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.