A night with the astronomer monks of Palomar Mountain

Magical dwarf's sad orbit

Palomar Observatory.  “If you’re not wrong more than 90 percent of the time, you’re not trying hard enough.”
  • Palomar Observatory. “If you’re not wrong more than 90 percent of the time, you’re not trying hard enough.”
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

The astronomers on Palomar Mountain have gone to bed after a night of viewing, and now on this warm morning, the sky clear and the observatory dome a brilliant white against the blue, school groups wander around. I’m early for my meeting with an astrophysicist who’ll be using the 200-inch Hale telescope tonight, and so for now I wander around too. By a doorway a teacher and a group of kids, 11 or 12 years old, sit in a circle. The teacher asks a question.

“How many of you know what diversity is?” No one answers. “That’s not good,” she says, and begins to explain.

Limin Lu and Ben Oppenheimer. Ben Oppenheimer was working on his dissertation, hunting for more brown dwarfs, studying all the stars within 25 light-years of earth. There were about 180 of them.

Limin Lu and Ben Oppenheimer. Ben Oppenheimer was working on his dissertation, hunting for more brown dwarfs, studying all the stars within 25 light-years of earth. There were about 180 of them.

I hurry away — I’ve heard enough of that educational buzzword, hammered into cliche, and it seems to me that in this place of all places the kids should be left to wonder. But then, climbing the stairs to the gallery I think that maybe it’s the right question to ask here.

After all, the big eye at Palomar has looked out onto all kinds of diversity, a diversity in the infinite sense. This is the Big Daddy, where the lines were drawn between us and billions of galaxies, where the universe continues to be plumbed. This is the frog’s eye on the pond of the Big Bang.

The humidity was coming in from L.A. “A marine layer. June gloom. It’s kind of ridiculous to think that the amount of time my thesis takes is dependent on the weather.”

The humidity was coming in from L.A. “A marine layer. June gloom. It’s kind of ridiculous to think that the amount of time my thesis takes is dependent on the weather.”

Inside the building the instrument sits, awaiting night.

I look at the posters, the collection of facts written years ago by the looks of it. Operation began in 1948. The revolving dome weighs 1000 tons. The telescope itself weighs 530 tons. The 200-inch mirror, transported cross-country five decades ago, weighs 14.5 tons. The approximate range — “well over one billion light-years” or, in terms of miles, a 6 followed by 21 zeroes — (a precomputer range that has increased tenfold with the application of digital imagery).

Sneaker noises and young voices break the stillness. A teacher follows them, talking about the telescope as soon as she reaches the top of the stairs. She says that light comes in through the dome, hits the mirror, and is reflected up to the top of the telescope to “prime focus.” She says the telescope can move with the stars, that it is aligned with the north star and parallel to the earth’s axis.

“Does anyone want to be an astronomer?” she asks. One kid says he wants to be an astronaut. Another wants to be an astrologer.

“Astrologer is good too,” she says. “How many of you want to go to the moon?” The teacher raises her hand, but none of the kids do.

“How many of you want to go to a planet?”

Two hands shoot up. “I want to go to Jupiter!” “I want to go to Pluto!”

“How many want to go beyond the planets?” This gets a big response. About half the kids raise their hands. Somehow that figure seems right, and could maybe stand for the whole, that half would want to explore the universe, while the other half are staying rooted to the ground.

They leave and another group arrives. This teacher looks a little tired and stressed out. “Don’t test me now!” he says to one boy. But he admires the telescope, and wants to talk about it. He, too, describes the 200-inch mirror, the reflection to prime focus, and the polar axis bearing, and then he asks a question that seems a little advanced for this group. Holding a thumb and forefinger up, like he’s proposing a toast, the teacher asks, “Do any of you know how much a shot glass, how much a jigger, holds?”

There’s a silence, but then a couple of the kids tentatively answer that yes, they do. “When they clean the mirror,” he says, “they take a jigger of liquid aluminum, and they explode it, they vaporize it, and coat the mirror with it. It’s a very heavy-duty process.”

One of the kids wants to know if they can go inside the room and see the telescope. “No,” the teacher says. “You have to be doing very important research, with a university, and there is a five-year waiting period to use it.” (Which could be true, depending on the proposal.) The teacher sights through the crook of his elbow and looks at prime focus while the kids mill around. Then he yells, “Let’s cruise!” which causes sneaker noises and high-pitched voices to drain down the stairway and out of the building.

When you look at astronomy you begin to see that it is the science of exclamation points, because of the magnitude of the data. You can also begin to see that paradoxically it is also the science that makes exclamation points meaningless, because of the sheer incomprehensibility of that same data. Exclamation becomes redundant in the light of astronomy.

The 200-inch has photographed distant galaxies with 100,000 million suns!

The Virgo Cluster, 50 million light-years away, contains thousands of galaxies! The Coma Ouster contains many times more!

The 200-inch measures galaxies moving away at 260,000 kilometers per second, approaching the speed of light!

One luminous quasar has an estimated light output and additional radio output of 140 trillion trillion trillion kilowatts, 100,000 times the luminosity of the Milky Way!

With a CCD imager we can see 9 billion years, to the formation of galaxies!

If 10,000 alien expeditions have visited the earth at random times in the earth’s history, visits would have averaged hundreds of thousands of years apart!

And from a film at the museum at Palomar Observatory — Never has a telescope told so much in so short a time!

When I talked with Robert Brucato, the assistant director of the observatory and a professor at Caltech, he wanted to make the point that the Hale telescope is still a viable instrument even though it’s nearly 50 years old. Proof was in the recent photograph taken at Palomar of a gamma-ray burst, a huge energy event that happens about once a day somewhere in the universe — an energy event so enormous that it can be seen from any point in the universe. Gamma-ray bursts were discovered in the 1960s by military satellites — looking for atomic blasts on earth, the generals found them in outer space. It was 36 years later, in the spring of 1997, that an Italian-Dutch satellite detected a gamma-ray burst. Astronomers at Palomar responded, and pointed the 200-inch telescope at the location, making the first images of the phenomenon. Astronomers in Hawaii at the Keck 10-meter telescope analyzed the light spectrum and concluded that the burst was at least seven billion light-years away, one-half the distance of the observable universe. The light, changing brightness and rapidly fading, had for a few seconds been a million times brighter than an entire galaxy.

In news reports of the gamma-ray burst, Mark Metzger, the Caltech scientist directing observations, was quoted as saying, “It was a stunning moment of revelation! Such events happen only a few times in the life of a scientist!”

Robert Brucato wanted to make a second point about Palomar — that light pollution from San Diego and Los Angeles threatens to scatter the light coming in from the sky. Some communities now have lighting programs — low-pressure lights, lights pointed toward the ground — but more publicity and community awareness was needed, he said.

After the school groups had left and when the sun was high over the dome I met Limin Lu at the west door of the 200-inch telescope. Lu was working on a postdoctoral study in astrophysics at Caltech. He was studying the light spectrums of quasars — light, he said, that comes from the edge of the universe.

One of the basic principles of astronomy is that light carries messages. The arrangement of light according to wavelength is called a spectrum. The most familiar image we have of a spectrum is the rainbow. But the light we see, from blue to red, is a tiny portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum, which ranges from the very short gamma-rays to the long radio wavelengths. Light traveling through the universe for millions and billions of years, passing through galaxies and gas clouds and stellar atmospheres, takes on characteristics from its passages. In a way, the light writes its own book. Limin Lu was reading the book, the message in the light.

