Nonfiction | June 01, 2002
Light Falling on Mauna Kea
It is a kind of believing without belief that we believe in.
— Charles Wright
The summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is a broken circle of stark ridges and brown and red cinder cones surrounding a shallow, tilting valley. Light gushes down unimpeded, like water from a fire hose. Twenty miles to the south, the dark bulk of Mauna Loa, the island’s other volcanic titan, shoulders through the clouds. To the northwest, seventy miles distant, neighboring Maui’s Haleakala reminds me of a surfacing humpback. At 13,800 feet I feel giddy, but not simply because the oxygen is scarce. This place itself has raised a dizzying emotion in me, part terror at the sudden evidence of nature’s inhuman scale, part exultation that even here a brave, inquisitive—and possibly absurd—handful of humanity has managed to find a foothold. These people are astronomers. Their observatories, eleven varying assemblages of sphere, cylinder and box, stand about the scene like exhibits in a lunar sculpture garden.
One astronomer who uses these tools is a woman named Andrea Ghez, a gifted observer whose recent work has settled a long-standing debate by establishing that the center of our galaxy is a black hole. When an opportunity to meet Andrea came up, I jumped at the chance because my experience at the summit had unsettled me. Before Mauna Kea, I realized, the genuine scope of the world outside my personal dominion did not matter to me much. I was the biggest thing in the universe. Mountains and stars were just a pretty backdrop. Mauna Kea, though, shoved me out onto the real stage, a place Andrea had reached before me. Now I wanted to see the universe she sees, and I wanted to find out what the trick is to living peaceably with a full awareness of the natural world’s immensity.
I pay Andrea a visit at her UCLA office on an early-September Friday, five months after my trip to the summit. Her door is half open, and as I enter she is gazing at a large computer screen filled with columns of close-packed numbers. There are two things you notice immediately about Andrea: her shoulder-wide frizz of brown hair and her eyes, which, when she turns them upon you, zap you with the intensity of their gaze. Although they may spend more time focused on computer screens than on stars, they are the eyes you expect to find in an astronomer.
Andrea’s view of the distant and dust-clouded center of our galaxy is a good deal better than that of other astronomers. The fuzzy blob of light observers usually see resolves for her into a collection of distinct, individual stars. She manages this remarkable feat by revving up her telescope’s near-infrared camera with speckle interferometry, an imaging technique that Andrea has turned into the astronomical equivalent of X-ray glasses.
Speckle works by snapping up to ten pictures a second of a target area. One study can number exposures in the thousands, which Andrea later combines into a single image, averaging out the distortions caused when starlight passes through the earth’s turbulent atmosphere. The final product looks like a small pinch of fine black pepper scattered upon a white plate. Each speck is a star.
By the summer of 1998, Andrea was ready to summarize two years of intermittent midgalaxy observations. Since Kepler, astronomers have known that the period of an orbiting body and its distance from the gravity source it orbits are fixed. This means that if they can locate an orbiter and learn its velocity, they can determine its distance from the gravity dominating it. Using her perfected speckle-graph technique, Andrea located her stars precisely and nailed down their velocities. The movements of the ninety stars in her survey, she discovered, were being driven by the same nearby source of enormous gravity.
How enormous? She calculated that the source pulls roughly 2.6 million times harder than the sun pulls on the earth. Where was it? Just where some people had been speculating it might be. What Andrea had in her specks was the first conclusive evidence that at dead-on galactic center, a spot known as Sagittarius A*, roughly twenty-five thousand light years from the top of Mauna Kea, a massive black hole is dropping away from time and space like a ship’s anchor plunging from the surface of the sea.
Black hole. Seldom does a thing so complex bear such a concise name. It is black—nothing can be blacker—because the tremendous gravity of the matter compressed within it allows not a single photon of light to escape. It is a hole, a shaft sunk deep into space-time, narrowing at the bottom into an infinitely dense point of zero volume. Yet the simplicity of the name can mislead, for black holes are among the most enigmatic of celestial creatures, hard to detect and hard to study.
How big is it? The compass of its defining gravitational influence is about as big around as the circle Mars describes in its orbit around the sun.
How old is it? Some billions of years.
And what good is it to us to know it is there? For one, Andrea’s research will enable astronomers to refine their ideas about our home galaxy’s complicated central dynamics. It will also shed some light on the often violent activity occurring in other galactic nuclei.
Less specifically but no less importantly, Andrea has given us the basic satisfaction of answering a big question. She has drawn back a curtain at the heart of the Milky Way.
Andrea has talked to writers before. Because her research deals with the area of astrophysics vaguely familiar to the public, her findings occasionally draw interest from the mass media. To some degree she resists this attention. “I want to stay out of the media,” she says, “because they want to know what’s new. And really nothing is new. My work is part of a history.” Despite her hesitation, though, Andrea respects the average citizens gee-whiz enthusiasm for star stuff, taking the view that everybody should understand at least the basics of what people like her do. Plus, she likes to talk.
Andrea has two areas of special interest, she tells me. One is the state of affairs at the center of our galaxy. The other concerns the riddles of star formation. I tell her I cannot see the link.
“Yeah,” she answers, “on the surface it’s not so clear, but there is actually an easy connection. The work on star formation was driven by, originally, an interest I had in high-resolution imaging techniques, ways you can image through the atmosphere to get very pristine pictures. And when I started this work, an ideal problem to apply the technique to was young stars. There we discovered that if you apply the high-resolution technique, you find two stars almost all the time. This raised a lot of questions about how binary stars are formed and the effects of companions on planetary formation—which is actually work we’re still doing.”
“What about the midgalaxy black hole?”
“Well, when I came to UCLA, I was hired because I was good at high-resolution imaging, and we have access to the world’s largest telescope, which means you should be able to get the highest-resolution pictures in the world. I was looking for a new problem that took advantage of this technique, that would yield, you know, really interesting science. And a project that had been around for a long time was this project of trying to prove there’s a black hole at the center of the galaxy, which again demands the ability to have very high-resolution images. It’s only with Keck and the advancements in instruments that sort of all came together at that point that you could actually do the experiment. So in a sense, a lot of the work I have done—although I’d say that’s probably not how I choose problems anymore—was ‘I have a hammer. What nail can I drive in?”‘
Andrea’s hammer is called the W. M. Keck Observatory, after the California oil tycoon whose foundation donated most of the approximately $200 million construction costs. In truth the Keck is two telescopes, housed in twin egglike domes. Each 100-foot-high, 120-foot-wide ovoid encloses a 33-foot-diameter reflector. There is none bigger.
When they surpass 15 feet in diameter, most telescope mirrors begin to sag under their own weight. This sagging distorts the starlight they reflect, an impermissible offense in high-level astronomy. The innovative design of the Kecks solves this problem by making a large mirror out of a mosaic of thirty-six small, light, relatively rigid ones, each attached to a set of surface-adjusting pistons. The pistons constantly correct for any distortion by bending the individual segments precisely and making them, for all practical purposes, into a single reflective surface.
Viewed from beneath, the angle I had from the visitors’ gallery, a Keck is hardly recognizable as a telescope at all. Almost all you can see is a complicated, spidery grid of beige and black tubes. The impression is less one of brute power than of gracefully poised tension.
Big glass is not everything. The “seeing” is how astronomers refer to the many external conditions affecting the power of a large reflector to resolve faint stars. Several factors come together to make the seeing on Mauna Kea unsurpassed. For one, the summit’s high altitude raises the telescopes above much of the earth’s light-warping atmosphere. The atmosphere that remains, moreover, is unusually still. Another advantage is the site’s superior darkness; Hawaii’s low human population keeps light pollution to a minimum. Additionally, a regular evening temperature inversion on the mountains upper slopes consistently clears the clouds. Finally, Hawaii’s latitudinal position upon the globe grants it an exceptionally wide view of the night sky. Combine the excellent seeing with the engineering sophistication of the Kecks (Keck I saw first light in 1992, Keck II in 1996) and you end up with an imaging capacity even greater in many respects than that of the earth-orbiting Hubble.
On the Mauna Kea summit, a sunset is not the palm-framed affair of beachside vacationers. It is a Galilean exercise in planetary mechanics. The sun does not set, I realized here, in one of my life’s rare epiphanies. Instead the trundling planet lifts the horizon to cover the sun, and you believe you can actually sense this movement. For astronomers such experiences are nothing unusual. Rapid turnabouts in their understanding of the universe take place with an almost predictable frequency.
