Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

The E-ELT.

(Science Week, Day 2!)

This is an easy one. I checked my records and couldn’t find that I’d used it for Science Week before, which baffles me. No more delays.

ESO’s astronomical facilities at Paranal, Chile have been a symbolic inspiration to me for over a decade. At this optimal location for sky study, this state-of-the-art array of instruments gathers data nightly, including the incredible and massive VLT (creatively known as the “Very Large Telescope” – actually a collection of four giant mirrors plus four smaller scopes which can combine their observational powers). The VLT has provided a history of images and contributed to tons of press releases about unusual celestial phenomena, like this recent one about an atypical solar system.

That would be enough, but I like to consider the more worldly aspects of the place: the remote and inhospitable desert is the home to astronomers and engineers from all over the world, who lodge at the facility’s main half-underground hotel; in this isolated way, they shape their personal and professional routines alone or with their colleagues. It must take a lot to work there – both the talent to be hired, and the will to assume such a dedicated lifestyle. And the facility provides free episodic video to explain and share its findings with the public. There’s something about the whole equation that feels honourable, focused, more representative of the way humanity should and can be than the broader range of quality and wisdom we find in the more ordinary world. It may be the closest reality has come to setting the tone of Star Trek (the classic few series, of course – not the newer ones).

Championing that air is the telescope currently under construction, equally creatively called the European “Extremely Large Telescope.” The name can’t be faulted for accuracy – its largeness will indeed be extreme, with a single main mirror spanning over 40 metres. Like the VLT’s main mirror, it’s made up of many hexagonal components which can physically move, dynamically compensating for the atmosphere’s distortion of faraway objects. Put simply, it’s expected to advance astronomy with some of the sharpest and most detailed images ever, including direct images of exoplanets. When humanity’s vastest knowledge feels stagnant, the ELT reminds me that of the ocean of unknown knowledge still remaining, significantly more will be known in our lifetimes. As a typical mental image of nature or the universe would have seemed different to those born 20 years after Galileo’s or Darwin’s work than before, our idea may be appreciably different between our own births and our deaths.

The ELT is currently planned to begin observing in 2025.