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An occultation on the Rio Grande

I'm a night owl. I got into this habit as a result of working for the computer center; the equipment tended to be a lot more available between midnight and dawn than it was in the daytime. Back then, debugging a program often required that one use the front panel. This brought everything to a halt, so it wasn't possible to use this method in the daytime. Even though nowadays we have time-sharing machines, the load is a lot lower in the middle of the night, so I still like working the graveyard shift when I have to get a lot done in a short time.

But I can still remember the first time I ever stayed up all night---and it was all for science.

When I got here in 1966, the R&DD building (now Workman Center) was a wonderland to me. There was a small research library open day and night, with a sizable collection of completely incomprehensible technical books, patent gazettes, and a few fun publications like Scientific American.

Amazingly enough, the machine shop was never locked, and many a student project was done there at night using their well-stocked scrap bins, not to mention the Do-All saw, the cut-off saw, and the sheet metal shear. The big lathe, the one big enough to swing a truck crankshaft, was off limits, as there was a small metal lathe available to students.

The tower wasn't locked in those days, and anybody could take the elevator to the cupola on top and watch a sunset or a sunrise, or perhaps watch a coed being dropped off at the dorm at five in the morning. Officially, no one was supposed to be in there, but I liked to just wander around and look at all the rampant technology. By 1970, though, after a number of incidents of pilferage and vandalism, everything was locked up tight. Too bad---the view from the cupola was really something.

The mineral museum was always open in those days, and the fluorescent mineral display was a popular spot for romance.

Marx Brook's weather physics lab was often open and busy late into the evening, especially in the summer when preparations for storm season got really frantic. Just inside the door was a sign, "Malfunction Junction"---most appropriate for builders of equipment that to operate during electrical storms. The sign had a little cartoon drawn on it, showing one little shmoo-like figure chasing another one and beating with a big red lighting bolt.

I liked to wander in there and talk to people; there were some interesting people working there, and some of them didn't even mind talking to undergraduates about what they did.

One night I found Brook's lab open and heard voices. I went in and found a meeting of the Astronomy Club in progress: Gary Sargent, Ed Pencak, Jim Combs, and Earl Griffith---all people I knew.

When I came in, Jim looked at me, looked at them, and said, ``all those in favor of inducting Shipman into the Astronomy Club, say aye.'' It was unanimous. I was flattered until I found out that why they drafted me: they needed some more bodies to help them run an occultation that very night. I had no idea what an occultation was, but they filled me in as we went down to the bar to get supplies.

Gary Sargent was a fairly famous character, known as ``Sarge'' to most everyone who went to Tech back then. He was an excellent mathematician, but he also had an interest in the occult, so I naturally assumed that an occultation had something to do with witches or demons.

Gary had an extensive collection of grimoires and other occult books, and one of them had instructions for summoning a certain demon. He once told me a story about one night in a room in Fitch Hall when he and some friends drew a pentagram in chalk on a table, and mixed some alcohol and salt in a small dish and put it in the center of the pentagram.

They lit the alcohol and it burned with a smoky yellow flame. The invocation involved reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards in German. According to Gary, as they chanted, the flame rose out of the bowl and began to trace around the points of the pentagram. This caused some serious panic. Two people started frantically reading the prayer forwards---this was supposed to be the procedure to follow if you got in trouble. When the last word was recited, the flame went out. Gary never messed with the occult again after that.

So when I heard that we were going to an occultation, I asked Gary if we were going to summon a demon, and he turned kind of gray and said it had nothing at all to do with the occult.

It seems that the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena was having an argument with the folks at the Greenwich Observatory about exactly where the moon was. JPL thought that the moon was oscillating a bit in its orbit, but Greenwich disagreed. One of the tests was to time an occultation---to see how long a certain sixth-magnitude star went behind the moon.

The optimum position for viewing this occultation was supposed to be a line that went across the state and happened to intersect the bed of the Rio Salado not far west of the interstate, about fifteen miles north of town. An astronomer from Albuquerque brought down a number of telescopes, a shortwave radio for picking up time signals from WWV, and a battery-powered chart recorder. The plan was to put one telescope on the north bank of the Salado and the rest of them on the south bank, so we could get data from two slightly different observing positions.

Since we had to kill time until three in the morning, Gary suggested that we go down to the river, build a fire, and brew some coffee to pass the time. Gary took us to the bar and got a fifth of Irish whiskey to keep the coffee interesting. We drove down to the riverbed and set up camp. Lacking a proper coffeepot, we made camp coffee: you boil the grounds, then decant the liquid. Camp coffee is pretty vile stuff, but with a generous slug of whiskey it was more or less tolerable. This batch was brewed strong enough to dissolve a metal spoon, just right for staying awake.

After a few hours of drinking coffee and shooting the bull, we met the astronomer for an early breakfast and then drove out of town. We took the interstate as far as the San Acacia exit and then went west and picked up the old highway going north. This road used to be the main route to Albuquerque. It wasn't completely rotted away then; although it was rather potholed, we followed it until it ended at a large pile of dirt. That was within sight of the banks of the Rio Salado. We unpacked the telescopes and Ed and Jim carried one of them to the north bank of the river.

The Salado is one of the muddiest tributaries of the entire Rio Grande drainage. When it runs, it dumps a lot of light brown water into the Rio. Most of the rest of the time, though, it's just a major source of blowing sand. The dunes at the Walking Sands Rest Area are a testament to the great sandiness of the bed of the Salado and the prevailing southwesterly winds.

On this night the Salado was running in a muddy little channel about two feet wide. Ed and Jim had to get pretty dirty, but by holding the scope over their heads they got it across with no damage and set it up on the north side.

Meanwhile, on the south bank, we set up the chart recorder so it recorded the time hacks from WWV. We had some pushbuttons that we could press to record the times of occultation and emergence of the star. After a little work with a star chart, we found the star that was supposed to be occulted. Things got fairly tense as the moon bore down on the star. The four of us on the south bank were glued to our scopes.

It was a clean miss. The star didn't go behind the moon at all. Either someone messed up the calculation of the site, or both JPL and Greenwich were wrong about the moon. The astronomer told us that negative occultations were useful too, and took us back to the dorm. (The International Occultation Timing Association still solicits observations; their address can be found in any issue of Sky & Telescope.)

Since my schedule was shifted around, I wound up staying up several nights in a row, and found that there were lots of people alive at three in the morning, different people than you would meet at ten in the morning. I was hooked on being a night person, and it has both ruined my life and made it more interesting ever since.

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2005/05/26 22:10:26