Quasars are believed to be in the center of galaxies, Limin Lu said. “Some of the light we see from quasars was emitted 10 billion years ago, when the universe was 10 billion years younger." (The universe is now “roughly” 15 billion years old, he said.) “The light has passed through galaxies, and gases. Everything between us and the quasar has left its imprint upon this light. All gases leave some signature on the light, they all take out a little piece of the spectrum. That which has been removed from the spectrum is the ’absorption line.’ By looking at the absorption lines you can tell what’s between the quasar and us,” Lu said.

Was it like geology, I asked, like looking at a cliff wall and seeing a history of the earth?

“Yes, similar to geology,” he said. “But a different kind of signature. Supposing you have a galaxy between the quasar and us. Each element, such as hydrogen or carbon, creates a set of absorption lines on a spectrum. From the set of absorption lines, we have a way of figuring how far away the galaxy is. You can trace the age. You can see galaxies at 10,8,6, or 5 billion years. I look at galaxies of different ages. I’m looking at quasars in all directions of the sky, looking back 10 to 13 billion years.”

One way to think of quasars and the study of their light is through the “flashlight in the forest” analogy. You could think of a quasar as a big flashlight, way out there in space, shining through the forest of other galaxies and illuminating the many trees. Lu was looking at the light and at the trees.

Lu also explained that he looked at redshifts, the shift of absorption lines to longer wavelengths caused by galaxies moving away from our solar system. Some move so fast they are approaching the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). Lu was looking at the red-shifts of other galaxies, also imprinted on the spectrum of the quasar — the trees in the forest.

Perhaps you could say that Lu was sighting down a beam of light 10 billion years old, and surveying the universe. We went into the control room of the Hale telescope, and from a file folder Lu took out a paper that showed the signature of a light spectrum. It looked like the profile of a mountain range. “This guy formed 13 billion years ago,” he said. “We look at the light very, very hard, and sometimes we see it, light that’s imprinted by other galaxies."

He went through the papers, showed other graphs, other imprints, indications of magnesium, of carbon, of oxygen — all signposts along the way. "We know the Big Bang produced hydrogen and helium, nothing else. These other elements are produced by stars, by atomic burning. When you see the heavier elements you know that some stars have exploded By looking at the light you can tell in principle how many stars have exploded, and when.”

You could think some strange things about this light and how it stood in relation to us. Say for convenience’ sake that Homo sapiens, or Homo-something-else, have been around for a million years. That’s one ten-thousandth of the travel time of the light of a ten billion-year-old quasar. You could say that when a quasar’s light was 99.9999 percent of the way along its path to earth, we rose up, carrying rocks and bones. Then, in one ten-thousandth of a percentile we learned how to write, to build telescopes, to make images, and with the 9s really stretched out — Palomar came to be. The light passed from the moon to earth in little more than a second, and someone at the observatory looked up, caught a piece of that light, told how long it had traveled, where it had been, and what it had been through. Such was the spectrum of things.

Who could say what would happen in the next ten-thousandth of a percentile?

Limin Lu and I agreed to meet later that day, and that I would watch him do some work with the telescope. I asked if I could possibly see the dome open from the inside, see the “shutters” open up. It had to be something to see, I said. He smiled, and said yes, it was something to see.

I returned to the gallery, where it was cool and quiet and still as a pharaoh’s tomb. Three kids came up the stairs, with their mother. They looked around and talked, but then there was another sound on the stairs, a slow and laboring step, and hard breathing. A man reached the top, turned, and still gasping for breath, looked at the telescope. When he could talk he asked the woman, “Are you interested in engineering?”

“Sometimes, when I can understand it, when it’s simple,” she said.

He pointed up to the dome roof. “This opens up, the light comes in, bounces off there, and collects up there. One thing I remember thinking is, it is amazing.”

Later I wandered over to another observatory, the Oscar Meyer 60-inch telescope, where I met Ben Oppenheimer, an astronomer and grad student at Caltech. Ben invited me to dinner, and so I got to visit the Monastery where the astronomers stay. Dinner was good at the Monastery, no doubt about it — pot roast, boiled potatoes, carrots, salad, bread, iced tea and lemonade, and strawberry sundaes.

