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Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - Life&artssun­day -

back in 2009, which means that at first light in 2024, he will have spent 15 years on this project. He rue­fully noted that peo­ple change jobs more fre­quently than he changes projects.

McLeod traced his in­ter­est in as­tron­omy back to high school in tiny Gam­bier, Ohio, when his chem­istry teacher showed him the night sky through a tele­scope. I spoke with him in the con­trol room of the Mag­el­lan Clay tele­scope at Las Cam­panas. He and his team were go­ing to spend the en­tire night there test­ing their in­stru­ments. How­ever, high wind speeds were spoil­ing their plans. When I saw them at break­fast the next day, they had spent the en­tire night in the con­trol room and had been able to use the tele­scope for only a few hours at most.

When it be­gins op­er­a­tions, the GMT will wel­come vis­i­tors but how ex­actly is still un­clear, given the site’s re­mote­ness. Plus, night­time ob­ser­va­tion re­quires dim ground con­di­tions – a haz­ard to driv­ing – while day­time is the pe­riod when all the ob­ser­va­tory staff sleep. Still, if ALMA is any guide, vis­its to the GMT will be pop­u­lar.

I said good­bye to McLeod and his team and boarded a plane back to San­ti­ago. As I stared out the win­dow, look­ing down at the vast brown car­pet of the Ata­cama be­low me, I con­sid­ered my sit­u­a­tion with strange clar­ity: I was a col­lec­tion of bound­to­gether atoms sur­rounded by other atoms ham­mered into the shape of a metal air­plane tube. And this tube was pro­pel­ling me through the sky by burn­ing the re­mains of long-dead plants and an­i­mals. Thoughts like this did not come nat­u­rally to me be­fore vis­it­ing ALMA and Las Cam­panas.

STARGAZ­ING IN THE NORTH­ERN HEMI­SPHERE

Weeks later, my wife and I trav­eled to Los An­ge­les and Hawaii to take in as­tron­omy ex­pe­ri­ences aimed at the gen­eral pub­lic, the en­try point for bud­ding as­tronomers like the high school ver­sion of McLeod. In Los An­ge­les, I vis­ited one of the most prom­i­nent ob­ser­va­to­ries in the world – the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory, built in 1935. Fre­quently spot­ted in movies and TV shows, and es­pe­cially known for its star­ring role in “La La Land,” the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory wel­comes ev­er­in­creas­ing num­bers of vis­i­tors to its iconic build­ing over­look­ing the city’s sky­line. Like many other sci­ence fa­cil­i­ties, ac­cess to the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory is free. It was a re­minder that out­side of the cost of get­ting there, sci­ence tourism is gen­er­ally light on the wal­let. And if trav­el­ing far dis­tances is an is­sue, many uni­ver­si­ties in the United States have ob­ser­va­to­ries on cam­pus that of­fer pub­lic view­ing hours.

We vis­ited the jam­packed Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory in the late af­ter­noon. It was more than an hour un­til its 12-inch Zeiss Re­fract­ing tele­scope would open for view­ing the night sky, but al­ready a line was form­ing of peo­ple want­ing to get a closer look at the plan­ets, the moon and the larger stars. On its web­site, the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory claims “More peo­ple have looked though it than any other tele­scope in the world.”

I won­dered whether the crowds at the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory were due mainly to its Hol­ly­wood celebrity. How­ever, other as­tron­omy sites were just as crowded. We ex­pe­ri­enced this the fol­low­ing day, when we flew to the is­land of Hawaii to visit Mauna Kea, one of the world’s top venues for as­tron­omy. The Mau­nakea Visi­tor In­for­ma­tion Sta­tion, lo­cated about twothirds up the side of the dor­mant vol­cano, is base camp for the pro­fes­sional ob­ser­va­to­ries on the sum­mit. It is also a cen­ter for pub­lic as­tron­omy in Hawaii.

Four evenings a week, a mix of em­ploy­ees and vol­un­teers trun­dle out tele­scopes for ev­ery­one to see. Peo­ple drive up hours be­fore, be­cause the park­ing lot al­most al­ways runs out of room well be­fore the 7 p.m. view­ing start time. Hun­dreds of us stood pa­tiently in long lines, clutched cups of hot choco­late, wait­ing for glimpses of Jupiter and the North Star. Mean­while, peo­ple hiked up a nearby hill to catch the last rays of the set­ting sun. It turned chilly. Peo­ple donned sweaters and ho­tel bath tow­els to ward off the cold. In the win­ter, snow of­ten cov­ers the sum­mit while va­ca­tion­ers en­joy the trop­i­cal cli­mate at ocean level.

The 14,000-foot-high sum­mit at Mauna Kea holds 13 tele­scopes owned by a va­ri­ety of coun­tries and uni­ver­si­ties.

Nearby stood the ob­ser­va­to­ries, all of them closed to vis­i­tors. It would have been nice to en­ter one of the ob­ser­va­to­ries, but it was enough to stand on the moun­tain­top and gaze at the ob­ser­va­tory domes jut­ting into the pierc­ing blue sky.

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