The Starlight Gamblers

by Jon Franklin

© TheBaltimoreSun 1981


The mountain rises sharply out of the Sonoran desert. The road to the summit winds back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, skirting the cliffs and crossing the passes. The air thins. The driver downshifts and the government van groans and rattles.

The astronomers in the rear of the van are silent, preoccupied. Some have come halfway around the world for one or two precious nights on the mountain, and the thoughts that absorb them are not related to the stark beauty of the Arizona terrain.

As the vehicle lurches around the hairpin turns, some of the scientists cradle odd-shaped instruments in their arms, protecting them from the vibrations of the van. Some of the instruments are squarish, with round protuberances; others are roundish, with square protuberances. They have dials and small wires.

Each instrument is identified with a stenciled name, like “Herman” or “Sally.”

Finally the van tops a high pass and, for the first time, the glittering white observatory domes come into full view. The Mayall telescope, rising 20 stories above the granite summit, dominates the lesser domes that lie scattered along the mile-high ridge.

The van loops around the Mayall telescope and follows the macadam road back along the ridge, finally rattling to a stop in front of the administrative and dormitory complex. The astronomers disembark carefully, clutching their instruments.

They look uneasily at the sky. It’s clear . . . but is it clear enough? Is that a quickening wind? Will it blow dust? Will this be a lucky night, or will they go home with nothing?

Here at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, the odds against atmospheric distortion are relatively high: 50-50.

For the astronomers in the van, that’s not good enough. On the other hand, their odds are better than at most other observatories — astronomers are beggars, not choosers.

They carry their instruments inside and lay them carefully on the beds. The instruments safe, they return to the van for their bags.

The astronomers applied for their few precious telescope hours by means of a complex request to the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. AURA forwarded the requests to a committee of top scientists.

For each successful request to use the big Mayall telescope, three others are rejected.

After they unpack, the astronomers congregate for the walk to the mess hall, worrying to one another. The wind is definitely coming up, and the weatherman says snow.

Snow! Damn the weatherman, damn the snow, damn the atmosphere.

A maintenance man tells the group that, after years on the mountain, he’s personally quit believing in weathermen. His comment gives the scientists cause to hope.

If the maintenance man is right, the odds are high that one of the scientists will discover something tonight . . . probably by accident.

The universe is so poorly explored, and theKittPeaktelescopes are so powerful, that with the approval of the committee and a night of clear air, every astronomer is discoverer.

KittPeak’s collection of telescopes and instruments may represent the most sophisticated optical astronomy installation anywhere in the world.

Though a 50-50 chance of good seeing seems small, astronomers searched for years before settling on this specific peak, high in the clear air of southernArizona. Observatory experts say the seeing here is as good as, or better than, anywhere on earth.

The rub is that nowhere on earth is the seeing really GOOD. Since the days of Galileo, it’s been atmospheric conditions and not telescope size that have limited scientists’ ability to understanding stars, nebula, galaxies, quasars and the universe they compose.

Galileo, the first man to point a telescope at the heavens, didn’t have much trouble. But he was using a small, low-powered telescope, just big enough to reveal the craters of the moon and the moons of Jupiter.

That was enough to get him excommunicated by the Catholic Church, but the real science would come later, with bigger and bigger telescopes — like the 156-inch Mayall reflector atop the Kitt Peak capstone.

As the early astronomers built ever larger telescopes, they encountered two problems that have never been adequately solved.

First, the faraway objects those telescopes were built to find were vastly dimmer than the moon and planets.

Seen directly through the eyepiece, most of the universe is too dim to register on the human retina. As telescopes grew more powerful the only way an astronomer could really see what his instrument was pointing at was to take a photograph, using a long time exposure.

The astronomer who wants to take a photograph of a dust nebula in the Milky Way, for instance, may need to spend the entire precious night for that one-time exposure. And if the night is interrupted by a rainstorm, he will return home to his university with nothing.

Worse, telescopes capable of magnifying a quasar to a detectable size also magnify the air above the telescope. If the upper atmosphere is turbulent enough to make a star twinkle, that same star will become a dancing smear of light when viewed through a medium-sized telescope.

If the stars are twinkling, a large telescope is useless. And the Mayall telescope is very large.

Its 156-inch mirror is so powerful that, if pointed towardNew York City, it would allow astronomers to read the newsprint as it rolled off the presses in the New York Daily News building.

The telescope is so powerful that it can produce photographs of galaxies so far away that the light it captures began its trip before the sun was born.On the other hand, it is so sensitive that a brisk breeze, by distorting the air, can wipe that galaxy out of the sky and leave the astronomer with nothing but a smudge of light to show for a cold night’s effort.

Historically, the astronomer’s quest for bigger telescopes has led to a more mundane search for ever better seeing conditions in increasingly high and remote areas.

In the early 1950s, as experts looked for a place to build theUnited States’ first national observatory, they studied the mountains ofCalifornia,Colorado and Arizona, looking for the calmest air and the clearest weather.Californiaair they rejected quickly, and later they decided thatColorado, despite the ski resorts, wouldn’t do either.

The choice finally narrowed to two mountain ranges in Arizona. Before making a final decision, the astronomers mounted small, remotely-controlled telescopes at each prospective site, to monitor the seeing quality. A white tower that contained one such battery of instruments is still visible on the north flank of Kitt Peak.

Though this mountaintop was the best they found, it still wasn’t good enough — really first-rate seeing conditions only occurred on the average of every other night.

Attempting to overcome marginal conditions, astronomers developed sophisticated instruments to minimize the dancing of the images and to extract information from distorted light.

But it is still a lottery, and the scientists know it.As the afternoon wears on they hang around the mess hall, drinking coffee and worrying.

“It boils down to luck,” muses one of the nervous scientists.

“Sure, you have good questions. You’ve thought it through, and you’ve built your instrumentation. But when it comes down to what you see, there’s so little time . . . so little is known . . .  the seeing is so unpredictable . . . you might find anything.

“If you get enough telescope time, you’ll discover something important, and you know that, so you keep writing proposals and begging for time and when you get it you’re embarrassingly grateful.”

Logically the astronomers might sleep as they await the night, but few can. They settle for catnaps as they check and recheck their instruments. Along toward dusk the mountain maintenance men issue down-filled parkas and reassure the astronomers about the fallibility of meteorologists.

Sunsets are spectacular in theSonoradesert, and this evening is a classic, with smears of red, orange, purple and brown dominating the Western sky. But the beauty brings baleful stares from the astronomers. A pretty sunsets means there is dust in the air, and damn the dust, and damn the air, and let it be pretty some other night.

The sunset disappears as the sky turns to dark blue, then black. The instruments like Herman and Sally are attached to the telescopes now, and jacketed with liquid nitrogen to keep their delicate electronic innards static-free. Wisps of fog from the vaporizing coolant drift through the observatories, mingling with the foggy breath of the astronomers.

Now, finally, the big domes grind around on steel rails and the shutters clatter open. Hand-me-down jeeps and pickups that once served the Army now chug back and forth between the domes, moving without lights, slowly, their drivers leaning over the steering wheels for a surer view of the white centerline that will keep them clear of the cliff’s edge.

Inside the Mayall dome, dim amber bulbs outline the stairsteps and handholds. The clock motors whine softly as the delicately-balanced telescope searches for a star.

In a high, warm, computerized control room, the astronomer assigned to the telescope paces back and forth, and his sense of humor begins to erode. Fog has been reported in the valley.

Damn the fog.

The telescope operator gives computerized instructions to the big instrument and dome. He avoids conversation with the touchy scientist.

It’s not the technician’s fault. He’s responsible for the telescope, not the weather. But as another fog report comes in, the astronomer’s perspective erodes further.

The astronomer looks at the wall. The technician concentrates on his instruments.

KittPeakhands the keys of the smaller telescopes over to the visiting astronomers, but the big Mayall is too complex to be trusted to outsiders. It’s worth millions, and can’t be replaced. Only the technician is allowed to touch the switches; if the visiting astronomer needs to do something with his hands, he is free to bite his fingernails.

Fog! Why tonight?

Nervously, the astronomer walks down a passageway, finds a hatch to the catwalk, opens it, and steps outside into the frigid blackness.

The narrow catwalk is 18 stories above the peak. The astronomer grips the icy railing to steady himself against the wind. His eyes go up, to the clear, hard stars, and then down, to the valley below.

There is fog, all right, and it’s crawling up the passes

The astronomer stands in the night air until the chill penetrates his parka, then he goes back to the control room. There, the clock ticks away the minutes, Universal Time, and a computer printer chatters in the background.The astronomer collapses into an ancient, high-backed chair, patched with silver duct tape.

The telescope is operating now. The technician touches a switch, and a television monitor crackles to life. It shows a starfield in reverse, black dots on a white background. As the telescope moves in response to the operator’s fingers on the keyboard, crosshairs settle on the star that the astronomer came so far to study.

There is a strange humming in the control room.

Abruptly, the astronomer sits up in the chair. Is that the dome howling?

When the wind makes the dome howl, it is observatory policy to shut down.

Relax, says the technician. The noise is something else, something routine from the innards of the dome, a hydraulic sound, nothing to worry about. Quit worrying, he tells the scientist; calm down, cool it.

The astronomer rocks in the chair and glares at the metal wall.

How about the fog? Where’s the damn fog?

The operator doesn’t reply. His fingers play across the computer keypad. Numbers dance across a computer readout display.

The light from the star has traveled millions of years through space. Now streams through the open slit in the dome and down the open latticework that supports the 104-inch main mirror. It bounces up to a smaller mirror, is reflected downward, then sideways. Finally it enters a small opening in the precious instrument the astronomer brought with him.

