Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Monty, by Jim Meddick, 10/29/2007 (Click to see full version)

Although no astronomer I've met believes in ghosts, that doesn't stop us from having our share of scary stories. After all, when we are observing, we are up all night, quite tired, and walking around in the dark with little or no lighting. While no astronomer has yet been attacked by the Undead, experimented upon by aliens, or had her genes mixed with that of a mutant badger, maybe it is just a matter of time.

I was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and spent many nights at Lick Observatory outside of San Jose, California. Lick Observatory is named after James Lick, who earned a ton of money in real estate during the Gold Rush, and donated the money used to build the observatory that bears his name. Lick himself is buried at the base of the pier of the 36-inch refracting telescope of Lick Observatory.

The refractor where Lick is buried is almost never used for science anymore -- upgrading it for science would destroy a very historical and well-built instrument. The refractor is in a large dome connected by a long, narrow, high-ceiling hallway to a smaller dome, where a modern, 1-meter (40") diameter research telescope is housed. This telescope, the Nickel reflector, is used quite often by many people. I used it many nights -- it is easy to run and works very well. The only problem is that you are alone in this hundred-year-old, cavernous, unlit building where a man has been buried. So it is very spooky. There are tales of the elevator mysteriously going up and down during the night, apparently carrying nobody, scaring the wits out of the poor grad student working at the telescope. To get to the restrooms, the observer has to descend a spiral staircase, pass by that long, creepy hallway connecting the 1-meter to the refractor where Lick is buried, use the facilities, walk past the spooky hallway again, and climb the spiral staircase to the control room.

So, one long, winter's night, I was observing on the one meter telescope. I was especially tired, and the night was long. I took a bathroom break, and it seemed especially spooky that night.

Now, it is little known that James Lick was injured in a carpentry accident, and lost one hand that was replaced by a hook. When I opened the control room door, I found that very hook hanging on the doorknob!

Okay, so that paragraph is a lie. But the rest of the story is true.

I went to use the restroom, and I looked down that long, dark corridor toward the refractor and Lick's Tomb. I thought I saw something move down there, which freaked me out a bit, as I knew I was the only person in the building that night. But I chalked it up to my imagination, and I went on to the facilities.

On my way back, I looked down the hallway again, and I definitely saw something moving. As I stared into the darkness, it was also definitely a human form, and it looked at me and said my name. I nearly fainted! And this story is 100% true (except for the hook bit).

And now, the rest of the story: At this point, I recognized the human form -- it was one of the mountain's resident astronomers, Rem Stone, and a Santa Cruz astronomy professor, Burt Jones. Unbeknownst to me, they were using the refractor telescope that night for one of its few science projects -- taking photographs of star clusters (they were taking pictures of star clusters that the same set-up had looked at decades ago so they can measure how the stars have moved). But, since I didn't know they were there, I was scared out of my wits for a few seconds.

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