MIT Alumni Travel Program 2006 Trip to Chile

Larger versions of most pictures are available from Ed Bertschinger.

The astrophysics lectures delivered during the trip are available here in powerpoint form, with animations.

January 23, Boston

The trip to Chile began for me with a snowstorm in Boston. After some inconveniences, eventually I got a cab to the airport, where my flight to Miami was delayed by two hours. The Miami airport is badly in need of modernization - I had to run nearly a mile with carryon luggage to make the connection to Santiago. Once I boarded the LAN Chile flight, however, everything became smooth, as I knew it would.

January 24, Santiago

The airport in Santiago is nicer than most in Latin America - it's large, modern, and efficient. There I met Bill and Lex Layson, who came on the same flight, and Miguel Tauszig as well as a local guide and driver. We went straight to the Plaza El Bosque Hotel, where we had a few hours to rest and clean up. Most alumni arrived a day earlier, which in retrospect I highly recommend. After our naps, we met the whole group of alumni and spouses, and thus began a wonderful adventure together.

That afternoon we took a bus tour around Santiago, stopping first at the central Plaza del Armas and then touring the Chilean Museum of Precolumbian Art. This is a small but wonderful collection of art and artifacts from throughout Latin America in the period prior to the Spanish arrival in 1530. The pottery and tapestries are especially fine; many of the colors are still brilliant thanks to the very arid conditions of the Atacama desert.

After visiting the museum we went to La Moneda Palace, the former Presidential Palace and current seat of government. It was very sobering to see the place where Pinochet's army dropped bombs on Salvador Allende to begin the military coup on September 11, 1973. To the Chileans, 9/11 (or 11/9) means something different than to us Norteamericanos.

Chile is a country of flowers - there were flowering trees in all the public squares, most homes have flowering gardens, and we saw lovely flowers on San Cristobal Hill, a park to one edge of Santiago which gave us a nice view of the downtown, including Santiago's "big dig", an underground highway whose construction required shifting of the Rio Mapocho.

Back at the hotel, we assembled for cocktails (getting our first taste of Pisco sours) hoping to meet with several local MIT alumni (there are many in Santiago) but finding only one enthusiastic academic who wasn't on vacation, Eduardo Testart. He was a good salesman for business opportunities in Chile! We also went around the group of 28 travellers and made introductions. The alumni interest in this trip was impressive - many said they had singled it out because they wanted to learn more about astronomy.

Our evening meal at the hotel had splendid company and conversation but poorly cooked food. As Rob Simcoe explained to me, "now you know why there aren't many Chilean restaurants in America."

January 25, Santiago to Calama to San Pedro de Atacama

We had to get up very early (4:30am) for our plane flight north to Calama in the middle of the Atacama desert. Our trip guides Miguel and Gerardo did an excellent job shepherding us, helping with luggage, etc. The LAN Chile flight attendance welcomed "The Meet Astronomy Group" to the amusement of about 1/4 of the flight. (MIT in Spanish....)

The contrast of central and northern climates was striking -- Santiago is Mediterranean, Calama is a small settlement in an almost featureless desert. Driving from the airport we saw the first of many billboards showing a smiling Michelle Bachelet, the new Chilean president.

The bus ride east to San Pedro de Atacama was nearly two hours. San Pedro is larger than I expected, with about 5000 inhabitants and many tourists. At our arrival it was warm (upper 80s Farenheit) and bone dry. Most of the homes were constructed from adobe (clay bricks) with corrugated aluminum roofs, often covered by mud and thatch. If destroyed by earthquake, these houses would be easy to rebuild.

We checked into the Hosteria, which had nice rooms and a nice swimming pool but no internet access. (As we discovered, internet access can be difficult in Chile. San Pedro has numerous internet cafes which mostly use dialup lines and cannot handle more than a couple of MIT alumni at once!) We had lunch at an unmemorable restaurant but the company made up for the food. MIT alumni are remarkable people, and a group of two dozen is sure to have many interesting stories!

After I mentioned to Bob Johnson my concerns about the high altitude (about 8,000 feet at San Pedro, rising to 14,000 feet at El Tatio) he kindly gave me some Diamox pills. They probably helped, but next time I'll come prepared to start the blood-thickening process a couple of days earlier.

