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Secret Passages and the Invisible Universe

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Events of October 19, 2011

When I was younger, I used to watch a show called Cardcaptors in which the main character was frequently advised to "Expect the Unexpected". It's good advice for anyone, because, especially when computers are involved, things don't always go according to plan, but that doesn't mean you still can't end up having fun.

My Anthropology midterm was the next day, so I planned on spending most of the night reviewing the readings. However, I also planned on stopping over at the Astronomical Society meeting for about an hour to stargaze as a study break. I'd gotten an e-mail saying that the club's former president, Trey Wenger, who was at home recovering from an automobile accident, would be video-chatting with the club and remote observing using the Arecibo Radio Telescope during the meeting! So, even though the sky was cloudy, I was still looking forward to attending.

If you've ever seen the movies Contact or Goldeneye, you've seen Arecibo. It's a huge radio dish a thousand feet across in Puerto Rico that's used by scientists to study the universe. A radio telescope can observe radio waves coming from an object in space, just like a more ordinary telescope can be used to observe light waves. (Contrary to popular belief, finding radio waves in space doesn't mean aliens made them, though-- planets, stars and galaxies all give off radio waves naturally.) However, the telescope can also make radar maps of nearby objects like asteroids by sending out radio signals, bouncing them off the surface of the target object, and observing how long they take to return.

We got the video-call working, and were able to talk with Trey, but then, suddenly, we were disconnected. The people working with the computer tried to see if the problem was on our end and fix it, but we kept having glitches, and it was very frustrating.

Some of the other club members took this time to show off the "secret passage" of the room we meet in--a ladder that goes up to a platform on the next floor, next to a door. It's not really "secret", because you can see the ladder from anywhere in the room, but it's still pretty cool. Since there isn't a doorknob on our side of the door, we can't open it to see where it leads, but apparently it was built so that grad students could spend all day working in the library on the floor above us and then climb down the ladder when they had to teach.

Appalled that our peers had never taken the time to properly investigate this matter, a small group of us set out to find the other side of the door. It turned out to be an "Emergency Exit" right in the back of the Astronomy Library on the upper floor--which fit with the story we'd heard. We couldn't open the door because an alarm would sound, but by having people on both sides knock to make sure we could hear each other, we proved we'd found it!

After that success, we finally got the video-chat working--half an hour late. But at first, even though we could hear Trey, he couldn't hear us, so we just communicated through e-mails and hand signals. FINALLY, we got audio working on both ends, and he was able to talk about his work making observations of the entire sky as part of the GALFACTS project. Instead of observing one object in particular, this project focuses on mapping the whole sky in radio by scanning in strips. The radio telescope is so sensitive that every time the airport on the other side of the island points its radar in their direction, Trey gets an error message from the detectors he's using!

Trey showed us how he can use the radio telescope remotely from his house. We all wished him a speedy recovery, and he said he looked forward to meeting all of us freshmen next semester. I'm sure that, like getting the video call up and running, it'll be well worth the wait!