HERE COMES SUMMER: Yale program in astrophysics proves fascinating but unbelievably exhausting

“Alright, guys, start packing up if you wanna take the 12:10 shuttle! If you’re not ready in five minutes, you’re staying till 1:40!”

About half of the students begin saving their work, closing programs and shutting down their computers. The other half ignore the call and continue banging away at their keyboards. I’m part of that other half.

“Last call, people!”

I pause my work to watch the early group head out. Should I join them? If I were to leave now, I’d be back at the dorms by 12:30, meaning I’d get an extra hour and a half of sleep. Or, more realistically, I’d get an extra hour and a half of wandering about New Haven in search of ramen and cookies…

The door closes behind the last of the early-shuttlers. I hear the latch bolt click.

I guess I’m staying until 1:40.

That’s 1:40 in the morning, in case that wasn’t clear.

That was life at the Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics, somewhat unaffectionately called “Y-Spa.” Our project there involved observing

Marigot Fackenthal
Two YSPA students calibrate the observatory’s 16-inch reflector and prepare to take images of their asteroid. Students also observed their asteroids remotely from telescopes in Chile, Australia, New Mexico, California and Spain.

asteroids from multiple telescopes (including our local 16-inch reflector at the observatory, and remote telescopes in Chile, Australia, New Mexico, California and Spain), analyzing the images we received using various programs, and writing code that would calculate certain quantities (distance from the Earth, diameter, etc.) from the information we extracted from those images.

All of that may sound complicated, but the 28 of us juniors from around the world didn’t arrive at Yale as experts. In fact, programming knowledge and calculus weren’t even requirements going in. We learned everything we needed to know by listening to lectures and struggling through seven much-dreaded problem sets, two of which were due before camp even began.

Needless to say, these lectures and problem sets kept us busy. And when I say busy, I mean that we were working pretty much non-stop between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. every day. (Except for Sundays, which were “unscheduled days.” But because the problem sets were so difficult, most of us trekked up to the observatory to work on Sundays anyway.)

Here’s a breakdown of our daily schedule, just to scare some people off:

We would wake up around 8 a.m. (I’d usually push it to 8:50) to be ready to leave the dorms by 9. We’d get to the observatory at 9:20, eat breakfast in the planetarium until 10 and begin lecture.

Marigot Fackenthal
YSPA students work on a math problem on a whiteboard.

Everyone would half-sleep through the first half of lecture, fully sleep through the 10-minute break at 11, and half-sleep through the remainder of lecture, which would end at 12:30.

An hour was allocated for lunch, and then we’d work in the computer lab until about 6. That was when we’d finally leave the observatory to eat dinner in one of the residential dining halls.

At 8, we’d head back up to the observatory, and there we’d stay until either 12:10 or 1:40 a.m.

I was part of the late group almost every night. We’d get back to the dorms at 2. Considering that curfew was at 2:30, it would have been wise to immediately go to my suite, shower and get ready for bed.

Considering that I’m me, though, staying out with friends until a minute before (and maybe a few minutes after) curfew was the obvious choice.

So that’s what I did for an entire month. I’m sure some people will read this and think, “Gee, that’s really not so bad.” But I’m telling you, it’s not the individual punches that kill – it’s the successive barrage of hits.

Marigot Fackenthal
The observatory and its East dome, which hosts an historic 8-inch refractor telescope. As all of the program’s research was conducted using the 16-inch reflector in the West dome (out of the view but just left of the frame), students were permitted to play with the 8-inch whenever they pleased.

Staying up until 3 a.m. was one thing, but staying awake during lecture that same morning (so that Dr. Faison wouldn’t take uncomfortably high-quality photos of us sleeping) was another. Staying alert enough to retain the information on the blackboard was a third, and doing the same for an entire month was a fourth.

By the last week of camp, I was chugging energy drinks every other night. All of us developed awful acne, enormous eye bags and the ability to fall asleep anywhere in any position. (Literally. I was permitted to stand in the back of the planetarium during lecture to help me stay awake, and I managed to fall asleep while leaning against the back wall. Multiple times.)

“So, Marigot, if you were so tired, why didn’t you go to sleep as soon as you got back to the dorms?” Valid question, and here’s the answer: I wanted to talk.

(Photo illustration by Fackenthal)
Senior Fackenthal, left, and three YSPA students sleep on the ground, chairs and desks.

My sole criticism of the camp is that we didn’t have time to talk to each other. Sure, there were these “unscheduled times,” but our work was so time-consuming that everybody, even the most experienced coders, spent every free moment in the observatory working. Not working, while not against the rules during “unscheduled time,” simply wasn’t an option if we wanted to have any chance of getting our problem sets and final project done.

Because of that, the only times during which we really socialized were those we were forced to spend away from the observatory. And there were only two of those each day: dinner, and the short period of time at the dorms before curfew at 2:30.

So I took full advantage of that post-observatory pre-curfew time slot. Sometimes I’d grab a couple friends and head to a nearby 24-hour convenience store, where we’d buy snacks, stock up on energy drinks and hang out in the loft. Sometimes we’d snoop about the underground tunnels of our residential college in search of doors that’d accept our key cards. Sometimes we’d just wander around the town, enjoying the 2 a.m. emptiness.

(Photo used by permission of Fackenthal)
Fackenthal (back row, seventh from the left) with her YSPA class.

But always, we’d talk. I loved it. I love talking with intelligent people, and my peers at camp were some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Not only were they well-versed in programing and physics, but they were also incredibly knowledgeable when it came to history, politics, literature, music and philosophy. It was refreshing to discuss topics such as religion and ethics at such a high level.

One thing that is important to note about YSPA is that this year was its first. It’s a fork program from a very similar and selective camp called The Summer Science Program (a bizarrely generic name, I know), where students do essentially what we did but over a longer period of time. Because it was the first year of YSPA, some of the kinks and bumps hadn’t quite been worked out yet.

Despite that, I really do think that the program was an enormous success. While we may have been overworked and our health definitely deteriorated, we did what we went there to do: cool space science. And along the way, I learned that I’m not as smart as I thought I was and made some friends whom I hope to stay in contact with for a long time.

If you’re reading this and looking for something to do next summer, I’ll tell you right now that YSPA isn’t a program for everybody. It’s hard – really hard. But if you’re interested in destroying your body in the name of science and good company, consider applying.

I’d certainly do it again.

For more day-to-day specifics, visit the student-run YSPA blog.

By Marigot Fackenthal

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