I Don’t Like to Brag…

…and I also wouldn’t normally use this blog to inflict personal photos on you all, especially vacation photos.

But today I’m going to make an exception to both rules.

Anyone care to guess where I was last week?

Yes, you guessed it: after a three-hour plane flight and a two-hour drive along narrow, winding backcountry roads, I arrived at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope in the world.

Here’s me at the observatory complex’s front gate:

The observatory itself was at the top of a long hill. Along the path on the walk up, there are scale models of the solar system. Here’s the Sun (at the start of the walk) and a little way up, the Earth:

Further up the hill, the observatory itself rises into view above the trees. The lush tropical valley it’s situated in is a gorgeous enough sight, but with the observatory towers rising above the treetops, it was practically a spiritual experience. (I imagine this must be how Muslims on pilgrimage feel when the Kaaba finally draws into sight.)

There are three towers which hold the support cables for the main reflector that’s suspended over the dish. Here’s one of them from below, in a shot that tries to convey just how huge they are:

Before seeing the observatory, there’s a small visitor center and museum. Here’s a shot from inside, one of the Nobel prizes that was won with Arecibo’s aid – by Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse, for the discovery of the first binary pulsar.

The next two pictures are kind of a funny story. After touring the exhibits in the visitor center, which were okay but nothing spectacular, I was becoming impatient to see the telescope itself. But the visitor center didn’t have any windows that looked out onto it directly, and there didn’t seem to be any way to get outside. I was starting to worry I’d come all this way for nothing. Then, on the second floor of the visitor center, I noticed a hallway leading back into some staff offices. There weren’t any signs saying Employees Only, but it didn’t seem like an area meant for casual visitors. I peeked in and noticed, at the end of the hallway, an employee lounge with picture windows that looked out onto the telescope. It was Saturday, so the adjacent offices were empty, and there were no employees of the visitor center around.

Well, what would you have done?

As it turns out, my cunning attempt at espionage was unnecessary. Through an ordinary, nondescript exit door at the back of the visitor center (and I don’t know why it wasn’t marked more prominently), you can stand on a platform overlooking the dish itself.

The sheer sense of scale doesn’t fully come through in the pictures, though I tried to take shots that would convey it. The telescope is gigantic: the dish is almost a thousand feet across, and the reflector suspended over it is the size of a house. It’s built into a giant natural valley in the jungle terrain.

And finally, here’s me when I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a scientific colloquium that was going on while I was at the observatory. (Not really.)

Unfortunately, despite all the trail-blazing discoveries it’s brought us, the future of Arecibo is threatened. Thanks to a selfish and short-sighted Congress, the National Science Foundation has been forced to make cutbacks in the past few years. Among other things, the NSF has told the staff of Arecibo (and Cornell University, which operates the telescope) that they must find outside sources for half of their budget within three years, or else the great observatory faces closure.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The annual cost of operating Arecibo is a mere $8 million – small change, on the scale of the federal government. But while the government refuses to pay this comparatively paltry amount to continue to survey the deepest reaches of the universe, it continues to flush hundreds of billions of dollars into a wasteful, endless nightmare of war in Iraq. A tiny fraction of that money, if diverted to worthier causes, could pay enormous dividends both in fundamental science and elsewhere.

As grateful as I am to have had this experience, I don’t want to be one of the last people to enjoy it. Arecibo deserves to be fully funded and to continue operating for many more years. The well of discovery has not yet come close to running dry, and if we seal it off, we’ll be doing ourselves an enormous, senseless disservice. A bill, HR 3737, has been introduced in the House of Representatives to provide for Arecibo’s funding. If you’re an American, I ask you to contact your congressional representative and ask them to lend their support.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    Cool! I recognized it immediately from the first picture. I think I have some pictures of it around here somewhere. Back in the early 90s, say 1991 or so, I made a special trip from San Juan where I was vacationing with my wife and another couple, just to go see the Observatory. I remember the walk up the hill, and I remember the foliage, but the one thing that still strikes me is that the pictures don’t do it justice. The sheer size of the dish, sitting down there from the observation area, is so awe inspiring.

    My wife wasn’t that impressed, but I was, and so was our traveling companion, who was a science nut. Still is.

    One thing, I remember thinking that there were a lot of leaves down there, and that they ought to clean them up. Did they?

    It’d be a shame to see it closed.

  • Yoyo

    And you brush up so well! Good post, we cannot afford to loose these resources.

  • Jeff T.

    Everytime that I think of the $10,000,000/hr that we spend on the Iraqi War, I am amazed. We live in a country that has an infrastructure that was basically built by Generation Mature (ie prior to 45) and we could use some serious upgrades.

    A large portion of the country, including my home, does not even have high speed internet access available due to the lack of infrastructure. I used to enjoy driving a Camaro, but not anymore, due to most American roads have too many potholes.

    Seeing this story is just one more straw to add to the camel’s back, and I am not too fond of camels to start with.

    But, I don’t vote anymore; 2004 was the last time for me. I washed my hands of it, just like Pontius Pilotman.

