After visiting the Green Bank Observatory’s educational center in West Virginia, sharing a big slurpy ice cream cone, perusing the gift shop and sitting in the auditorium for a video on wavelengths from space and how we try to receive them, we boarded the bus to tour the grounds and see the big dish. Our lean and lanky young guide, knit cap on head, brooked no nonsense but appreciated a good question. He drove the big diesel bus through the green grounds-diesel, because sparkplugs in gas-powered vehicles emit sound waves that compete with the satellite dishes ability to pick up faint wavelengths from space. In fact, we were in the National Radio Quiet zone in order for the big white parabolic dishes to do their work- the research center is nestled in a valley in sparsely populated, mountainous West Virginia. No planes are allowed to fly overhead, there are no radios, microwave ovens, generators, invisible dog fences, and tourists can’t take digital photos- the things you don’t even realize emit radio waves that would interfere with information gathering from the reaches of space.
When we arrive at the big telescope the bus parks and we all reverentially emerge to stand around the fence encircling it. It is a masterpiece of struts- a labyrinth of white metal bars criss-crossing, arcs of triangles supporting the 100 meter dish and allowing it to be controlled to move- whether to tilt to catch radio waves from a certain corner of the universe for that day’s data collection, or to move to dump snow that collected inside it’s bowl.
It sparkles pristine white against the blue sky. In fact, it turns out it is a decent-salaried job to be part of the painting crew. And like a Victorian house, once you finish painting one end it is time to start back at the beginning. For such an incredible technological achievement- able to receive signals from 23,000 LIGHT YEARS distance, able to give evidence of dark matter and the origins of universes, it looks somewhat simple, approachable. You can see the clean disc and the lattice framework, you can see the arm attached to the base so that it can be maneuvered, you can even see the sequence of ladders for workers to climb all the way up and around the gigantic bowl. You can look across the green field to the research facility where astrophysicists sit and program into the computer, instructions for the telescope. Point this way, receive waves between these frequencies, collect data for these hours, these days. Send it along its merry way via wires and wireless internet for someone somewhere else in the world to analyze and interpret.
So, in this remote valley of rocky cliffs and pines, under blue skies and cloudy, hot days and icy, in the night hours and all the day, we listen to the heavens. With open minds and curiosity we receive what wavelengths we can measure, wondering what we fail to measure. Amazed at distance, at sensitivity, at our ability to extrapolate from the numbers. Vibrations and waves that travel far further than light, pass through matter, escape through black holes, reach this gigantic instrument . It is delicate enough to hear the formation of a star long long ago. Music of the spheres, we say. What are we about, I wonder, what will we find? How do we know what to ask?