Paul Ruffle at Starry Night
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Green Bank Blog 2007
19 Mar - 15 April 2007

Standing under the GBT

Standing under the GBT

On top of the receiver cabin

On top of the receiver cabin

The Lower Falls of Hills Creek

The Lower Falls of Hills Creek on Cranberry Mountain

(click images for larger view)

During Rose's last week here, we had the opportunity to join some visiting astronomers on a tour of the GBT. I have been up on the telescope before, so I knew it would be a big thrill for Rose, and it certainly was. It's an amazing piece of engineering, and looking down on the dish from the top of the receiver cabin never fails to impress. We were chatting at lunch the other day, and worked out that the signal from a cell phone on the moon would completely overload the GBT receivers, they are that sensitive, especially when coupled to the huge collecting area of the GBT's 100 metre dish.

On our last weekend we went for a walk around the Falls of Hills Creek on Cranberry Mountain, about an hour from here (the surrounding wooded mountains here in Pocahontas County are all part of the Monongahela National Forest). On the way we stopped at Meck's Home Bakery near Cass, which is run by a Mennonite family. They produce breads, cookies, pies, and rolls, as well as sandwiches made with Amish cheeses and home-cooked roast beef. We took advantage of the latter for lunch during our walk later in the day. Whilst eating our lunch we were treated to the site of a unicyclist riding down the footpath to the falls. He had less success when he tried the return journey uphill! The falls were splendid, featuring three separate sections, each with good viewing platforms and boarded walkways over the rocks. Rose took loads of pictures.

In the evening we attended a jazz concert at the Opera House in Marlington. It was a big Glenn Miller type of band, and they were quite good. There was also a female singer, a sort of poor man's Cleo Laine, extremely poor in fact, but the band were much better. Unfortunately the band leader (a saxophonist) treated us to his rendition of 'The Girl From Ipanema' - it was murder, plain and simple. There was also an impresario, who played the bongos, but he was a bit slimy and could not even remember the names of everyone in the band. A good night out nonetheless.

So I am now on my Jack Jones again. I have been trying to teach some of my colleagues cockney rhyming slang, with some success. Ron issued his weekly report as follows:

On Thursday, the L-band leave-it-to was brown. Our cosmic was pretty pony. The selves got themselves into such a Harry. There was no tube as to what was the Barney. We had to Noah the Lilian, then got Norrod on the Sharon. Roger found that a fizzy of Vincent was jammed in the heartbreak. We had to Nigel blinding until Friday.

At work I have been building new web page templates for the Green Bank site. I have made a number of improvements to the layout, without violating the 'look and feel', and the people that matter all seem very impressed. I have a feeling that I am going to be viewed as the new webmeister. I was also astronomer on-call for seven days, but fortunately I did not get called out, which is just as well, as I doubt if I would have known how to sort out any problems that our visiting astronomers might have had. This is the big problem for me at the moment. Because the GBT works so well most of the time, there is little opportunity to learn how to fix things when problems arise. Other newer people here have had the same issue, so I suppose it is just a matter of time.

Ron and Nancy had Jules and I round for dinner, and Ron produced an excellent meal (it must be the Italian in his blood). Otherwise life has been somewhat quiet. I have finally got round to wiring up my Hi-Fi, including the TV and satellite box. The cinema effect of digital surround sound and HD TV is pretty cool. The only problem being a paucity of decent content on DishTV. The Ikea stuff has also arrived (all the way from Cleveland, Ohio!), and I have made a start on putting things together. Unfortunately, I picked up a rotten cold and had to take a couple of days off work. At the time of writing, I am thankfully feeling much better.

26 Feb - 18 Mar 2007

Sun melting snow around the Riley House

The sun melting the snow around the Riley House

Happiness is a MacBook Pro!

Happiness is a MacBook Pro!

Rose flew into Washington Dulles on 3 March, where I met her before we drove on to downtown Washington DC. We had planned a slow motion run towards each other in the airport, but Dulles has quite a small international arrivals area, so we just hugged a lot instead. We checked into a swanky hotel that Rose had booked, where the decor featured every colour of the rainbow. We went for a meal in the evening at a very nice Thai restaurant, and then on the Sunday we walked around the city taking in the sights, including the White House, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. We left at 4pm and got back to Green Bank at 8:30pm, so quite an easy 200 mile drive.

