Hawaii, the “big island”, lives up to its name. To the west it is tumble-weed dry, to the south lush and wet under rain forest clouds, to the east tropical with floral scents and aviary songs, to the north rolling greens with bovine bliss. I arrived on Saturday mid-afternoon and immediately headed out to Hawaii Volcanos National Park situated in the south-east corner of the island under the shadow of Mauna Kea. Everything is inarguably under the shadow of the fourteern-thousand beheamoth beast; it being the largest volcano by volume in the Solar system, second only to Olympic Mons on Mars. But when you are on the face of giant it is hard to perceive it slumbering bulk and so is the case with this volcano. One of the disadvantages of not doing a lot of pre-travel research, as is my wont is to discover and rather belatedly mind you, that the park is inside a rain forest; read, it rains. A lot. This makes viewing and camping a little bit more of a challenge; by the time I arrived near sunset I was not in the mood to throw my tent up in the rain and instead found a small B&B to grab a few winks. For those interested in a bit of travel advice, the best deals are the ones found on the spot. I grabbed a few hours of sleep before going back out at shortly after midnight when the clouds move offshore and the night sky opens up. In my limited time at the park this proved the best time to see everything as it allows you unparalleled views of the glow from the lava flows framed under a deep blanket of sky filled with stars. I later drove down to the shore to stargaze before heading out onto the old lava flows just before sunrise. It is another world being on these old flows. The terrain is rough and utterly devoid of any color other than charcoal black and the occassional splash of barely perceptible ruddy red from basalt. While out on the flows it is hard to comprehend the extreme challenges this island and its extremes in terrain and environment posed to the people who have called this home over the millenia; it is intimidating landscape that brokes no negotiation.
One of my goals for many a long while and specifically a part of this year is to visit the telescopes up at the summit of Mauna Kea. The drive from the park up to the basecamp at 9200-feet took less time than I imagined (or Google predicted). Instead of hanging out there till everyone departed at two o’clock in the afternoon for a guided tour, I opted to drive up to the summit on my own to enjoy it to myself for a few hours. The road out of basecamp requires 4WD, stretchinh over eight miles of switchbacks till you finally arrive near the top. The drive up is itself worth the trip as you ascend up and out of the cloud layer. It is, of course, an inhospitable landscape strewn with boulders from a time when a glacier eons ago sat atop the mountain. Nowadays there is no snow except for when it falls in the Winter months. There are a few small trails on the summit that you can trek along that help remind you that at this elevation your lungs are not up to the normal morning run.
Mauna Kea and Chile duke it out to lay claim to the title “best terrestial mountain-top viewing in the world”. Both of these sites sit atop mountain tops where there is less atmosphere to obstruct viewing. Mauna Kea has a few factors above its high-altitude setting that make it a favorite amongst astronomers. These include the relatively uniform conical shape of the volcano which helps smoothly guide the trade winds around the volcano. This has an additional effect of creating protective lower strata of air mass that quiets the air mass above it. As a consequence the summit lays claim to the most clear night skies in the world allowing the facilities atop it to stay in operation almost every night of the year. There are a number of different facilities owned and operated by different organizations from around the world here; Canada, France, Japan and of course United States among others call this place home. These telescopes operate over a range of wavelength including submillimeter, infrared and visible wavelengths. Some of the telescopes operate collectively with other telescopes from around the world using a technique called interferometry, allowing them to combine their signals to create an effective aperature roughly the distance separating them; in the case of the arrays on Mauna Kea this is the diameter of the Earth. And while this technique is normally reserved for radio waves and other electro-magnetic waves with long wavelengths, Keck Observatory, with its two monsterous lenses and unparalleled engineering precision, is used in the same fashion for the infrared ranges. Most of the facilities are closed to visitors; however, Keck Observatory has made a room accessible to vistors where they can look up at one of its telescopes. They are enormous, enclosed in their individual domes some ten stories high. And even though each scope and trestle holding them weigh in at over 380-tons, the mounts are so well-engineered that a single-person can by hand rotate a telescope along the vertical axis.
I can certainly continue to repeat here all the various facts and trivia that you can more easily find on the internet or read in a book; however, what is not found elsewhere nor readily transcribed is my experience of being so near to these facilities and the cutting-edge science they help forge. For those who know me, I have been studying astronomy and physics since before I knew there existed the words “astronomy” or “physics” that encapsulated these as hardened epistomologies; so focussed was I in my pre-teens on understanding gravity and stars and planets and galaxies that my vocabulary and my awareness were deeply woven into the meat of these epistomologies, not their skins. More particularly, at a very young age I was already deeply and viscerally rooted to the notion that when I looked up to the night sky I was looking back thousands and millions and billions of years in a way that connected all things and all persons over all times. It is then not surprising to me that I am deeply moved when I visit such places as Mauna Kea, similar to when I visted Lowell Observatory, LIGO and others. I am still brought to tears when I see these places and the questions they are trying to answer. This connection goes in some ways deeper and more geniunely more simply to the infinite complexity of our universe, more so than the later mathematics I learned even if it is mathematics that is ultimately the lingua franca of science. We can take some pride in the things we have uncovered in our pursuit of enlightment under the torch of science; but equally more so, hubris is granted when we allow these gained insights to put ourselves in perspective to this said infinite universe.
Here are links to sets of pictures: