Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Observatories and Monasteries


Perhaps the best part of being an observational astronomer is that one gets to visit some of the world's most remote and astonishing places. For my thesis work I went to Chile multiple times to observe at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Andes (pictures above) - and I saw some of the most spectacular sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. But then most observatories are located in these amazing locations. It is thus not surprising that many of the same mountain tops are also considered sacred or are used for religious purposes. I have written about the conflict over observatories at Mauna Kea before (for example, see here and here). But to give you an idea of the place, here is a nice time lapse video of observatories on the mountain:
On related note, here is a review of a book, The Edge of Physics, by Anil Ananthaswamy that talks about observatories and monasteries. In fact, the author, after spending some time at Mount Wilson, also decided to stay at a nearby monastery:
Confessing that his journey is a pilgrimage, Ananthaswamy begins and ends his tale at observatories that share peaks with monasteries. The first site is Mount Wilson in California, where Edwin Hubble measured the expansion of the Universe in the 1920s. Ananthaswamy explains how a reverential attitude was expected from astronomers working there, and how for many years women were banned from the site because they were considered a distraction. Reflecting this austere atmosphere, the astronomers' basic sleeping accommodation is still called The Monastery. Ananthaswamy stays on for a few nights with the neighbouring community of Camaldolese monks to contemplate the site in solitude and silence. One of the monks, a distant relative of George Ellery Hale who founded the observatory in 1904, explains how he too seeks “a deep experience that one can't express”.
I have not been to Mount Wilson - but I would love to read about Ananthaswamy's experience with the monks. In an interesting way, the books ends with an observatory/monastery connection in India:
Ananthaswamy conveys that cutting-edge science is a human endeavour. Ending his journey, and his story, at India's Hanle observatory in the Himalayas, he again notes the confluence of an observatory and a monastery at a remote location. He urges that these sites must be protected from environmental threats such as climate change and oil pipelines.
Yes, that is totally fine. But interesting issues come up when there are others who find observatories themselves to be responsible for local environmental damage (as in the case of Mauna Kea).

Observatories are not the only places Ananthaswamy explores. He also goes to Antarctica, visits neutrino-detector mine in Minnesota, and flies to Siberia. He is interested on understanding the people who are conducting these experiments. Looks like an interesting read. If you are interested in this topic, also check out Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Encounters at the end of the world.

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