FWWWSSSSH! The wind tried its best to sound like it was whipping around a remote mountaintop. Such a lonely location would agree with the imagined setting for an astronomical observatory, after all. But a peek through the slit of the fiberglass dome confirmed that we were a couple dozen yards from the Pan-American Highway, the fluorescent lights of a nearby pedestrian overpass glowing yellow.
My wife and I were just outside the lowland town of Penonome, Panama, on a satellite campus of the country's University of Technology. The week before, I had visited the grounds of an iguana husbandry project in the sweaty agricultural city of Santiago, and hung out with the fishermen of Puerto Mutis, a Pacific coastal village, where they bring in one of the nation's most valued and versatile catches, corvina—experiences unambiguously Panamanian. But inside the dome, I was still processing the sight of the highway together with the sight, from a moment earlier, of a blood-red stripe wrapping around Jupiter and the planet's bright moons lined up like ducklings. The two seemed mutually exclusive, but there they were, one outside the building and another through the eyepiece.
"People are asking, 'Hey, what will happen? Are we going to die or not?' The media is going to make a lot of money because of 2012," said Dr. Rodney Delgado, Panama's first astrophysicist, from somewhere in the darkness of the dome, when my wife had asked him for his take on the ever-rampant doomsday paranoia. His voice echoed with an odd sharpness in the five-meter half-sphere. Its fiberglass shell crackled ominously as the wind, on its race across the Isthmus, punched it and shoved it. He continued, "It's normal to worry. We are going to organize events to tell people what is really happening."
Panama's first astrophysicist was guiding us around Panama's first observatory. And another first, discernible from the night's ad-hoc program: I was the first writer to visit the observatory on a sneak peek preview before its official opening to people outside the scientific community—in other words, tourists. It was like a private rock concert, except that these stars didn't require tube amps or skin-tight clothing to perform.
He asked his assistant to aim the telescope at a point below Sirius, the brightest celestial body in the night sky. The glow of a computer monitor on his cheeks, the assistant appeared as if he were breezing through a video game he'd long since mastered as he pointed and clicked at the desired target, after which the telescope's robotic base began to hum and turn in obedience.
Rodney waved us over to the eyepiece. The embroidered logo on his polo shirt, which I had seen earlier as featuring the telescope and the tagline THE UNIVERSE IS IMMENSE, was swallowed up by grainy darkness. "You are now looking at the M41 open cluster. Open clusters are groups of stars that move together," he said in a confidently calm air of a nature guide pointing out bursts of orchids along a hike in the country's rainforest. What had appeared as just a barely discernible smudge in the sky to the naked eye opened up into a festive gathering of dozens of distinct stars, glowing through the eyepiece.
I was beginning to recognize similarities between travel and what Rodney referred to as astrotourism. Both can bring about the excitement of discovery. There was, however, the irony that I was becoming excited over a place I will never have an opportunity to visit; a place where I will never attempt to crack a culture barrier, if any locals exist; a place where I'd never feel the warmth of their sun—or suns.
I was tugged back to earth by the rumble of an eighteen-wheeler grinding along westward on the highway. The building responded to the truck's copious cargo of cinder blocks or milk cartons or sugarcane with a brief tremble. The telescope, however, did not shake at all. Earlier, while on the lower level of the observatory, Rodney had pointed to the column supporting the telescope and related how, when the observatory was being built, he had told the engineers "I do not want the telescope to move." As a result, the telescope's support column boasts a separate foundation drilled into the spine of Central America. It was attached to the rest of the building with a cosmetic closure of tiles.
Why was the observatory built close to the highway? "It was not because this is the best place," Rodney answered effortlessly, as if he was expecting my question. "It was because for the projects we have, it is the best place." He explained that the observatory needed to be located on the grounds of a University of Technology campus, as opposed to a remote mountaintop, for reasons of security. Penonome's campus was selected because it claims the most days per year of clear skies, offering astrophysicists a surprisingly valuable setting for research. The telescope is already providing the scientific community with data on mysterious lunar flashes, the ephemeral points of brightness that appear on the surface of the moon.
Listening to the Pavement
I could no longer ignore the palpable impression that Penonome's observatory has a peculiar but unmistakable sense of place, something I had previously thought would be difficult for an observatory to possess. Rather than dismissing the highway as a curious incongruity, I reconsidered the nearby pedestrian overpass, and how it reflects the Panamanian reality that three quarters of the country's people do not own cars and instead utilize the country's frequent buses, especially students traveling to and from the university. Even my wife and I had arrived in Penonome from Panama City on the same bus as several of the students.
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