Bootstrap – Part One


Neal Watkins mopped his brow, adjusting his wide-brim hat in the New South Wales heat. “Sub-tropical my arse.”, he muttered, remembering the job posting. His main job title was “Radio Astronomer”. His secondary job was fixing and maintaining the large radio dish, including rousting any local wildlife.

He had responded to the job listing enthusiastically, not knowing that the majority of his time would be spent coaxing the ageing dish into producing useful data. Winters weren’t so bad, with moderate temps and rare precipitation events. But summers were on the uncomfortable side with muggy humidity and potential storms blowing in from the Pacific.

No clouds today.

Brilliant sapphire skies all the way out to the horizon, noon-day sun beating down on his neck. Nothing but the blowing wind and the metallic clink of his tools. You could hold a concert here, and no one outside the immediate area would have any idea.

Neal missed the city. Sometimes. It was enough to do some scientific work out here in the wilderness.

He detected and classified FRBs – Fast Radio Bursts, recording and analyzing short signal spikes above the ambient noise of the cosmos. It was painstaking work that involved isolating microsecond events against a large expanse of chaotic signals.

Neal didn’t mind. It was just like sailing. Pushing out the boat, tacking into a good breeze and letting the momentum build into a smooth glide over calm water. It took focus and attention to detail. Sometimes Neal would find himself adjusting and selecting signals on the workstation almost subconsciously.

Fingers stroking the keyboard, targeting waveforms, scrubbing the spectrum for small blips of interest. It was the “flow” feeling that he liked best. Select file, scan, scrub and notate. Neal often would work long shifts in the observatory office, sometimes falling asleep at his desk.

Neal finished splicing in the new control feeds, wrenching closed the all-weather utility box with a few twists. Time for some lunch. The sun was high in the sky and small dust-devils were swirling outside the yellowed grass border near the tall fence.

The dish was a beauty, 64 meters of graceful steel and reflecting mesh panels. At night, you could see the stars through the dish, twinkling and wavering in the darkening sky. Red warning lights pulsing at the receiver, tripod of struts suspended over the locus. Solitary cyclops, staring at the sky with an unblinking eye.

Arriving in the lab, Neal relaxed in his duct-taped chair. He had to hide it when the higher-ups came to tour the facility. It was too “lived in” to be on display. Duct taped with worn depressions from his elbows in the arm rests, it was the most comfortable thing in this office – besides his sheepskin footstool.

Neal logged in, scanning the most recent captures. Algorithms did a majority of the grunt work, but Neal still preferred to scroll though the list himself. There was always a small chance the rigid logic of the filters could have missed something promising.

Neal opened the first file and began scanning. It was going to be another long night.

(To be continued.)