  • aweb

    I remember that dish, I think, from James Burke’s Connections series, when he got to walk around in it as the closing shot to one of the episodes (3rd in the original series). Very cool, and a nice diversion for this site.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I’m always a bit ambivalent about astronomy. You see, my father’s crazy about it, and has been for years — in fact just recently he’s been building this observatory, dome and all, in the back garden, using money he got from a photo he took of Comet McNaught that made it into National Geographic, that’s how crazy about astronomy he is. And me? I’ve been an insomniac, on and off (usually on) since I was about twelve, and there was this one time when I was thirteen or so when Dad, enthusiastic as ever, convinced me to come out to the observatory belonging to our local university and it got so late, and really, I could have slept, and wasn’t, and you have no idea how infuriating that was. And omega centauri really just looks like the night sky if you’re looking at it too close (only more boring because the stars are more evenly spread) and frankly I couldn’t have cared less about how many light years away it was. So ever since then I act determinedly disinterested about astronomy just in case my father is listening.

    That said, safely pseudonymised as I am I agree that it’s terrible that Arecibo is in danger of closure. Besides, nobody drags you out of bed in the middle of the night to look at pulsars :-)

  • http://unorthodoxatheism.blogspot.com Reed Braden

    No one has yet mentioned the movie Contact by Atheist Carl Sagan starring Atheist Jodie Forster playing Atheist Ellie Arroway. What’s wrong with you people?!

  • Valhar2000

    We are polythematic, that’s what. And, in my opinion, Contact was a low point in Sagan’s career.

  • Judy

    Thank you, Ebonmuse, for sharing this exciting story about your visit to the Arecibo Observatory. I now have one more thing to add to my list of “must see”. Interestingly enough, I was not interested in astronomy UNTIL I saw the movie “Contact”. I’ve been reading up on the subject ever since in an attempt to achieve a deeper understanding of our universe. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there.

    On a side note, it was nice to finally “meet” you (seeing your picture)! Of course, you look nothing like I’ve imagined you would look!

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    Sounds wonderful.

  • Reed Ulvestad


    Well, to be fair, he was dead at the time (of the movie’s release) ;)

  • andrea

    Contact was rather awful, as a book and more so as a movie, IMO. I much prefered The Hercules Text, which came out before it and was similar in story. Well, I’ll be in the same island as Arecibo in two days. Pity I can’t go see it. Always wondered what you looked like :)

  • http://verwide.net/blog/ Moody834

    My reactions to this post unspooled roughly as follows: “Oh, he’s way cu…!? He’s at Arecibo Observatory!?! WTF! I hate him! Hate, hate, hate, … hey, wow, that’s cool. Oh… wow. Wow. Mm-hmn. Yes. Definitely. Save Arecibo Observatory! I love him! Love, love, loooove him! He’s way cute.” ;-)

    Glad you got to go, man. What a wonderful place. The closest I’ve ever been to it was during a certain sequence of the X-Files movie, which I saw on the big screen. But I hope to be as lucky as you some day. :-)

    Contact (the movie) was great because of Jodie Foster and the portrayal of religious fanaticism, but as a story it certainly wasn’t one of Sagan’s better works. I’d much sooner see Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama made into a movie… Oh, goodness… well, would you just look at that!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Wow, Lynet, sorry there’s so much baggage there. I sure wish I could convey the wonder of learning which astronomy gives me. Then again, I hate bowling and you probably roll a 240 or so.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    It’s okay, Thump — the enthusiasm for astronomy on this page was at least enough to make me want to pick up my old general relativity notes :-)

    My reactions to this post unspooled roughly as follows: “Oh, he’s way cu…

    I’m so glad it’s not just me.

  • Paul

    Ebon, it was great to put a face to a blog! I’ve always admired what you’ve written and blogged, but seeing who you are deepens all of it. We are bodies and faces as well as thoughts and ideas, and putting the two together means a lot.

  • javaman

    Ebon! I have a man crush on you! But I mean that in a good way! Maybe we all need to post our pics to have a visual reference of each other ,60% of our brain tissue is for sight, Humans are very visual creatures

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Cripes. This is not the response I was expecting. It’s flattering, though, in a slightly strange sort of way. :) Be good, you lot, and I’ll post some more pictures of myself from the rainforest in El Yunque National Park. ;)

    I’m sorry to hear about your bad experience with astronomy, Lynet. I suppose poorly planned attempts at teaching can suck the joy out of anything. If it’s not where your interests lie, that’s fine, but if it’s solely for your father’s sake that you’re not interested, I say give it another chance. Personally, I find astronomy the most awe-inspiring of all branches of science (biology being a close second). Trust me, there are pictures on the HubbleSite that are far more breathtaking than anything you could see through a backyard telescope.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Really, the universe is so breathtaking that it is a wonder that I have any breath left. And don’t think that I was able to avoid pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope while growing up (sigh). Ah, but my flippant, irritable side is showing…

    Personally, I find that mathematics has the awe of the infinite void, that it might suck you in and stretch you out unbearably, spit you out in crumpled pieces that still gasp at the iridescent flash of the crystalline complexity, and ache for its impersonal cadences as you might ache for a departed love.

    All of which is just to say that I don’t feel like being awed right now :-) When I do, I’ll take a look.

  • Jim Baerg

    “Personally, I find astronomy the most awe-inspiring of all branches of science (biology being a close second).”

    I’ll add the ‘deep time’ of geology.

  • Marta

    El Yunque National Park is one of the most beautiful things in PR, but my personal favoutite is the fluorescent bay in Vieques.

    I don’t remember the Nobel Prize at the observatory.

  • spaceman spif

    Great pics!

    I find it funny, given the focus of this website, that “archaeology” is not mentioned as a fave on here!

    (Holy crap….put a goatee on you and you look like my brother!)