Syzygy V: Red Shift went live this week! Like every title in my Syzygy hexalogy, this one is an astronomy term that implies various levels of significance for the story. What is red shift in the scientific sense? When an object in space (like a star) moves away from us, its light wavelength stretches out, “shifting” the light toward the red end of the visible spectrum. (Objects moving closer shorten their wavelengths and “blueshift” in the opposite direction.) This phenomenon helps astronomers do things like find new stars and study the expansion of the universe.
I expanded my own appreciation for astronomy a few weeks ago, when my Laddie and I traveled to Hawaii. We snorkeled with sea turtles, steered an ocean kayak through treacherous turquoise waves, and hiked the unpaved trails of two different islands. But one of the most stunning experiences was our visit to Mauna Kea. This dormant volcano stands more than 4,000 meters above sea level. If measured from its base on the ocean floor, it tops 10,000 meters, surpassing Mt Everest as the tallest mountain on Earth.
Hawaiian mythology describes Mauna Kea as a realm sacred to various deities. Today, it also houses some of the most sophisticated astronomy equipment in the world, including the Keck Observatories that examine exoplanets discovered by the Kepler mission. Mauna Kea’s arid conditions and removal from light pollution make it one of the best spots on earth for astronomical observation. Arriving at the visitor’s station in the wee hours, we shivered in the parking lot (think Hawaii is all tropical heat? Not at almost 3,000 meters!). Kilauea cast a ruby glow in the distance beyond Mauna Loa, the Big Island’s other major peak, where in September researchers concluded a simulated Mars mission. The chill felt distant, however, once I raised my eyes.
Orion–the familiar figure I admire from the driveway on clear autumn mornings, my moment of communion with the cosmos before schlepping off to a cubicle–greeted me. And he’d brought friends. In the extreme clarity I counted about a dozen stars in the Pleiades (“Seven Sisters”) with my eyes alone. Binoculars helped me spot deep space objects like the hazy corona of the M43 nebula. The faint lavender banner of the Milky Way unfurled across the black as we watched the brilliant flare of Venus, the “dawn star”, ascend over the eastern peaks.
Polynesian wayfinders (no, Disney did not invent them for Moana, they actually existed) relied on a staggeringly vast knowledge of celestial objects like these to navigate thousands of leagues across uncharted oceans. Unlike the localized groupings associated with ancient Greek astronomy, some of the traditional Hawaiian constellations cover vast swaths of the sky, such as Ke Ka o Makali‘i (“The Canoe-Bailer of Makali‘i”) and Hoku-‘iwa, the frigate-bird star. Fascinating, how many stories we humans have told ourselves about the same configurations of stars! It forges a connection not only between cultural spheres, but between points in space-time. Under Hawaii’s spangled night, the same view an ancient wayfinder might have used to guide a vessel steered me to a new perspective on my place in the universe and the continuum of human life, a humbling yet uplifting experience.
After marveling at ancient interpretations of the heavens, we journeyed even higher to take in the modern counterparts. A tortuous path up the mountain brought us near the summit. The summit proper is off-limits because of its Hawaiian cultural significance, but the surrounding area hosts 13 observation facilities supported by 11 different countries. Although they’re called telescopes, they’re not the sort you peer through with your eyes: these high-tech beauties study both visible and infrared light, the sub-millimeter spectrum, and even conduct radio astronomy. Visitor information recommends taking it slow at the high elevation. Heedless, I trotted around the red gravel in a heady state that had nothing to do with the altitude, admiring the observatories and thinking of all their incredible discoveries.
Dawn warmed the silver domes as the sun rose over Hilo Bay. The sky performed a red shift of its own, fading backward through the rainbow from deep violet and indigo gradients to gold, orange, and molten red. Mountains in silhouette pierced a fantastical cloudscape. No wonder indigenous people held this place sacred. But I find spiritual satisfaction in what astronomy provides us, too. Mauna Kea boosts us higher than its 4,000 meter summit to peek over the edge of our galaxy and gaze at the universe beyond. We’re still telling ourselves stories about the stars, adding chapters each time those observatories–or an adventurous fiction writer–turn their gazes skyward.