Maybe it’s premature to call someone an astronomer while they’re still in graduate school, but it would probably be okay in Ben Oppenheimer’s case because he and another graduate student had discovered the first brown dwarf — an object not quite a star, not quite a planet, orbiting another star. Oppenheimer, who was 25, had grown up in New York City, gone to Columbia University, and then on to Caltech. On his second night of observing at Palomar, Oppenheimer and Dave Galinowski, a grad student from Johns Hopkins, photographed Gliese 229B, a brown dwarf in companionship with the star Gliese 229A. The Glieses were 17 light-years away. The discovery made the front page of the New York Times, and there was an article in the journal Science. A study of the light showed that Gliese 229B is 20 to 50 times bigger than Jupiter, and much like Jupiter in composition, with vast quantities of water and of methane. Over the course of a year the Hubble space telescope took a look, and it was determined that the orbit of Gliese 229B around Gliese 229A was about 400 years.

At dinner, talking of his brown dwarf, Ben said with a little laugh, “It’s sad.”

“What is?” someone asked. “That I won’t be able to see an entire orbit.”

Mark Colavita asked the position of Gliese 229B. Colavita, a scientist from the Jet Propulsion Lab, was running the interferometer project—a telescope with two far-flung mirrors that directs starlight through opposing beam tubes, manipulating it in a laboratory to get measurements of star diameters and stellar atmospheres.

“Twenty-one degrees south,” Ben said.

“Too faint for the interferometer,” Colavita said.

In 50 years, Ben said, Gliese 229B will have moved 45 degrees in its 360-degree orbit.

“You can call it ‘Gliese 229B, the first 45 degrees,’ ” Colavita said.

There was a problem with the name too, Ben said “ 'Brown dwarf is so unexciting. Astronomers don’t seem to be able to come up with colorful names.” “How about ‘golden dwarf?”

Now Ben Oppenheimer was working on his dissertation, hunting for more brown dwarfs, studying all the stars within 25 light-years of earth. There were about 180 of them. He was spending 45 minutes on each star. He’d gotten a lot of observing time at the Oscar Meyer 60-inch telescope, 15 times in the past three years, and he was scheduled for 7 more sessions in the next six months. But lien hadn’t found any other brown dwarfs yet, and he was beginning to see that discoveries didn’t come easily — even if in his case, they came soon. And Ben, who had grown up on the west side of Manhattan, was beginning to see that the life of the astronomer—on the mountaintop, working through the night — was a solitary pursuit and could be lonely. But he said all this with a laugh.

Toward the end of dinner Mark Colavita talked about his work at the interferometer during the coming evening, when he would be testing the instrument by looking at a single star in the two mirrors.

“We’re gonna sit on one star and measure it with the beam splitter. See if it comes out as one star.”

Limit Lu and I left for the 200-inch telescope, arriving just after seven. But the days were long this time of year, and it would be a while yet before the end of 18-degree twilight and the beginning of the observing. We went into the control room, and he checked his CCD (charged coupled device) for background noise. CCDs, cameras that record images with silicon and digital technology, have been the major advance in astronomy in the last decade. A photographic plate can record about 1 in 100 photons, but with CCDs an astronomer can record 40 to 80 percent of the light. With CCDs, work has become about 50 times more efficient, and an astronomer can record in a minute what had previously taken an hour with a photographic plate. With the widespread availability of CCDs (they are the recording device in camcorders too), backyard telescopes can now see as far as the Palomar telescope had in 1948—and a scientist like Limin Lu can see to the edge of the universe.

Lu had come from China in 1984 to study physics and then astrophysics at the University of Pittsburgh, before moving to Caltech. He was well into his graduate career before turning to astronomy, and so Iearned the basics by reading textbooks on his own. Lu wasn’t someone who could look up at the sky and say anything about it. What he did was abstract. Lu was looking at things we can’t see with the naked eye, and that sometimes can’t even be seen by the naked eye with the telescope.

