APS News

Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

A Brief Encounter with a Facilities Manual 

Editor's Note: Abstracts submitted for the APS April Meeting are organized into sessions according to topic each year by a volunteer sorting committee. But this year our sorters were flummoxed by a submission that just didn't seem to fit in anywhere. We didn't want to let it slip through the cracks. So in the interests of furthering the scientific debate on the incomprehensibility of astronomical instrument user's manuals, we reproduce it here.

ABSTRACT: Large astronomy labs that make some time available to the general astronomical community normally provide instruction manuals for the main telescopes and related instrumentation. As a rule, these are prepared by the person who developed the apparatus and already knows a great deal about it. Unfortunately, this is not always true of the first-time user. We report a novice observer's interaction with a short extract from a typical manual.

STEP 12: Backstep Reticulator Happily the reticulator—unlike many of the other instruments—carries its name upon its face and thus is easy to identify. It is a black near-cube about a foot and a half (0.5 m) high, attached by cables to three of the possible four nearest neighbor boxes, and to five of the possible 16 nearest neighbors.

On its face are 12 dials in two rows, three switches, and two screens, apparently intended to display alphanumeric information, and one square presumably intended for graphical information. Both are currently dark, showing no data.

Alas, none of the dials is labeled "backstepper." In fact, none are labeled, except a small left-hand dial in the top row, which bears a small gummed paper sticker sternly declaring, "These are logarithmic units. The possible settings are A, B, C, D, E and K1."

The dial is set at D, which seems to be as good a logarithm as any.

The switch near the rectangular screen is held firmly down by a piece of adhesive tape with faint blue lettering, admonishing the would-be user with an incomprehensible warning: "Do not atempt (sic) to rotatereticulator slit unless you have been checked out by JCM."

With fading hopes and dangling participles, further enlightenment is sought from the primary instruction sheet, where an earlier observer has penciled the remark, "Reticulator must be on before backstepping."

Novice observer backsteps on tiptoe out of the control room all the way to the parking lot and heads for home.

Once home, high priority is given to the task of revising curriculum vitae to describe primary research interest as theoretical astrophysics rather than observational astronomy.

—Virginia Trimble

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette