Star Struck

Modern astronomers watch the universe on instruments Galileo never imagined, but their reasons for watching them remain the same.

I walked outside and stopped as suddenly as if I’d hit a wall. If was absolutely dark. I knew there was a paved road in front of me and a hill immediately beyond the road. Slightly to my left would be the steep metal staircase that led up the hill to the observatory dome. The dome, at least as tall as a ten-story building, was painted a brilliant white and I had expected to see it glowing on top of the hill like some official monument. But I couldn’t see the dome at all, or the hill, or the stairs, or the road, or my hand, even when I held it so close to my eyes I could feel my breath on my palm.

Determined nevertheless to make my way up to the dome, I crept forward step by step, intending to walk straight ahead until I reached the hill, then work to the left slowly until I found the steps. I managed to do that and by the time I had gotten half way up the steps, guiding my way by the handrail, my eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the night and I could see the dome near the head of the stairs, a huge, pale form surrounded by darkness. I climbed the rest of the stairs and, having done that, felt secure enough to pause for a moment before going into the observatory.

It was early September and most of Texas was still suffering through heavy, humid nights. McDonald Observatory, however, sits at the top of Mount Locke, a 6800-foot peak in the Davis Mountains. By now, about 10 p.m., it was turning slightly cold. Arms crossed over my chest, I hugged my jacket closer to me and looked out over the long valley that begins at the foot of the mountain and extends twenty or thirty miles to another range of mountains. There was not a single light anywhere, not even a solitary ranch house or wayward automobile. El Paso, the nearest city, was 160 miles to the northwest; the nearest settlement was Fort Davis, fifteen miles away; but its lights, what there were of them, were hidden behind one of the minor hills that make up the valley floor. This isolation, away from the glare of neon and headlights and streetlamps which can obscure the stars, was one reason this site was chosen for the observatory 43 years ago. Fortunately for the astronomers the country is still as empty and remote as it was

then. The mountain is high enough to be above much of the earth’s atmos­phere yet low enough not to be bothered with snow and ice. Also this region has very little rainfall, so that astronomers can count on more than 200 clear nights a year.

I looked up at the sky. City dwellers, of course, always forget how many stars it’s possible to see in the country, but that night the heavens had called out the reserves to put on a special show. The stars were so thick and bright they seemed the natural order of things and the darkness between them the exception. I had recently read that, on the average, stars are 30 trillion miles apart. Thinking about that distance while seeing these thousands and thou­sands of stars—they were like huge handfuls of tiny dice tossed out on a black felt table—I found myself once again in awe of a concept that astron­omy books always dwell on and that al­ways leaves me a little uncomfortable: The Vastness of the Universe.

Astronomers peer into that Vastness wondering what it is and how it came to be. The Vastness is, of course, indif­ferent to all that; but mankind is not. Every major astronomical discovery seems to emphasize our lack of impor­tance in the whole scheme of things. Four hundred years ago Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo showed that the earth was not at the center of the uni­verse but revolved around the sun. Fifty years ago Harlow Shapley and R. J. Trumpler proved that our solar system is not even at the center of our own gal­axy, the Milky Way, but in one of the galaxy’s obscure, dimly lit spiral arms. And there are millions, billions of other galaxies. We are not the title of the uni­versal book, after all, but a footnote on one of its back pages. We do have, how­ever, the ability and the need to deci­pher at least some of the pages. That deciphering began with ancient star­gazers millenniums ago and here at McDonald it is still going on.

Awed now and a little chilly, I walked through the dome’s back door into a well-equipped machine shop. A machinist was cutting a part for an electrical assembly that a group of scientists desperately needed for the telescope upstairs. I pointed to the flashlight standing face down on his work­bench and said, “I wish somebody had warned me to bring one of those.”

“This isn’t my own flashlight,” the machinist said. “They’re kept in a drawer down there in the kitchen. Look upstairs. There’s usually a few extra around.” Later I would discover that caches of flashlights were hidden in va­rious places in every building on the mountain. None of the roads and foot­paths on the mountain are lighted. It wouldn’t make

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