the Visitor Information Station (VIS). The food is pretty damn good, I overeat every time no matter how desperate I am to refrain, there’s cake and ice cream, too good to resist… They have lodgings too, which I have yet to experience. We stopped by the VIS to try and get me some shifts, since this was the original reason for me coming to Hawaii in the first place. They have so many volunteers there’s a battle to get time there, so there wasn’t much available until at least a week onwards, but luckily it all got sorted in the end and I booked up lots of shifts in advance.

Before going up to the summit, everyone is required to hang out at the VIS/HP  for at least half an hour to acclimatise, since it’s about 2800 m high and 40% oxygen deficient. The road is unpaved and pretty rough going beyond the VIS, 4WDs are a must, much to the disappointment of many tourists. There’s nothing quite like driving up a mountain with the clouds below, many times I have wanted to try walking on them. It takes about an hour to get to the VIS from Hilo and then another half an hour to get to the summit. Suddenly the observatories appear, even more spectacular during sunset. I even witnessed a sundog; a rainbow within the clouds. The winds are some of the strongest that I have ever felt, I had to heave with my entire body weight to open and close the car door. It’s usually around freezing too, a nice change from hot and humid Hilo. There are 13 observatories in total, I’m still trying to learn them all. CSO stands for Caltech Submillimetre Observatory and it only has a few years left in it, they’ve been downsizing, hence the need for occasional volunteers. It has a 10.4 m wide mirror and is made up of 84 hexagonal aluminium pieces. The main research is associated with the Interstellar Medium (ISM), which is molecules and dust that is very cold and is not at all dense. It makes up a lot of space and will affect the light from stars that we see, depending on if it’s hot (relatively speaking) or cold dust and what it’s made up of. By reading the spectra of this dust we can learn which molecules lie within, many of which are impossible to have on earth. This dust is the origin of stars but also the stuff that stars have ejected after death.

I seem to be fine with the lack of oxygen, it’s just surprisingly exhausting climbing a few steps, there’s this special device which you put on your finger and it tells you your heart rate and oxygen level. I’m usually at about 90% oxygen, which is a good value for up here, although normally it should be at least 98%. The worst thing is feeling tired and dry and super dehydrated. When the dome rotates it’s a strange feeling because the entire observatory moves, offices and all, so I basically sit here moving round in circles with an occasional jerk here and there. I got a peek inside the actual dome as it was opening, this is where the telescope and all the coolants lie, since the telescope needs to be at around absolute zero (-273 C) in order for the cameras to function efficiently. I also caught a glimpse of Venus and Mercury setting, unfortunately I’d just missed a third, Jupiter which had set moments before. I spent most of my time overseeing what work was being done, basically the equipment was being calibrated, making slight adjustments to make sure that the telescope is pointing where it is supposed to be pointing. I also helped with setting up an ethernet connection in the outdoor shed. The telescope got jammed two or three times while it was going through the calibrations, and each time we had to start all over again, so we didn’t end up leaving until around 4am with a stunning sliver of a moon on the drive back down. The stars are just phenomenal, so many that it’s hard to find any constellations. Stargazing is in fact better from the VIS, at the summit the atmosphere is so thin the stars don’t twinkle and eyes need oxygen to function, so the sky looks grey instead of black. One of the coolest things has been being able to see southern constellations like the Southern Cross and Scorpius, although it disturbs me that I don’t see Cassiopeia.

