An aerial view of the foundations of the Giant Magellan Telescope, circa 02018. Photo courtesy of the Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation

Stumbling Towards First Light

Why has Chile, a country riven by inequality and political conflict, become a global sanctuary for the long science that drives astronomical discovery?

A satellite capturing high-resolution images of Chile on the afternoon of October 18, 02019, would have detected at least two signs of unusual human activity.

Pictures taken over Santiago, Chile’s capital city, would have shown numerous plumes of smoke slanting away from buses, subway stations and commercial buildings that had been torched by rioters. October 18 marked the start of the Estallido Social (Social Explosion), a months-long series of violent protests that pitched this South American country of 19 million people into a crisis from which it has yet to fully emerge.

On the same day, the satellite would also have recorded a fresh disturbance on Cerro Las Campanas, a mountain in the Atacama Desert some 300 miles north of Santiago. A deep circular trench, 200 feet in diameter, had recently been drilled into the rock on the flattened summit. The trench will eventually hold the concrete foundations of the Giant Magellan Telescope, a $2 billion instrument that will have 10 times the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope. But on October 18 the excavation looked like one of the cryptic shapes that surround the Atacama Giant, an humanoid geoglyph constructed by the indigenous people of the Andes that has been staring up at the desert sky since long before Ferdinand Magellan set sail in 01519.

I see the riots and the unfinished telescope as markers at the temporal extremes of human agency. At one end, the twitchy impatience of politics seduces us with the illusion that a Molotov cocktail, an election or a military coup will set the world to rights. At the opposite point of the spectrum, the slow, painstaking and often-inconclusive work of cosmology attempts to fathom the origins of time itself.

That both pursuits should take place in Chile is not in itself remarkable: leading-edge science coexists with political chaos in countries as varied as Russia and the United States. Yet in Chile, a so-called “emerging economy,” the juxtaposition of first-world astronomy with third-world grievances raises questions about planning, progress, and the distribution of one of humanity’s rarest assets.

Extremely patient risk capital

The next era of astronomy will depend on instruments so complicated and costly that no single nation can build them. A list of contributors to the James Webb Space Telescope, for example, includes 35 universities and 280 public agencies and private companies in 14 countries. This aggregation of design, engineering, construction and software talent from around the planet is a hallmark of “big science” projects. But large telescopes are also emblematic of the outsized timescales of “long science.” They depend on a fragile amalgam of trust, loyalty, institutional prestige and sheer endurance that must sustain a project for two or three decades before “first light,” or the moment when a telescope actually begins to gather data.

“It takes a generation to build a telescope,” Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a member of Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) board, said some years ago. Consider the logistics involved in a single segment of the GMT’s construction: the process of fabricating its seven primary mirrors, each measuring 27 feet in diameter and using 17 metric tons of specialized Japanese glass. The only facility capable of casting mirrors this large (by melting the glass inside a clam-shaped oven at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit) is situated deep beneath University of Arizona football stadium. It takes three months for the molten glass to cool. Over the next four years, the mirror will be mounted, ground and slowly polished to a precision of around one millionth of an inch.  The GMT’s first mirror was cast in 02005; its seventh will be finished sometime in 02027. Building the 1,800-ton steel structure that will hold these mirrors, shipping the enormous parts by sea, assembling the telescope atop Cerro Las Campanas, and then testing and calibrating its incommunicably delicate instruments will take several more years.

Not surprisingly, these projects don’t even attempt to raise their full budgets up front. Instead, they operate on a kind of faith, scraping together private grants and partial transfers from governments and universities to make incremental progress, while constantly lobbying for additional funding. At each stage, they must defend nebulous objectives (“understanding the nature of dark matter”) against the claims of disciplines with more tangible and near-term goals, such as fusion energy. And given the very real possibility that they will not be completed, big telescopes require what private equity investors might describe as the world’s most patient risk capital.

Few countries have been more successful at attracting this kind of capital than Chile. The GMT is one of three colossal observatories currently under construction in the Atacama Desert. The $1.6 billion Extremely Large Telescope, which will house a 128-foot main mirror inside a dome nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty, will be able to directly image and study the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. The $1.9 billion Vera T. Rubin Telescope will use a 3.500 megapixel digital camera to map the entire night sky every three days, creating the first 3-D virtual map of the visible cosmos while recording changes in stars and events like supernovas. Two other comparatively smaller projects, the Fred Young Sub-millimeter Telescope and the Cherenkov Telescope Array, are also in the works.

Chile is already home to the $1.4 billion Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a complex of 66 huge dish antennas some 16,000 feet above sea level that used to be described as the world’s largest and most expensive land-based astronomical project. And over the last half-century, enormous observatories at Cerro Tololo, Cerro Pachon, Cerro Paranal, and Cerro La Silla have deployed hundreds of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes and instruments to obtain foundational evidence in every branch of astronomy and astrophysics.

