Chapel Talk: The Arecibo Observatory

Darik Vélez
Teacher of Astronomy and Physics Darik Vélez Shares his Experience
Last week, at approximately 7:54 a.m. on Tuesday, December 1, a primary support cable holding up one of the largest astronomy telescopes in the world disintegrated. Within seconds, the remaining cables, overburdened, snapped, leaving the 900-ton superstructure to fall like a
pendulum 500 feet down onto a 1000-ft diameter radio dish below. And so, the illustrious 57-
year life of the Arecibo Observatory, one of the crown jewels of astronomy and the island of
Puerto Rico came to its end. Thanks, 2020.
 
In a year with so much suffering and loss, you may wonder why the collapse of a telescope
would bring me to speak with all of you. I suppose it’s for three reasons, all aspects of who I am.
All aspects I believe I share with many of you. To explain this, I need to take you back a ways.
 
Picture a younger me. It’s spring of my junior year in college. I’m in a car with my advisor, and he casually asks: “what are your plans for this summer?” I mumble out something about maybe
doing research, maybe staying on campus, maybe going home – frankly, I was in a phase where
I only thought a week ahead if I was lucky. I had NO idea what I wanted to do that summer. My
advisor then says: “You should do research at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The
deadline for the application is tomorrow. I’ll write you a recommendation.”
 
Ok, then! I went to my room to throw together an application for a summer internship at one of
the top astronomical observatories in the world.
 
And here’s why this was such a perfect opportunity for me. You see, just a few years before,
upon graduating from high school, my parents took my siblings and me to visit our family in
Puerto Rico. My fledgling interest in science got us to visit the Arecibo Observatory while we
were there. Little did any of us realize, but just three years later, I would be returning as a
scientist! And what an amazing experience that would be. That summer among scientists gave
me the chance to conduct research that would turn into my undergraduate honors thesis
studying the Earth’s upper atmosphere. I would even return again several years later with my
wife and newborn son, this time to work on publishing that research.
 
So, here I am now, speaking to you, delivering a eulogy of sorts to the observatory that got me
started on my path. But why? Of all things, why does the collapse of this telescope touch me so
personally?
 
First, because I am an astronomer. Not just an astronomer, a scientist. An explorer. How many
nights did I spend looking out over the massive radio telescope as it scanned the skies, wondering what it would find? How many times did I ponder the immensity of the dish, and yet
how terribly small it was under the dome of the sky? Arecibo played fundamental roles in
astronomy: mapping the surface of planets and asteroids in our solar system, finding the first
planets around other stars, and even searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life. How could I
not mourn the loss of this beacon of scientific history?
 
But moreover, I mourn this loss as a Puerto Rican. To be honest, I’ve not always known what
that means to me. I grew up In New Hampshire, so it’s not like I had a lot to compare myself to.
And when I got to college and met other Puerto Ricans – from the island or from New York City
– whoooeeee did I NOT fit in or what? But somehow, during my time at Arecibo, I discovered
how deeply rooted aspects of Puerto Rican culture were within me. I was comfortable in ways I
had never been elsewhere. In a very real way, I was home for the first time in my life.
 
But are all of you Puerto Rican? No, of course not. Yet, I hope earnestly for each of you that you
have a moment to sit down and ponder what you really are. Where do your roots sink deepest?
Who are your people? Where is your home?
 
And are all of you astronomers? Not yet, perhaps. Of course, most of you will choose as of yet
unknown paths. Nor will you all be scientists. But explorers? Perhaps. Individuals who look out
at the Universe around them, ask questions, and wonder. What better use for the tremendous
skill set you are honing here then to apply it to your passions when you leave?
 
Which brings me to my last reason for recognizing, with hope, the loss of this monument to
humanity’s undying exploration of the Universe: Through looking out into the Universe, we may
find our place in it. What better symbol for the human experience than a massive ear, passively
listening to the heavens in hope of finding answers to our deepest questions? Yes, Arecibo was
once used to beam a message from Earth out into space in the hope that some Aliens would
someday hear our call in the darkness. But she spent the vast majority of her life listening.
Listening and learning. Listening and learning, and teaching. Teaching the rest of us – the
summer interns, the scientists, the tourists, everyone listening to me now – teaching the rest of
us to wonder, to hope, and to look up, so we can find ourselves.
 
Thank you.

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