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The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth. The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific. On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin. Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years. Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.
The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers. On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.
The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering. When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth. The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in). No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.
The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth. In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions. To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere. These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics. The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:
The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.
The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe). Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe. Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands. If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.
The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack. The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).
George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate. At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career). In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun. He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.
Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes. His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions. Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).
Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena. In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope. This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding. Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar. Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision. The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.
Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting. Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.
Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes. He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology. Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).
Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life. His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe. However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems. He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch. Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression. Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation. He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life. Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery. Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together. Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.
I am in South Chicago, and, through no coincidence, my favorite fast-food restaurant is also here–so I am uncharacteristically devoting this post to fine dining. I hope my more serious readers will forgive the frivolity of this sybaritic post dedicated to the nation’s finest fried chicken restaurant, Harold’s Chicken Shack in Hyde Park, which I frequented with great gusto when both it and I were younger. Harold’s is known for its vibrant hen-themed wall-paper, its neighbors–namely a liquor store and a lottery shop, and its impregnability (since the cashiers and fry cooks still work behind at least one layer of bulletproof material), but most of all Harold’s is famous for its dirt-cheap, unhealthy, yet supremely delicious fried chicken.
I purchased a signature half chicken (white) with fries, hot sauce, extra white bread, and an RC cola. I’m live blogging the unique experience both because I have discovered that Harold’s chicken fits many of Ferrebeekeeper’s ongoing themes (namely crowns, farms, mascots, & art), and as an opening salvo of the Thanksgiving season of gluttony and good eating.
OK, here’s a photo of the inside of Harold’s Chicken Shack. As you can see, a variety of luridly colored machines are there to help you supplement your meal with candy, soft-drinks, and diabetes. Actually these are only some of the vending machines in the store: the ice-cream machine and the other candy machines are up by the counter. I decided not to take a photo of the counter area because Harold’s employees are hard-working folk and I didn’t want to get in their way (and because I was afraid they would think I was casing the joint and call the Chicago police). Unfortunately this means you can’t see the remarkable bulletproof glass food carousel or the menu with its gizzards, livers, grits, and fish.
Once I had obtained my half-chicken, I rushed it to the local park. The last 2 decades have been good for South Chicago and the park was much cleaner and more beautifully landscaped then back in the 90’s, but I did notice a smashed cassette about “How to Balance Your Life (The Physical Side of Life)” lying not far from a Crown Regal Bottle. I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with eating a 6,000 calorie meal, but I can’t help but think that it does.
Here is the outside of my fried half-chicken. You can see Harold’s two remarkable mascots on the wrapper: King Harold, complete with crown and scarlet robes is rushing after a speedy and clever free-range chicken who does not want to be part of his majesty’s supper. There is a lot to appreciate about the drama, pomp, and pathos of this logo—it captures all of my ambiguous but powerful feelings about animal farming. As an aside, it is unclear whether the eponymous “Harold” of Harold’s chicken represents Harold Harefoot (c. 1015–1040) or Harold Godwinson (c. 1022–1066) who famously fell before William the Conqueror to end Anglo-Saxon rule of England. Maybe they simply anglicized one of the many King Haralds from Sweden or Norway. Anyway, the mystery is part of the charm.
Now for the reveal: here is the Harold’s half chicken sodden with hot-sauce on its bed of fries. A few pieces of wonder bread are stacked on top in case the diner wishes to make a little chicken-skin and French fry sandwich. Hopefully you will notice the Royal Crown “RC” cola which again features a crown (in fact the logo is pretty much only a crown). My whole repast is covered with crown logos and there is indeed something regal about this meal. I can’t help but feel like Henry VIII as I throw bones to the side from orange-stained fingers. Eating Harold’s chicken is like life: the experience is messy and horrifying and delightful. There are moments of delight and moments of despair. As with life, the end is grim and painful and comes too soon. As a greasy calm fell over me and the first stabs of stomach pain began, I noticed this admirable statue sitting nearby the chess tables of Nichols Park. Campoli’s abstract imagery of talons and claws and beaks emerging from a (stomach-like) egg perfectly summarized my feelings about my delicious and unsettling lunch. Hooray for Harold’s!