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Stargazing In High-def

High atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea, the view is breathtaking--in more ways than one

June 01, 2008|Dan Neil | Times columnist Dan Neil writes the 800 Words column for the magazine. Contact him at

One wind-swept and moonless night two years ago, I stood near the summit of Cerro Tololo in the Chilean Andes and wondered, Where are the stars? I knew they were out there. A cluster of sloe-eyed international observatories crowded the mountaintop to take advantage of the altitude, dark skies and remarkably transparent air--what astronomers call, with the light touch of poetry, the "seeing."

And yet, this sky was all but black. I could make out a few familiar faces--Sirius, Polaris, Mars, Jupiter and Alpha 1 Crucis, the teasing kite-tail star of the Southern Cross--but beyond these brightest objects, little penetrated the night. I stood there with my eyes shut, wavering in the sideways gusts, hoping my vision would adjust. But it never did. This was a special kind of black, sullen and ungovernable, the blackness of blindness, of severed optic nerves and sudden trips to the boxing-ring canvas. I had no idea what was going on.

I didn't find out until a few months ago, when I was at a party in Pasadena chatting with an astrophysicist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "You were oxygen-deprived," he said. Cerro Tololo is about 7,000 feet, high enough that the astronomers who work there carry oxygen in case they start to feel lightheaded. "You should try that sometime with a bottle of OA²," he said. "Take one breath and the stars just"--he reached out as if grabbing the sky and drawing it to his face--"whoop, leap out at you."

Oh yeah, I thought. I've got to try that.

I am not typically a sleep-by-the-pool vacationer. If I go somewhere, I usually have a quest in mind (this might be a good time for the reader to make a mental note not to vacation with me). And the oxygen-and-night- vision thing wouldn't go away. What are the possibilities? Where, on balance, is the best place in the world to practice oxygen-enriched stargazing? Given the apparent inverse relationship between altitude and vision--the excellent seeing of high mountains being negated by increasing night blindness--and the difficulty of transporting bottled oxygen, I needed a compromise, a place that was very high but also easily within reach, very dark but still near civilization.

I'd already been to such a place: Mauna Kea, a 14,000-foot dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is home to the Keck Observatory and a host of other advanced telescopes. No more than two hours' drive from Kailua-Kona on the western shore, or Hilo to the east, the summit of Mauna Kea is renowned for some of the best astronomical seeing on the planet.

I booked a ticket to Kona and started researching the oxygen-vision connection. Apparently, it's well known among pilots, who are encouraged to use supplemental oxygen at night in unpressurized planes as low as 5,000 feet. Even at that altitude, "your night vision drops off dramatically," says Dr. Gabriel Travis, professor of ophthalmology at UCLA, who is also a pilot.

The photoreceptors in the retina are among the most metabolically active cells in the human body. It takes an enormous amount of energy--which is directly related to cellular oxygen demand--for these light receptors to work in the dark. The biochemistry is complicated, but Travis compares these cells to boats "with bailing pumps running all the time."

At higher altitudes, these photoreceptor cells struggle to keep up, and they start signaling as if there's a background light on. "It's not the stars you can't see," Travis says. "It's that you can't see the black."

At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level--and roughly that much less receptivity in the eyes to light. Clearly, I needed oxygen. For obvious safety reasons you're not allowed to take compressed gases on an airplane, so I ordered a 40-minute bottle of emergency OA²--the sort of nonprescription unit you might find in a good first-aid kit--from Life Corp. in Milwaukee. I paid extra to have it express-shipped to my hotel on the Big Island.

That was a mistake. Of course, without mistakes, it wouldn't be a quest.

The night sky that hung over the Israelites on their walk from Egypt, the starlight that guided Leander as he swam the Hellespont and lured Galileo into apostasy, they are all but gone now, swamped by atmospheric pollutants and scattered urban glare. Experts say the latter half of this decade will mark the first time in history that more humans will live in urban areas than in rural areas. It stands to reason that as the Earth brightens and more people crowd under domes of reflected urban light, the fixtures of the night sky will become less and less familiar. When you consider the historical importance of stars as auguries of the future and shapers of destiny (astrology), as tools of navigation and keepers of the agrarian calendar, their decline is an unsettling development.

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