Friday, April 30, 2010

Gateway to the Cosmos

I was walking along a Vermont road recently. The still substantial remains of a March snowstorm was very much evident along the sides of the road. Here was a stunted color pallet of brown and white hues - a wintery world still in hibernation. Only a faded yellow stripe in the center of the road suggested color. But for the disruption of a plow, the snow remained untouched alongside the road and on up into a still dormant, leafless forest. Not even the tracks of small forest animals disturbed this snowy canvas. It was a sunny morning with the temperature already climbing past 50. The close-in sounds of drips and trickles of melting snow were all that disturbed the stillness as they joined league to tumble down the landscape to form what would become springtime streams. As I walked uphill, my gaze naturally angled skyward and there above the house, I caught sight of a pair of crossing contrails, their expanding whiteness contrasting dramatically against the bluest of skies. In “x marks the spot” fashion, I recalled how beneath this point I’d spent many a summer night looking up at a night sky awash in polished stars, their twinkles unaffected by bright city lights. Here the Milky Way in undiminished splendor had revealed herself to me. It was also here that shooting stars, the shimmering aurora and the surface of the moon, yet to be disturbed by the foot of man, filled my mind, tingled my curiosity and grew my imagination long, long before "Star Wars" and its horde of figurines swooped down on an unsuspecting generation.

One of my vivid childhood memories, in fact, is of the telescope I’d received for Christmas, brand spanking new out of the Sears & Roebuck Catalog. It wasn’t much of a thing but meant the world to me. A rough black metal casting tried the legs, which resembled broom handles, together and served as the mount for the telescope itself. This was at a time that predated "The Graduate” and Benjamin Braddock (actor Dustan Hoffman) hadn't even heard of plastic yet, which accounts for the fact that my gateway to the cosmos was made of a heavy smooth cardboard material. With a handful of tiny lenses and thick cardboard washers to modify the magnification, I was on my own, but for the disruption of an occasional mosquito, to explore the evening sky to my content. So it was decades later, when I first stood on the Juliet balcony of our “medieval condo” in Calitri, that I could make out the characteristic silhouette of what undoubtedly was an observatory on the lofty ridgeline of the southern Apennines just across the border of Campania in neighboring Basilicata. Wow, a neighborhood Mount Palomar! I wanted to see it. I wanted to see my new gateway to the cosmos.

It would take a while to get there, however. In fact about three years, all told. It wasn't that I was saving it for a special occasion or something, though it turned out that way. It was just that time and schedules never meshed to make it happen. And when the time did arrive, it wasn't auspicious either, since the weather was terrible that day.

The observatory, part of the network of the Italian Institutes of Astrophysics and Space Physics, is located on the slopes of the southern Apennines in the town of Castlegrande. Castlegrande is a beautiful little village of approximately 1000 inhabitants smack dab on the historic Appian Way, the earliest and strategically the most important of Roman roads. Looking back, this was the same road that Roman legions traversed to confront Hannibal or reach Brindisi on the southern Italian coast to board ships for conquest abroad. I was surprised to find the "queen of roads" here, but today, the Appian Way through Castlegrande still leads to a strategic asset. In a desolate, windswept place above the tree line, called Toppo di Castelgrande, lies the largest astronomical observatory in all of Europe. I'd been lucky about the siting of our family summer place in Vermont, while Toppo di Castelgrande was specifically chosen because of its pure and uncontaminated environment. Here, away from big city lights, astronomers are afforded an unobstructed view of the galaxy. They don’t just tend sheep off in those hills!

We'd started out from a Calitri wrapped in steel grey fog with intermittent spates of rain. It never got any better. It was one of those days designed to stay inside, in bed, with a stack of accumulated newspapers, good books and a warm drink now and then. With this weather, there was zero chance that even by night, the stars might emerge from their daytime hiding places. Our party of intrepid stargazers that afternoon included Maria Elena, myself and our houseguests, Rony and his wife, Malca. Our hosts on the trip were Calitri residents and good friends, Antonio and his wife, Geraldine. Only recently I'd written about getting together with Rony and Malca after a thirty year hiatus in a story entitled "The Quest", but I hadn't told all the story. While Rony and I received our Masters Degrees together, Rony had gone on in later years to earn his Doctorate. So with us that day was Dr. Rony, who among his other titles, is the Director of the Israeli National Council for Research & Development. I'm lucky to have friends in high places. It has a way of opening doors for you, especially in national observatories!

