Observing in the Cold

This friday is the third Second Friday Star Party of the 2010-2011 season. At this moment, the NOAA forcast is for “mostly cloudy”…but it’s a few days and a few orders of magnitude of reliability away. Though I won’t count my chicks before they hatch, I also won’t throw them out with the bathwater. Tuesday is mixed-metaphor day at Punkastronomy.

By the way, the answer to the question posed in the title of the last post, Monday Night’s Lunar Eclipse: Will We See It? was…no. We were clouded in. I slept on the couch by the woodstove so I wouldn’t wake up the missus, and just before the alarm rang at 3:17am, I got up, looked out the window, saw the red haze of low-lying but complete cloud cover, and went back to sleep. I don’t know anyone in the area who saw it. Them’s the breaks living in the Finger Lakes. Lots of clouds, but we also have a lot of fresh water so when the great water crisis of the next century hits, everyone will have to bow down and worship us, and the people who live around Lake Baikal in Russia. We have wine, they have vodka. So there. Tuesday is free association day at Punkastronomy as well.

The past few months I’ve been moonlighting as an astronomy guide for Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Astronomy 101 class. I hosted 6 observing nights between September and December. And the one inescapable fact is that our nation’s high schools, prep schools, and indeed even our excellent colleges are failing to teach the next generation: how to dress for cold weather. At first I thought it was just adherence to the orthodox care-free bravura adopted by many university students. But when it was 13 degrees out and a student showed up in docksiders with no socks, then I began to question our civilization’s passionate skirting of Darwinian realities. A little upturned nose at convention–or even common sense–can be a good thing, but this was an existential gaff that really could have cost some blue toes, and given one of the bored ER docs at Geneva General a chance to get out his digit hacksaw.

Amateur astronomers are a die-hard lot. We’re tougher than you think people with more than a passing familiarity with slide-rules and pocket protectors might be. Late nights, sleep deprivation, bitter cold–us amateurs (ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love’) are actually pretty hardy folk.

I remember going to the Rochester astronomy club’s observatory one frigid night in February and dressing in the warmest gear I had: Sorel pack boots, a thick pair of woolen paratrooper pants, and a Swedish surplus army coat that at least a dozen sheep sacrificed their hides to produce. I thought I was pretty cool. As I trudged through the snow to the observatory, one of the other club members surprised me by calling out my name. Bill Hugh is one of observing gods of the local astronomy community.

I’ve watched  Bill set up his scope at a star party, swing it to a certain point of the sky with his eyes closed (or looking in the other direction) and he’s zeroed in on an otherwise hard-to-find planetary nebula. That’s a kind of navigational skill I can at this point only aspire to, and be amazed by. Anyway, Bill was wearing these amazing white Army extreme cold weather boots, apparently called “Mickey Mouse” boots by servicepeople and rated to -40′. His tootsies were warm.

But Bill still had socks on! The thing about amatuer astronomy, though I’ve tried to consistently paint it as a brave and nearly glorious light, is that, by and large, it’s a pretty static hobby. It is actually a modified form of loafing, or standing around. Mall rats are actually almost amateur astronomers. They just need a telescope. Don’t tell them and break their illusion of marginalized nonconformity, their indignation will only grow.

And standing around in the cold…well, it makes you cold. You basically have the heat you start off with at the beginning of the evening. You need to keep it in unless you have one of those blast-furnace metabolisms, and really, only the Inuit have those and they still wear multiple animal skins to conserve their body heat.

On a cold winter observing night, even in the Finger Lakes, you really can’t dress too warmly. You’re never likely to overheat, unless the Tripods attacked as you were observing Mars and you were forced to run from cover. Or you had to run inside because you saw a coyote run by and got spooked. One of the two preceding situations actually happened to me, and getting behind closed doors was worth a little sweat.

This is all leading up to my Amateur Astronomer’s Cold Maxim: When it’s August, dress like it’s October. When it’s October, dress like it’s December. When it’s December, dress like it’s Alaska.

So anyway, come out to the Second Friday Star Party this Friday evening. And for heaven’s sakes, dress warm. We’ll have hot cider, but we won’t let you dip your toes into it.

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3 thoughts on “Observing in the Cold

  1. As a sourdough* myself, I can vouch for Doug’s insight on the need for uber warm clothing. It’s not just the cold that will make your night miserable. The lack of moisture in the air can dehydrate you faster than a mid-summer’s day in Death Valley. Bundle up!

  2. Thanks R Pool! I never heard the term sourdough before that, and I didn’t know you were one of them, too… I’m not, I just picked Alaska since it was cold and I already mentioned Siberia in the post (and anyway people have such negative connotations about Siberia–they’ll imagine dressing appropriately in Gulag uniforms or something).

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