To me, and many of my friends, astronomical observatories are sacred, magical places where the mysteries of the universe are revealed to astronomers peering out into space with fantastic telescopes of all imaginable shapes and configurations. The fact that most of the largest, most famous observatories are located on mountain tops in far off places just makes them all that much more mysterious and wonderful.
Thousands of people make pilgrimages to these far off locations each year, to marvel at the state of the art in instrumentation and to learn more about the science being done with these massive machines in their unusual structures.
As it happens, the American Southwest, with its dry air and mountainous regions is home to many of the best observatories in the world. These observatories are the subjects of a new book by Douglas Isbell and Stephen E. Strom called Observatories of the Southwest, A Guide for Curious Skywatchers, published by The University of Arizona Press. If you are planning a trip to one or more of these places in the near future you need to buy this book. If you want to know the history behind any of these magical places, or meet some of the people who work there, or learn about the science being done with these gargantuan collections of glass, steel and electronics—buy this book.
It isn’t just the subjects of this book, the illustrations or the excellent writing that make it a wonderful read. It’s the way the book is organized; part travel guide, part history book, part human interest and part popular science.
Each observatory has its own chapter. The authors guide us through Palomar Observatory, Kitt Peak National Observatory, Lowell Observatory, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array, the Observatories of Sacramento Peak, McDonald Observatory and the Mount Graham International Observatory.
Each chapter can stand on its own as a perfect travel companion for any trip you decide to plan or take to any of these places. You are provided with the website url, contact phone number and physical address of each place to set up a visit.
Within each chapter you get a history of the planning and construction of the observatory and instruments, and the initial discoveries brought about by the use of the observatories and their telescopes. Many of these interesting stories are full accounts you’ll find hard to locate anywhere else, let alone all in one resource. This was one of my favorite aspects of this book. The stories behind investigating the suitability of each site, planning the construction, raising the money and building these multi-million dollar facilities on top of remote mountains where no roads exist is almost as interesting as the reasons for doing it.
A ‘For the Public’ section gives driving directions, hours of operations a description of the facilities, displays and gift shops and what you are able to view during public tours. Another section in each chapter called ‘For Teachers and Students’ gives useful information on programs available for school age kids, college students and amateur astronomers wanting to do observing or public outreach.
Some of the highlights of this book are the interviews with leading scientists who actually worked at the observatories or used the telescopes to make landmark discoveries in science. For example, Vera Rubin is featured in the chapter on Kitt Peak. She talks about the her work and its place in the story of dark matter, but what is even better are her descriptions of actually working at the observatory and with the staff. Her description of the desert flowers and sunsets from the south ridge of Kitt Peak show how special these places are for more than just the purely scientific reasons. Indeed, it is clear most of the interview subjects held each of their observatories in high regard for many reasons, some of them very non-scientific.
But what sets this book apart from any other travel guide to observatories or historical account of the activities and discoveries at each observatory is the ‘Science Highlight’ at the end of each chapter. This is where all the information is put into the context of how past achievements relate to what we are trying to learn today, what questions are being asked now, and how these instruments and people are working to find the answers. This is the juicy stuff you never get in a three-dollar tour from a research assistant or telescope operator when visiting a major observatory.
So if you are planning a trip to a southwest observatory this year, buy this book. Then you can be that annoying know-it-all person on the tour who answers all the questions before the tour guide can get a word out.