One reason for this, as Andrea herself points out, is the readiness of modern astrophysics to take advantage of technological advance. Spectroscopy, for instance, a tool that can, among other things, determine the chemical makeup of a distant star, has greatly altered the field since 1814, when Frauenhofer first used it to study the sun. More recently, the development of large telescopes and the replacement of photographic film by ultrasensitive charge-coupled devices (CCDs) have revolutionized thinking in areas as distinct from one another as star formation and quasars. In astrophysics, it seems safe to say, certainty is often fleeting.
Yet Andrea is at home with this instability. Reality for her is a theory, and “theory is not truth,” she says. “Theory is the idea that I’ll explain the observations to the limit of the knowledge that we have.” The provisional atmosphere of Andrea’s office suddenly seems pertinent. It is as if she has just moved in and might be moving out in an hour or two. A framed picture sits on the floor, leaning against an old red, claw-footed couch. On the couch, an open cardboard box.
“Could there possibly be anyone left who still doubts there is a black hole at the center of our galaxy?” I ask.
“Oh, there’s always doubters. Yeah. Well, I mean I think it’s by far the most convincing case of a black hole in the center of any galaxy. That’s true.” A growl of hesitation thickens her voice. “However, if you really want to be a skeptic, there’s still room for skepticism. The alternatives are pretty far-fetched and exotic and not very well motivated. Nonetheless, they’re still possible. In the sense that the unusual is always possible, there are people out there writing papers on alternative explanations, and that’s important. It’s the way science works. We should be challenged, and then that means that there’s more work to do.”
If there is an order of astrophysical facts that do not budge when shoved, Andrea’s black hole belongs to it. Her caution, though, won’t allow her to admit it. This is not humility; neither is it a lack of confidence. It is simply the instinctive prudence of a good scientist. Her attitude surrounds a core of nut-hard courage: How many of us could get through a day, much less a career, knowing as keenly as she does that a worldview collapses as easily as a circus big top—here today but packed up and gone tomorrow?
Not very many at all, apparently. A 1997 Los Angeles Times roundable Andrea took part in addressed the fact that Americans are more willing to trust a psychic than a scientist. Andrea tried to explain why by pointing to a paramount human flaw. “There’s a lot of fear of the unknown,” she said. “Humans don’t want to admit that we don’t have all the answers. I think that we naturally tend to create our own belief system, whether or not it’s based in fantasy or reality. Something.”
By implication her comment includes the belief systems of science, but Andrea is not knocking her field here. On the contrary, by suggesting that astrophysics is merely a take on things, tentatively illuminating them, she persuades. To the degree that “something” can be right, astrophysics is right.
Still, I sympathize with the people who prefer psychics. After all, what Andrea knows hurts: at the middle of the Milky Way is a massive black hole. The grandly sweeping spiral arms, sequined with countless stars, waltz around an enormous, sucking zero. Is there any better symbol of nature’s obliviousness to human concerns?
The question matters little to Andrea. Astronomers are not in the business of supplying crutches for our egos. “If you get into this field looking for support,” she remarks, “well, what I know as an astronomer says we’re all going to be wiped out.” Many of us realize that our sun will one day become a red giant and turn the earth into something resembling’ a flaming marshmallow. Even if they have the unlikely good fortune to survive all the other catastrophes waiting between today and that far-off event, short of finding a way to leave the solar system, our descendants are sure to go up in smoke.
People like Andrea who deal on a regular basis with measures of time and space against which the human dimension is invisible accommodate themselves psychologically to our ultimate fate in various ways. In the roundtable she pointed out that “a lot of astronomers are very religious,” adding, “I don’t see a problem with that.” When I ask whether she herself requires any divine comfort, she answers quickly and flatly, “No.”
Yet Andrea seems far from depressed. In talking with her, I discover surprising optimism.
“Does your work ever make you feel small?” I ask her.
“Yes! That’s why I got into astronomy. I was fascinated with the enormous amounts of time, the vast distances.”
In his autobiography, the astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, writes that when he dies he prefers burial to cremation. Burning, he explains, would release his cellular energy back into space, essentially wasting it. Burial, on the other hand, would recycle it and enable it to help support future generations of life on earth.
Andrea does not know quite what to say when I read her this statement, other than, “Gee, I haven’t thought about that.” Perhaps because at thirty-six she is still relatively young, mortality doesn’t concern her yet. As many young people do, she focuses on the present. “I want to put what we know now in context” is another way she describes her work.
Such emotional buoyancy is enviable. Andrea is a swimmer, which makes sense to me. Swimmers I have known, even more so than joggers, have a determined self-sufficiency about them. Her heroines as a child were similarly self-reliant and constraint-loathing. Amelia Earhart was one, the first woman to fly solo the route from Hawaii to California that Andrea herself often takes, and also Harriet Tubman. Andrea is the kind of person who without a shiver can say, “Science asks how? But people want to know why? Why are we here? As an astronomer, I feel more and more that there is no why.”
“There is no why.” This simple sentence challenges me to let go of my self-interest and address a greater concern. Ask how. Do this disinterestedly, unsentimentally. And when I answer, then answer with theories that I know to be theories. Thus am I bidden to transcend the impasse of conflicting truths.
No moon, and once I get past arc-lit Keahole Airport, no city lights either. Alone in a rented SUV, I am on my way to Waimea, a windy, often rain-misted Big Island cowboy town, somewhat incongruously home to the Keck observing station; data cables connect the station with the summit, twenty miles away. I am supposed to arrive by 9:30 to look on for a bit while Andrea sets forth her survey of newborn stars.
Even the most congenial astronomer will get edgy if you ask to sit in on one of her observing runs. When I asked Andrea, back in Los Angeles, about joining her at her next session, set for November, she was firm. “I could see you coming out for a little while. I don’t want anybody sitting around all night. I’ve been pretty clear about that.”
The problem is that an astronomical observing session contains an inherent potential for chaos. Astronomers compete fiercely for time on the Keck, so anyone fortunate enough to receive a slot naturally wants to exploit it to the full. The schedule is tight. Any leeway belongs not to curious onlookers but to the periodic vexations of software glitches. The celestial clock is ticking, too. An observation must be made when the target is easily accessible. Not just any night will do.
“How long will you be out there?” I asked.
She flipped the pages in her calendar. “Definitely the nights of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth.”
“Is there one night when it would be better for me to be there?”
“Not the first one, I think it’s safe to say.” She laughed nervously.
First nights are always rough, apparently. The eighteenth and the nineteenth are out, too—new experiments on those nights. The chaos potential is too high.
“The seventeenth is probably the easiest one.”
Waimea sits at the base of Kohala Mountain, Hawaii’s oldest and northernmost volcano. From Kailua-Kona, where I am staying, it is about a forty-mile run. First, thirty miles along the dog-leg North Kona coast, up the northwest side of the island, a low-sweeping waste of overlapping lava flows, inhospitable home to a few feral donkeys and little else. Only at the water is the stony austerity relieved. There are several fine, palm-backed beaches and a few artificially greened resorts. Then another ten miles, climbing inland now, into the wet-grass, tree-scarce cattle country.
The last of the three recent lava flows I cross leaving town dates from 1859. It originated at a point roughly ten thousand feet above sea level on the northwest side of Mauna Loa and journeyed about thirty miles west across the island to reach the sea. Eighteen fifty-nine is the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species. I think of this flow as the Darwin Memorial Flow. You must be here during the day to see it. In the dark, the flow is a light-sponging blank beneath the starlit Hawaiian night.
Tonight Andrea will not be looking into our galaxy’s center. Instead she will be looking at a region in the constellation Taurus where a good many young stars exist. Such stars have provided most of the data Andrea has used to support her unconventional ideas about star birth. Her thinking departs from the common assumption that most stars resemble our sun, a Lone Ranger encircled by balls of rock or gas—planets—congealed out of the dust disks trapped by stellar gravity. Andrea has found that most sunlike stars come to life not alone but as binaries or even in stellar litters of three or more. Her papers on the subject, commencing in 1992, throw something of a wet blanket on theories positing the existence of countless planets outside our solar system and, in consequence, countless opportunities for intelligent biological companionship. Planets simply will not form as easily around multiple stars as they will around single stars like the sun. They may not form at all. The interaction of the competing stellar gravities either stops the dust from balling or knocks it out of orbit. Andrea’s aim tonight is to add to the collection of data she has already gathered in support of her theory.
