Friday, 30 August 2013

Volcanoes, aborigines and Solar worship

Adventures were had. On my free day this week I made some excursions, and learned a few things about La Palma. For example: 
  • Like the other Canary islands, La Palma formed after volcanic eruptions in the Atlantic ocean some millions of years ago. They formed from East to West starting about 20 million years ago, so La Palma is the youngest, being around 2 million years old.
  • The southern tip of La Palma is the newest, and consists of a landscape of dormant volcanoes (taking dormant to mean there not currently being a risk of eruption but not unlikely to erupt in the future). The last eruption was during the 1970's, creating land which had simply not been there before. (The thought of setting foot on land which is younger than living humans is just staggering to me.)
  • The volcano San Antonio last erupted during the 1600's. Now there is a pine forest growing in its crater. (Trees! I just cannot get over how awesome they are.)
  • I now know what a wet volcano smells like. It smells extremely interesting.
  • The first inhabitants of La Palma were the Awara people, who came from the North African coast 2500 years ago. They herded goats, planted some crops, harvested fruits, did a bit of fishing, carved patterns into rock and sculpted pottery for a living. They lived in caves during the winter, and in the summer they lived in shelters up on the mountain while letting their goats graze up there and making cheese. 
  • The Awara appears to have had religious practices centred on the Sun. They worshipped Abora, the sun, and also the moon. They feared Iruene, the representation of darkness and evil in the shape of a ferocious dog.
  • The second wave of new inhabitants came from Africa at around 1000 years ago, as some cultural changes in pottery and so on indicate, say archeologists.
  • The third wave of settlers were the Spanish assholes conquistadors in the 1400's, after which the aboriginal people and their culture met a swift decline.
So, yeah, this island has its history alright. Now I shall proceed in the ancient tradition of worshipping the Sun in the only way I know: to study it. I think that is the most profound expression for holding something sacred: to try to understand it. Isn't that what all the ancient myths are about, really? An attempt to make sense of the world and find out what you can do to optimise your chances of surviving in it. We change our stories based on the best of our observations, but the fundamental reason why we tell them remains the same. The same reason why we have evolved into the knowledge-thirsting human beings we are today. Curiosity; the desire to understand.

Love and Sun,

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Location, location, location!

There seems to be some confusion about exactly where in the world I'm actually staying at the moment, so let's clear things up a bit. There is a place called Palma de Mallorca, which is a town on the island Mallorca. It lies in the Mediterranean ocean outside the Spanish coast like so:

Palma de Mallorca. This is not where I am.
This is not where I am at the moment. I am on the Canary Islands, which also belong to Spain but which are located outside the coast of Africa, like so:

The Canary Islands. This is where I am.
Let's take a closer look on these islands. There are seven of them, pictured below. On Gran Canaria, the biggest town is called Las Palmas. This is not where I am. I am at the island La Palma, the North-Westernmost of the Canaries. 

The Canary Islands, with La Palma circled in red. This is where I am!
The main city of the island is called Santa Cruz de la Palma. I usually go down there on my free days to spend the night at a hotel at sea level, but it's not exactly where I live. About an hour and a half's drive up the steep mountainside you find the Observatory at the Roque de los Muchachos. There, at the Swedish Solar Telescope, is where I live!

The island La Palma, with Roque de los Muchachos. X marks the spot!
So now you know where to find me, should you feel the urge to stop by for a cup of tea. It's a rather pretty island seen from above, isn't it? Its rather damn pretty up close as well I can tell you, not to mention dramatic and diverse. A perfect place for adventures. Tomorrow I'll tell you about what I learned during some of my recent ones.

Love and islands,

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Quoth the raven: I can has ur sammich plz?