Since then Rose has been pottering around the house sorting out the books and ornaments, and generally improving on my arrangements. We meet for lunch most week days at the observatory cafeteria. I have taken her for a brief tour of the offices and control room, as well as introducing her to some of the science people. We had Jules and Jenny to dinner, just before Jenny was due to fly back to Oz. A couple of the observatory 'wives' have made a point of taking Rose under their wing for coffee and breakfast mornings. The social network here is very supportive. We have also entertained one or two of the visiting astronomers, and enjoyed lively and intelligent conversation over dinner, as well as a gift of a small piece of the meteorite that created the big crater in Arizona 50,000 years ago.

On our first weekend we drove to Lewisberg, via the coffee shop in Marlington, and did more shopping in Lowe's, a B&Q lookalike, and more home stuff in, you guessed it, Wal-Mart. Having worn ourselves out doing this on the Saturday, we then did a six mile walk round the observatory grounds on the Sunday. However the weather was glorious, and we got an excellent view of the GBT, as it was facing us at low elevation in full sunlight. We actually went back to Lewisberg the following week and bought more stuff, but I think we have finally thought of everything, and our home is now well on the way to being complete. During our travels on foot or by car, we have seen deer, chipmunks, skunk, possum, buzzards and a variety of other birds.

Since then Rose has been busy planning and ordering furniture for the spare room from Ikea and some extra pictures and posters from She also successfully waited in the the Dish TV man, and we now have high definition (HD) TV, which is quite stunning, especially the Discovery HD channel. Rose has found the size of American appliances (cooker, fridge, washer, etc) quite staggering, calling them fit for giants! Despite this, she really likes the house and feels at home, especially as I come with the house!

We went to see Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, which was shown at the local library. It is an excellent documentary, and should be required viewing for everyone on the planet. I can't help but feel that America, and the rest of the world, would be a safer and better place if he was installed at the White House, instead of the present incumbent.

The other great event is that I have finally got my 17 inch Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer. It was well configured by the Unix support guy here, and I have completed the process with my own preferences for 'the perfect Mac'. I have an additional LCD screen in the office, as well as keyboard, mouse and backup hard drive. The really cool thing is a piece of software called 'Parallels', which enables you to run additional virtual machines on an Intel based Mac. As well as OS X, I can run parallel sessions for Linux and Windows XP. It really works a treat.

12-25 February 2007

Snow view from bedroom

Snow view from bedroom

Starry Night Plate

On the work front I have taken part in calibration observations (midnight onwards seems to be the normal time for this) and Ron has been explaining how to use observations of well known sources (usually quasars) to calibrate the gain of the GBT's various receivers. It's quite complicated, and will take me a while to figure out, but I will then know the telescope a lot better. I have been asked to look at the structure of the GBT section of the Green Bank web site. It's quite a mess, so I will have my work cut out, sorting through the content and making recommendations. I have also been asked to set up a simple web based database of publications that feature data taken at the GBT. I have also completed revisions to my EC2 paper, so Tom can give it a final once over before submission.

It was my birthday on the 22nd, so Jules and Jenny threw a little get together for me and some of my colleagues. The next day I was feeling slightly the worse for wear, and I was trying to get to grips with data reduction techniques for calibrating the telescope, so my brain was hurting a bit! Rose sent me a nice framed photo of the two of us, plus some DVDs, a card space game and a red-rose topped pen.

I took delivery of my new Sony 32" LCD TV and a combined DVD/VCR player (both work with PAL and NTSC video standards, as well as being dual voltage), so I can now watch a variety of old videos that I came across when I was unpacking, including six 1 hour TV shows "Beatles Anthology", which I taped back in 1996 but had never got round to watching! It was good stuff, taking me down the memory lane of my long ago youth. There was a lot of footage of the Beatles playing live gigs, they were a good tight band, and it was interesting to see how they played and took their turns singing the harmonies on a lot of numbers. I have signed up for high definition satellite TV with Dish Network, but the installation man did not turn up last Saturday, so I am still waiting. American call centres are just as bad as those in the UK.