Just getting to Mount Toppo, at 1250m (4101 ft) above sea level, was a cosmic trip in itself. The weather again played its hand. There was little signage and all "apennine roads" seem to look the same in low visibility. As a former pilot, I'd say the trip was IFR (relying on instruments) all the way as we incessantly transited from cloud to fog and back again. Rony even remarked on how, since he couldn't see a thing, how could Antonio, who was driving, see the road? The road in many places wasn't paved and a few times led us to a fork where we had to bet between going left or right. I believe we actually visited some intersections repeatedly! With lady luck against us, we were at least fortunate we weren't in Vegas! While we were going to see the stars, we hadn't thought to go with the stars and GPS, though I wonder if that would have helped. We were, as I like to say, "off the grid". In a near "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" experience we thought we caught sight of an alien in the form of a cow with its head at our car window. Even with antennae cleverly disguised to trick us into believing were horns and with transmitters disguised to look like enormous bells suspended beneath their necks, we weren't fooled for a moment! After a while, we'd climbed enough to get out of the clouds to discover that we were traveling alongside a small mountaintop lake. 'Real cows' were scattered across the barren plateau picking at herbs and eating grass. It was about then that a farmer surprisingly appeared holding an umbrella - it could have been London. We passengers looked at each other with a "you have to be kidding me" expression while he and Antonio conversed about directions. Moments later, we were back on course. Give or take a few more turns and the outline of a futuristic looking concrete building, attached so firmly to the mountainside that it appeared almost as a natural outcropping, broke from the grip of the haze and into view. We'd clearly arrived - a massive metal dome with a characteristic slot, now closed, but capable of rolling open much like elevator doors to access the night sky, sat atop the structure. As contrasts go, here towered an icon in contrast - a contrast between a low-tech, self reliant world of pecorino cheeses, cows, grapevines and olive groves not far off the ancient Appian Way and its far distant electronic, high-tech cousin focused on the cosmos far, far overhead. We soon clambered out of the van and were inside a sterile world of concrete and steel.

An assistant to the director greeted us in the lobby. We soon learned that the director of the facility was in Naples and would not arrive until the following day after fine-tuning and calibrations on the main telescope were complete. Being on vacation, we had taken our chances and arrived unannounced. With operations basically shut-down and absent the director, all we could expect was a look around. Only a handful of visitors were there and we found them in a large auditorium watching, I thought fittingly, "Apollo 13" with Tom Hanks and crew dubbed in Italian (“Houston, abbiamo un problema”). In a side area at the base of an impressive, spiral concrete staircase leading to the restricted observation room, high above beneath the cupola, we came upon an old iron telescope on display. Gone were the days when all you needed was a device like this and good eyes to harvest the "low-hanging" secret fruits of the cosmos. We suspected that nowadays far more automated and sophisticated equipment was at play, but unfortunately, we would not be able to see them for the bottom of the stairs was as far as we could go.

The situation begged for resourcefulness, which surprisingly came to our rescue quite naturally. No need here for a Three Stooges re-enactment, as when the trio of mayhem removed the knobs of soap dispensers in order to get into a sports venue, trying their best to misrepresent themselves as newspaper reporters. Moe smartly flashed his make-do "PRESS" button and so did Larry, while bumbling Curly, bringing up the rear, displayed a "PUSH"! I wouldn't stoop this low but I wanted to see the crown jewels of "osservatorio" Castlegrande. Seeing that the Professor was the only person who could allow a visit 'upstairs', why not contact him? I simply used Rony's business card to gain access to the inner sanctum. Producing the card, I explained who Rony was. Mine was a variation on the "do you know who I am" gambit. The effect was as expected. The man in charge immediately phoned the professor, explained the situation and put Rony on the line. There was a brief exchange of pleasantries with Rony offering a brief description of the council he headed. Sometimes improvisation is magic, often requiring only a nudge to move from non-entity to ‘star’ status. Here was a case in point, possibly worthy of a case study. As an extension of professional courtesy, the Director authorized our visit upstairs and onto the observation floor. I should have majored in marketing!

We were led to a small elevator and two trips later, followed by a flight of stairs, regrouped on the floor in front of a massive reflector telescope described as the finest optical telescope in Italy. To look into the mysteries of space, this giant, computer-controlled azimuthal telescope uses a mirror 160 centimeters in diameter and is equipped with adaptive optics. Adaptive optics is a system which makes corrections due to turbulence in the atmosphere. As light passes from space to earth, our thick atmosphere distorts the light rays and thus alters an image from its true self. By measuring these 'bad' distortions and then at thousands of times per second deforming a small mirror (think "rubber mirror") to product 'good' distortions, one cancels the other and the light is readjusted to its true nature. Simply put, a star's twinkle, basically due to atmospheric turbulence, is removed. Measurements are so exacting that liquid nitrogen is used to maintain a precise temperature in the hardware - too hot and instruments expand, too cold and they contract. Expansion joints, familiar to us on say a concrete sidewalk, are tolerated and engineered in. Here they are engineered out since to tolerate either expansion or contraction would lead to errors.

There was more to discover here than just the high-tech realm of cooled conformable lenses. There was no obvious eyepiece on this monster only a series of monitors at a workstation console. Results could be photographed and recorded, images superimposed electronically to detect slight differences or minute movements, even spectral analysis and filtering performed, all of which can get astronomers animated and into writing or conversing with colleagues about their findings. Unfortunately, with the system down, we were not shown pictures of stars, planets or newly discovered anythings. No results. This is a reticent, learned place where things happen slowly, logically and methodically. Repetition and process rule supreme here. It might take years, for example, to verify or contradict a theory on say the Big Bang, black holes or Einstein's relativity theorems with respect to light and gravity. But on this day, unfortunately, all was quiet but for the whispering hiss of cooling nitrogen.

Recent work had involved a debris survey for objects in geosynchronous earth orbit and anomaly resolution for deep-space probes. A geosynchronous (geo) orbit allows a satellite to appear stationary over some point on the earth and therefore permits it to be continuously on station verses in the field of view for only a few minutes. These are important locations in the sky and can become congested. Geo on-orbit real estate is hard to come by and to manage. Thus knowing what's out there is important to avoid collisions. You wouldn't want to bump into something and kill a satellite costing more than the GDP of some countries!

Following our tour, we made our goodbyes to our host and were off. Our return to our hilltop hamlet of Calitri was much easier. We encountered many of the same forks in the road we'd gone through on the way up, now backwards of course. Again, it was a toss-up at times on whether to go right or left. We took a vote! While the weather hadn't changed, Antonio eventually got his bearings and through a roundabout of routes, took us through the village of Castlegrande this time, which we'd missed on the way up.

As though through a looking glass, a magic wardrobe or emerging from a rabbit hole, we had returned to earth after being up among the stars, from a place of imaginings to one of feelings and daily existence. I’ve frequently described Calitri as a place out of this world, but never in all my hyperbole had I ever expected it to be close to being true. In relation to the universe, we had been at apogee, way up there amongst high technology cloaked in phantom mist and clouds. Now returned to Calitri, I considered myself once again grounded. With feet now anchored to the earth but my head still very much among the stars, I wondered about the assumptions I'd made - high-tech there verses low-tech here. In either place, mysteries exist without solutions making them much alike, differing only in the tools we use in their solution. No matter where we look at the heavens, whether it be in Calitri, Castlegrande or Vermont, its vastness and mystery remain common. World class high-tech telescope or Sears low-tech special is not the issue. What matters is the mind of man and its penchant for discovery, driven by curiosity - the curiosity of a young boy in Vermont or that of an astronomer's high atop the Apennines.

The Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Cosmos".