Evoking a Sense of Awe

“Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish.  And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star.  If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?  Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the research himself (sic) is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe.”

-Carl Sagan, Cosmos

In their quest to understand and explain the natural phenomena they experienced on a daily basis, our ancestors told stories, many of which became the myths and legends with their pantheon of gods.  Objects such as the Sun and Moon, as well as more earthly places such as the seas and volcanoes, were the manifestations of the unseen beings behind the phenomena.  Monuments and cathedrals were built to honor these deities, while providing a place in which to worship.

In our modern age, scientists have explained the vast majority of the phenomena formerly attributed to magical or supernatural beings.  In one way the practice of science has led to the creation of new edifices, the instruments with which scientists undertake their investigations.  Astronomers have a particularly visible set of instruments, the observatories whose domes grace mountaintops in many places around the world, as well as in orbit above the obscuring effects of Earth’s atmosphere.  Kitt Peak is one such place.

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Kitt Peak National Observatory from the gallery of the Mayall 4-meter telescope.  Baboquivari Peak, the center of Tohono O’odham cosmology and home to their creator, I’itoi, rises in the distance.

Located on the second most sacred peak to the Tohono O’odham people, Kitt Peak features over two dozen optical and radio telescopes.  The largest instrument is the Mayall 4-meter telescope, and most iconic is the 1.6-meter McMath-Pierce solar telescope.

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Walking towards the McMath-Pierce solar telescope.

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Earlier this month, as a part of the Project ASTRO National Network annual Site Leaders Meeting, a group of us visited Kitt Peak.  The highlight of the tour was a visit to the solar telescope, and the opportunity to watch sunset on a projected image of the Sun, watching as clouds obscured the solar disc, and as it dropped behind a distant range of mountains.  It was an amazing spectacle.

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After sunset, the researcher operating the telescope asked us if we wanted to go up to the top.  Of course we said yes!  And were treated to a view from a hundred feet above the ground.

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Schematic of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. Image: NOAO

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Climbing the stairs inside the superstructure.

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Looking down the optical tunnel from the top.

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The heliostat at the top of the telescope.

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The tall dome to the right houses the Mayall 4-meter telescope.

In many ways our society takes the Sun for granted.  Astronomers, and particularly those who study the Sun, know better.  They are granted a front row seat to a spectacle inspiring awe in anyone fortunate enough to gaze on the phenomena with open eyes and mind.

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