The wind has grown fierce. Following a shuddering sign that says GAS, I turn off the highway. A quarter mile away, on the fringe of a small shopping complex, the Shell station is an oasis of yellow and orange light, fragile in the savage, whipping gusts. While I fill the tank, the palm fronds overhead hiss and wave like monstrous paper pompoms, cheering on the night.
I trot forward to the attendant’s booth. In the cash drawer is a chunk of lava. I set the chunk on a fifty and wait for my change.
“You take care,” I say to the man alone in the booth, a broad, dark Polynesian face. My own face shimmers in the glass next to his.
The man keys his mike and smiles. “That’s why I’m staying right in here.” He is missing the three teeth left of center in the upper row.
In the truck again, I drive back through the light-gulping lava to the highway.
Now I am at the junction. The Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, which I have been following along the invisible coast, ends here. I wait for two sets of headlights to pass and turn right onto the Kawaihae Road, another two-lane, this one narrower and more sinuous. I click on the wipers. It has begun to drizzle.
“What I know as an astronomer says we’re all going to be wiped out.” Andrea’s point-blank assessment haunts me this night, as do other words from a recent airplane read: purposeless, nonprogressive, materialistic, no perfecting principles, no guarantee of general improvement, a peculiar primate that records his own history. These are the merciless teachings of the late evolution guru Stephen Jay Gould. I know he and Andrea are right, but in this dark, with the Darwin Flow lurking somewhere behind me, to be recrossed on my way home, the dismal truth is hard to swallow.
In Waimea I wait at the light to hang a left. People are scarce. An emptybedded pickup scuttles through the wet intersection like a crab across the shoreline lava. The light changes. I make my turn.
When I walk into Remote Operations One, Andrea is seated at a data screen, just as I found her at UCLA. “It’s not glamorous,” she had warned, adding that when her geologist husband visited one night, he found the whole thing a bore. In a sense, she is right. The room resembles an ordinary, newish office space. The five or six data stations look something like the terminals in a bank or travel agency. If you didn’t know that they are connected with the various light detectors of an immense telescope, you might be tempted to take a seat and pick up a magazine. One person is reading a magazine, a recent issue of Time; containing an article on astronomy featuring Andrea and her work.
While the night is still young, people drift between this observing room and the one next door. Veterans introduce newcomers. Old acquaintances are renewed. Two French astronomers drop in, looking a little haggard. They have been working at another telescope, one without a remote facility. This means they’ve been up on the mountain. The weather treated them badly. Things got so nasty on Saturday night that they had to be evacuated. Heavy snow was about to block the summit road. Lower down the mountain it rained wildly. In Hilo there were severe floods. I learn that tonight will be the first full night of observing in three and a half weeks.
Andrea falls into conversation with the senior of the two men, a slim, gray-haired man dressed in black. I can hear only one end of the conversation.
“Oh, I’ve read your work,” she says with her usual exuberance.
The Frenchman responds inaudibly.
The junior colleague explains. “He has,” he says, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye, “a very narrow speech cone.” He describes a cone in front of his mouth with his hands, beyond whose limits the other man’s words cannot be understood.
“That’s impressive!” Andrea exclaims. She has evidently heard something interesting.
Andrea leads her soft-voiced colleague to a data station, next to which lies her “Computation Notebook,” a thick ledger of yellow paper. She opens the book to a page onto which she has pasted a color graphic illustrating the movements of several stars near the black hole at Sagittarius A*.
“This is pretty,” she says, showing the page.
It truly is. Both the image and the idea it expresses have an economy that is compelling and beautiful. In the upper middle of the box is a point marked “Sgr A*.” Around it swing two thinly lined ellipses, each strung with several filled circles like beads on a wire. More beads float to the lower left. Observation dates and a distance gauge are indicated in the sparest terms. That is all.
