Friday morning demanded an early start. Neither of us morning people, my husband and I reluctantly responded to the beeping of the 6:30 alarm. We had to eat breakfast, prepare our day packs with our lunch and drive an hour and a half to arrive to the Fred Whipple Observatory visitor center by 9:00 a.m.

The drive down Highway 19 from Tucson, provided little in the way of visual stimulation. This part of Arizona is rocky, red, desert scenery, some copper mines, and little else. As we learned later in the day, there is a “no-light” zone in a corridor around the observatory which limits development. One might think that the desert, arid climate and little natural water source to sustain a human population would limit development, but, no, we humans are amazingly short-sighted and overly optimistic in our own abilities. In fact, the light prohibition or lack of water hasn’t limited all development: there is the Green Valley Retirement Community close to the observatory, situated on a lush green golf course. The folly of humans.

With all the mountains surrounding the observatory, there likely are more spectacular vistas than the overcast skies revealed to us yesterday morning, so the road signs marked in kilometers and the road runner that darted across the street in front of us served as the exciting part of the journey to the Observatory.

Once at the visitor center, we were treated to an introductory film that provided a light introduction to astronomy and a documentary of the building of the new telescope. Our tour guide for the day, Woody Woods, narrated the silent portion of the film showing the transportation and installation of the new mirror. Woody, a physics professor for eighteen years at a university in South Carolina, is now retired and volunteers at the Whipple just because he loves astronomy. As well as being a kind and genial person, Woody proved to have a remarkable memory full of detail and spatial understanding of physics that I could only dream of having.

The Whipple Observatory is located at the top of Mount Hopkins, the second highest peak in the area at an elevation of 8,550 feet, 4,000 feet above the visitor center. Arizona is an ideal climate for observatories. In order to have good visibility of the sky, telescopes need to be in a low pollution environment. Low humidity minimizes the amount of the pollution in the air, and the height of the mountain puts the observatory above the smog. Arizona’s relatively low precipitation and cloud cover are also ideal and provide as many as 260 nights of visibility of the night sky.

The telescope is half-owned by the Smithsonian Institution and half-owned by the University of Arizona. It was constructed by the University of Arizona in the Steward Lab located under their football stadium. The 6.5 meter diameter telescope is made from eight tons of pyrex glass, (the same kind that is used in cooking pans) melted at a temperature of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, and dried with a revolutionary rotating oven that helped to shape the surface of mirror while it was drying, therefore requiring less grinding to create the finished product. The process was so good that the mirror has 92% reflectivity. The surface needs to be refinished every one to three years, but unlike most telescopes, the resurfacing can be done on-site without dismantling and moving the telescope, an advantage given the difficult, mostly unpaved route to the observatory.

The Fred Whipple Observatory is truly extraordinary. Not only is the 6.5 meter telescope impressive, but the entire building rotates 270 degrees in either direction. In order to use the telescope, astronomers must submit applications describing what they are studying. A committee studies the application and grants the scientist permission to use the telescope on certain assigned days corresponding to the celestial event under study. If it so happens, as it did to scientist Eric (more about him to follow), that the night sky is too cloudy or the conditions too inclement to gather data, the scientist must reapply for another time slot, which may be a year or more in the future. Suddenly, my job doesn’t seem nearly so frustrating.

After being entertained at the visitors center, we fourteen visitors boarded the school bus that was to take us up the mountain. Along the way, our remarkable and astute guide Woody described what we were seeing and provided numerous facts explaining the working of the telescope, most of which went over my head. The drive is a long one, twelve miles along a steep, narrow, mostly dirt, one-lane road with few guardrails. The vehicles that travel up and down to the telescope have CB radios so that drivers can communicate and notify each other of their location in the event that two vehicles going opposite directions both need to use the road at the same time. There are a few places wide enough for vehicles to pass each other, but as it so happened on our excursion, an unexpected SUV appeared in front of us and had to back his way up the dirt road until we could squeeze by each other. “Better him than me!” I thought.

Remarkably, only a small portion of the road closest to the telescope is paved, in order to make the highest and snowiest portion easier to plow in the winter and to minimize dust stirring up into the atmosphere. I asked why the entire road isn’t paved, and the answer, “It’s too expensive.” Imagine all the money in technology and creating and maintaining the telescope and yet, funds for paving the road to get to it are unavailable. Am I the only one who finds that a touch incomprehensible?

One of the best stories on the journey to the top was about a chronic problem with vandalism. Because the bends in the road are so sharp and the road so steep, there are mirrors along the way for vehicles to see each other. For some time, the mirrors, then mounted on wooden poles, were being vandalized and no one could figure out why. Eventually, somehow, the scientists learned that it was a bear, seeing his own reflection in the glass, and either very self-loathing or very territorial, he set about smashing the living daylights out of the mirror. The mirrors are now mounted on steel poles, and I’m not exactly sure how this rectified the problem, but it did.

