© 1991 Richard Chamberlain
A lifelong fascination
by Richard Chamberlain
I am not a technical person. Like the vast majority of people, I find the most basic concepts of astronomy mind-boggling. Astronomers today,
of course, take it as an article of faith that this vast universe came into being in a single flash of heat and energy 15 billion years ago.
To me, it seems astounding that astronomers have instruments capable
of detecting an “afterglow” from the “Big Bang” – that the radiation given off from that explosion can still be measured after traveling through space for 15 billion years. Even more astonishing is the fact that virtually all of the atoms and molecules that make up our bodies, our ecosystem, our planet and our solar system come from the dust and debris of exploded stars - stars that lived and died long before our own star,
the sun came into existence. We are literally made of stardust.
My fascination with the universe can be traced back to a gift received when I was 8 or 9. It was a telescope – really just an old cardboard tube with two mirrors and an eyepiece, but through it I could see extraordinary things: the craters on the moon, the moons around Jupiter, even the rings of Saturn. I invited my friends over to look through the telescope.
Of course, they needed me to explain what they were seeing, so for a while I became a minor celebrity in the neighborhood.
I couldn’t help but remember that simple little telescope when, for the filming of the series, I traveled to the top of the highest peak in Hawaii, Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on top of which several massive observatories have been built. Among them is the mighty Keck Observatory. Still under construction, the Keck houses the most powerful ground-based telescope in the world. When completed, it will have twice the size and four times the light–gathering power of the famous Palomar telescope in Southern California.
Getting to the top of Mauna Kea is quite a project. We took a Land Rover to a way station just past the halfway point, where we were requested
to spend time getting used to the altitude. At nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea has been known to cause varying degrees of altitude sickness, which manifests itself in disorientation, slurred speech and difficulty in breathing even in the hardiest of souls. One visiting astronomer, some years ago, suffered a heart attack at the summit as a result of the altitude. Luckily, we managed to avoid that hazard of working on the cutting edge of science.
I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of traveling as a result of my career. I went to Japan and Indonesia for the filming of the miniseries Shogun, to Australia for the film The Last Wave. But I have never seen something remotely like Mauna Kea – a stark, primeval place formed
by lava flows. It’s easy to imagine that this is the way the Earth looked millions and millions of years ago, before we came along and started mucking it up.
Looking up at the star-filled sky above Mauna Kea is a remarkable experience in itself, but it cannot compare with peering up at that same sky through the lenses of today’s telescopes. In the last two decades,
the rate of discovery in astronomy has accelerated dramatically, thanks
to the development of these powerful instruments. But, as you’ll discover
if you watch The Astronomers, there are many wondrous secrets of the cosmos still waiting to be unlocked. In fact, part of what drew me to this series was the opportunity it gave me to get an “inside look” at the latest astronomical theories.
One of the most significant discoveries in recent years, for example,
is the fact that 10 times more matter exists in the universe than was previously suspected. Part 1 of the series traces current efforts to locate this “missing” portion of the universe known as dark matter. Other episodes dramatically recreate, via spectacular visual effects, the birth and death of a star; describe astronomers’ effort to “map” the universe and find new planets: trace one young scientist’s search for a massive “black hole” – a structure so dense that not even light can escape its gravitational pull: and offer behind-the-scenes views of Voyager 2’s
1989 encounter with Neptune.
Staring up at the night sky, illuminated by the moon and the distant stars, I have no trouble understanding the enthusiasm with which these true pioneers of outer space, the astronomers, approach their work.
I will never forget the thrill I felt when I peered through my first rudimentary telescope at the constellations, the awe I experienced years later seeing a man walk on the moon for the first time, and the breathtaking beauty of the first photos of Earth taken from outer space.
But as thrilling and mysterious as supernovas, quasars and black holes might seem, the most moving – and humbling – lesson I’ve learned from my study of astronomy is the realization that we are just an infinitesimal part of a vast and powerful mechanism called the universe.
Some say that scientists are close to the ultimate truth about the universe – a “theory of everything.” Well, my bet is that we’ll always
be able to gaze up at the night sky and sense its untold depths and even vaster mysteries.
The Mauna Kea
The Mauna Kea and the Observatories
The Observatories at the top of the Mauna Kea
The Keck observatory at twilight
The Milky Way