Scrambling the Signals
Phones are so smart, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Yet, somehow Maria and I did, on the way from our delightful lunch near the Arecibo lighthouse to the world’s largest radio telescope in the nearby hills. Nearby, hah! As we drove, over hill and dale, up and down narrow roads –- not seeing a soul except for one guy on a Moped, sometimes passing by roadside houses, some ramshackle, some slightly more pretentious — I kept thinking: “How can the world’s largest anything be up here?”
Then I thought, “Maybe Google Map is playing with us? Maybe the radio waves from the facility are scrambling the phone’s signal?”
At the gate, we were told as much. Not that we had been playing Scramble with the world’s mostly reliable global positioning system, only that we MUST turn off our cell phones for the duration of our visit. Serious radio waves up here! As I drove up and onto the grounds, I paled. It was one thing to drive up hills, another to walk 500 steps from the small parking lot to the telescope viewing area on crutches. I was ready to turn around and GPS-it to San Juan, when Maria said something in Spanish to a park ranger. We got a ride up the hill.
The telescope was simply a very large metal disk, seemingly sitting on the ground, but actually hovering fifteen feet above a natural sink-hole by suspension cables from three nearby towers. Okay, it was somewhat interesting, especially the crane with a cat-walk out to an armature with a huge ball with an eyehole and, at the very end, a large saber-like rod. These were the moving parts, and the instruments for sending, receiving, and making pictures of the waves bouncing off the dish.
I realized from the smiles on everyone’s faces that this facility (in the middle of nowhere) was truly the summit of dreams for more than a few local university science students. The docents and tour guides all spoke English, thank goodness, so I learned quite a lot about the telescope.
The receiving dish originally was made of chicken wire by a couple of engineers from Cornell University and used solely to collect radio waves to better understand the ionosphere –- the not-so-outer space beyond the atmosphere. With the additional parts, it now collects data from way out in space and converts the data into pictures, of asteroids and meteors, for example. Only once was the telescope used to send a message out into deep space by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The tour guide said that we hadn’t gotten a message back in forty-some years, so we could neither deny nor confirm the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Someone said she disagreed, and I thought to myself, “Better we find some intelligence here first.”
Maria gave me a look as if to say, “Who’s on crutches, doesn’t understand the native language, and thinks he’s so smart?”