When we arrived at the visitor center, the temperature felt like it was in the 50s. The weather had promised to be better by Friday, but still there was a relentless wind. Knowing that it’s about 15 degrees cooler at the top of the mountain, I wondered how I was going to fare with only my denim jacket to warm me. In fact, the temperature was increasingly colder as we advanced up the mountain. At one stop, I got off the bus and thought, “My God, this is freezing!” I asked my husband if his fancy watch had a temperature gauge in it wanting to know what the actual temperature was. With the forceful winds, I was sure it had to be well-below 50. He couldn’t tell me but I figured out the answer soon. A few minutes later, back on the bus, continuing our way up the mountain, the light precipitation turned to flurries and sleet, and as we neared the telescope, all the trees were covered in a dusting of icicles and snow. Yes, it was freezing.

Ordinarily, there is a lunch stop part of the way up the mountain at a picnic area outside of the scientist’s dormitories. Though the weather prevented any decent visibility, it did provide one advantage. Because it was far too cold to sit outside, we were part of a lucky and rare group of visitors to eat inside the common room where the scientists hang out.

Happily for me, there was an actual, live astronomer there watching TV and working while we ate. Unable to resist the temptation to talk to him, I introduced myself and learned all I could before we had to leave. Eric, the astronomer, lives in Boston and works for the Smithsonian. (I didn’t mention one word about the Red Sox!) He is a post-doc student who was hoping to get pictures of some of the 300 planets that have been discovered. Unfortunately, due to the weather, the previous night was a bust and he expected Friday night would be as well. Would he have to reapply and come back, I inquired. No, Eric was moving on to become an assistant teacher at the University of Rochester and would have to turn the work over to someone else. Since he was leaving the Smithsonian, getting any future telescope time would have to be coordinated through other committees and organizations. He didn’t seem that disappointed though and I found myself wondering how being in a profession of astronomy or, any of the sciences really, shapes a person to be more patient and tolerant of things he can’t control. An unusual concept in our, “I want it all and I want it now” society.

I would have loved to learn more about Eric, what kind of a person he was, how studying science shaped his personality, if at all, what his beliefs were about religion and spirituality, if studying something so vast as the universe, and focusing on it every day helped to make ordinary problems and concerns seem less important, if his field served as a daily reminder that we are only a blip in time and whatever we think matters, doesn’t really much at all. It’s what I think whenever I look at pictures from the shuttle or the daily astronomy picture of the day, but I wonder if I would be numb to the feeling if my life’s work day-in, day-out was spent on understanding the universe.

Alas, I had to say goodbye to Eric, more to his delight than I’m sure he realized. To ascend the last part of the mountain at a 26% grade, we divided into two groups to finish the rest of the trip in an SUV. Finally, we were there in front of this indescribable piece of equipment that is helping us to understand the universe and maybe even ourselves.

The kind Woody entertained us on the trip down the mountain, just as he had on the way up, regaling us with silly jokes. It’s that kind of thing that melts my heart and convinces me of the deep goodness of people. The planning and work that Woody put into making sure visitors had an enjoyable time, memorizing facts and jokes, wanting to share knowledge and educate others, pouring over details and sifting through the things that he thought would interest visitors, giving his time at home to study and at the Observatory, and doing it all as a volunteer. An act of love, for which all of us on the tour were grateful and will remember as a notable event in our lives for a long time.

Here’s some of what we learned from Woody, captured as accurately as I can muster given my own handicap in intelligence:

    Why are telescopes so big? They are looking at dim objects. The bigger the telescope, the more light it can gather, and therefore, the more distant the objects we can see.

How do astronomers figure out how far away a celestial being is? There are several ways:

    Using geometry. Scientists use the earth to create a triangle. They can look at the same star from the east coast and the west coast to calculate the sides of the triangle (I think that would be isosceles).
    When that isn’t big enough, they can look at a star at sunrise and at sunset, knowing that the base of the triangle is the distance that the earth travels through space in that time. Like, it’s really far.
    When that isn’t big enough, scientists make a triangle using the distance the earth travels from January to June.
    When that isn’t far enough, there is a doppler-like effect with light just as there is with sound. When an object is coming towards you, the beats of the sound are tighter together, repeating more frequently, creating a high pitch. When an object is moving away, the beats spread out and get farther apart, creating a lower pitch. Similarly, light coming towards the earth is blueshifted, and light moving away is redshifted. This tells scientists which direction a star is in relation to the earth, but the velocity can only be calculated by comparing the redshift to other stars.

Only a very small portion of the universe has been mapped. Scientists are already starting to find patterns in where galaxies occur. I can’t remember all the details around that, but I do remember that in addition to chemical patterns, scientists have found a pattern of galaxies interestingly resembling a stick figure. (Oh boy, just wait for my new “the secret” like theory.)

So how do scientists find galaxies? Using hydrogen. It’s the most plentiful element in the universe so scientists know that where there is a hydrogen spike, there is a galaxy. (When an element is “excited” it emits light at a certain frequency. Every element emits light at different frequencies, so that’s how scientists figure out that the element is hydrogen.) So depending on where the hydrogen spikes appear, that’s where scientists know to look for a galaxy. Yes, I know that’s a really rough description, but if you want real science, I’m sad to say, you’ll have to turn to another source.

Anyway, the tour was fascinating, and one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited. I’ll post pictures and links soon.

Pictures of the excursion
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, Smithsonian
About Telescopes
University of Arizona, Veritas
Veritas Educational Website
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
Planet Quest