The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Our Grand Tour of Texas continued last week, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would include a cosmological dialogue about “dark matter,” “dark energy,” and the Magellan Giant Telescope. I had forgotten about Garland’s interest in astronomy and that years ago he and Mollie had given the McDonald Observatory some money to underwrite its operation.

I’ve spoken of this before, but my friend Garland is larger than life. His interests span a broad spectrum that includes Garcia Lorca’s poetry and Bruch’s Violin Concerto, the evaluation of insurance risk and mathematical puzzles like the Collatz Conjecture. He loves Mollie, math, astronomy, cosmology, politics and his beloved Texas.

When we began planning this Grand Tour, he was excited to share the McDonald Observatory with us. It was on our route, a short drive from Marfa, and the prospect launched him into a monologue about how looking at the stars is all about looking back in time – billions of years back in time – in some cases. He was energized and told me he would give the observatory a call to see if something could be arranged. He wasn’t sure they would go out of their way, but he would call and see.

I could have predicted it, but the folks in charge at the McDonald pulled out all the stops. The director arranged for a personal tour, dinner (green enchiladas) at the Astronomers’ Lodge, an overnight stay at the guest residence, and reservations for the outdoor Star Show that night.

On our arrival, under a perfectly cloudless night sky we were treated to the director’s laser Star Show followed by an opportunity to view different sectors of the heavens through smaller telescopes set up to show us what an astronomer might see – quite a remarkable experience.

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep at 6,790’, we woke to a stunning view of the West Texas landscape. Really beautiful from our perch atop the Davis Mountains.

I could have stayed there all day, but after breakfast it was on to the next event, a two-hour tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope with one of the astronomers and the chief engineer. While the Hobby-Eberly is the smaller of the two McDonald telescopes, it has been upgraded to probe the furthest reaches of the universe in order to unravel the mystery of “dark energy,” a theoretical force thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. I don’t understand it but apparently I’m not alone. Astronomers posit its existence but don’t know much about it.

Touring Texas has been revealing. It’s a world unto itself. Everything about it. In many ways it’s still the Wild West, but within its boundaries are natural wonders, elite universities, cutting-edge art installations, a world famous musical competition, and scientists reaching for the stars. Later on, in Austin, Gar and Mollie invited Dr. Frank Bash, the former director of the McDonald Observatory and current Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of Texas to join us for dinner.

I know almost nothing about astronomy, so it was a intimidating to sit down with him. He couldn’t have been nicer. It turns out he knows a lot about airplanes and wanted to know which ones I had flown and whether I knew the story behind the design of the 747. I did… and so did he. He’s a huge fan of aviation and over dinner, much to my relief, we talked airplanes and never probed the mysteries of outer space.

Frank’s friendship with Garland began 30 years ago and was based on a mutual interest in astronomy, but it eventually led them to an off the grid “scientific” adventure in South America. At the time, Gar and Mollie were planning their own adventure by flying their Cessna Caravan around South America. In the process they agreed to pick up Frank in Peru and fly him south to Chile to reconoiter sites for a REALLY BIG telescope.

Today, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas, Chile is under construction with an expected completion date in 2025. When completed it will be the world’s largest telescope, a joint venture with partners ranging from the University of Texas to research institutions in Australia, Brazil, South Korea, and Chile.

M and I feel privileged to have met Frank and jointly share a friendship with our larger than life friends, Garland and Mollie Lasater. Texas is big – in land mass and personalities.

Next stop: Marathon, Texas


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