The Very Large Array

Charlene vagabonding 10 Comments

 Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

― Richard P. Feynman

The first time I ever set eyes on the Very Large Array, I experienced a surge of euphoria.

It was 2012, and I was in the car with Brian Miller, heading towards Pie Town and its pie festival. I’d just landed in Albuquerque, an unsuspecting, life-long-sea-level-dweller victim of its oxygenless stratospheric altitude.

Not too sleepy to sneak a picture of Brian with an antenna dish in the background. September 2012

As legend goes: we descended into the Plains of St Augustine, where the National Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s Very Large Array lives, on an overcast fall afternoon, with Brian telling me about his father in law’s old ranching property some way out from the VLA. While this was going on, I was entirely preoccupied with a most baffling experience of my own. I realized, despite several hours’ sound napping, that my body was no longer functioning properly. I felt weak and cogency escaped me. The life was oozing out of me. I lost consciousness as the antenna dishes came into view, attempting articulate my excitement to Brian. *

Yes, I fell asleep in the middle of a sentence.

Brian has never let me forget it.

No amount of embarrassment or narcolepsy could contain the excitement of actually being at the VLA though.

This whole thing with the VLA started when I bought the print above from Flemming in 2010.

Like a lot of nerds I’d watched Contact when it came out, and it stuck. I’d grown up instructed in the incompatibility of science and the arts as concurrent fields of study. One of the many things that is beautiful about Contact, and science fiction in general, is that it weaves all disciplines of study together as an inevitable occurrence in the exploration of our place in this universe.

Which, when you think about it. Makes all the sense in the world. How could it not?

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The evidence to support the non-polarity of these disciplines is wide ranging. Large militaries are starting to understand that their education is more effective with an injection of the arts. Threads of arts, science and contemporary culture come together in the very beautiful Cymatics video, as a singing comet transmitted by the Rosetta mission gives us reason to wonder at our human-centric view of the source of our creativity and imagination. Leonardo Da Vinci.

Insight into what we are and who we can/will be, by embracing the unending possibilities of perspectives, is an essential to comprehending the exquisite experience of being a living part of this universe.

In the words of Carl Sagan:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The VLA is that symbol of science, imagination and meaning for me. That print of Flemming’s hung in my house for years, with me blithely assuming I’d never get to see it for myself.

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Then of course, I did.

My life changed drastically two years ago, and in between then and this post, I’ve visited the VLA five times. The first of these visits, in 2012, was the most momentous of them. In some bizarre daisy chain reaction, a spontaneous non-voluntary waltz with a merry cowboy in Pie Town, led to Flemming and I getting a tour of the VLA from Gene Cole, Operations Supervisor at the time (he’s a Deputy Division Head now I hear).

Flemming looks towards the stars. VLA visit 2013

Flemming looks towards the stars. VLA visit 2013

That morning of that day dawned grey – it was pouring in Socorro, 40 miles east of the array, where we’d spent the night. We were distressed, to put it mildly. It probably rains two days a year in Socorro ( i exaggerate for effect).  For one of those two days to fall on our very special VLA tour day just about ended our world.

We got in the car and headed out anyway. And for the second time, cresting the hill leading down into the plain, was nothing short of glorious.

The hills were keeping the storm at bay. Down in the plain, ringed by angry clouds roiling around the mountain range, the plains – and the array – were dry.

As far as offices go, this one has one of the best views in the world

As far as offices go, this one has one of the best views in the world. VLA visit 2012

So we got our tour that included the computing facilities, maintenance areas, and the array itself. Asked a million questions about the correlator, another thousand about array configurations, data lines, bandwith and storage capacities. Had a sticky beak at the workshops where they manufacture a large number of parts. Picked things up and asked more questions. We were the most stoked nerds on earth.

Even before we got to climb into a dish.

Best office storage room view ever

Best office storage room view ever

(Photographic evidence in Flemming’s post from that day)

The guts of each antenna contains several conical feedhorns which receive radio signals from space, across a range of frequency bands. They are attached to sophisticated cryogenic cooling units to keep them super cold, as heat reduces the sensitivity of these receivers,. All of this data is shunted into what is, in my limited understanding, a very complex network hub, which then sends them down the fibre cables into the supercomputer for processing. A huge amount of data is continuously being relayed into the WIDAR correlator, and finding out how this data is parsed, stored and shared was fascinating.

The Ron Bracewell radio sun dial, a 2013 addition to the VLA site

The Ron Bracewell radio sun dial, a 2013 addition to the VLA site

It was almost as cool as being in a massive parabolic dish pointed at the heavens, while the mountains kept the roiling weather away from the plain.

Standing in an instrument that might one day help us understand our universe, and our purpose for being here, was a powerful experience. It is hard to describe the feeling of one’s utter insignificance, yet undeniable connection to this planet we inhabit, and everything else that is out there.

Long may we wonder at the stars.

If you haven’t already, watch the story of the Very Large Array, narrated by Jodie Foster (featuring Gene Cole!). It’s a great production, and astrophotography buffs might recognize some footage from Mr Timescapes himself, Tom Lowe.


Beyond The Visible: The Story of the Very Large Array from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

* inspired by the humanising of Q, Star Trek TNG.

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      You’re welcome. Watch the film. In fact, watch it with Kai. Because that’s real magic.

  1. VLA was the start of MMR, it will forever be a magical place. There is something really special, goose bump moment, when we cross those mountains together and the first dishes appear in the horizon. That will never get old, come to think of it, let’s go again next week 🙂

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      Yes, that’s definitely on the itinerary of the World Array Tour. That’s a massive dish, that looks like a Transformer in bad disguise, hehehe. It must be pretty special living so near something like that. Do you visit often?

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