In the fall of 2000, Andrea set forth her description of the galactic center with an article published in the journal Nature; her graceful graphic was part of it. Once more her survey concerned the ninety stars she had studied previously, which she had continued to examine and photograph as they moved over time. An orbiting object moves faster when it is close to its dominant gravity and slower as it swings away; thus, the change in an orbiter’s acceleration will point like an arrow to the mass it is circling. Adding her acceleration data to what she already knew, Andrea was able to map the orbits of three of her stars as they made their way around the black hole.
The outcome of Andrea’s work was startling. Astronomers usually work with time measurements on the order of millions or even billions of years. Our sun, for instance, takes about 250 million years to make one galactic round trip. The orbit period of one of the stars Andrea has charted, known as SO-2, may be as short as seventeen years, raising the astonishing possibility that she will be able to watch an object turn several laps around the galactic center within her own lifetime. Incidentally, Andrea also learned that the mass of her black hole is greater than she previously believed-three million solar masses.
The elder Frenchman fetches his laptop and pulls up a recent speckle image he has produced. He explains, but only Andrea hears what he says.
I meet Cara and Gaspard, who are manning two data screens linked directly to the near-infrared detector attached to Keck 1. Cara is a graduate student from England, and Gaspard is a postdoc from France. Both work under Andrea.
While I am chatting with Cara, Gaspard falls into conversation with a large television monitor—more precisely, a Picture Tel. On top of the monitor is a camera. This apparatus connects with a similar one in the telescope operator’s office at the summit. The operator tonight is Cindy. When Cindy looks at her screen, she sees us. When we look at ours, we see her and her console. There is a sound link as well.
“Where are you from?” asks Cindy, picking up on Gaspard’s accent.
“Grenoble.” He says it first in the French way, then in the American way.
Andrea is looking over Gaspard’s shoulder at his data screen, a complex display with a number of open windows. One window gives time data and the telescope’s current position. Another frames a sandstorm of tiny, shifting dots. Nowhere is there anything approximating a picture of a star. This is as close as I will get tonight to seeing the sky through an old-fashioned eyepiece. Andrea says, “It looks kind of mooshy.”
Gaspard agrees. “Yes. Kind of.”
Gaspard moved from Grenoble to Los Angeles a month ago. He says he really likes L.A. I ask him if he plans on returning to France someday.
“If I could find a teaching position.”
Cara says to Cindy up top, “In a couple of minutes we’re going to want to move to FF Tau.”
“Just let me know,” Cindy replies.
Cara is from England. She chose UCLA for her graduate study because she had her heart set on working with Andrea.
“All right. We’re ready to move.”
“All right. We’re moving.”
Up on the summit, the telescope shifts to a new position.
The near-infrared camera will now take some of the myriad pictures needed to make a speckle image.
If she can image twenty-five stars tonight, Andrea will be overjoyed. That is two to three stars per hour, if all goes well.
“One every twenty minutes is the ideal, but things always go wrong.”
Altogether, Andrea has monitored roughly 150 stars in her search for multiple star systems.
“Are you ready to move?” asks Cindy.
“Yes,” says Gaspard. “We are ready to move.”
I ask Cara what the planning sessions were like for this series of observations.
Andrea answers. “We wrote a proposal, so some thinking happened then. Then about two weeks ago we did a little more work.” She starts laughing, and Gaspard and Cara both begin smiling, too. “Then, rush, rush. We kind of do things on the fly.”
Of course, tonight’s observations extend work that has gone before, its goals and methods already well established.
The observing session is starting to find its rhythm. Cindy moves the telescope. Gaspard and Cara make the exposures, keeping careful track of their work in a log. Andrea oversees.
I wander over to Andrea’s data station. On the floor is her backpack, zipper open, spilling a ten-pack of eight-millimeter data cartridges. To the right of the screen, on a shelf, a portable stereo. A few CDs are set out, covering most emotional eventualities—Alison Krauss and Union Station, Manhattan Transfer, Rodrigo’s “Fantasia para un Gentilhombre,” Brouwer’s “Concerto Elegiaco.” For the moment, no music is playing. On the desk is Andrea’s ledger, open now to a different page. On the left are two columns, one headed “File #,” the other “Name of Object.” Beneath these headings are many neatly numbered entries. The right side of the page is less tidy. Here she scribbles her notes. There are graphs and drawings as well. Exclamation points. Certain words are in boxes. One large box contains the word “Single.”
