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The 2nd Coolest Observatory in the World (in Chile)

Last week I visited Santiago, Chile, at the behest and invitation of Alvaro Fischer, a mathematical engineer interested in the evolutionary foundation for understanding the social sciences. Alvaro is hosting a series of conferences this year in celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday called “Ciencia y Evolución” (Science and Evolution).

Because Darwin spent nearly a third of his 5-year voyage around the world in Chile (1/3? Wow, who knew?), Alvaro thought it appropriate to host a conference there on evolutionary everything, with three different events (May on medicine and evolution, June on economics and evolution, July on politics and evolution, and September on everything Darwin with a veritable who’s who of evolutionary theory). Next week I’ll blog about the wickedly interesting conversations between the three of us evolutionary economists: myself (a libertarian atheist), Kevin McCabe (a conservative Catholic from George Mason University who does neuroeconomics), and Ulrich Wit from the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany (a socialist economist). Suffice it to say that the dinner conversations, along with the public debate, saw fireworks. More on that later.

Because I had heard that Chile has one of the largest telescope arrays in the world, Alvaro was kind enough to hook me up with Dr. Massimo Terenghi, who orchestrated the design, construction, and implementation of the Paranal observatory, which houses four 8.2 meter telescopes and four smaller meter-size telescopes, plus the architectural-award winning hotel/living quarters for the astronomers and staff, featured in the latest Bond flick, Quantum of Solace. After my talks, Massimo and I flew from Santiago two hours north to Antofagasta, then drove two hours inland through the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth, then made the climb up the mountain to this amazing cluster of buildings and telescopes. (See the photo gallery below that accompanies this commentary.)

When Massimo was 14 he had a thriving stamp collection for which he was so dedicated that his grades collapsed, so his mom put the collection away and gave Massimo a book to read and told him to get serious about learning. The book was on astronomy and he’s never looked back, blasting through his education at the University of Milan with a doctoral degree in theoretical astrophysics, completing his dissertation on gamma radiation from the galactic core. He then moved to Arizona where he participated in the first research on the large-scale distribution of galaxies throughout the universe (that spidery/soap bubbly model of galaxy distribution we’ve all seen on countless science channel shows). Massimo then returned to Europe to co-found the European Organization for Astronomy in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and began scouting for a high dry place to look at the heavens. Enter Chile and the Atacama desert, where humidity hovers around 5% and it never rains (unlike Southern California where, despite the song, it rains way too often for astronomers with no time to spare). Seriously, this place is in the middle of nowhere. It looks exactly like Mars, except it has a blue sky and a paved road. Just Google Earth “Paranal Observatory” and you’ll see what I mean.

How sophisticated are these telescopes? The astronomers are not even allowed in the domes at night! These telescopes are so complicated that they are run by engineers trained to do nothing but drive these puppies every night from a control center. Analogy: observing a solar eclipse from a 747 doesn’t mean that you also know how to fly the 747. That’s what these telescopes are like, with hundreds of computers that micro-adjust the mirrors and coordinate 1, 2, 3, or even 4 of the 8.2 meter telescopes at once.

How big are these mirrors? The #1 telescope in the Shermer Telescope Ranking System (STRS) is Mt. Wilson’s 100-inch Hooker telescope, from which Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way galaxy is just one of billions of galaxies that are all expanding away from one another. (That’s how you get a space telescope named after yourself!) The ESO telescopes are 8.2 meters = 26.9028 feet = 322.8 inches, or over three times the size of the Hooker, and there’s four of them!!! Believe me when I tell you, I was not dumb enough to ask where the eyepiece was on these babies. But if they did put an eyepiece on one of them, and you pointed it at the moon where Apollo 11 landed 40 years ago next month, just before you went blind you would be able to see the lunar landing base (the bottom of the LEM). Now that’s a telescope!

So, suffice it to say, I was in good hands for my visit to this cosmic Mecca, and we made good use of the travel time to discuss the Big Questions in life, including God: Massimo is a believer. And not in Einstein’s/Spinoza’s deistic god, but Yahweh, the God of Abraham. Why? After admitting that his beliefs are undoubtedly influenced by his Italian Catholic upbringing, as a professional astronomer he is continually struck by the remarkable beauty and magnificent grandeur of the cosmos, which his reason and intuition tell him could not have come about through natural forces alone. Of course I countered with the multiverse argument, and we reviewed the various points pro-and-con about the likelihood of life evolving elsewhere in the cosmos and what this might mean for religion and theology. (Massimo is convinced that virtually every star we will be studying with the upcoming space-based and ground-based telescopes will have planets, and that surely there is intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.)

As such conversations should, this one ended with two friends finding mutual respect for different positions, because life is too short. We had a lively dialogue on our way down the mountain and I feel exceptionally fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Massimo Terenghi, one of the most interesting people I have met in my travels. And I promised him that the next time he comes to Southern California that I would take him to the #1 telescope in the world….

Click any one of the photos below to enlarge it. Then, you can navigate back and forth between the photos using the NEXT and PREVIOUS buttons that appear when you hover your mouse over the photo.

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