At eight o’clock Rick Burruss, a night assistant, arrived. Rick is a telescope technician — he had studied astronomy at San Diego State and then, luckily, had found a job in astronomy. Lu and I followed him into the observatory and stood watching while Rick filled a thermos with liquid nitrogen. It would be used to cool the CCDs — even a little bit of heat from a camera could distort an image, especially one coming from billions of years away.

Clouds flowed from the thermos and dropped to the floor. Rick said that in the beginning he had worn gloves but then found them unnecessary— the nitrogen just fell away, if you knew what to do. We climbed a stairway, and at the top, Rick flipped a switch. Motors went on, and the shutters parted while the dome opened. We walked onto a platform, a kind of lift. Rick closed the gate, hit another switch, and we began to rise upward, to ascend to the top of the dome and the telescope, up to prime focus. Going up, cool mountain air currents mixed with the day’s heat, the shutters pulled back like curtains— 50-ton curtains, a widening gate, opening up on the mountains and on down into a sea of clouds over San Diego County.

My breathing was quickening. I don’t think I’d ever been breathless before, but I was now, riding up to prime focus. Mount Baldy was visible, and the trees on the mountains, but the clouds stretched away, gray, silver, and at the horizon, where the sun had fallen, there was a red band of light. As we rose higher, Limin Lu was a silhouette in front of the opening shutters.

“You ever been here before?” Rick Burruss asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s breathtaking.”

“Everyone who comes up here says just about the same thing. One of the interferometer scientists was up here last night and he said exactly the same thing. Yeah,” Rick said. “She’s an old battleship.”

Rick hit a button and the lift locked into place at prime focus. He climbed into a barrel-like chamber. “The astronomers used to work up here,” he said, “before they built the control room.”

“Too cold,” Lu said. Rick put a funnel into the holder of the COSMIC spectrograph CCD that Lu would be using, and poured in the nitrogen.

On the way down the dome began to turn—a 1000-ton hemisphere turning, rumbling away. It seemed too big to move, and so we had the sensation that the telescope was spinning. “The dome moves on train wheels,” Rick said. “They ground them for two years to make them even.”

He filled another thermos and poured liquid nitrogen into the lower camera below the mirror, and then we went into the control room, an office within the observatory. Rick got into his seat in front of the controls — his job was to point the instrument — and Lu, at a bank of monitors and computers, directed the movement. One cameraman, one director here. Lu called out a set of coordinates, Rick punched in the numbers. Through a speaker we could hear the telescope moving, whining like a trolley car, over the sound of the dome rumbling on wheels.

“Okay,” Rick said, “I’ve got a couple stars within a couple tenths of an arc-second.” “That’s good,” Lu said. A bright object flew onto the screen. “We want to TX [temporary fix], and go to the next coordinates.”

They moved again, tested the instrument, and a big star came into view, filling the screen. “Ooo,” Lu said. “That’s a big one. Very bright.” He dialed it dimmer.

Another coordinate, and another star pulled up into view, like a fish being hauled aboard. Lu called out other coordinates and Rick punched in other numbers, and “nailed” several stars, but a problem soon arose. Limin Lu was looking for a faint light, one that couldn’t be seen on the screen, in fields that appeared to be empty. After testing on visible stars, they were trying to aim at empty space and take pictures. Using coordinates, Lu was essentially saying, “Take three steps to the left and three steps to the right,” though it was more like several thousand steps one way and several thousand the other. Eventually it became clear that the instrument was missing the mark by half an arc-second in positioning. An arc-second is a tiny increment — 1 degree of a 360-degree circle divided into 60 minutes, then divided into 60 seconds. In Limin Lu’s case, half an arc-second was enough to miss that light coming from ten billion years away.

They kept trying. Rick looked up a star in a manual, punched in the coordinates. The dome rumbled, and the star came rising into view. Again they tried to move by coordinates to a second star, and again the crosshairs were off by half an arc-second.

