View of the Davis Mountains
Over the last two days, I have spent my time at the McDonald Observatory, touring telescopes, learning about the origins of the universe, and gazing into the cosmos. I have learned about the age of the universe and cosmic microwave background radiation, and how there is a giant telescope with 91 hexagonal mirrors being built to stare into the heavens 10 billion years back.
Hobby-Eberly Telescope being prepped for the HEXDET Experiment
Awe is an understatement when one looks through a tiny eyepiece on a 36cm telescope and sees the Cassini Division, or a group of stars that look like someone just dropped diamond dust on a piece of black velvet. The awe extends to the surface of each of those 91 identical mirrors, as you watch a lithe and agile woman scamper and climb underneath them in order to take dirty ones out to be replaced with perfectly clean copies. Awe continues when you see photos of your heroes, Carl Sagan and Jane Goodall, Galileo and Neil deGrasse Tyson decorating the walls and declaring the power of imagination and the drive to determine the beauty and power of a great idea.
The experience of seeing these giant creations of men and women has been nothing short of stupendous. I have decided, and inwardly declared, that astronomy is this wonderful, magic, perfect-as-is-possible discipline in which people combine science, math, engineering, imagination and art. I have seen a telescope from 1939 paid for by a kindly bachelor banker who owned a car but never drove it, who paid for a beautiful German atomic crystal clock but never saw it, and who bequeathed his books, including “The Social Life of Insects” to an astronomy department that had yet to exist. Today I was able to wander around a larger telescope birthed from the need for better technology and the funding of the space race…it is a giant, a megalith of steel, lead, glass and concrete. In it are 4 or 5 mirrors, depending on what its being used for, that bounce light up and down and back again, into the floor below, to produce spectrographs of distant stars. I listened to two students tell us about how they are looking for evidence of exoplanets using the study of spectroscopy and this giant instrument that literally beams light from distant skies down below their feet.
Harlan Smith Telescope, McDonald Observatory
I have learned that there is no center and all positions within the universe are the center, at the same time. I have learned that the universe has some sort of three-dimensional shape but that it exists on a plane of its own creation and has a fourth dimension of time. Is time, then, a construct? Or is it real? What is real?
The Art in Astronomy is surprising and beautiful
These last few weeks have been trying, terrible, and emotionally despairing times for many. Seeing, as a part of the 24-hour news cycle, that our civilization is in decline far deeper than perhaps we had thought leaves us feeling fraught and frayed. Seeing our fellow humans in pain and as humans, though, is a powerful driver in helping all of us see our sisters and brothers as just that. I am an optimist, despite the dark that seems all around. I like to think that at least we saw each other in these moments, and we reached out to help, and help we did, though we must continue. I think the power of extending a heart-in-hand, especially to children and their mothers, will never serve us wrong, and perhaps is a step in the journey to what might be right and better for all of us.
This is our Sun, whose light is passed through and projected on a wall, and refracted using a diffraction grating. Isn’t it gorgeous?
I generally always feel that I am exactly where I am supposed to be in any given moment. It is a strategy that helps me find gratitude and peace with what is happening. I also have been lucky, thus far, to land on my feet. I have been wondering today, especially tonight, as I sat outside a 36cm telescope and listened to it sing like a humpback whale as it re-calibrated itself, as I stared up at the stars and listened to the funny conversations of colleagues trying to take photos of the moon on their smart phones through the Dobsonian Telescope’s eyepiece, that perhaps I have been here for a few days to remember the greatness of the capacity of human possibility and imagination. There is no greater evidence of that than looking at these telescopes up close and realizing the amount of dedication and dreaming that goes into each one of them. I asked the facilitator what drives the design and fabrication of new telescopes, and she told me, “scientific goals”. I asked her what scientific goals are inspiring the new, almost complete Magellan Telescope and she told me there were so many that it was hard to think of all of them. How wonderful an idea is that? That there are so many dreams that a real expert in her field cannot even think of all of them.
Struve Telescope, McDonald Observatory
I love Langston Hughes’ poetry and this one really stands out to me tonight, my last evening in this building, on a mountain, near a telescope, hurtling through space. May it serve you, too. With love and hope, P
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
The McDonald Observatory grounds from my southwest-facing window.