Listening to the Music of the Spheres: Arecibo

December 26, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Posted in Travels | Leave a comment
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When I was growing up, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos awoke my curiosity about the vastness of the universe. Eschewing jargon, it got at the core concepts of astronomy, speculations regarding extra-terrestrial life and the wondrously ungraspable scope of the universe beyond. It brought out the delight and the heady excitement of the possibilities implied by the vastness of space out there. I loved the idea of becoming an astronomer and even did a junior high school research project on radio astronomy, in preparation for my scientific career.

But, as the years went by, I discovered that Sagan’s portrayals were at the level of concept. The real, day-to-day encounters with the wider universe were via a language of complex equations and mathematics–and knowledge was advanced in tiny increments, with only the occasional burst of revelation.

I became drawn, instead, to the speculative worlds of sf/f. It was the human story that most fascinated me. I was intrigued by the things that remain common to all of us, and the things that shape us differently, from society, to society. What are foundational paradigms, and what are culturally-shaped perspectives? The lines between those two divisions fascinated–and continue to fascinate–me. My only return to the wonders of physics was via widely-accessible public lectures, or books like A Brief History of Time, which brought out the wonder of the quantum and the macro-worlds, without resorting to the daunting idioms of scientific jargon.

Still, I retained a fondness for those years of looking up at the night sky and being carried by a giddy yearning to know more–for that vertiginous sense of the vastness, and of our tininess. That sense of being poised on the surface a spinning globe that hurtles through space at extraordinary speeds. I still feel that sense of wonder and delight when I look up at the sky above. And so, when we had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico, a visit to the Arecibo observatory was an absolute must.

The road to and from the observatory was often unpaved, twisting and turning through dense thickets–too narrow, in many places, to admit more than one car at a time. If you encountered another vehicle, you had to engage in the little ritual of determining who would pull over onto the shoulder and allow the other to pass.

On the way, we ate at a roadside place that served a hearty chicken and plantain stew on rice–our first encounter with plantains and that distinctive bananna flavour in a non-sweet context. It was tasty, though I ended up eating around the chicken (I’m unfortunately finicky about chicken). Then, back on the road in our rental car, bouncing and bumping our way through the daunting landscape as we crossed our fingers against flat tires or car breakdowns. No four-bar coverage in this vicinity. And then, a final turn, and signs, welcoming us to our destination.

The radio telescope is a vast dish, made of mesh, so the rain can fall through. Underneath, shade loving plants thrive. The surface of the bowl, like everything else, is subject to the entropy of the tropical climate–the discolorations of rain, humidity and the small mildews and fungii that propagate in such climates were starting to take their toll. And yet, it was still so impressive–this vast bowl, occupying an entire valley, in the middle of a tangled wilderness. Again, I felt that touch of wonder, that sense of giddy, excited yearning, as the strange, metallic construction conflated, in my mind, with the potential that it represented. This was our receptor for listening to the music of the spheres–our way of reaching out to the wonder of the ineffable vastness of the cosmos, one radio blip at a time.

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