A mood of frustration was developing. Bob Thicksten, superintendent of the observatory, had arrived, and he was feeling it too. Thicksten wanted Limin Lu to be able to “do science,” and so did Lu—this was his time at Palomar and time didn’t come easily. Then the dew-point sensor went off, and Thicksten went out to check the humidity. Another problem — if it got too wet they’d have to shut down.

A phone call came in from Rick’s wife—she wanted to say goodnight. “My beautiful wife,” he said when he hung up, smiling. He had a job in astronomy, yes, but he’d sacrificed the goodnight kiss.

More tries, more misses, and Bob Thicksten decided to change one of the encoders, an electronic device in the arms of the telescope that controls movement. He climbed up above the mirror with his toolbox, took an encoder out, fit the new one into position, and working by radio with Rick, lined it up. Thicksten complained that parts were hard to get, and said that the installation of a new optical-control system was coming at just the right time. They’d begin working on it the next month.

Back in the lab, a quasar floated onto the screen. “That looks like a galaxy,” Thicksten said, “Let’s do some science.” But again the instrument was off, and again Thicksten went out to the telescope to insert another encoder. When it was finally in and they began to run tests, clouds—the ones that had been sitting down in the valleys earlier — began to flow over the dome. The shutters closed, to protect the mirror. Thicksten said he was going home to bed, that they could call if they needed him.

We left the control room and walked around the dome 20 feet above ground on the cat-walk (“Why do they call it a cat-walk?” Lu asked, and we couldn’t tell him). Condensation was collecting on the dome and falling to the ground like rain. Maybe the cold front would pass, Rick said. Maybe they’d be able to work later.

I left, and walked over to the interferometer (“We got humidified out,” Mark Colavita said; they were testing instruments on the beam-combining table). Then I went to the 60-inch telescope to see Ben Oppenheimer. Lu had told me to drive with my headlights off, and so I followed the edges of the road lit by hazy moonlight. The cold front had brought a strong wind, and it was blowing cold and hard in the parking lot. Inside, the building was completely dark but for one tiny red light, and there were the sounds of motors. I didn’t know where to go, and I didn’t have a flashlight, and shouting didn’t seem like the right thing to do either.

Back at the 200-inch I met Jean Mueller, who had come to collect some photographic negatives of the Sky Survey. Mueller said they were 89 percent done with photographing the northern sky. Only the winter fields were left to do.

I followed Mueller inside, and after sorting through folders of negatives she called Ben Oppenheimer and offered to bring me over—she had a flashlight, she knew the way. We drove over to the 60-inch, and she led me up the stairs to the control room.

The 60-inch telescope had also shut down, but weather patterns could be a little different on that hill, I was told. Soon the sky cleared and they began to work again.

Ben focused on star NN2128. Next to this star was another object that may have been a companion star, and Ben had been watching the relationship for the past two years. If they were companions, they would have moved together during that time. They would have had “common proper motion.” (Just like human relationships.) But there was no common proper motion, apparently.

Ben flicked the star off the screen. “Now I never have to look at this star again,” he said, with a little laugh.

He talked more about the brown dwarf. Gliese 229B looks a lot like Jupiter because of the presence of methane and “lots of water." Water was “one of the dominant features of opacity in this thing.” (And one of the reasons Gliese 229B was called a “cool brown dwarf.”) They had also found the element cesium on this cool brown dwarf. “There are no astronomical papers on cesium,” Ben said. “I’m writing one.

“No one has seen spectra like this before,” he said. Ben felt like he was plowing a new path, "just trying to figure everything out for myself. It’s a good puzzle to work on.”

After the discovery of Gliese 229B Ben got behind in his schoolwork, and forgot to study for his qualifying exam, so he failed it.

“I did all right the second time though.”