You'll never believe what happened to me today! As I was sitting outside, eating my lunch, a raven landed on the telescope building. I recognised him (by the ring around his leg) as one of the two tame ravens around here, Carmelo. I tossed him a piece of my sandwich, and he flew down from the roof and eagerly gulped it down. Then he hopped closer and, stopping only half a metre before me, looked up at me expectantly. So I proceeded to put pieces of my sandwich in my hand, which he carefully picked up and ate. Then he started walking around behind me, and just as I turned around to look what in the world he was doing — he jumped up and perched himself upon my shoulder! Amazed I turned to look at him, feeling the light touch of his claws through my t-shirt. I was just about to tear off another part of my sandwich to give to him when he resolutely grabbed hold of what was left of it in his beak — glanced at me in what seemed like a triumphant manner — and flew away beyond the telescopes to enjoy his lunch, peanut butter and jam and all. Astonished and immensely happy, I couldn't help laughing for a good while. Totally worth the rest of my lunch!

That is however not the only animal-related adventure I've had while living up here. A couple of days ago, as I was brushing my hair in the bathroom, a mouse dropped down at me from an air duct in the ceiling! I'm not usually scared of mice, but when they fall from above I can't help getting a bit startled. I spent about twenty minutes trying to catch the mouse and escort it out of the building (since it's part of my job to rid the place of mice I happen upon in any way I see fit). It was hard though, and eventually it got away, probably into a crack in the wall or something. Not only was it difficult due to its quickness, but also because I was terrified of accidentally hurting it. It was heartbreakingly adorable, looking up at me with tiny dark eyes and with brown fur and small, nimble feet. Although I don't want it chewing on any of the hundreds of electrical cords around here, in a way it feels good to have it for company.

In other news, I've also spotted a rabbit, some lizards, crickets (or possibly catydids or grasshoppers, I can never tell the difference) and a bat. So apparently there are more creatures than astronomers live in this biosphere!

In yet other news: the weather finally cleared up, resulting in excellent seeing. Yay! So now I've been observing for two days along with Norwegian astronomers. It's fun and interesting, and I believe we have actually gotten some good data.


And just right now the mouse trap in the corner snapped shut. My gods, I feel terrible for that poor, poor mouse. Augh, whyyyy do they have to be killed? Going to bed now, will try not to freak out after just having seen a lovely little creature die...

Love and animals,

Friday, 23 August 2013

Vacation and weather

I've been here for a week now. It's my turn to fully take over as assistant, after having had Karl show me the ropes. Everything is getting less and less confusing, and even though I think I will never understand all the technical details I think I can handle it. Hopefully without panicking as soon as a computer screen or something freezes.

It's been an interesting, tiring and fun week. We had two days off, and Karl introduced me to some nice astronomers and showed me around the island. We went hiking into the Caldera, which was beautiful and lots of fun. Hiking around at interesting and beautiful places is one of my very favourite pastimes, so I think I will have lots of fun here at La Palma. The scenery was somewhat surreal to me. Imagine a pineforest (albeit with a strange species of pine) with ferns, sure, that's normal. Add in some cacti, lots of little lizards scurrying around everywhere, dizzyingly steep mountainsides, volcanic rocks and dried-out waterbeds and the landscape turns way more exotic. And so interesting! If I had known some Spanish I might have learned the name of some plants and animals. (But I would probably just have forgotten it the day after anyway, biology and its remembering of names have never been my forte.)

The day after we headed into a subtropical forest. It had a waterfall and nice views! And it was wet and the air was fresh and all was quiet. Only the occasional calling of a bird or the scurrying of lizards in the undergrowth. We went to the beach, and I got to try out snorkeling for the first time in my life. Difficult and scary, but also fascinating. The sea is intimidating for sure, but looking at fishes can be kind of fun. Perhaps I will try to do it again. I'm constantly battling my fear of heights, so why not my fear of the sea as well while I'm at it?

