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The 2nd Coolest Observatory in the World
(in Chile)

by Michael Shermer, Jun 30 2009

Last week I visited Santiago, Chile, at the behest and invitation of Alvaro Fischer, a mathematical engineer interested in the evolutionary foundation for understanding the social sciences. Alvaro is hosting a series of conferences this year in celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday called “Ciencia y Evolución” (Science and Evolution).

Because Darwin spent nearly a third of his 5-year voyage around the world in Chile (1/3? Wow, who knew?), Alvaro thought it appropriate to host a conference there on evolutionary everything, with three different events (May on medicine and evolution, June on economics and evolution, July on politics and evolution, and September on everything Darwin with a veritable who’s who of evolutionary theory). Next week I’ll blog about the wickedly interesting conversations between the three of us evolutionary economists: myself (a libertarian atheist), Kevin McCabe (a conservative Catholic from George Mason University who does neuroeconomics), and Ulrich Wit from the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany (a socialist economist). Suffice it to say that the dinner conversations, along with the public debate, saw fireworks. More on that later.

Because I had heard that Chile has one of the largest telescope arrays in the world, Alvaro was kind enough to hook me up with Dr. Massimo Terenghi, who orchestrated the design, construction, and implementation of the Paranal observatory, which houses four 8.2 meter telescopes and four smaller meter-size telescopes, plus the architectural-award winning hotel/living quarters for the astronomers and staff, featured in the latest Bond flick, Quantum of Solace. After my talks, Massimo and I flew from Santiago two hours north to Antofagasta, then drove two hours inland through the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth, then made the climb up the mountain to this amazing cluster of buildings and telescopes. (See the photo gallery below that accompanies this commentary.)

When Massimo was 14 he had a thriving stamp collection for which he was so dedicated that his grades collapsed, so his mom put the collection away and gave Massimo a book to read and told him to get serious about learning. The book was on astronomy and he’s never looked back, blasting through his education at the University of Milan with a doctoral degree in theoretical astrophysics, completing his dissertation on gamma radiation from the galactic core. He then moved to Arizona where he participated in the first research on the large-scale distribution of galaxies throughout the universe (that spidery/soap bubbly model of galaxy distribution we’ve all seen on countless science channel shows). Massimo then returned to Europe to co-found the European Organization for Astronomy in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and began scouting for a high dry place to look at the heavens. Enter Chile and the Atacama desert, where humidity hovers around 5% and it never rains (unlike Southern California where, despite the song, it rains way too often for astronomers with no time to spare). Seriously, this place is in the middle of nowhere. It looks exactly like Mars, except it has a blue sky and a paved road. Just Google Earth “Paranal Observatory” and you’ll see what I mean.

How sophisticated are these telescopes? The astronomers are not even allowed in the domes at night! These telescopes are so complicated that they are run by engineers trained to do nothing but drive these puppies every night from a control center. Analogy: observing a solar eclipse from a 747 doesn’t mean that you also know how to fly the 747. That’s what these telescopes are like, with hundreds of computers that micro-adjust the mirrors and coordinate 1, 2, 3, or even 4 of the 8.2 meter telescopes at once.

How big are these mirrors? The #1 telescope in the Shermer Telescope Ranking System (STRS) is Mt. Wilson’s 100-inch Hooker telescope, from which Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way galaxy is just one of billions of galaxies that are all expanding away from one another. (That’s how you get a space telescope named after yourself!) The ESO telescopes are 8.2 meters = 26.9028 feet = 322.8 inches, or over three times the size of the Hooker, and there’s four of them!!! Believe me when I tell you, I was not dumb enough to ask where the eyepiece was on these babies. But if they did put an eyepiece on one of them, and you pointed it at the moon where Apollo 11 landed 40 years ago next month, just before you went blind you would be able to see the lunar landing base (the bottom of the LEM). Now that’s a telescope!

So, suffice it to say, I was in good hands for my visit to this cosmic Mecca, and we made good use of the travel time to discuss the Big Questions in life, including God: Massimo is a believer. And not in Einstein’s/Spinoza’s deistic god, but Yahweh, the God of Abraham. Why? After admitting that his beliefs are undoubtedly influenced by his Italian Catholic upbringing, as a professional astronomer he is continually struck by the remarkable beauty and magnificent grandeur of the cosmos, which his reason and intuition tell him could not have come about through natural forces alone. Of course I countered with the multiverse argument, and we reviewed the various points pro-and-con about the likelihood of life evolving elsewhere in the cosmos and what this might mean for religion and theology. (Massimo is convinced that virtually every star we will be studying with the upcoming space-based and ground-based telescopes will have planets, and that surely there is intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.)

As such conversations should, this one ended with two friends finding mutual respect for different positions, because life is too short. We had a lively dialogue on our way down the mountain and I feel exceptionally fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Massimo Terenghi, one of the most interesting people I have met in my travels. And I promised him that the next time he comes to Southern California that I would take him to the #1 telescope in the world….

Click any one of the photos below to enlarge it. Then, you can navigate back and forth between the photos using the NEXT and PREVIOUS buttons that appear when you hover your mouse over the photo.

19 Responses to “The 2nd Coolest Observatory in the World
(in Chile)”

  1. Jeff says:

    What an awesome trip. Observatories are a blast.

    I can appreciate Massimo’s ideas of religion. As a Baha’i, my exchange with most atheists goes along the lines of, “I don’t believe in the same god you don’t believe in.”

    Here’s a quote from Baha’u’llah for Massimo:
    “Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute.”

  2. oldebabe says:

    An adventure full of wonderful (and interesting…) sights. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mike says:

    Shermer,you crazy ol’ Libertarian,you’ve done it again.This is one of the coolest,most readable posts I’ve seen on here in a while.Dig the pictures at the end.You’ gettin’ faaaaaat! LoL,just kidding.

  4. Fathermocker says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed your stay in my country, Michael.
    I hope you come here more often though!
    I’m one of the guys (the last one actually) that took a picture with you after your second talk on that University in picture 15.

  5. “…myself (a libertarian atheist)”

    Hey are you considering yourself an atheist now? I thought you were agnostic? Or did you mean atheist in a very light sense?

    Btw, great post!

  6. MadScientist says:

    That is one of the greatest contemporary optical observatory complexes on the planet – I hope I have an opportunity to visit and get a tour one day. :) I’m quite happy with my sneak peak of the Mauna Kea Science Complex, but there’s only so much space on Mauna Kea. Paranal is closer to the equator (so the view is slightly different from Mauna Kea) but there is plenty of room for expansion.

    Thanks for pointing out that it’s pretty rare for people to actually be in the dome with the telescope. These days it’s pretty common for the people working with those instruments to never see the instrument producing their data. Just think about it – how many astronomers have gone into space to have a look at the Hubble telescope? Well, ground-based observatories are often fairly remote and the researchers often never visit the site. The people who build instruments for the telescopes often don’t see the site except when it comes to installing and testing the instrument.

  7. DIEGO URRUTIA says:

    Next time you come to Santiago I will show you Lampa, and how the maffia and the church has abolished ownership, since Eduardo Frei government in 1997, with a funnny regulatory “plan” that allowes only some “capos” to build. Plans dissapeared last century as a weapon of the comunist dictatorship of the eastern world.One world is that of the stars and Fisher, the other of hunger and hopeless is
    the commmon.

  8. Arturo Ruiz says:

    That cafe is called “Haití” and the name coffee with legs refers to a lot a places… and you can call “cafe Haití” a conservative one…

  9. Arturo Ruiz says:

    There are some others more socialists

  10. PhilB says:

    Ran across these photos of the Paranal VLT. Very Cool.

  11. Re Massimo’s “surely there is intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos”, what do you think of Robin Hanson’s argument that “the easier it was for life to evolve to our stage, the bleaker our chances probably are”? See

  12. Jeff says:

    PhilB, those photos are absolutely gorgeous! By all means look at the rest of them too – I just had my camera repaired and now I feel like throwing it away…

    • PhilB says:

      Yeah, that was my reaction too. As a photographer, those shots induce massive amounts of humility.

  13. David says:

    Great post.

    I was present at the Casa Piedra event Ciencia y Evolución, and found your talk fast, funny, and very energizing. Congratulations.

    Your mentioning of Pinochet was brief, but very, very controversial. Though most chileans here have formed the opinion (in my opinion correct) that his record for abuses leaves him in a bad position, most people are more umcomforatble with the other side of the story. There is a general belief that his introduction liberalism (“savage capialism”) has been bad for Chile (“He brought the evil of competition to peace-loving cooperative chilenos who now have a cult-relationship to shopping malls.”).

    In a society accustomed to paternalistic caudillo-inquilino relationships, it is very tough to defend the (ultimately correct) libertarian stance. Somehow, people reap the economic benefits of liberal trade, but wish, deeper, to secure guaranteed welfare.

    Your visit was extremely valuabe and refreshing. One more step in the right direction.

    Thank you.

  14. Felipe Pincheira says:

    Hi Michael, i was there for both of your lectures, in Casapiedra and Adolfo Ibañez university. It was an honor to have you here in Chile and have the oportunity to greet you personally. I read Why People Believe Weird Things and became an admirer of your work.
    The only thing i regret is not having asked for your “Skeptic” pin first, you gave it to my friend, i was so jealous, hehe.
    I’m glad you had a good time in Chile and we hope to have you back here soon.
    Greetings from Santiago.

  15. Troythulu says:

    Awesome pix, Dr. Shermer, and thanks for sharing with this post. Keep it up!

  16. John says:

    Shermer is the coolest libertarian I know.

  17. Jaime Navon says:

    I was in your talk and I enjoyed every bit of it just as when reading your books and articles. It was fun to see Dr McCabe getting more and more nervous as you proceeded with your atheistic point of view during the conversation after the talk.
    I hope you will visit us again. There are wonderful places you will love (Torres del Paine or even Antarctica if you plan ahead)