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Buried in the Sky

Looking up to the sky, a young astronomer finds truths at her feet.


Our group of astronomers took in the naked mountains by the sea. We had flown into the La Serena airport at noon, and found a parched landscape. What sparse vegetation there was survived by drinking coastal fog. Sleeping dogs melted in the sun and dotted the sidewalks beneath knotted telephone wires. In the busy town bazaar, an ancient man stood stooped by his cargo, dripping sweat, while two wolfish dogs sat on top of his empty car, a kind of primal security system.

We drove four hours inland on a road veiled in sand to reach the Las Campanas observatory. Shanty villages lined the highway, built around whatever water sources could be found. Buses were the only other vehicles we’d see. Sometimes people would get off nowhere in particular and walk into the perfectly empty desert. Children in layers of tattered sweaters watched our gleaming van drive by, their mothers calling to them from inside scraps of metal leaned up against wooden posts: These were their homes. Others lived in rusted-out school buses on blocks, fitted with grimy curtains. As we drove higher, the villages disappeared and there was nothing save a handful of llamas wandering the verdigris-flecked hills, chewing brittle scrub brush. Las Campanas translates to “the bells,” some say because its rocks, composed of volcanic material, sing when struck.

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The domes housing the telescopes were gorgeous, radiant with the setting sun. Telescopes cost tens of millions of dollars to build, and more than a million a year to maintain. The stark contrast with the villages below unsettled me. My trip to Chile was one of many I took around the world to observe astronomical events. But more than any other, it would shake my vision of what science meant to me. Within a year, I would abandon science altogether.

I loved astronomy because it allows us to look backward to our origins. Eugene Wigner spoke of the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in describing the natural world, calling it miraculous, a “gift we neither understand nor deserve.” And perhaps it is fair to call it a miracle: Math has made possible the scientific and technological progress that has revolutionized human life. But it also enables us to peer into the past, to reverse the trajectory of physical objects. I’d always had a special love for the beginnings of things: the Big Bang, stellar nurseries, the protoplanetary disk. I hoped that understanding these beginnings might give us a better sense of our purpose.

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My father, who believed that understanding the how of the universe would make clear the why of it, had kindled this obsession. He had traded in the Catholicism of his upbringing to raise us on Stephen Hawking books and nature documentaries. I immersed myself in physics from a young age; I never got the memo that college was supposed to be the best years of your life—immersed in my studies, all I ever thought about was math. This delighted my father, but my grandmother, a truck dispatcher from Pittsburgh, never understood my passion. She was proud of me, of course, but it felt as if she thought my academic interests were a betrayal. “Why don’t you just open a restaurant?” she advised. “You’re a pretty good cook!” Despite her sage counsel, I became a wandering nomad for those years, looking to the skies for answers.

Telescopes cost tens of millions of dollars to build, and more than a million a year to maintain. The stark contrast with the villages below unsettled me.

I worked for the late astronomer Jim Elliot and, though his lab was based out of MIT, we bounced around the world—Arizona, Chile, Hawaii, Australia—to work at various observatories. The nomadic lifestyle suited me—I was a loner and, apart from my family, had no ties at home. We were in Chile that year, 2002, chasing Pluto’s shadow. There hadn’t been a Pluto occultation—when a planet passes in front of a star—since the first one was observed in 1988. But that summer there would be two, the first visible from the Las Campanas observatory in Chile. The way that starlight gradually or abruptly cuts away in occultation data is rich in information about a planet and its atmosphere. A body with no atmosphere blocks the starlight like a light switch—light, no light. But a gradual extinction with a softer shoulder suggests an atmosphere, and we could even get the atmosphere composition from the wavelength-dependence of the curve. Anomalous dips betray the presence of rings or moons (Jim had discovered the rings of Uranus in a 1977 occultation, and took great pride in the toilet humor afforded by this distinction). Sharp spikes in the shoulder are caused by starlight refracting from variations in the atmosphere; an abrupt change in the slope of the shoulder suggests a blanket of clouds or a layer of murky haze.