I also got to drive quite a bit. Not on the very scariest roads, but up and down the mountain and through uncountable curves. That's also scary and difficult, but I suppose I'll get used to it. There are some other things on the list of things to get used to when living at this mountain-top. The thin air. I suppose I'll stop feeling drowsy before long. The dry air. It's messing up my eyes and my nose, and together with the sands from the desert wind it's giving me frequent nosebleeds. It's called the Calima, the warm wind from Sahara, and it's messing up the seeing as well. The weather has actually been rather lousy ever since I got here. It even rained a couple of days ago, which means not even a chance of observations. I hope I didn't bring it.

I'm not complaining, mind you. When all comes around I really love this place. The temperature is nice, unlike the stifling heat at sea-level it rarely reaches above twenty degrees here, and even cooler at nighttime. The physical circumstances I'm sure I will adapt to, and hopefully the mental aspect of living pretty much alone up here and looking at the Sun through an advanced-beyond-belief telescope all day will not drive me crazy either. But if so I'm sure it at least will result in interesting blog posts. The one who lives will see, as we say in Sweden.

Love and Calima,

Sunday, 18 August 2013

This windy, starry mountain

It's a bit windy today. And when I say "a bit" I mean "hell of". About 20 metres per second up here on the mountain-top. Enough to make opening the door difficult, and almost enough to knock you off your feet if you're not careful when heading out. It was a bit scary to climb the telescope tower and remove the cover this morning, to say the least. Unfortunately, the seeing has been so crappy since I got here that we've been unable to do any observations at all. (Seeing is an astronomical term referring to the effects of air turbulence. If there is too much of it the image gets blurry.)

Apart from a disappointing lack of observations, it's been an interesting couple of days here at the mountain-top. Yesterday I headed out for a couple of walks to take in the scenery. It's stunningly, indescribably, beautiful. A few hundred meters away lies the highest point of La Palma, 2426 metres above sea level. Looking around one sees a bunch of obervatories, one of which is the Swedish Solar Telescope where I work. Looking down one sees a big crater called the Caldera. The way I've heard it told, the Canary islands (including La Palma) formed via volcanic eruptions some two million years ago (so they are coincidentally about as old as the human race). The Caldera is located where a volcanic crater originally was, but since then the mountain has eroded away to make it as deep as it is today (it's almost two kilometres deep!). I heard that they have actually found the mountain-piece lying around at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

The island of La Palma, with the Caldera in the centre. 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore you can also see the sea, and a layer of clouds far below. Not much grows up here but evergreen bushes and some special flowers. Birds seem to love the place, especially grachas, a species of crow which are only found at the Canary islands, and also very large ravens. Yesterday I met one of the ravens, apparently locally known as Nevermore.

I also got to visit the Isaac Newton Telescope. It was fun and interesting to see how night-time observers work. Especially much so since the data I used for analyse in my bachelor's thesis was acquired at that very telescope.

And the sky! So many interesting new stars and constellations that I've never before seen in real life. Scorpio! Sagittarius! Venus as bright as I have ever seen it! Things high in the sky which at best are barely visible above the horizon in Sweden. Full moon is approaching, so the Milky Way couldn't be seen, and some of the obscurer constellations were hidden from view as well due to its light pollution. But I can wait! In two weeks or so the sky should be as dark as anything I've ever experienced. There is a reason why there are so many telescopes up here, after all.

Love and beauty,

Friday, 16 August 2013

First impressions of La Palma

And so the adventure begins. Holy shit people, I am currently located at a volcanic island, at the top of a 2.4 km mountain, the farthest south I've ever been, in a telescope building. Holy shit! How did this happen?

I've begun my ten-week assistantship at the Swedish Solar Telescope at La Palma is how. I travelled for most of yesterday, and today I've been going up and down and up again to this mountaintop, seen the telescope and a lot of the island and my head is kind of spinning from all the new impressions.

It's hot. It's humid at sea-level but dry up here. There are a lot of observatories up here, and I hope I will get to visit them all before I leave.

That's all I have to give of my current situation at the moment I'm afraid. I kind of feel like crap after an exhausting trip, so now I'm going to bed. Will return when feeling more coherent.

Love and low oxygen-levels,