I have continued with unpacking and most of my furniture is now in place. It all fits in quite well and I have been able to get the study area hooked up for DSL network connections and the like. I have purchased several 110-240 volt transformers so that I can use all my UK equipment (including my audio system). I am leaving the final touches to after next week when Rose is here.

In preparation for Rose's arrival I drove to Elkins for an extra foray on the food and home wares front. I planned to go last Saturday, after the satellite TV man had installed my new dish, but as he had failed to turn up, I had to go on the Sunday instead. However, ten inches of snow fell on the Saturday night, so I took my life in my hands and headed north for Elkins, via Cheat mountain, in the 4x4. As it turned out, all was well, as the snow had only fallen on the south side of the mountain, with clear roads and sunshine further north. Talking of the 4x4, I now have a decorative number plate on the front bearing the legend "Starry Night".

5-11 February 2007

The Riley House and my new car

The Riley House and my new car

The Riley House amongst the trees

The Riley House amongst the trees

I forgot to mention that Rose's wonderful food parcel arrived at the end of last week! All the other prisoners were very jealous and I had to fight them off from grabbing the Shreddies or Marmite! I will hide the Kit-Kats from myself too (at the time of writing they have all gone).

This week saw considerable progress on a number of fronts. I went to Elkins on Monday and arranged my car insurance prior to purchasing the Ford Explorer XLT that I mentioned previously. It is a 2003 model that is very well equipped and in excellent condition. A similar vehicle in the UK would have cost twice as much. I filled it up at the gas station and it took 18 gallons, costing a mere $40. The 4x4 drive is excellent, as we have had a lot more snow and the side roads are treacherous. Temperatures this week have been as low as -18 C (0 F) at night, rising to around -8 C (18 F) in the day. Fortunately the humidity is low, so it does not feel too cold - unless the wind is blowing!

The carpet has been fitted to the Riley House and Rusty and the guys moved all my stuff in on Monday while I was at Elkins. I have been doing some unpacking in the evening, and have got the bedroom sorted, as well as most of the kitchen stuff. It's quite nice to become reacquainted with one's personal belongings. The telephone/adsl has been connected too, so I am beginning to feel less isolated.

Jules' partner Jenny arrived this week, and they invited myself, Ron and his wife Nancy for dinner on Friday night. It was a pleasant evening with intelligent conversation. On Saturday night I went to a get together at Jay Lockman's house. He is one of the senior astronomers here, and he and his wife have been rebuilding a wonderful house a few miles from the observatory. There was beer and wine, as well as some good food - some of the womenfolk bring along their specialities. Around six or eight people there were musicians, so we had American old style music to entertain us - fiddles, guitars, banjos and a double base. Not what I would buy on CD, but good homely entertainment. Interestingly, I have yet to meet an American who approves of George Bush or the war in Iraq.

I am continuing to make progress on learning the ins and outs of observing at the GBT, and have discussed a possible project that I could collaborate with Ron on, utilising my experience with chemical models of molecular clouds. Work continues to progress on my EC2 paper too!

29 Jan - 4 Feb 2007
At last I have my social security number, so I have been able to open a US bank account. This means I can get insurance for the car that I am going to buy. Got a reasonable rate based on having a foreign drivers licence, although the premium will go down once I get a WV licence. I will get the car first and then go for my drivers test in the near future. The bureaucracy of the state is as bad here as it is in Britain!

The new carpet for my home in Green Bank (The Riley House) was laid on Thursday and the housekeeping girls have been in to give the place a really good clean. The maintenance boys (led by a guy called Rusty) will haul my stuff out of the storage garage, 50 metres down the road, and into the house on Monday. I will then have plenty to do, unpacking and sorting things out. First job will be to assemble the bed! I will need a few extra things, but will wait until Rose comes out at the beginning of March, so that we can choose these together.

