Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
      ( 6/23/2009 06:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  


SCOPES: Spent last Friday with my photog/other half on a tour of the Mount Graham International Observatory. We'd been wanting to see these huge telescopes (including the world's biggest Large Binocular Telescope) ever since we'd moved to the area, so when my editor at Southwest Express News asked us to think of some possible features for the paper, one of the first that came to mind was a piece on the twice weekly observatory tour. Put on by Eastern Arizona College's Discovery Museum, the excursion is one of the few ways lay folk like us are even allowed on the grounds. Costs forty bucks per to go on the tour, so we were more than happy to be able to do it as a story.

Takes 1-1/2 hours to get from Discovery Park Museum to the observatory on a good day. Friday took longer since the little restaurant that was supplying our lunches thought we were coming up on Saturday. Our group was comprised of ten visitors – retiree geezers, mostly, though we also had two pre-teens who were visiting with their grandmother -- a guide and a van driver. Among the group, talk quickly turned to politics, but I worked to keep out of it. Didn't want to compromise myself as a "reporter."

The road up the 10,000-plus foot mountain can be pretty scary to the uninitiated: full of switchbacks, rail-free turns and threatening scenic looks downward. But it was clear that Claude, our driver, knew what he was doing, for which we were thankful. Along the way, we passed a turn named Cadillac Point: so named for a couple who got confused by a road sign and drove their Caddy off the mountain. Yeeps!

The drive was slow, but I wasn't complaining. At one point we passed a charred area left by a fire the day before: someone's camper overheated on its way up to Coronado State Park campgrounds and its engine burst into flames. Our driver reassured us that the van we were in received regular maintenance check-ups, but he also couldn't help noting that the brakes were a little harder than he liked.

The last six miles to the observatory were on unpaved road: chained off as private property with regular signage indicating that "This Camp Is A Weapons Free Zone." In addition to the expensive international monitoring equipment, the upper of the mountain is home to a subspecies of red squirrel that's on the endangered list. Apparently, when astronomers first worked to get the large binocular telescope building erected, they ran into opposition from environmental activists concerned about the creatures. Court fights kept the observatory from being completed for years, and as a result of this battle, there's a separate group of scientists on the mountain monitoring the little rascals. We tried to spy some of the squirrels while we were in the van, but the only four-footed wildlife we saw were mule deer.

MGIO has three telescopes, each housed in their own building: the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (which used to be housed outside Rome until light pollution spoiled the site), a Submillimeter Radio Telescope, and the Large Binocular Telescope. It's the LBT that's the big crowd pleaser: the largest of its kind, it utilizes two 332-inch mirrors to get the job done, giving it an acuity that's ten times that of the Hubble Space Telescope. The whole upper half of the building can rotate to aim the LBT; try as she might Becky was unable to get the whole instrument in her camera. The damn thing's sixteen stories high and, as such, was featured on Discovery Channel's Really Big Things show.

Also worth noting in the Really Big Things Dept.: the really big bug zappers that are planted throughout the buildings. Mt. Graham has a lot of moths that are attracted to the buildings. Wouldn't want some stargazer thinking that they were catching Mothra in their sites.

We started with the LBT first, though, typically that's the telescope saved for last. The restrooms at the ranger station where we stopped to picnic were locked up, so tour guide Carol wanted to take to get us to the building with the biggest restrooms. Most of the staff who work with the telescopes were asleep during the tour, of course; the buildings also contain small dorms with signs advising visitors not to slam any doors. All three 'scopes were built through international consortiums, and, as such, time using 'em is very carefully parceled between each member of the group. Get your two-week shift and you really hope that the weather's gonna cooperate, coz otherwise it's Wait 'til Next Year. This June has had a lot of uncharacteristically overcast days, we were told: bad news for the folks who were sleeping while we toured.

We rode down the mountain at four, and, once again, the discussion turned to politics. (Basic message: our president is ruining our future by trying to fix our disastrous present.) Again, I stayed out of it and not just to keep from compromising my role as a fly-on-the-wall reporter. I'd much rather think about the stars. . .

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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