Occulting planets cast their shadow on only a thin swath of Earth, and it takes months of preparation to predict the exact location of this shadow. Like the trajectory of a human life, an orbit is predictable—save in its detail. Larger planets merely wobble, but smaller bodies can fluctuate wildly. Observing a Pluto occultation requires extreme precision: Calculating the alignment of Pluto with a star is akin to lining up two bacteria from a distance of 80 meters. We’d been working in preparation at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, gathering last minute data to perfect our predictions of Pluto’s shadow. We worked such long hours that I kept a bag of clothes in my office and slept beneath my desk instead of going home, thinking I might go unnoticed until I realized that, in an office of astronomers, foot traffic happens at all hours of the night. Every morning, with fresh data, we updated the map of the shadow we were chasing. To cover our bases on these expeditions, Jim would organize a massive effort to send teams to record the event—both along the expected path and areas flanking it—in case our predictions were off. For very small bodies, the prediction uncertainty can be huge: In 2009 Jim sent 18 teams out across 6,000 miles to observe the occultation of a Kuiper Belt Object. Only two teams ended up observing the event.

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Jim had learned in 30 years that there were certain countries to be avoided. Some colleagues had been kidnapped and held hostage briefly, and others robbed of their expensive equipment at gunpoint. Each team carried a portable telescope, tripods, a desktop computer, and a low-read-noise frame-transfer camera rugged enough to endure rough handling, locked to a GPS timing system. Observing in the field was tough on a telescope—ours had been customized with smooth motors for tracking the stars and heated baffles to keep the lenses free of dew and frost. Jim had perfected these portable systems over the years, and we carried them in the kind of suitcases that movie villains keep their guns in, which never ceased to draw scrutiny from TSA agents. Nevertheless, Jim refused to check this baggage: He used to, years ago, but it had once been misdirected and he’d lost a night of once-in-a-lifetime data.

Like the trajectory of a human life, an orbit is predictable—save in its detail.

The morning after we arrived at Las Campanas we woke to an unrelenting fog. The moisture felt strange in that arid atmosphere, oily. We’d slept in sterile dormitories one hill over from the telescopes, a few doors down from the cafeteria. Despite the inauspicious weather, Jim was anxious to get to the control room, so we wolfed our meals and trudged up the hill to the telescope, huffing from the high altitude. The anise used in the kitchen to prepare rice perfumed the whole mountaintop. We stayed up all night despite the fog, in the vain hope that it would lift and we could make observations.

José, the telescope operator, kept us entertained. He was Chilean, and recounted to us the history of the Atacama desert, the driest in the world. Its population exploded in the 19th century––and the natives began to die out––when vast riches were discovered in the rocks: silver, copper, gold, saltpeter. But apart from its mining towns, the vast majority of the desert was uninhabitable. Thus, when Augusto Pinochet led his successful military coup in 1973, toppling a democratically elected socialist government, the Atacama was where he hid his misdeeds. He turned its abandoned mining towns into internment camps and buried the dead in its barren sands. It’s estimated that he imprisoned 80,000 people without trial, of which 30,000 were routinely tortured and 3,500 killed. Two hundred thousand people fled the country as political refugees—more wanderers of the universe.

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sketchbook: A rough sketch of stray dogs in La Serena.Courtesy of the author.

Deep in the Atacama desert, a handful of elderly women have been digging through the sand for decades in search of the bodies of their family members. One mass grave was discovered in 1990, but Pinochet’s regime had moved the bodies several times in hopes of concealing their crimes. As a result, the skeletons were shattered beyond identification, unless a team of scientists was willing to dedicate years to the task. Bereft family members were looking for narratives, but they would find none. Instead, they improvised, imagined, buried a bone shard they hoped might belong to their brother, or their son.