I am continuing to get to know the GBT systems by means of my planned proposal for observing EC2 with the GBT. We joined in with some VLBA observations during the week. The VLBA is a NRAO facility of ten radio telescope antennas, each with a dish 25 meters in diameter. From Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, the VLBA spans more than 5,000 miles. To improve the data resolution, other telescopes such as the GBT (and telescopes in Europe like Jodrell Bank) join up with the VLBA.

Went for a very enjoyable four mile walk around the observatory grounds on Saturday. It was cold (around -2 C) but bright and sunny. There is a small river that runs through the area called Deer Creek (on account, I guess, of the deer that you see amongst the pine trees). It all looked very picturesque with the snow glistening on the ground. I'll post some pictures once I get my laptop (which has finally been ordered) and can download photos from my camera.

Saturday evening was movie night, where staff and family come along to the observatory, get free pizza and a movie in the Jansky auditorium. This happens every month or two as a staff benefit. We saw Nicholas Cage in National Treasure, which was quite a good romp.

21-28 January 2007

The Little Big Horn

The Little Big Horn

This last week has been a bit of a blur, as I can't quite remember what I have done and when! On Sunday it snowed heavily all day, but I made a good start on updating my Edge Cloud 2 (EC2) paper, so will be working on that each weekend until it is finished. At work I have made a desultory start on planning observations of carbon-12 and carbon-13 bearing molecules in EC2 using the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). I figure this is the best way to get to know how to support other astronomers who are planning their own GBT observations.

I have made further investigations into car insurance and found a broker in Elkins who can get me cover with a foreign (i.e. UK) driver's licence. In the course of time I need to get a WV driver's licence, which will involve a written and road test. I still can't actually arrange anything as I have not yet received my social security number, so I can't open a US bank account either. I called the social security office on Friday and my application has been processed, but it might take up to two weeks for it to be sent to me. The partially brained obviously infiltrate the administrations here in the US like they do in the UK! Anyway I have made the decision to buy the Ford Explorer I saw last week, and the dealer is holding the car for me until I can effect the insurance.

Jules and I are getting on well. We both have the same sense of humour and general disregard for figures of authority. We have had some interesting discussions on religion and the American cultural psyche! She has a partner back in Oz, and obviously misses her as much as I miss Rose. Thursday saw more snow, but despite this we went out for dinner with Ron and his wife, and dined on good ol' American hamburgers, sadly without beer, as this is a fairly dry county. On Friday/Saturday night (midnight to 6am) we took part in testing a new method of observing with the K-band receiver. This receiver has unstable baselines and no one quite knows why. As a short term fix, Ron is trying a scheme where we 'wobble' the GBT's sub-reflector on- and off-source every few seconds. Hopefully this will cancel out the shifting baselines. As I write (Sunday), the data is still to be analysed, so we don't yet know if the plan has worked.

Last Sunday's heavy snow has hung around most of the week, but like last weekend, Saturday's weather has been beautiful, with sunshine and blue skies. After recovering from observing through the night, I went for a walk, checking out the route from the observatory to the "Riley House", where I will be living (hopefully by the end of next week), and then to "Trents Store", the local corner shop, which sells everything, including ammunition and rifles. There is a big open field through the trees behind the house, which I have decided should be mine! At the far side, on a large slope down to the creek, is the huge Little Big Horn, a large radio horn that was used in March 1960 to make absolute flux measurements of Cas A. I am also investigating the possibility of installing a large satellite dish at the back of the house, so I can tune in the UK freeview channels, as you can not get any UK TV on any of the satellite networks here.

15-20 January 2007
Our training started on Tuesday and I have been learning all about how the receivers on the telescope work, and how they get connected to the various back-end systems that process the detected signals. It's all very interesting, but there is a great deal to learn. Ron, my boss, has been here many years and has designed many of the systems that control the telescope, so it's a bit overwhelming. I guess in six months time, I will know a lot more than a do now!