By the early 02030s, a staggering 70 percent of the world’s entire land-based astronomical data gathering capacity is expected to be concentrated in an swath of Chilean desert about the size of Oregon.

A map of major telescopes and astronomical sites in Northern Chile. Map by Jacob Sujin Kuppermann

Blurring imaginary borders

Collectively, this cluster of observatories represents expenditures and collaboration on a scale similar to “big science” landmarks such as the Large Hadron Collider or the Manhattan Project. Those enterprises were the product of ambitious, long-term strategies conceived and executed by a succession of visionary leaders. But according to Barbara Silva, a historian of science at Chile’s Universidad Alberto Hurtado, there has been no grand plan, and no one can legitimately take credit for turning Chile into the global capital of astronomy.

In several papers she has published on the subject, Silva describes a decentralized and largely uncoordinated 175-year process driven by relationships—at times competitive, at times collaborative—between scientists and institutions that were trying to solve specific problems that required observations from the Southern Hemisphere.

In 01849, for example, the U.S. Navy sent Lieutenant James Melville Gillis to Chile to obtain measurements that would contribute to an international effort to calculate the earth’s orbit. Gillis built a modest observatory on Santa Lucía Hill, in what is now central Santiago, and trained several local assistants. Three years later, when Gillis completed his assignment, the Chilean government purchased the facility and its instruments and used them to establish the Observatorio Astronómico Nacional—one of the first in Latin America.

An 01872 illustration by Recaredo Santos Tornero of the Observatorio Astronómico Nacional in Santiago de Chile.

Half a century later, representatives from another American institution, the University of California’s Lick Observatory, built a second observatory in Chile and began exploring locations in the mountains of the Atacama Desert. They were among the first to document the conditions that would eventually turn Chile into an astronomy mecca: high altitude, extremely low humidity, stable weather and enormous stretches of uninhabited land with minimal light pollution.

During the Cold War, the director of Chile’s Observatorio Astronómico Nacional, Federico Ruttland, saw an opportunity to exploit the growing scientific competition among industrialized powers by fostering a host of cooperation agreements with astronomers and universities in the Northern Hemisphere. Delegations of astronomers from the U.S., Europe and the Soviet Union began visiting Chile to explore locations for large observatories. Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden pooled resources to form the European Southern Observatory. By the late 1960s, several parallel but independent projects were underway to build the first generation of world-class observatories in Chile. Each of them involved so many partners they tended to “blur the imaginary borders of nations,” Silva writes.

The historical record provides few clues as to why these partners thought Chile would be a safe place to situate priceless instruments that are meant to be operated for a half-century or longer. Silva has found some accounts indicating that Chile was seen as “somehow trustworthy, with a reputation… of being different from the rest of Latin America.” That perception, Silva writes, may have been a self-serving “discourse construct” based largely on the accounts of British and American business interests that dominated the mining of Chilean saltpeter and copper over the previous century.

Anyone looking closely at Chile’s political history would have seen a tumultuous pattern not very different from that of neighboring countries such as Argentina, Peru or Brazil. In the century and a half following its declaration of independence from Spain in 01810,  Chile adopted nine different constitutions. A small, landed oligarchy controlled extractive industries and did little to improve the lot of agricultural and mining workers. By the middle of the century, Chile had half a dozen major political parties ranging from communists to Catholic nationalists, and a generation of increasingly radicalized voters was clamoring for change.

In 01970 Salvador Allende became the first Marxist president elected in a liberal democracy in Latin America. His ambitious program to build a socialist society was cut short by a U.S.-supported military coup in 01973. Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile for next 17 years, brutally suppressing any opposition while deregulating and privatizing the economy along lines recommended by the “Chicago Boys”— a group of economists trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.

Soviet astronomers left Chile immediately after the coup. American and European scientists continued to work at facilities such as the Inter-American Observatory at Cerro Tololo throughout this period, but no new observatories were announced during the dictatorship.

Negotiating access to time

With the return of democracy in 01990, Chile entered a period of growth and stability that would last for three decades. A succession of center-left and center-right administrations carried out social and economic reforms, foreign investment poured in, and Chile came to be seen as a model of market-oriented development. Poverty, which had affected more than 50 percent of the population in 01980s, dropped to single digits by the 02010s.

Foreign astronomers quickly returned to Chile and began negotiating bilateral agreements to build the next generation of large telescopes. This time, Chilean researchers urged the government to introduce a new requirement: in exchange for land and tax exemptions, any new international observatory built in the country would need to reserve 10 percent of observation time for Chilean astronomers. It was a bold move, because access to these instruments is fiercely contested.

