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In my years as a journalist I’ve had the opportunity to crawl around in all sorts of forbidden high-tech environments: underground at CERN, giant water tanks in Houston where they trained the space shuttle and International Space Station astronauts, observatories where the ghosts of famous astronomers lurked in the perpetual twilight of telescope domes. I watched them build the space shuttle and then retire it, and saw them almost abandon the Hubble Space Telescope. Don’t ask me about the Superconducting Super Collider.
On Tuesday we learned that one of astronomy’s greatest sites had fallen. That would be the Arecibo telescope, technically known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, in Puerto Rico. Its 1,000-foot-wide antenna had been used by scientists studying the cosmos, the atmosphere and dangerous asteroids, and was a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life.
Two weeks ago, Arecibo’s operator, the National Science Foundation, said the telescope was damaged beyond repair and would be demolished. But on Tuesday it fell down on its own. Nine hundred tons of equipment crashed into the great dish suspended above the rural flora, kicking up dust and stirring a sense of mourning.
It was a slap-in-the-face reminder that nature and chance are the ultimate arbiters of our ambitions, our pride, our destiny.
I visited Arecibo once, in another lifetime. It was 1968 and I was working for a company affiliated with the old Atomic Energy Commission. We were there as part of an experiment with high-altitude clouds of ionized gas. It was a sci-fi dream of an experience, all that gleaming white high-tech in the midst of the jungle mountains.
I became a science writer a few years later, when I published a piece in Technology Review about cosmic rays. In 1976, I joined Sky and Telescope magazine as an assistant typesetter and overall go-fer. That led to a job at the new Discover magazine, part of Time Inc., and then a decade in the woods of upstate New York, where I wrote two books. In 1997, the science editor of The Times, Cory Dean, called me and invited me to lunch.
I never made it back to Arecibo, although it continued to make news. I had planned to stop by on a vacation trip in 2008, but a diving accident sent me to the emergency room instead.
The Arecibo Observatory was on a starvation diet for the last few years. One lesson of all this is that if you don’t maintain something, you will eventually lose it, whether it is a robot on Mars or a telescope on Earth. There was already online debate about whether someone — the N.S.F., Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk? — should rebuild Arecibo for $300 million or so.
But you could argue that all of science has been on a starvation diet since the Apollo years, once we no longer had to worry about beating the Russians. It is worth remembering that the Arecibo telescope started off as a defense project to understand how missile warheads would interact with the atmosphere.
Covering science, you learn that some of the things that have the biggest emotional pull with the public are not always the things that have the biggest weight in the professional scientific community. There is always a push and pull between the old and the new, and sentiment doesn’t always have a vote. That’s just the way scientists are. When the debate about servicing the Hubble was going on 15 years ago, in the wake of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, some astronomers were arguing it was time to move on, referring to Hubble as “an old jalopy” that had had its day.
As a journalist, I can’t take sides in these kinds of debates, as much as I have my own preferences and tastes in exploration. I still think one of the coolest proposals I’ve heard recently was to send a boat to sail the methane seas of Titan in search of life or at least the kind of chemistry that could lead to it.
Money plays a big role in these deliberations, although history will record that the most recent $12 million operating budget for Arecibo was too much of a bargain to be true.
What never goes away is the ingenuity and brilliance and perseverance of humans.
The scientific community has its own procedures for determining priorities. But us journalists, we’re always writing obits of one sort or another.