Tag Archives: telescope

The Very Large Array


Is there anybody out there? Any pulsars? Can I get a show of hands? So to speak.

Today we returned to a place I’d been through once before but hadn’t had a chance to stop and really get a decent look at: The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array. This telescope comprises 27 massive (82 feet across) radio dishes that can be moved around the desert on train tracks into different configurations in order to gather an accurate picture of what space sounds like. A computer capable of 16 QUADRILLION operations per second sews all the data together to create images of various sectors of the universe.

This dish was fairly close to the road; the dishes are so big you can see them probably 30 minutes before you reach them. For scale, those concrete blocks on which the entire apparatus rests are about as tall as I am.  The dishes are 94 feet high. For $6 ($5 with the military or AA discount) you can take a guided walking tour of the facility and get even closer to a dish along with some other interesting astronomy related objects.

We also saw a herd of antelope grazing near the telescopes, which was a treat for me, as I’ve never seen them in the wild. Should have stopped to take pictures, since they were right by the road. On our way out they were too far away for a good shot.

A Lively Mandala

Life...don't talk to me about life...

Life…don’t talk to me about life…

Complexity. I really, really want a macro lens for my camera so that I can take pictures of minuscule insects; they tend to have really complex patterns on their little carapaces. So much of the world is not merely beneath the notice of human beings, but beneath the ability of human beings to notice. Yesterday, while helping the girl with vocabulary words, I helped her understand the difference between a telescope and a microscope. Telescopes show us things that are big but too far away to see, while microscopes show us things that are close but too tiny to see.

“But not germs,” she told me. “They’re too tiny for microscopes.”

But of course, they’re not. “They’re too tiny for the microscopes in your school, but not for scanning electron microscopes.”

Those pictures are amazing. Have you seen these high rez images of tardigrades swimming along like the kings of the universe? How about simple viruses and bacteria? There is an entire alien world living in your bellybutton. And smaller than that, photos of atoms: like, the actual building blocks of matter atoms. I remember having my mind blown by this 25 years ago. And then tinier still, subatomic particles whose existence we can observe only in partial glimpses, whose physicality we possibly couldn’t even comprehend even with visual perception.

Extremely small things really demonstrate how large the universe really is. We can’t even sense its superlatives.

Anyway, this mandala looks to me like something a scientist in a movie based on an HP Lovecraft story would observe when asked to magnify small sample of an alien organism. And the pallid, bespectacled academic explorer who’d acquired the sample, which was discovered 100 years ago buried under the Antarctic tundra, would bemoan the fact that the species was long extinct and the world would never know this beautiful creature, but then the scientist would notice that the cell was only dormant. Awakened by the heat of the electronic equipment, the cell would begin rapid mitosis. Within twenty hours, the scientist would be dead and the wild-haired, wild-eyed explorer would be ranting in Arkham Asylum about the ancient menace waiting to devour the world.