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Observatoire de Haute-Provence: January 2017

Observatoire de Haute-Provence: January 2017

The Observatoire de Haute-Provence (OHP, as we call it to save words) is remote. To get there, you take the TGV to Aix-en-Provence, and then rent a car and drive north for around an hour. The nearest town is Manosque and the observatory is in the mountains. Each year I go there with two other astronomers to teach observational astronomy to a group of Masters-level students. The course is organised by Herve Dole who meticulously sorts everything out, helped out a lot of course by people at OHP and the Universities. We usually have two or three nights on the 120cm and 80cm telescopes, and usually it is clear for around two or two of those nights. There is a lot of work involved: for each group of students, there is a full scientific project, starting from planning the observations and finishing with a report and presentation. This year was particularly interesting: we successfully managed to observe an a transiting exoplanet, a planet which passes in front of its star and causes its light to dim.

The story of OHP is a long one. Observations started here at around the same time the IAP (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris) was created a story which you can read about here. At the start, the OHP was, more or less, the “observing station” of the IAP, a place where the latest instruments could be tested out and where the still-new field of astrophysics could get the data it needed. I won’t go into the whole history of OHP here, but a succession of larger telescopes were built there, culminating with the mighty 193cm telescope in 1958. It was with this telescope that astronomers made the discovery of the first planet outside our solar system, 51 Peg, in 1995. The funny story here is that around the time I was studying for my Masters’ degree in Victoria, astronomers there were using an almost identical telescope at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory for the same scientific project (with different instruments). Alas, their control of systematic errors was not quite good enough; they missed out.

Calling 1985

The situation at OHP has evolved. The number of astronomers using the site has greatly decreased in the last few decades with the arrival of other astronomical observatories situated in locations like Hawaii and Chile. Investments in the site have declined, reflecting a policy of concentrating resources in larger telescopes further away. But there is a lot to be said for smaller telescopes with modern instrumentation nearby, as I saw when I visited the JPASS observatory in Spain in 2015. There they have constructed a new small modern telescope on a site like OHP but with modern state-of-the-art detectors. Despite spending a lot of my time working on larger projects, I think there is a lot to be said for keeping sites like OHP open providing a compelling niche can be found.

Today, there are only a few people around after the sun sets. Although there are many telescopes, only one or two are regularly used. Some have been converted to remote, robotic operation. In the past, a chef cooked legendary evening meals each night, but today we re-heat meals made earlier in the day in the microwave (which never get things quite hot enough.) Still, the observatory has decided that educating students in the techniques of observational astronomy is a priority, and each year many nights of telescope time are dedicated to student projects. There is accommodation on-site which is very comfortable. The course that I teach in is part of the Master 2 program for astronomy in the Paris region, and we have tried very hard to keep an empirical, practical approach to our course. You wouldn’t expect it, but fewer and fewer astronomers actually travel to telescopes these days, and I personally appreciate seeing in person the telescope and dectectors even if they are not at the forefront of technology.

This year is my second trip to OHP with film cameras. I wanted to capture something of the feeling of being there in the middle of winter. Each morning one could see wonderful things like this:

Here are a a few photographs I took around the observatory during the day.

And as night falls, time to observe, or eat, depending if your observations are finished or not.

As each year, we stayed a week, arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving early on the following Saturday. It was kind of nice to be slightly abstracted of the concerns of everyday life. When I wasn’t working, I worked on my article for Emulsive. I learned things. I learned that there is such a thing as the “Qatari Exoplanet survey” and our students successfully confirmed one of their transiting exoplanets (and I actually did a fair amount of work aligning their hundreds of images for them). We ate galette, which is a long tradition in France and in Provence it’s even better. And I took a lot of photographs of trees and domes. And group photographs. The best ones are always the unplanned ones. Like this one, taken at sunset. Almost everyone is there, except Herve, but here it is anyway:

At sunset. Michel, Karim plus students. Herve is missing.

I am already looking forward to returning in 2018!

Visiting Montjustin

Visiting Montjustin

Montjustin in winter

Each year in January, as part of my teaching duties at IAP, I travel with the students to the Observatoire de Haut-Provence (OHP). That is perhaps for another post. In 2016, I discovered that a certain famous photographer is buried in Montjustin, which is just a few minutes drive from OHP, so on this years’ trip I decided to make a visit.


Montjustin is a tiny hilltop village just off the main road between Forcalquier and Apt. Driving up the road I missed the turn-off, and had to double-back. You drive up a tiny narrow road, where there just enough space for one car. There are a few ancient houses crowded on the top of the hill. When I was there, the village was in the clutches of winter, the water was frozen in the wells and the trees were bare of leaves. I looked for the cemetery, but I could not find it, and finished giving up and going into the cafe in the town hall on the top of the hill. I said to the friendly person I found there, “So, I am going to ask the question that everyone who visits here asks”, and she replied “go ahead and ask it”!. So I did. The cemetery was just on the bottom of the hill, surrounded by tall cypresses. A beautiful location. Inside, a few plain stone graves. For one of them, I felt that I could only pictures using my 50mm lens, photographers will understand.


I returned later in the week, in sunshine, with a colleague, and we had a coffee on in the converted town-hall. There was some wonderful winter sunshine, too. Certainly I will return next year…

"Virage analogique"

"Virage analogique"

Here I am again, after six months. It was interesting to read the post below once again last night. You see, a weird thing happened between here and there. A few days after I wrote this blog post, I went to a shop here in the 14th in Paris and bought a roll of HP5+, a black and white film produced by Ilford camera. I put it in inside an old camera I still had here in a box, and started to take pictures. I was curious to see how it would turn out.