These women and I took shifts in the high desert panning for memories: they in the blistering daytime, I in the barren night. I was stuck in the past too—an abstract past, one hypothesized out of light curves and mathematical models, temperature estimates and spectral analyses. The subject of our trip, Pluto, was just part of a larger story of the outer solar system. It belongs to the Kuiper belt, the largest observable structure in the solar system, discovered only 20 years ago. Scientists now estimate there are about 70,000 large Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). For me, the most interesting thing about them is their composition: Most of them appear to be covered in a goopy layer of complex organic molecules. Some scientists claim that, based on its current complexity, life must have begun 9.7 billion years ago (Earth is only 4.5 billion years old)—perhaps it got a head start on small bodies swinging through space. The idea’s not totally outlandish: There is evidence that comets, slathered in ice and organic compounds, crashed into and seeded our hot young world with their payload of life, delivering the chemicals necessary to generate biomolecules. Even the cosmic dust surrounding stars appears to contain organic matter. The building blocks of life seem to be everywhere.

At the time of our Las Campanas trip, very little was known about the Kuiper belt. We were explorers, building a map of the distant plane, surveying the skies for dim planetesimals, peering, maybe, into the narrative of life. Keeping tabs on the trajectories of smaller bodies is also a necessary precaution for avoiding potential extinction events on Earth. The sky’s wandering objects are, perhaps, both Brahma and Shiva: creators and destroyers. Every time I submitted the observation of a new body to the Minor Planetary Center, I was excited to think that, in some years, if this object were observed enough to confirm its orbit, as its discoverer I would get to help name it. If it turned out to be a comet, it would even be named after me, like a strange sort of offspring—a son that would bear my legacy for thousands of years. A son who never needed or disappointed me—and who never died—but spun silently through the universe, far from home, ignorant of my ownership.

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Far from home because, from their composition, Kuiper Belt Objects are believed to have formed much closer to the sun than they are now. Hulking Jupiter flung them to the edge of the solar system as it cleared all in its path, scattering the solar disk’s debris into the icy reaches. It’s lucky, in a way, that they migrated: If they had remained so close to the sun, their ice would have long ago melted off—and with it, many secrets from the early days. I, too, was far from home. In fact I was discovering that the ivory tower could not be a more apt metaphor for an astronomer’s life. Observatories are built in some of the most remote locations on earth: on the slopes of volcanoes in Hawaii, in the Atacama desert in Chile. Astronomers, already isolated from humanity by their work hours, are even more isolated by their work location. It didn’t bother me much, at first. I was glad to live alone in the mountains, glad to be distant from messy human relations. I had my work and my solitude, and that was enough. But I was finding there was no real escape: I was bumping up against human tragedy even in this desolate desert. That first night in Las Campanas, the fog on the mountain persisted until morning, and we collected no data. I walked back to my room in the gray of early morning burdened with José’s stories—stunned, weary, bumping shoulders with the moon.

These women and I took shifts in the high desert panning for memories: they in the blistering daytime, I in the
barren night.

It was on our second night in Chile that I received an email from my father: My grandmother had died. The funeral would be in two days. She had checked herself into a hospital, refused her many medications, and died the next day. Fiercely independent, and fiercely lonely, she lived for her children’s visits. Her family had made it out of the steel mills, but the better lives she’d dreamed for them also took them far away from her. I hated to imagine her dying alone in a hospital. I looked up plane tickets to Pittsburgh for the funeral, but couldn’t afford them, so I worked through the night, excusing myself to the bathroom to cry during particularly long exposures. My mother had taught me to splash cold water on my face to hide tear-swollen eyes.

A few days later, my trip was over. We drove back down the mountain, silent most of the way, a glut of survey data on our hard drives. The shantytowns pressed even more glaringly on my conscience. A month later we would successfully observe another Pluto occultation from Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii, discovering that Pluto’s atmosphere had expanded since 1988. Pluto’s atmosphere puffs up when the dwarf planet is closer to the sun and freezes out as it moves away, making its surface a particularly interesting chemistry lab. Jim was elated, and we landed a major publication. But I was left cold. Whom did this new knowledge help? I thought of the women sifting the desert for bones. I thought of the empty chair at my grandmother’s funeral.