In the innards of the computer, the magnetic data pack whirrs.The astronomer stares at the numbers flickering across the readout windows. It has begun. Now, if the fog will just cooperate . . .

Few astronomers use film any more. Instruments like Sally and Herman collect data instead, and the astronomer takes it home with him to analyze, and to find out if he discovered anything on purpose or by accident.

But can enough data be collected this night?

It’s a race, now, with the fog.The numbers flicker on the readout displays. The astronomer’s attention is focused on the numbers, absorbed by them. He seems not to breathe.

For the moment the seeing is good, the stars are hard, and the numbers feed onto the precious tape and the precious seconds tick away their Universal Time and the telescope motors whir as the big mirror tracks the star.

A private thought flickers through the astronomer’s mind, and he grins.Outside, the fog climbs.

The operator’s telephone rings and he picks it up and listens. The fog has reached the base of the observatory.

“Okay,” the operator says. He delays, for the moment, relaying the information to the astronomer.

The numbers play across the monitors. The astronomer sits, transfixed. Occasionally, the operator touches the keyboard. The telephone rings again. The operator listens, and hangs up.

“Fog,” he says, and his fingers play across the board.

The astronomer stares at him in disbelief.

The dome responds instantly, gears grinding as the shutter rattles across the big slit. The numbers stop flowing and the astronomer slumps.Just a few more minutes? the astronomer begs. Thirty seconds?The operator shakes his head.

Inside each miniscule droplet of fog, there is a mote of dust. If the fog settles on the mirror, the dust will remain when the water evaporates, and the mirror will have to be cleaned. It can only be cleaned once or twice before the telescope must be shut down, the mirror removed, and the surface retreated.

A few more minutes, the astronomer pleads. Come on, just a moment more?

“Over my dead body,” says the operator, flatly.

The astronomer, stares at the wall and, for an instant, his composure seems to slip. A bitter expression settles on his face for the barest of instants, then is gone. He sighs, and shrugs.

It is a lottery, and he lost.Perhaps the numbers already collected will be enough, perhaps there will be something unexpected . . . at least he won’t return with nothing.

He shrugs again. The universe will be there next year. Maybe he can get more time.

Damn the damn fog.The astronomer isn’t alone in his misery, of course. All along the spine of the mountain the observatory dome motors whine and clack as the slits close, protecting lenses and mirror from the fog.

In the Mayall control room, the astronomer sits back down in the chair and fidgets. His time is not yet up. Maybe . . .

Damn the fog.

Maybe it will lift.

Several of the astronomers navigate the dark high roads toward the mess hall, to console themselves with mugs of cocoa and badly-chipped bowls full of chicken soup.

The conversation piece is the universe.

Are there planets around other stars? Is there a huge black hole in the center of the Milky Way? How do new suns form in the dust clouds, and how do old ones die? Are quasars really huge, distant and old? Or are they close, and small, and violent?

How did the universe begin, and how will it end? Will it keep on expanding, until there is nothing but space? Or will the atoms that make up the observatory, the astronomers, the mountain and the earth and the stars and the galaxies come flying together with unthinkable force to generate another big bang?

The universe is so large, and time is so long, and astronomers live so briefly, and damn, damn, damn the damn fog.

The space telescope will help, perhaps. But then everybody will want to use it and, for every project accepted, a dozen will be denied. And every glance through the orbiting observatory will generate questions to be answered by the ground-based telescopes . . . ironically, one astronomer figures, the space telescope will make it even more difficult to get time on Kitt Peak.

The hours pass, universal time, and the fog swirls up the mountain and boils through the passes. The astronomers wait, and hope, but they might as well have gone to bed.

The fog abates as the eastern sky lightens.

Each morning, according to tradition, the big domes swing around to face the rising sun.

Then the operators power down the computers. The scientists, queasy with coffee and exhaustion, drain the liquid nitrogen out of their instruments. Droplets of the nitrogen skitter, boiling, across the cold observatory floors.

A few hours later the astronomers stand by the curb, their baggage beside them, waiting for the van.

Perhaps, they reassure one another, they got more than they thought. Perhaps the data collected before the fog rolled in will reveal something unexpected. Perhaps something good will come of it all, somehow.

The van rattles down the road and pulls up by the curb. Last night’s contingent of scientists stands aside, in a group staring with envy as a half-dozen newcomers disembark, with a new collection of strangely-shaped instruments.

When the van is empty the departing astronomers get aboard and fasten their seat belts.

The van moves forward into a U-turn, loops around the Mayall dome and grinds down the mountain in second gear, back and forth, back and forth, down over the passes, and finally out across the parched Sonora desert.

The astronomers travel in silence, ignoring the unearthly Saguaro cacti and the gnarled mesquite. For a while, the Mayall dome is visible, as a speck of white, atop the receding mountains. Finally, it disappears in the distance.

Herman and Sally, emptied of liquid nitrogen, ride safe as babies in the scientist’s arms.