Those of us who have been fortunate enough to visit the Island of Puerto Rico know of its beautiful beaches, Old San Juan and its historical architecture, the lushness of El Yunque and its cascades, and the luminescent bay in la Parguera, but only the real adventurer would probably have visited one of the gems of the Island, the Arecibo Observatory.
Located north of the city of Arecibo, the Observatory was built between 1960 and 1963. Engineers used the valley surrounded by mountains as the base for the 1,000-foot wide reflective stationary dish of the telescope. The antennas located above moved along a track system to position themselves to allow them to scan the universe for radio waves.
I remembered the first time I visited this wonder in the early ’70s. At that time with no GPS, I only had a printed map to follow along winding roads that had no signs. In Puerto Rico, these roads were marked by kilometers and the markers were usually found by the shoulder of the road, almost invisible from a car. Getting there was almost an act of faith because the observatory was not visible, hidden by the mountains surrounding it in a protective mode.
Once, I got there I was not sure of what I saw. There were no tours, a few signs, and several people working who all look like hippies. They were not talkative; instead, it was obvious they were deep into pursuing their scientific tasks. I saw several unrecognizable pieces of equipment and heard weird sounds that I was told came from outer space.
I did learn that the Observatory was run by Cornell University and NASA. According to the Puerto Rico Past and Present Encyclopedia, the Radio Observatory produced many findings among them, the discovery of the first pulsar by astronomers Richard Hulse and Joseph Taylor; the discovery of several other planets outside our solar system; and the mapping and monitoring of asteroids and comets.
I returned to the Observatory on several other occasions and finally was part of a tour that explained the equipment in more detail as well as the sounds coming from outer space. Despite the clear signs of high-tech science around me, I felt I was in the presence of magic: sounds that have traveled light years to be captured by a radio observatory nestled among the mountains of Puerto Rico and committed scientists working to decipher them. That magic made the observatory part of several movies including Contact (1997) and Goldeneye (1995).
Whenever a friend or colleague visited the Island, I tried to take them to visit the Observatory. It was an opportunity to connect them with outer space even if we lacked the knowledge to understand the meaning of the sounds we were hearing.
Like Puerto Rico itself, the Observatory deteriorated with age, lack of funding, Hurricane Maria, and several earthquakes. Finally, on December 1 the antennas collapsed, tumbling into the reflective dish. The event was captured by a video that brought sorrow to my soul.
The words of Walt Whitman’s poem came to mind:
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer
… … …
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick
Till rising and gliding out I wandere’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
The Observatory was a window in a small Island in the Caribbean to the universe, a connector to what is beyond our planet, a mode to listen to the vastness of the universe. A reminder of our insignificance given the multitude of planets and solar systems in outer space.
To me the observatory was like Whitman wrote, an opportunity to look in perfect silence at the universe: it was science seeking to understand the unknown and at the same time the poetry of defining it.
Estela R. López recently retired from the CT State Colleges and Universities System where she served as the Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs.
She is the former Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs of the Connecticut State University System. She served in that capacity from 2002 to 2007.
From 1997 to 2002, Dr. López occupied the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to joining NEIU, López served as a senior associate at the American Association for Higher Education and as a senior fellow at the American Council on Education while on a year-long sabbatical.
From 1990 to 1995, López was vice president for academic affairs and planning at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico.