The single largest telescope mirror on the whole North American continent is a bowl shaped specimen over 27 feet in diameter, located in an array arising over the lush pines of an Arizona mountaintop, more than ten thousand feet above sea level. The second largest is its twin, positioned right next to it, the two being arrayed together to form a singularly powerful binocular expanse. The twelve story building housing the whole of the structure seems to burst unnaturally from the surrounding forest in a way vaguely reminiscent of a boxy alternative to the imperial base on the forest moon of Endor in the Return of the Jedi. The ungainly name is usually abbreviated to LBT (which sounds to me like a mixed-up sandwich order) or LBTO (which sounds to me like a reference to the community of sexual minorities). And, because the structure's big, round binocular lenses sit horizontally aligned, separated by a narrow vertical rectangle of concrete, one cannot help but be reminded of an enormous pair of eyes, almost expressive despite their boxy enclosure, not unlike those of the Pixar film robot WALL-E. This appearance is most pronounced in the evening, as the setting of the Sun causes the paired parabolic dishes to cast a shadow creeping down their keenly polished and reflective surface, as if a great pair of eyelids were slowly closing.

But enough about what the LBTO resembles culturally. Let us speak of what it actually is, what it accomplishes. The analogy to a great pair of eyes is apt, for the whole structure provides man with an immense tool with which to see into the depths of our Universe. It is, as noted before, Large. Large mirrors, large building, large ambition. It is Binocular. We have come to associate that term with the common handheld twin-lensed device for magnification of distant objects, it more generally means having a pair of ocular receptors set slightly apart so that the signals received from them can be combined to obtain depth of field (a sense for which humans -- and virtually all life forms on Earth -- have binocular vision). And so it is not redundant for it to be, as well, a Telescope, a bringer of distant images into closer view. And, lastly, it is an Observatory, a bustling bazaar of human activity centered around the acquisition and interpretation of images from the stars. Though shadows may make it seem as though the apparatus nods off at night, it is indeed during the frozen hours after sunset that at is most awake and most alive.

More about the observatory can be found at its website. Tours of the Mount Graham International Observatory, a complex of observatories including the LBTO and two smaller structures (one of which is, oddly enough, the official observatory of the Vatican). If you go, do it in the Summer; in the Winter -- even in Arizona -- it is endlessly freezing on a mountaintop over 10,000 feet.


FOR SCIENCE!! (ScienceQuest 2012)

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