Bárbara Rojas-Ayala, an astrophysicist at Chile’s University of Tarapacá, belongs to a generation of young astronomers who attribute their careers directly to this decision. She says that although the new observatories agreed to the “10 percent rule,” it was initially not enforced—in part because there were not enough qualified Chilean astronomers in the mid-01990s. She credits two distinguished Chilean astronomers, Mónica Rubio and María Teresa Ruiz, with convincing government officials that only by enforcing the rule would Chile begin to cultivate national astronomy talent.

Maria Teresa Ruiz (Left) alongside two of the four Auxiliary Telescopes of the ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Region of Chile. Photo by the International Astronomical Union, released under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The strategy worked. Rojas-Ayala was one of hundreds of Chilean college students who began completing graduate studies at leading universities in the Global North and then returning to teach and conduct research, knowing they would have access to the most coveted instruments. Between the mid-01990s and the present, the number of Chilean universities with astronomy or astrophysics departments jumped from 5 to 24. The community of professional Chilean astronomers has grown ten-fold, to nearly 300, and some 800 undergraduate and post-graduate students are now studying astronomy or related fields in Chilean universities. Chilean firms are also now allowed to compete for the specialized services that are needed to maintain and operate these observatories, creating a growing ecosystem of companies and institutions such as the Center for Astrophysics and Related Technologies.

By the 02010s, Chile could legitimately boast to have leapfrogged a century of scientific development to join the vanguard of a discipline historically dominated by the richest industrial powers—something very few countries in the Global South have ever achieved.

From 30 pesos to 30 years

The Estallido Social of 02019 opened a wide crack in this narrative. The riots were triggered by a 30-peso increase (around $0.25) in the basic fare for Santiago’s metro system. But the rioters quickly embraced a slogan, “No son 30 pesos ¡son 30 años!,” which torpedoed the notion that the post-Pinochet era has been good for most Chileans. Protesters denounced the poor quality of public schools, unaffordable healthcare and a privatized pension system that barely covers the needs of many retirees. Never mind that Chile is objectively in better shape that most of its neighboring countries—the riots showed that Chileans now measure themselves against the living standards of the countries where the GMT and other telescopes were designed. And many of them question whether democracy and neo-liberal economics can ever reverse the country’s persistent wealth inequality.

Protestors at Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile in October 02019. Photos by Carlos Figueroa, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

When Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old left-wing former student leader, won a run-off election for president against a right-wing candidate in 2021, many young Chileans were jubilant. They hoped that a referendum to adopt a new, progressive constitution (to replace the one drafted by the Pinochet regime) would finally set Chile on a more promising path. These hopes were soon disappointed: in 02022 the new constitution was rejected by voters, who considered it far too radical. A year later, a more conservative draft constitution also failed to garner enough votes.

The impasse has left Chile in the grip of a political malaise that will be sadly familiar to people in Europe and the United States. Chileans seemingly can’t agree on how to govern themselves, and their visions of the future appear to be irreconcilable.

For astronomers like Rojas-Ayala, the Estallido Social and its aftermath are a painful reminder of an incongruity that they experience every day. “I feel so privileged to be able to work in these extraordinary facilities,” she said. “My colleagues and I have these amazing careers; and yet we live in a country where there is still a lot of poverty.” Since poverty in Chile has what she calls a “predominantly female face,” Rojas-Ayala frequently speaks at schools and volunteers for initiatives that encourage girls and young women to choose science careers.

Rojas-Ayala has seen a gradual increase in the proportion of women in her field, and she is also encouraged by signs that astronomy is permeating Chilean culture in positive ways. A recent conference on “astrotourism” gathered educators and tour operators who cater to the thousands of stargazers who arrive in Chile each year, eager to experience its peerless viewing conditions at night and then visit the monumental Atacama observatories during the day. José Masa, one Chile’s most celebrated astronomers, has filled small soccer stadiums with multi-generational audiences for non-technical talks on solar eclipses and related phenomena. And a growing list of community organizations is helping to protect Chile’s dark skies from light pollution.

Astronomy is also enriching the work of Chilean novelists and film-makers. “Nostalgia for the Light,” a documentary by Pedro Guzmán, intertwines the story of the growth of Chilean observatories with testimonies from the relatives of political prisoners who were murdered and buried in the Atacama Desert during the Pinochet regime. The graves were unmarked, and many relatives have spent years looking for these remains. Guzman, in the words of the critic Peter Bradshaw, sees astronomy “not simply an ingenious metaphor for political issues, or a way of anesthetizing the pain by claiming that it is all tiny, relative to the reaches of space. Astronomy is a mental discipline, a way of thinking, feeling and clarifying, and a way of insisting on humanity in the face of barbarism.”

Despite their frustration with democracy and their pessimism about the immediate future, Chileans are creating a haven for this way of thinking. Much of what we hope to learn about the universe in the coming decades will depend on their willingness to maintain this uneasy balance.

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