Unanswered Questions at Las Campanas Observatory

Studying the atmosphere of Pluto from Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, a young astronomer contemplates isolation, personal loss, and a life of wandering.


| November/December 2013



Las Campanas Observatory

We drove four hours inland on a road veiled in sand to reach Las Campanas observatory. Shanty villages lined the highway, built around whatever water sources could be found.

Photo By Jessie Hart

Our group of astronomers took in the naked mountains by the sea. We had flown into the La Serena airport at noon, and found a parched landscape. What sparse vegetation there was survived by drinking coastal fog. Sleeping dogs melted in the sun and dotted the sidewalks beneath knotted telephone wires. In the busy town bazaar, an ancient man stood stooped by his cargo, dripping sweat, while two wolfish dogs sat on top of his empty car, a kind of primal security system.

We drove four hours inland on a road veiled in sand to reach Las Campanas observatory. Shanty villages lined the highway, built around whatever water sources could be found. Buses were the only other vehicles we’d see. Sometimes people would get off nowhere in particular and walk into the perfectly empty desert. Children in layers of tattered sweaters watched our gleaming van drive by, their mothers calling to them from inside scraps of metal leaned up against wooden posts: These were their homes. Others lived in rusted-out school buses on blocks, fitted with grimy curtains. As we drove higher, the villages disappeared and there was nothing save a handful of llamas wandering the verdigris-flecked hills, chewing brittle scrub brush. Las Campanas translates to “the bells,” some say because its rocks, composed of volcanic material, sing when struck.

The domes housing the telescopes were gorgeous, radiant with the setting sun. Telescopes cost tens of millions of dollars to build, and more than a million a year to maintain. The stark contrast with the villages below unsettled me. My trip to Chile was one of many I took around the world to observe astronomical events. But more than any other, it would shake my vision of what science meant to me. Within a year, I would abandon science altogether.

 

I loved astronomy because it allows us to look backward to our origins. Eugene Wigner spoke of the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in describing the natural world, calling it miraculous, a “gift we neither understand nor deserve.” And perhaps it is fair to call it a miracle: Math has made possible the scientific and technological progress that has revolutionized human life. But it also enables us to peer into the past, to reverse the trajectory of physical objects. I’d always had a special love for the beginnings of things: the Big Bang, stellar nurseries, the protoplanetary disk. I hoped that understanding these beginnings might give us a better sense of our purpose.

My father, who believed that understanding the how of the universe would make clear the why of it, had kindled this obsession. He had traded in the Catholicism of his upbringing to raise us on Stephen Hawking books and nature documentaries. I immersed myself in physics from a young age; I never got the memo that college was supposed to be the best years of your life—immersed in my studies, all I ever thought about was math. This delighted my father, but my grandmother, a truck dispatcher from Pittsburgh, never understood my passion. She was proud of me, of course, but it felt as if she thought my academic interests were a betrayal. “Why don’t you just open a restaurant?” she advised. “You’re a pretty good cook!” Despite her sage counsel, I became a wandering nomad for those years, looking to the skies for answers.