There are many things to like about Hawaii. Turtle cleaning stations, the school of trumpet fish just off-shore of the beach that is only steps from your rented house, a white-tipped reef shark that scares the bejeezus out of you when you catch its shadow in the corner of your eye. But, sitting on the beach this morning, listening to the waves roll in, my mind wanders to a visit nearly 10 years ago that was one of the most profound moments in my professional life.
I was in Hawaii for a month, teaching software classes during the week and poking around the islands on the weekends. I had aborted a solo hike on the Na Pali Coast Trail in Kauai the previous weekend, when torrential rain turned the red clay soil of the trail into a virtual death trap (it seemed to me) of slippery slopes and big, malevolent rocks waiting to split my head open during a fall. I thought Hinakuluiau, the Hawaiian goddess of rain, was angry with me, probably for abandoning my wife and children to spend such a long time away in this paradise. When I woke in the morning of a forced camp to the sound of four inches of water splashing in my tent, I decided to cut my losses and bail on the hike. I spent the rest of my time on Kauai birding in the amazing rain forest within driving distance of my hotel. It was one of the best “hikes” I have ever taken.
I spent most of my free time on the Big Island wandering around with no agenda and no real destination in mind. I simply followed my nose and inclinations. I snorkeled with a huge number of sea turtles one afternoon on a green sand beach on the south side of the Island. I tried to follow the sign’s stern warning to keep my distance from the turtles, but every time I backed away from one I would run into another. Finally, I gave up. They would have to stay away from me, which they curiously didn’t seem inclined to do. Friendly folk.
I had dinner one weekend afternoon in a small diner in the middle of nowhere. A rather large woman at a nearby table stared at me for most of my meal. My name, if not my picture, was well known to astronomers on the island, and I had been recognized already by a stranger standing next to me in Volcano National Park. I was wearing a shirt that would give astronomers a clue to my identity. I though she might be trying to place me in her memory. When I got up to leave and pay my bill, she stood suddenly and blocked my way, telling me I had the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen. She scared me almost as much as the reef shark.
The highlight of my time in Hawaii, however, was a visit to one of the twin eight meter Gemini telescopes on the top of Mauna Kea. I was renting a room during my stay in Hilo with one of the Gemini telescope operators. He was kind enough to offer to take me up to the telescope on a day he wasn’t working. We started up the Saddle Road in late afternoon, and made the obligatory stop at the dormitory and mess hall where all the visiting astronomers stay and where, as I recall, it is required to acclimate to the elevation for a short while before continuing the four-wheel drive journey to the summit of Mauna Kea.
It had been 85 degrees, plus or minus a degree or two, during my entire stay in Hawaii, so I didn’t take his advice to “dress warmly” too seriously. I should have. It was freezing cold at 13,700 feet outside the telescope. I snapped a couple of pictures with cold hands, then retreated to the control room of the telescope, where I was disappointed to learn that the astronomer who was viewing tonight was four or five thousand miles away, siting in front of a computer screen somewhere warm. She told the telescope operators where to point the instrument, which they did at their own computer consoles, and the night’s observations were collected and sent to her via high-speed Internet in time for her morning coffee. The astronomer didn’t even have to fight sleep to stay up late at night.
The control room was nondescript and looked like any other office you might find on a university campus. Visitors don’t generally get to see the inner workings of telescopes, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t suppose to be in the control room of one. I was absolutely certain I wasn’t suppose to be invited to view the pristine surface of the telescope mirror, but nevertheless, that’s where we headed next.
First we stopped to view what must surely be the world’s largest washing machine. The mirror, and I don’t even remember how many tons it weighted, was lowered into this contraption, which took up an entire floor of this multi-story building, to be “washed” when it became dirty with dust and other contaminates that might scatter the star light falling upon it.
Finally, though, we came to the telescope dome itself, still closed as dusk crept up the mountain. A small catwalk of scaffolding surrounded the mirror and I was allowed to walk up it and stand beside the mirror. Just then, my guide was called away to attend to another matter and I was in the telescope, alone.
I was mesmerized by the absolutely flat surface of the mirror. I began to think of Galileo and how far we had come in our knowledge of the Universe in just a few hundred years. The telescope in front of me peered billions of years into the past and astronomers made sense of what it found there. Constructing a telescope of this magnitude represented an enormous investment of not just money, but brains and talent, too. It was arguably one of the finest technical achievements of human kind. I felt awe and reverence of the sort I have felt in some of the great cathedrals of Europe, although more powerfully, because I’m a physicist and this telescope was pointing us in the direction of the Holy Grail of astrophysics, a search of the Universe and an understanding of our place in it.
I was returned to the real world by the sudden sound of motors, the great telescope coming to life, the dome opening. The sides of the telescope were raised slowly to allow the constant trade winds of Hawaii to blow across the surface of the instrument, the moving air improving its ability to see into the vastness of the Universe. As the walls of the dome moved slowly upward, I could see, down by my feet, the ring of clouds that most nights seal off the summit from the city lights below and make this site one of the best in the world for viewing.
The top of the dome began to open, and the telescope rotated, positioning itself for the night’s viewing. As the side walls continued to ascend, I could see the setting sun on the edge of the ocean, one of the canonical images of Hawaii. I turned, though, to look behind me, toward the summit of Mauna Kea, and what I saw there stunned me. A small group of native Hawaiians were holding a ceremony near the summit, drumming and burning incense in the last light of day, praying to the Kupua, the gods and goddesses of Hawaii, on this, their sacred mountain. Sacred to them. Sacred to me. We belong to different cultures and traditions, the old and the new, drawn in sharp contrast in front of me. It may not be possible to bridge the cultural differences between us, but I was as certain then as I am now, that we both experienced the awe and power of belonging to the human race identically that night, as we watched the sun extinguish itself in front of us.
Picture of turtle cleaning station courtesy of Brian Fanning.