I’ve been learning about Hawaiian astronomy via the VIS and ‘Imiloa (the Planetarium in Hilo). Scorpius is not called Scorpius, it is in fact Maui’s Fishhook. I have recently acquired the most beautiful handmade wooden fishhook necklace which I don’t think I’ll take off for a very long time. It is unbelievable how the Polynesians managed to navigate hundreds of years ago in just their little canoes using the stars. Here there are four star lines, used for navigation, making up each quarter of the celestial sphere. Currently, the second star line Iwikuamo‘o can be seen, which goes all the way from Polaris, the North Star, to the Southern Cross. The third is also visible, Manaiakalani, which includes the fishhook as well as the Summer Triangle (Deneb, Vega and Altair). Every time I’ve been volunteering at the VIS it’s always been different, it’s never been the same person giving the star tour so I’m always learning something new and the things to do there is endless. Usually, setting up the telescopes at night and pointing them is the main objective, as well as explaining to the visitors what they are looking at. There’s also a solar telescope during the day to manage and endless questions to answer from tourists who want to explore the area. There are DVDs which get shown throughout the day which explains everything from building some of the observatories to their discoveries to the conflicts of the sacred land and Hawaiian culture. There’s also a super cool gift shop and till which need looking after. At weekends they do summit tours which was also very awesome to experience. I got to tag along and partake in a bit of culture as well as go inside one of the Keck telescopes, which is also 10 metres. The mirrors are so shiny that I couldn’t actually see them at first, until somebody pointed out the faint edges of the hexagon panels. Outside we even got a bit of snow/hail and heard about the crazy locals that risk their lives skiing and snowboarding when it snows up here.

On my first shift at the VIS I was extremely fortunate to meet someone who works for the Subaru Telescope. My ears immediately perked up and I enthusiastically inquired as to whether they might be needing any students or volunteers. Magically, I’m now working on a proper science project, playing around with electronics and computer programming on a thing called Panoptes. They need help with designing a weather station and fans for a box that has everything required for searching for exoplanets using this other thing called Arduino. I was actually really scared of what I had let myself in for, terrified of not understanding or having a clue about anything and being a hindrance. I had decided that I wouldn’t do any programming this summer because I hate it, and here I was about to try and work on a project requiring programming. I was pleasantly surprised, he started me off easy and it’s gradually getting a little bit more sophisticated each day, and low and behold I’m actually finding it awesome fun! It’s an amazing feeling connecting up the sensors, altering some code, having a few little problems, and then seeing the results on the screen and the temperature changing as I take my finger on and off the sensor. Now my biggest fear is not having enough time to figure out the real stuff I’m supposed to be doing.

And last but not least is ‘Imiloa. This was slightly more tricky as I hadn’t received any emails in response whatsoever and didn’t know who to talk to. But then it so happens that someone I had emailed last year about his super cool charity works there and he told me to come and say hi so I did. He then introduced me to someone who introduced me to someone else and I finally got a great opportunity to do some outreach. They had a Nano event and I had my own table which was all about explaining binary and computers. I literally learnt everything I needed to know about 5 minutes before the event and of course I had a parent come up to me who asked me what four bits make. I was dumbfounded and said I had no idea. Turns out it’s a nibble, I’ll never forget it. Turns out this guy is an expert and starts telling me and everyone else in the vicinity all about computers, all in good fun. Learnt a lot; for example a CD has 44,000 bits for every one second. Mindboggling. Since then I’ve been on an intro tour around the garden which is unexpectedly in-depth. They’ve planted trees and suchlike that represent mountainous, middle, and sea level plants. I learnt all about what’s used for tying canoes together to medicines to food and everything in between. Inside they have a Planetarium capable of 3D as well as an incredible exhibition which has endless goodies, in particular there’s a huge interactive globe, called Science on a Sphere, which can display anything you can think of: Earth by day or night, different wavelengths of the sun, planets, moons…

Apologies for such a long rambling entry, I am currently running at 40% less oxygen. I could go on forever, there’s so much detail I didn’t even go into, about the observatories, the research, the Hawaiian astronomical culture. If anyone wants to learn more about anything I can elaborate further. There’s also this huge dilemma with a new Thirty Metre Telescope, but that will definitely be a post in itself.

4 thoughts on “Why I’m really in Hawaii

  1. Robert Breinl

    I enjoy reading your stories Hannah.

    My curiosity was tweeked when you mentioned molecules “impossible to have on earth” in interstellar gas.

    I am glad you can see the Southern Cross constellation. It has a special place in the hearts of many people who live in the southern hemisphere, also Orion.

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