The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Top of the World, Ma

by Steve Gajadhar

This picture was taken at sunset from the catwalk of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), the telescope that brought us here to the Big Island of Hawaii, a place I’ve been lucky enough to call home for the last year and a half. The summit of Mauna Kea is 4200m above sea-level. Measured from its base on the ocean floor to its top, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. Add this fact to the Big Island’s isolated location in the Pacific and you have the best conditions for astronomy anywhere in the world. 12 other major telescopes share the summit with CFHT, and together they represent nearly a dozen countries.

CFHT employs around 60 people who directly: astronomers, observing assistants, etc.; or indirectly: admin staff, mechanics, etc., explore the universe. How frickin cool is that? These 60 people somehow keep this several hundred million dollar facility collecting photons from distant galaxies. I think of them as an adventurous Robinson family missing only the robot, B9, although they’ve got the parts and the ingenuity to make one.

I’ve always been fascinated by the universe and I’ve always found a profound piety in contemplating its infinity. The universe makes my anthropocentric, egotistical consciousness feel small and utterly insignificant. How can it not when I know that the phosphorescent band dissecting the summer night sky is the accretion disc of the Milky Way Galaxy viewed side on. That the Earth is somewhere on the inside ring, held in gravitational thrall by the supermassive black hole at the center of the spiral and hurtling through space at 300km/s. That our sun is only one star out of around 100 billion stars in our galaxy and our galaxy is only one amongst hundreds of millions of other Galaxies each containing billions of other stars. That some of these stars are orbited by planets. That all of this is only the visible universe, and that current estimates have around 85% of the universe made up of dark energy and dark matter of which we know very little about.

Standing on that catwalk reminded me how we humans are not special. We are not the grand centers we perceive ourselves to be, and yet we could be the only beings that have ever been capable of knowing our role in the universe. This knowledge should teach us something. As most of the world turns inward, I can’t help but think it would benefit every one of us to look upward for a moment and feel small.

“The universe is a pretty big place, it’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So, if it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
-Arroway’s remark at the end of the movie Contact

“To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”
-Stephen hawking

To be continued…


Anonymous redpen said...

Sadly, not living in a Pacific island paradise, the phosphorescent glow filling my night sky is the accretion of hundreds of thousands of street lights, often amplified by an unreasonable volume of snow.

Thanks for the reminder to think big from time to time, Steve.

Wed Mar 07, 09:54:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

You're such a big tease, Steve! I could sit down over a beer (well, maybe several) and listen to you talk about this stuff for hours. I hope you'll post more about the astronomophiliac life in Hawaii.

Wed Mar 07, 10:36:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

This is facinating stuff, Steve, indeed how fortunate you are to be there. Thanks for the inspiring reminder!

Wed Mar 07, 11:38:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

It's a treat to find out more about your world, Steve. What a wonderful opportunity you have to reflect upon the human condition as you work. An inspiring piece of writing, this.

Wed Mar 07, 01:13:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

I love this, and yes, us humans do indeed need to think small, just love your post, hope to read more, as you did say, to be continued!

Wed Mar 07, 03:49:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks all. I'm glad you likey.

Fri Mar 09, 07:56:00 pm GMT-5  

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