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Embracing the dark: Some jobs don’t see much daylight, winter solstice or not

Juan Cabanela is a professor of physics and astronomy at Minnesota State University Moorhead and spends many hours working in the dark. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
Juan Cabanela stands in front of the mirror of the 6.5-meter telescope at the MMT Observatory in Arizona in 2007 just before sunset. Special to The Forum2 / 4
Ross Collins. (North Dakota State University Photo)3 / 4
Desiree Zielke. (Sanford Health Photo)4 / 4

MOORHEAD — Call it the longest night or the shortest day, but welcome to the winter solstice.

Daylight today will last just eight hours, 32 minutes and 32 seconds. That's seven hours and 21 minutes less light than you'll enjoy come June 21 with the summer solstice.

But some folks have come to embrace the dark — because that's where they make their living. Juan Cabanela is one of them.

The professor of physics and astronomy at Minnesota State University Moorhead long ago became entranced by the night sky, earning a doctorate in astrophysics by — at times — spending 14 to 16 hours a night working in observatories on mountaintops around the world, patiently parsing out the secrets of the cosmos.

On Wednesday, Dec. 20, he was in his office, processing data gathered from this year's full solar eclipse. But when the astrophysicist was a graduate student, "I was out in the dark a lot."

"In Chile, I do remember a period of five days where I did not see the sun, because I was sleeping during the daytime," Cabanela said.

'You get a little loopy'

"After a few nights of doing that, you get really, really tired when you're pulling 14- and 15-hour shifts," he said. But, "if you have been awarded time at a national telescope, you don't want to waste it."

For one set of observations, Cabanela spent three weeks on the night shift at the Aricebo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

"After a few weeks of doing that, you get a little loopy" making decisions on what to observe, Cabanela said. "It can be mentally exhausting."

The weariness was much like the first few months after the birth of his twin children, he said.

Astronomers work in climate-controlled control rooms under dim red lights, with the light from computer screens filtered to avoid light pollution and to prevent the heat from the bodies of those working around the telescope from affecting observations.

Astronomers also keep their eyes adjusted to the dark, so if they have to go up into the telescope "you can actually see" without affecting measurements. "You operate in almost complete darkness," he said.

But the long shifts also provide moments of the sublime.

The most spectacular view of the night sky Cabanela remembers came after about five hours working under red lights on a night with no moon at the Blanco 4-meter aperture telescope in Chile.

"It was brilliant," Cabanela said. "I was outside maybe three or four minutes, and I could actually read by starlight."

'A certain serenity'

Before the advent of digital photography, a fair portion of the lives of professional photographers was spent in total darkness, developing film, or under dim red or amber safe lights, making prints from negatives.

Four, five or six hours of darkroom duty could eat up much of the limited winter daylight for photographers, says Ross Collins, a professor in the communication department at North Dakota State University.

"A lot of us did that back in the day," Collins said. "I do remember at this time of the year, there was a tendency to be less happy being in the darkroom"

Darkroom work during short daylight hours "was kind of an off-putting thing when you think about it," Collins said, but it couldn't be avoided.

Darkroom photography is coming back as a boutique skill, and NDSU runs a workshop about once a semester.

"It's kind of a magical thing. ... You put this white piece of paper in this strange chemical and all at once, mysteriously, something appears," Collins said, explaining the renewed appeal.

There is also comfort in solitude.

"There's something about working in the dark that gives a certain peace of mind, you know. The lack of stimulation is sometimes not a bad thing. You don't have your senses being assaulted" at all times, Collins said. "Maybe you'd have a radio on and that's about it. ... There's a certain serenity I'd say with darkroom work."

Losing your charge

Desiree Zielke, a psychologist at Sanford Health's clinic on Eighth Street South in Moorhead, says it's not unusual for people to feel like Energizer bunnies losing their battery charge this time of year. Christmas cheer or not, with less light there's less energy, more fatigue, and sleeping in late feels like the thing to do.

That's because light is important to maintaining our bodies' Circadian rhythms, which regulate the sleep-and-wake cycle.

The short days make it difficult for us to feel alert and awake when there's less light, particularly in an office environment.

Without light, your body can't make enough vitamin D, which leads to depressive symptoms, sluggishness and fatigue, Zielke said.

People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder may have to do light therapy or take vitamins, she said. But not everyone is affected so adversely.

"Night owls ... their bodies are set up differently, and they thrive," Zielke said.

Other people maximize their daylight hours outside — perhaps by cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling — to thrive despite the short days, she said. Even going to the gym can help, she said.

Fortunately, the days will again get longer and the winter lassitude will lift, Zielke said.

"It's really nice when it's light when you get home, or it's light when you get up in the morning," she said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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