Glimpses of genius in the Permian Basin

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Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Couple days of wonder at human ingenuity on my journey from the Davis Mountains to Santa Fe. I’ll return later to the extraction industries of the Permian Basin and elsewhere in the west. For now, I focus on our exploration of the stars and one of our deepest caves.

Two fun facts stuck out during my tour of the McDonald Observatory near Ft. Davis, Texas. One: The known universe contains more stars than the earth has grains of sand. Two: The Carrington Event, a solar flare in 1859 so disrupted the earth’s magnetic field that a similar event today would, among other things, cause all our satellites, including the International Space Station, to fall out of orbit, to say nothing of what it would do to our terrestrial devices. Flares of that magnitude happen about every 150 years, so we’re due. (A little Googling found that a Big One occurred in 2012 but its magnetic-wave disruption went wide of the earth.)

My tour guide, Kelly, a liberal arts grad inspired by Carl Sagan as an eight-year old, ran off these and other stories of the sun and stars during a one-hour lecture, before taking us on a tour of two of the complex’s telescopes. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope (photo at top) was the third-largest in the world when it was built in 1968. We got close enough to touch it, but not look through it, as the day was windy and dusty.

Then we peered at the 20-year-old Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which uses a web of interlocking hexagons 10 meters wide for spectroscopy, the decoding of light waves from stars and galaxies. Astronomers use it to search for planets, exploding stars and black holes. After a renovation now underway, the HET will be used to study dark energy, the force that’s thought to be behind the observation that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

Slide1The observatory originated as a bequest in 1926 from a bachelor banker from Paris, Texas, who thought what his state needed was a telescope. So W.J. McDonald willed $1.3 million to the University of Texas, which had no astronomy department. After a five-year legal battle with McDonald’s distant relatives, who argued that McDonald didn’t know the value of money and that astronomy was a waste of it, U.T. partnered with the University of Chicago to build and staff the observatory for the next 30 years, until U.T. was competent to take over. Astronomers travel from all over the world to work its eight telescopes for free.

During the lecture, Kelly asked us whether, with all those stars and planets out there, did we think any of them were home to intelligent life. Some of us raised our hands yes, others no. Some neither, a category into which Kelly said he fell, because, “that’s the only logical, scientific answer: we have no evidence.”

The next afternoon, I stopped in Roswell, New Mexico, home of all those little green space aliens, to see what I might learn. Dropping in at a used book store run by friends of the library, the guy at the front desk said he didn’t believe in aliens. Well, I scolded him, that doesn’t help the chamber of commerce. Fortunately, just then the director of the chamber walked through the door. She sent me off to a curios shop and the city museum.

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Robert Goddard’s 1938 rocket lifted 3200 feet and returned via parachute he had designed

At the museum was the reconstructed workshop, with original tools, of scientist Robert Goddard, who began experimenting with rockets in the 1920s in the desert outside town. Charles Lindbergh helped him get a $200,000 grant from the Guggenheim Foundation (the U.S. military wasn’t interested), and Goddard worked there until 1941 perfecting rocket designs. The Nazis promptly appropriated them to terrorize London with the V-2. Goddard’s work wasn’t recognized until after his death in 1945, though he had been awarded 214 patents (the first in 1914) and is now considered the inventor of rocket propulsion.

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In the morning I had benefited from another kind of visionary: those who mapped Carlsbad Caverns. After a National Geographic survey, Calvin Coolidge designated the cavern a national monument, and Congress made it a national park in 1930. On peak holidays, 5,000 people a day walk through its natural opening or ride the elevator more than 700 feet into the earth.

On my two-hour stroll from surface through a loop, I thought about all the people and all their labor to make my visit easy. As in many other parks, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps was there at the start, hauling the cement and everything else to create a path that engineers had designed for us to experience. I pay a few pennies in federal taxes and an $80 annual pass to support the park system.

A banker in Texas, a physicist in New Mexico, bureaucrats in Washington. Nearly a century ago, visionaries pushed our boundaries, focused on benefits not only to fellow Americans but to the world. I like to think that, despite the smallness of our current political moment, individuals like McDonald and Goddard are dreaming of worlds unknown, seeking to expand our consciousness and that their efforts will be recognized in due time.

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One Response to Glimpses of genius in the Permian Basin

  1. George Barr says:

    You prove that there is intelligent life right here on earth.

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