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Had I been there for my grandmother, I thought, she might still be alive. Would I find myself someday alone, like her, hunkered down in an empty house full of relics, buried alive in the past? My travel made me miss other funerals, too, and weddings, births, graduations. My aim, I tried to rationalize, was still very human: this primal human instinct to explain, to know. Yet there was a part of me––seeded by grandmother’s pragmatism, no doubt––that never quite bought this. “Why’s your head always buried in a book?” my grandmother would ask. “What more you gotta learn?” My career in astronomy had been driven by the desire to dominate the great mysteries. There were so many questions in the world, so many fundamental truths to be uncovered. But the women digging through the desert suggested a different approach. What would they gain, once they found their skeletons? They weren’t looking for the why, not really. It wasn’t a DNA test that would fulfill them: It was the act itself that was meaningful, their tireless devotion. Each shovelful of sand was an offering to the bones they sought. I realized that it is hopeless to think we might eradicate mystery—all we can do is serve it.

The women digging through the desert suggested a different approach. They weren’t looking for the why, not really.

I left science and joined the Peace Corps. I asked to be assigned to Central Asia, the place in the world I knew least about. I’d steep myself in unknowing, I’d dedicate myself to the children of strangers, living in a Turkmen village no one’s ever heard of. There’s no way for me to give a fair account of the poverty and daily heartbreak I witnessed there. Yet it was this very tragedy that drew the community together. They were fiercely proud of their heritage, their tribe. Their ability to make a home in even the most devastating circumstances humbled me, and inspired me to try to do the same. Though I’d gone in the clichéd hope of making a difference, I quickly learned that it wasn’t the work I did that was satisfying: it was the relationships I built, my engagement in the community, alive and in front of me, not hidden among the stars.

I had no intention of returning to science. I felt infinitely removed from my former conviction, and my father’s belief, that science could answer the whys of the world. But a friend in Turkmenistan asked me why I’d pursued physics so devoutly. As I recounted my love of the subject, I recalled that Eugene Wigner spoke of another miracle besides the laws of nature: the human mind’s capacity to divine them. Though we like to think of physics as the foundation of the sciences, perhaps it is the mind that is the more fundamental principle: the universe’s most elegant solution to itself. I began to read about the brain. I discovered something full of mystery, impossibly complex, resistant to glib mathematical laws. Borderline lawless, even. I found a messy system that defused my purposive bias, that asked me to humbly serve a mystery I had no hope of solving. Here was science that asked for a different kind of devotion.

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When I returned to the United States, I began Ph.D. work in neuroscience. I’ve since found a community of likeminded people, bound by curiosity. We make our home in ideas, collectively telling stories we hope have truth in them. It is our dedication to asking questions that matters. But there is something else, too. We are fascinated by life. Among all the human tragedy we try to ignore, calloused by media, myopically nationalistic even in our sympathies, perhaps there is hope in this great unlikelihood: Of all the planets that might have formed, Earth did, and it stayed dancing in an orbit whose conditions life loved. Life, which seems desperate to take hold, wandered from the sea onto land, across Pangaea, across the Bering Strait, perhaps even across the Milky Way. Life that bubbled up on icy rocks 4 billion miles from the sun and made a home for itself in every lost corner of the Earth. Life that is never satisfied: Ever shifting forms, it tries and tries and tries again.

The solace this offers is pitifully inadequate: a drop of water on a forest fire of suffering. It will not heal the hearts of those women in Chile. It will not feed the poor or shelter the homeless. It will not keep anyone’s grandmother company at night. I cannot pretend that curiosity is enough, that awe is enough. But the tenacity of life might be.

Kelly Clancy studied physics at MIT, then worked as an itinerant astronomer for several years before serving with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. She is currently a National Science Foundation fellow studying neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

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