Everyone desires a safe space, a home base, a place to return to when everything else in life is unsettled. For some, this is a certain room in the family home. For others, a timeshare overlooking the waterfront in a far-away town tourists have not yet discovered. Some travel to the cities while others escape, seeking something a little less whelming.
I too have my safe places. Buffalo Peak Ranch in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, our family farm in rural Iowa, and Sutherland, South Africa. This past week I was given the opportunity to return to the South African Astronomical Observatory. The drive from Cape Town to the Sutherland site is, no matter how many times you have made the journey, an adventure, a flight through space and time despite the confines of this planet’s gravity.
Those at the point of departure provide assistance in loading your travel bags and wish you well. Upon arrival, the guest house staff greet you by name, no matter how long since your last visit, and provide the keys to your dormitory. With hushed voices and careful motion we unpack and settle in, for the astronomers are yet sleeping. As with African game preserves where human visitors peer out from protective blinds to watch the animal world unfold, astronomers use telescopes to watch the cosmos evolve, to observe both the mundane and the most spectacular stellar shows.
Those areas in the world in which dark night skies yet exist are a kind of sanctuary, a place where we are reminded of what it means to be inspired. From our unique vantage point in this cosmic wilderness blind, we see new-born stars, middle-aged nobles, and ancient giants intermixed with nebulae, supernova, and massive black holes. To witness one rapidly rotating, small but massive neutron star consuming it’s neighbour through a dance that lasts eons is to watch the lion consume the elephant in painfully slow motion, frame by inexorable frame.
What we observe is explained through the application of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. While the interaction between stellar bodies is anticipated, even considered routine, there remains the daunting, bewildering, difficult to explain phenomena which send researchers into overdrive for decades.
It is the data of the routine which confirms our formulae. It is the unexpected which keeps us hungry for more.
Upon arrival to the guest house at the observatory I was filled with emotionally charged memories of my grandparents’ farm in Iowa. The anticipation that builds with the first glimpse of the domes on the horizon is to crest the edge of the Pride of the Valley farm, the final stretch of the curving road, and ultimate descent into the complex of white buildings.
Inside, each piece of furniture has its place and orientation, the sofas, the chairs adorned by cloth covers too easily wrinkled and caught in the spaces between the cushions. Throw pillows are returned each day to their proper position. The pool table is showing its age, the felt torn and the legs less stable. One can complain, or enjoy the added challenge. The library has been stripped nearly bare as the journals are now entirely digital. Yet the aroma from the kitchen, the sound of the kettle boiling, the light wind buffeting the west-facing windows all say, ‘Welcome home!’.
By mid-afternoon intense conversations unfold as the engaged astronomers rise and those of us who retain fairly normal sleeping hours share the dining hall and common space. Steven, Retha, and I, the next day joined by Willie and Lisa covered more topics than I do recall, from the generation of water from humid air to the politics of South Africa, to data reduction and the application of Machine Learning against the wishes of those who are not yet ready to let go of their scripts and proved techniques.
With all telescopes at the SAAO observatory now capable of being remotely controlled, there is debate about the value of sending astronomers to these remote locations. For certain, the mechanical aspects of pointing the instrument to a distant object, capturing photons, and moving onto the next can be done without a being on-site. Yet, it is the draw of the dark night skies, the bliss of isolation, those moments of being only here, right now, that draw us into this place.
It is my experience and my hope that astronomers will continue to come to these places for the same reason we venture to witness the elephant and the lion, not on-screen. The sound of the wind whipping over the top of the open dome, the smell of the machine oil, the sensation that one has stepped into a spacecraft destined for anywhere cannot be reproduced through a remote connection.
Until the next visit to Sutherland, I will recall that for those brief four days, I enjoyed a return to one of my safe spaces, where both the routine and unexpected unfold every night.