La Palma

Tinkering with lenses in paradise

Some researchers get lucky. They don’t end up in the basement of a grey laboratory, on a shared desk. No, their work spaces look more like a holiday resort. This week past 3: La Palma.
By Christien Boomsma /  Photo Otger! / Translation Sarah van Steenderen

Bram Lap spent a year on La Palma. He first went there to finish his master’s degree with the RUG’s Kapteyn Institute, then stayed on as a PhD candidate for SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research. He worked on an instrument that tests whether the new lens system on the William Herschel Telescope is aligned by looking at how light moves through the lenses.

‘I’d never been to a place so steep. La Palma is a volcanic island, which means there is almost no flat land. There’s no gentle slope to the beaches; the water is deep right at the edge.

Because the island is volcanic, a mountain range runs across the island from north to south, preventing clouds from passing over the island. This means the island is home to many different climates. The north east is quite humid, other parts have a more Mediterranean climate, and there’s even a bit of rain forest. It’s a paradise for astronomers. The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory is located at an altitude of 2,400 metres, sticking out above the clouds. It’s second only to the telescope on Hawaii for studying the stars visible from the northern hemisphere.

I’m not an astronomer, I’m an optical engineer. But I visited the observatory a couple of times and it’s just amazing! There’s almost no light pollution because there are no large cities nearby, so you can see thousands, if not billions of stars. You can see falling stars or even other galaxies with the naked eye.


But my favourite part was that I had a chance to really learn Spanish and to get to know the people there. When I arrived, I only knew a little bit from DuoLingo: “Hola, soy Bram”, stuff like that. But I joined the local basketball team and the coach only spoke Spanish. Spanish people are much more open than the Dutch are, which is nice. They just welcomed me with open arms.

And La Palma is a holiday destination of course: I had an apartment near the beach and woke up with the sound of sea every day. I went swimming and diving – in December! My favourite place was my roof terrace. I could see everything from there: rainbows, thunderstorms, falling stars. I also loved the pier where the cruise ships docked. You could walk all the way to the end and be alone with just the sound of the waves and the wind.

The job itself was amazing. I was cleaning mirrors in an actual, giant freaking telescope. We did simulations and experiments using the instruments dummies. It felt great to be there and to be so closely involved in figuring out all the specifications. It was a little unreal at times. Sometimes I’d just have to stop and think: Bram, do you even realise how amazing this is?’


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