Andrea comes over, and I leave to allow her to skim through some of the fresh data. Gaspard and Cara are busy at their consoles. Up top, Cindy is meticulously peeling and eating a candy bar while paging through a magazine.
A facility staff member who happens by asks Cindy what she is looking at.
Cindy turns her face to the camera “I’m looking for my next llama stud.” When she’s not at the telescope, Cindy raises llamas.
“Are you ready to move?”
“Yes. We’re ready to move.”
I can feel the time beginning to pool, the approach of a good observing session’s magical serenity. Every observing session is, in a way, the search for this calm. When the telescope and its sensors are running smoothly, when the interchange between the remote facility crew and the operator up top quiets down to a haiku cycle of brief yet polite requests and confirmations, when the in-flowing numbers and graphics on the various data screens steady into an even rhythm, a drowsy peace can settle over the observing room.
The astronomers kick back and let it happen.
Andrea checks her data occasionally, like a mother looking in on a sleeping child.
Here, now, in this quiet, the astronomer can finally consider the great arching wonder of the stars.
Why do you do it? I asked Andrea once. Her answer came readily: Who she is and what she does she regards as something akin to a freak of nature, the last link in a chain of events as arcane as any phenomenon she might look at in the sky, as fortuitous as the geography of Hawaii itself. That people exist is extraordinary. That some people have learned to see into the depths of the sky is even more extraordinary. And that she, Andrea Ghez, turned out to be one of the very few people with the ability and opportunity to look is a third extraordinary, virtually unbelievable fact for her, a gift she accepts with a grave sense of responsibility. She did not say it quite this way. Instead, she said humbly, “It’s an incredible luxury.”
Eleven-fifteen. I have overstayed my welcome by an hour, and it is time now for me to leave. Andrea senses it, too. She begins an apology for the tedium of the scene, but I interrupt her, shaking my head. She stops and smiles. I think she guesses that I have understood at least a little about what she does and why. Then she says, “I love observing.
A night later, I am up at the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Information Station, at the nine-thousand-foot level of Mauna Kea. Named for the local hero and Challenger astronaut, this is arguably the best spot on the planet for what is somewhat unfairly known as amateur astronomy, the art and science of stargazing using bare eyeballs in place of sensitive electronic detectors.
Every night around sundown, VIS staffers roll out onto the patio two or three fancy telescopes. Then, until about ten, as the telescopes are swiveled from object to object—the Pleiades, the Crab Nebula, Jupiter, Saturn—ten or twenty visitors line up patiently to peek through the tubes at objects whose vast number, utter remoteness and cold beauty bend their thoughts toward fundamental questions.
For some the questions concern science and history. For others they concern God. Some questions fail to find formulation at all, hanging in the star-stunned, incommensurate mind like masterless puppets. I have seen people frightened here. Uniting us across our differences is the prehistoric command each of us has heard for at least this one night in life to creep out from behind complacency and consider the big picture. And so we stand here together in the dark, diverse people from diverse places, listening to the thrum that first sounded long ago, when our egoism, our ignorance, our fears formed our only protection.
It is thirty-eight degrees. I am cold and go inside for a while. Here in the glow of artificial light, the mood is changed. With its open rafters and shivering, convivial guests, the VIS building reminds me of a warming house for ice skaters. Talk about the weather and about the stars is buzzing among new acquaintances.
“Last night the space shuttle flew over. They didn’t know what it was at first. It was really trucking.”
“The Endeavor, right?”
Coins are chinking into the cash box next to the coffee urn—fifty cents a cup. If you are hungry, you can buy instant noodles. The red-and-white packages are piled in a dwindling heap. Sweatshirts are a popular souvenir.
Later, I am warmed up and back outside. The moon is still down. The only light is coming from the stars, yet the sky is surprisingly bright. The wind has dropped to a whisper. As I gaze at the stars, spilled out like a kicked bucket of white paint, an awareness of human insignificance sweeps over me.
That phrase of Andrea’s comes to mind again: “We’re all going to be wiped out.”
But right behind it runs another: “I love observing.”
Then, like a cockle washing up between a surfwalker’s feet, the mountain presents a moment of Zenlike wisdom: there is no conflict in Andrea’s words.
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