Well, now on the first week of January, I have filled more than 50 rolls of film with images. As well as the Pentax, I tried an Olympus XA rangefinder, and then in June I bought a Leica M6. Mostly because I was frustrated by the lack of control on the Olympus – developing and scanning photographs is a lot of work and it’s frustrating when something doesn’t turn out right and it was the camera’s fault. Anyway, at least with the Leica if it doesn’t work out, it is always your fault, and you can improve and learn how to do it better next time. So it maybe it is a “virage analogique” but for me it is now a straight road, like the one below I took during a recent trip to Spain:

I’m reminded of the blog post I wrote a few years about the Amazon Kindle and paper books, and Victor Hugo’s Ceci tuera cela. Except in this case, it would be a film camera on the left and a digital camera on the right. But I think in this case it is worse, because film photography and digital photography are completely different. In the case of books, one would hope, the words are the same in both cases. But that is a reflection for another time. Anyway, I don’t want this blog to become devoted to photography (sighs of relief from the occasional one or two people still reading). I wrote my up my experience on a lengthy text which will appear on a certain photography-related site sometime soon. I have also committed myself to take at least one roll of film on the M6 with a 50mm lens per week. That experience you can follow over at 52rolls, and my posts will be here: . In the mean-time I will try to write at least one post per month over here. At least.

Returning to Bologna

Returning to Bologna

This week I flew to Bologna, Italy with two colleagues for a Euclid meeting. It was a meeting to plan Euclid instrument operations, so there was a lot of technical discussions, very close to the metal, but it was a lot more interesting that I had expected it to be. It is the first time I have visited Bologna for more than two years, a city I know very well as I was a postdoc there from 2001 to 2003. I realise too that this is the first time I have written anything in this blog about Bologna, which is surely a serious error, given how much I appreciate this city.

We arrived there in the middle of the afternoon last Wednesday. Our aeroplane banked low as we approached the city and there was a wonderful evening light shining on colli bolognesi. There, on a hill by itself I could see the San Luca church, together with the two towers one of the symbols of the city. From the airport we took a taxi, and in a few minutes we were at the hotel, the hotel “Universita” where I stayed during my very first visit to Bologna. A few minutes afterwards, we were in the streets of Bologna. We were very hungry, Air France these days practice starvation diets even on flights leaving around lunchtime. So, we ate some piadini in a cafe underneath the arcades on the via independezia before heading out to visit the city. Our meeting would not start until the next day, and we had a few hours of shopping before the evening meal. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

To me, at first glance, the city does not seem to have changed at all. There are still the same narrow streets, the same brick-red buildings. The same movement, even late at night. We visited a few sights of the city, and I went to all the shops that I liked when I lived there. I bought all the things that I like: coffee, chocolate, a good bottle of wine, grappa, some cheese and prosciutto. In almost all the shops, everyone remembered me, and I was treated with great courtesy (as I would say, Italian spoken with an Irish accent is unforgettable). Heavily laden down, I made my way back to the hotel at around 6pm. Only thanks to my colleague Olivier H. was I able to bring everything that I had bought back to Paris: he had some extra space in his bag.

At Bruno e Franco, via Oberdan.

Afterwards, we went to eat at Tony’s, the trattoria on the ground floor of the building I used to live in, on via Augusto Righi. This restaurant had great importance for me when I lived in Bologna. I waited there in Tony’s with my cordless telephone that evening in June 2003 for the call from Emmanuel B. to find out if I had been recruited or not for the post of “assistant astronomer” at the Obs. de Paris (it came; I had). The day that I left Bologna, towards mid-day I took down my very last possessions that I had in my apartment and put them in my white Ascona parked in front of Trattoria Tony. At that moment, the waiters came out from the restaurant (they were just preparing the tables for the Sunday mid-day meal) to bid farewell.

At Tony’s we were five at our table. The restaurant was full. Tony’s has that direct, unforgiving light so typical of Italian trattorias: you can see exactly what you are eating. I had the meal that I often ate many years ago, tagliatelle al ragu, followed by the the fileto con aceto balsamico. It’s been a while since I was hungry enough to eat all that, but during all that walking in the afternoon I had worked up a strong appetite. At the end of the meal, I talked to Stefano, the son of Tony. I found out that Tony was no longer alive: he had had an accident and died two years ago. I talked to them about my father and what happened this year: I can understand this kind of thing now. Leaving the restaurant I felt a bit weighed down by all these thoughts of mortality but hey, that could have also been the two bottles of Sangiovese that I had drunk. Later, after a nice ice-cream at Gelateria della Moline I met my friend Tommasso. It was great to see him again and we talked for a while in the cold metal chairs in front of the gelateria before I returned to the hotel Universita .

The next day, a full day of meetings, followed by a meal at a nice restaurant on the via san petronio vecchio. There was another friend I wanted to see, but she was not arriving in Bologna that night until after 11PM. I thought, we will never be that long at the restaurant…but we were. So we met, and I walked back to my hotel through the somewhat slightly more silent streets of Bologna around two in the morning, and the next day we left.

On that distant summer’s evening  while I was sitting in Tony’s and the phone rang to tell me that I had a permanent job in Paris,  I said to myself: well,  there are not so many places in the world that I would be happy to go to after living here in Bologna…but probably Paris is one of them. So I said to myself, do not be sad to leave Bologna. There is certainly however something special about this city. I am looking forward to returning there before too long.

Some nice portici in Bologna