The seeing got a bit iffy for a while, so we went up to look at the telescope. The development that allowed Ben Oppenheimer and Dave Galinowski to see the brown dwarf was a coronagraph, a disc that covered the star, like a false eclipse. It was in the dimmer ecliptic light that the dwarf stood out. The coronagraph had been built by Galinowski as part of his Ph.D. dissertation. Often new developments in astronomy come by way of graduate students who get time at a place like Palomar.

In the control room, Skip Staples, the night assistant, was keeping an eye on the weather station. The humidity was coming in from L.A., he said. “A marine layer. June gloom.” “An average of 50 percent of observing time is useful,” Ben said. “It’s kind of ridiculous to think that the amount of time my thesis takes is dependent on the weather.”

Suddenly the sky cleared again. Ben got on the screen and pulled in a star.

“This is good seeing,” he said.

The star wasn’t holding still though. Atmospheric turbulence causes image motion, blowing the light around. With tang exposure lengths the image was often not a beam of light but a spray.

Or as Ben put it — the wave front of the light coming through the atmosphere got “crumpled up.” A new tool was coming into use, though, a “rubber mirror” that could be tuned to the atmospheric turbulence. Pulsed lasers compensated for movement, like a baseball glove moving around as the ball changed position.

The dome motor whined every few minutes, as the Oscar-Meyer telescope caught up with the spin of the earth like a dog walking behind its master.

Ben called out a number, “GL713A,” and said, “Let’s go there.” Skip Staples pointed the telescope. Ben took a series of exposures. The image at a 20th of a second was just a bunch of specks. With longer exposures, as the turbulent light moved around, the image began to look like a sunflower.

This star, in the constellation Draco, was 23 light-years away. “It has a known companion,” Ben said, “but no one has ever seen it before.” Ben looked at the image. “But we're seeing it pretty easily here. This might be the first time anyone has seen it.”

We waited, and watched, but it was one of those little lost hopes. Ben said, “Okay, we’re not seeing it, no. That’s the way it goes.”

Then, “Sometimes you get excited.” He laughed, left the room to change the filter on the camera, and made a 200-second exposure of the star. Waiting for the image to take, Ben Oppenheimer quoted the astronomer Bohdan Paczynski: “If you’re not wrong more than 90 percent of the time, you’re not trying hard enough.” It seemed a good piece of wisdom.

Midnight was long past. On a monitor, green patterns of dots formed — starlight recorded at 20 times per second —and disappeared, formed and disappeared, like waves breaking along a beach. “Sometimes I look at that screen so long I begin to see things,” he said.



It was time to go. Ben would continue for another hour before giving up the night. Flicking my headlights on and off, I drove along the dark road to the 200-inch telescope.

Stars were on my mind. What inspiration!

Astronomers are like writers. Both fix their eyes on something and look hard, or try to, Of Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer, one critic said that his stories were like “the arc that describes the circle.” It was the same for Ben Oppenheimer, seeking to know his brown dwarf from the fraction of its orbit — his work, perhaps his life work with 229B, was an arc describing a circle.

And Frank O’Connor, in The Lonely Voice, which explores the question of why we write, began with a quote from Pascal about the night sky: “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.” O’Connor said that we write and communicate to deal with that feeling. And astronomers, bringing the infinite spaces closer to us, surely they explain away some of this distance in the night Astronomers turn incomprehension to wonder, questions to exclamation points, silence to some kind of knowing.

The shutters had reopened at the 200-inch. Limin Lu was looking at quasars again, bright ones that he could see. I thought about staying longer, going inside to watch, but there was a long ride down the mountain yet. The wind was blowing hard and the air was cold, but there seemed to be a stillness inside the dome, a quiet intelligence, as the big eye fixed on some distance point at the edge, and thus at the beginning, of the universe.

— Douglas Whyknott

Douglas Whyknott is a freelance writer. He is the author of Giant Bluefin, and Following the Bloom. He is now working on a book about Maine boat builders to be published by Doubleday in 1998.

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