Friday, 19 July 2013

Shovelling for Science

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

The nobility of labour,—the long pedigree of toil. – Longfellow

The Atacama Cosmology Telescope, in the Andes of northern Chile. Photo: Adam Hincks

For the past two weeks I have been working at the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) in the desertic Andes of northern Chile. The visit comes as part of my new post: a research position in astrophysics at the University of British Columbia (UBC). This is my original area of study, and I was asked by superior to spend the two years between my philosophy studies, which I finished in June, and my future theology studies (a period called “regency”) getting some more experience as a research scientist. I was fortunate to find this position at UBC. It allows me to live in our Jesuit community in Vancouver and to be involved in astrophysics research at a first-rate secular institution.

I came down to work on ACT here in Chile several times as a doctoral student from 2007–09, so the terrain is mostly familiar. We stay in the village of San Pedro de Atacama, which happens to be a very popular tourist destination due to the abundant natural beauty in the region and its proximity to both Bolivia and Argentina. The number of hotels, restaurants and tourists has increased notably since I was last here four years ago, but it has retained much of its rustic charm. The church in town where I attend mass is a simple adobe structure dating from 1641—the period back when Brébeuf and his brethren were active in Huronia.

One of the attractions of this location is that we can drive from San Pedro to our telescope, which is at an altitude of 5200 metres (17060 ft), in less than an hour. Though much at the site is still familiar to me, there have been changes in our facilities—the addition of a workshop and some shipping containers, but most notably the installation of a new camera in the telescope with which we hope to begin observing immanently. My time here has thus been a great opportunity to catch up with the project.

Many people imagine the work of scientists to be cerebral and esoteric. Indeed, the scientific goals of our project—to study the early universe and discover distant clusters of galaxies—are exciting and lofty. But the fact is that much of the real progress in science is a result of hard work. These past few weeks have been a tangible reminder of this.

Pausing from shovelling for science. Photo: Felipe Rojas

When I arrived, our site had been inaccessible for a few weeks and our electrical generators down due to a few snowstorms fast on each others’ heels. We had been waiting for a couple of weeks for the few available snow ploughs to clear our roads. The plough operators kept assuring us that our roads would be cleared soon. (While this was going on, I happened to be reading George Orwell’s memoirs of the Spanish Civil War, in which he remarks, “The one Spanish word that no foreigner can avoid learning is mañana—‘tomorrow’ … Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until mañana.”)

When we finally made it to our observatory a couple of days after I arrived, we found that snow had drifted six feet deep inside our generator shed. There was nothing for it but to dig, which we did for two full days—a tiring task when the amount of oxygen is half that at sea level. One moves a few shovelfuls, and then leans on the shovel to catch one’s breath; one takes frequent breaks. When we got the generator running again, there was more snow inside the telescope itself to be dealt with, equipment to be turned back on and software bugs to be fixed. We have had to bring up our diesel for the generators from the petrol station in drums in the back of our pickup while we wait for a truck to make a big delivery. The days have been long but mostly satisfying.

When it comes down to it, this sort of experience is like many things in life. Whether it be a relationship, a career or progress in the spiritual life, anything worth doing requires effort—sometimes tedious, sometimes difficult, sometimes rewarding. The important thing is to keep an eye on the goal, for though there can be pleasure in the work itself, it is secondary. Ultimately, we are meant to be contemplatives, that is, to enjoy things: pondering new scientific knowledge, delighting in a lover, appreciating natural beauty and ultimately and most importantly, loving God.

Today I leave Chile and to return to Vancouver, where, in addition to my involvement with ACT, I will be working on a brand new project, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME). Doubtless it will also involve rolling up my sleeves and getting down to business. I’m confident it will be worth it, and that there will be much enjoyment in both its execution and its end—ad majorem Dei gloriam.


  1. Just read your Wonders of the Universe article dated back in May, then this blog. Love your quotes of the psalms addressing the "Divine Artist"
    On the library shelf of a school in Coquitlam, a suburb not far from Vancouver, lies a book about the universe, with words I wrote on the title page for the children to the effect of: Go out of the city to look at the stars as often as you can when you grow up ...
    And when my friend from my university days in Manitoba asked me the first time I visited her on her farm after 30 years "What would you like to do here? " My immediate answer was "Gaze at the stars (in the Prairie sky)!"

    1. Glad to hear that you take advantage to see the stars when you can! You might be interested to hear that the telescope I wrote about above was actually constructed and tested in Port Coquitlam before it was shipped down to Chile.