My stuff arrived on Wednesday, still in the container that I saw off on 19th December. It all looked fine in its packings, and has been unloaded into a spare garage for the time being. I have chosen to rent one of the observatory houses that is a ten minute walk from the office. It is being re-carpeted at the moment, plus some minor decorations. It is timber framed (like most American houses), detached and has some woods on either side, so has quite a pleasant outlook. I have seen deer in the woods nearby. There are two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, and downstairs consists of a large lounge and dining area, a kitchen and utility room, another bathroom, plus a third bedroom, which I will use as a study. There is also a cellar. I should be able to move in in a couple of weeks.

I have also been investigating cars, and have almost convinced myself that a 4x4 SUV is the most practical vehicle to have around here. I have test driven various models and my current choice is a Ford Explorer which has a four litre engine! Watch this space.

The weather has been changeable, either grey, gloomy and not too cold, or snow, blue skies, sunshine and cold. I prefer the latter, like today. I went to Marlington on Saturday, which is about 25 miles (half an hour) away. It has a decent supermarket - but is not huge like Wall-Mart - with a deli, bakery and fresh fruit and vegetables. The meat here in the States is of very good quality. I also discovered several other stores for hardware, crafts and the like. There are also two or three restaurants and a decent coffee shop where I had lunch. So almost civilised I think!

On Sunday I am going to work on my paper, based on part of my thesis, then on Monday I intend to plan some further investigations of my molecular cloud at the edge of the Galaxy (Edge Cloud 2), and use this as a way of training myself on how to use the Green Bank Telescope (GBT).

Sun 14 January 2007 Catching up with email today. The estate agents have found me a tenant for Making Place Hall, so my UK finances will stay in the black. Went to look at a house to buy this morning, but it was right on a busy road and needed quite a bit of work to make it habitable. Not sure what I am going to do about where to live. I am told that there are other houses that the observatory owns, so I am going to enquire more on Tuesday. Tonight I cook my first proper meal on American soil - penne pasta with mince.
Sat 13 January 2007 Jules and I borrowed a site car and drove to Elkins to do more shopping in a smaller supermarket, for which I now have a loyalty card and saved $6. I got the things I forgot on Friday, like shampoo and shower gel. Went back to the dreaded Wal-Mart and bought a kettle, toaster, iron, and clock radio. All dirt cheap in US dollars - thank you Uncle Sam!
Fri 12 January 2007 I am staying in a small apartment in the visitor's block for the time being. Went to see two houses on-site that I can rent for around $500 a month from NRAO. Not sure if I like any of them, so will see what else might be available. Spent more time filling in forms for HR. Finally met my co-partner in crime, Jules Harnett, who is an Ozzie about my age, but female, who started a week before me. We were both hired to do the same job. Ron Maddalena, our boss, took me round to meet everyone, so I shook hands with around 50 people, who I won't remember, but hopefully they will remember me. All very nice and welcoming, as Americans always are. We then had a meeting with Ron to discuss our training, which starts next Tuesday (Monday is a public holiday - Martin Luther King Day).
Thu 11 January 2007 Found my new office with my name on the door! Nice newly decorated office with new desk, phone, etc. I also have a pidgin hole for my post! All very organised. Met various people and sorted out paperwork, computer login, email, etc. Also went to the local bank (over the road thankfully) to open an account. In the afternoon, Shirley, the Director's PA, drove me to Elkins (an hour's drive North) to apply for my Social Security Number (you can't do anything without one). Then did some shopping in Wal-Mart to stock up with essentials. Took ages as Wal-Mart is huge and none of the brands are the same, so you spend ages peering at tubs of what might be margarine, or tying to figure out if a bottle contains shampoo or hand cream. Sadly, no Marmite.
Wed 10 January 2007 My flight from Manchester to Heathrow was delayed, so I got to the gate for the Washington flight with minutes to spare. However, as we taxied out to the runway, the pilot came on and told us that there was an item of baggage in the hold that should not have been there. So we taxied back to the stand to unload the bag, then refuel and finally after two hours delay, take off. Landed at Washington OK at 4:30pm local time, and was picked up by an NRAO driver who took me to Green Bank, arriving at 10:30. Fell into bed and slept reasonably well, having been awake for 23 hours.

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