Natural Theater, or, the Very Large Array

Cows of the Very Large Array

Yesterday I took a few-hour jaunt out of T or C to the Very Large Array, the, uh, very large radio telescope/observatory roughly fifty miles west of Socoro, New Mexico—notable only because once you’re past Socoro, there’s nothing but mountains, fields, and a gradual elevation climb to 7,000 feet above sea level. Every five or ten minutes I’d see another car on the road, but otherwise, the only signs of life are endless acres of shrubby trees tended by sleepy herds of roaming cattle. But even in its seeming remoteness, the landscape is far from bleak. Instead, it emanates an unfamiliar, palatial sentience. Not merely a backdrop, but a conscious presence. Waterlogged storm clouds combed the sky, washing the roads with fat raindrops. Lightning flashed, occasionally scorching the ground just a few car lengths away. But in the distance, the hot, white light of the desert sun pierced through the gray dimness of the squall, as a broad performance of natural theater. And no better stage than the vast plains that once were the floor Lake San Agustin, an ancient, Pleistocene expanse.

The Very Large Array (VLA) consists of 27 movable radio satellite antennae spread to a maximum “collecting area” of nine miles. Each dish is 82 feet in diameter, and they are spread across the plains in a Y-shape, acting cooperatively to constitute a single, giant radio telescope. Also, according to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the films Contact, Terminator Salvation, and Transformers: Dark of Moon, and other culture detritus—the VLA just looks cool. And the detritus is right. The size of the dishes themselves, and the idea that at any point you stand in the array, you are unable to see the thing in its entirety, seems sublime. But it’s not the same kind of sublimity you get at the mercy of a tropical storm, or at a mountaintop in the Canadian Rockies. This organic sublimity is of grandeur, and of the recognition of your place in the epic of nature. Sort of like a blissful dehumanization. But the sublimity of the VLA was different. It had the same hum of geological grandeur, but colored somehow, by an equally expansive sense of human engineering. A feeling of dehumanization is, I think, essential to a sublime moment. But when that feeling is altered by a human intervention, the sublimity gets shaded by terror. Not overwhelming, but enough for unease. Which made the dark clouds on the horizon that much more ominous. Even still, I felt safe—at least until I noticed the signs about turning off electronic and mobile devices for some understated warning about brain nuke or something.

Further adding to the VLA’s science fiction landscape were those dark black and brown and spotted shapes, moving across the plains in the middle distance. Cows, open range! No fences, freely crossing the roads, chewing cud on the shoulders, giving me nervous glances as I crept by in the car. They seemed ruddier and more toughened than the fenced-in, shit-covered cows I used to see grazing on fertilized grass and weeds of southeastern Wisconsin. And kind, too. Just cautious, as I would be if interrupted by a bright white rental car. There were no artificial boundaries in site, just endless field, bordered by dusty mountains. And then I noticed, farther beyond the road, a group of antelope, sniffing the ground, munching on leaves, monitored from afar by a sharp-horned alpha. Some dark birds circled in the distance, too, but with the roiling storm cell on the east, simmering with lightning, they looked to be chasing the late afternoon sun, which shone like a stage lamp filtered in the ionosphere, casting an eerie glow across the plains and into the darkness.

And finally, as I turned around to start the two-hour drive back to T or C, there remained the question of the name. Very Large Array. Let’s see: huge scientific infrastructure; realized through complex geological, mathematical, and astronomical mathematics and physics; owned and operated by the US Government, presumably also staffed with scientifically prolific and accomplished contractors; engineered and built by the military-industrial complex from 1973 to 1980. Probably no consideration given to the marketing, branding, and PR necessities now the standard for such projects and institutions (public-private partnerships and all that). Probably some people in a room who realized at a late date that we need a name for this thing. We’re scientists and engineers, so we at least know that the name of something should reflect the nature of that something. We have an array, and it is very large. How about…Very Large Array? Any other suggestions? Not even something like San Agustin Radio Observatory? No? Well, I guess I like it too. Let’s go with it. And after that was decided, the only other name modification came in 2012, after a huge tech overhaul of the campus finally brought the VLA’s technology into the 21st Century. After project completion, the VLA was renamed the “Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array,” for the US physicist and engineer who was the first to discover that the Milky Way generated radio waves. So now its name is even farther from poetic, but, in its own way, it does reflect the nature of the thing.

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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