In the late afternoon we visited the aptly named Valle de la Luna. The mesas and valleys are in places reminiscent of the South Dakota Badlands but the salt deposits and sand dunes are very different. We saw an abandoned miner's camp (the Atacama is mined for nitrates, salt, copper, etc.) near a small salt mine with large halite crystals on the ceiling. (Bill Kupsky posed outside the salt mine.) Then we went to see the very impressive sand dunes. Climbing a hill gave us a view over an immense dark brown sand valley on which rockslides of salt and sandstone appeared like sugar sprinkles on chocolate ice cream. The scenery was otherworldly. Despite shortness of breath at above 8000 feet altitude, many of us climbed a couple hundred feet and went out along a ridge to catch the best view of sunset. To the east, the snow-capped volcanos of the Andes turned pink with the last rays of sunlight. Clouds began spreading over the western sky - boding ill for stargazing but making for a spectacular sunset:

We had dinner at another so-so restaurant but it was made considerably more appealing by the generosity of Terry Kohler, who began a trip tradition of alumni vying for the privilege of buying wine for the group! After dinner a group of us went to the backyard observatory of a remarkable French astronomer, Alain Maury. Retiring early from the European Southern Observatory, he set up his own private observatory on a ranch outside San Pedro, He combines astro-tourism with his own private research on comets and asteroids. He's a wonderful guide of astronomy and the southern sky - our only regret was the cirrus haze that made it difficult to see much that evening.

January 26, the lakes near San Pedro de Atacama

The next morning we left around 9am to visit two high mountain lakes and the enormous salt flats in the San Pedro valley. The drive took us past fields of grazing llamas and through the pretty small towns of Toconao, Camar, and Socaire. Then our two tour vans went up the bumpy dirt roads to two high mountain lakes: Laguna Miscanti and Mineques. At times it seemed like a 4-wheel drive vehicle was needed to ascend the road to above 13,000 feet, but eventually both vans made it. The sunlight was very strong and would burn in a few minutes without good sun protection. After the long drive up the mountain we were hot and dry but were refreshed by a rest stop and then by the marvelous flora and fauna around the lakes. Lupines were in bloom, along with grasses and other small flowering plants. The real treat, however, was the birdlife at the two lakes, especially the smaller Laguna Mineques. We saw the rare Andean Flamingo, as well as Chilean Flamingo, Horned Coot (they were fun to watch building their nests out of algae!), Silvery Grebe, Andean Gull, Puna Ground Dove, and Greenish Yellow Finch. Two of the alumni had bird field guides for Chile, but our local guide Jaime Droguet was the best means for identifying birds. This was a real treat for me and the other birders of the group.

A short distance from the lakes we examined amazing bubble-like rock formations - Jaime told us they were pyroclastic flows - and we saw miniature cacti, animal burrows, and a hardy black beetle.

After spending more time at Laguna Mineques than our guides anticipated, we drove back down the valley to the Salar de Atacama, the almost dry vast salt lake. Arriving there around 3:30pm, we climbed out of the vans tired from the high altitude, parched, and very hot - the salt lake is a very good oven. After water and an unsatisfying box lunch - fortunately our meals got better after that! - we set out to explore the small lake, Laguna Chaxa, in the middle of this vast desolate plain. No plant life grows for miles around - yet the lake was full of birdlife as some algae and cyanobacteria are able to survive the saline waters to form the base of a small ecosystem.

The lagoon was an oasis of aquatic birds - Andean Avocets congregated in great numbers along with Chilean and Andean Flamingos, Speckled Teal, Crested Duck, Puna Plover, and Baird's Sandpiper. I saw a big green lizard at a distance, cooling itself in the saline waters.

Back at La Hosteria, we had drinks from the bar and then I gave the first of four astrophysics lectures, "Cosmic Menu of Dark Matter and Dark Energy." Pisco sours helped wash away the exhaustion of the long day. Afterwards we had dinner at a nicer restaurant in San Pedro de Atacama, El Adobe. Because of the long day and our early departure for El Tatio Geysers the next morning, we postponed additional the second visit to Alain's public observatory until the following night. However, walking back from the restaurant we saw the Magellanic Clouds far more clearly than the night before. It was a thrill!

January 27, El Tatio Geysers and the Southern Sky

A few hours after getting to bed, we were up again in the darkness boarding two vans to El Tatio Geysers in the high plains north of San Pedro de Atacama. On the long drive up we saw a waning sliver of the moon near Venus bright in the early morning sky. The constellation of Scorpio had an unfamiliar aspect to northern eyes, as did the Big Dipper, whose pointer stars were aimed well below the horizon. The road was bumpy and in places very narrow as it hugged mountainsides. After about 2 hours, as it began to get light, we ascended over a pass at 14,400 feet. i felt light-headed as we saw the rising clouds of steam from geysers in the valley ahead.

When we arrived the air temperature was near freezing making for a valley full of impressive steam chimneys rising from bubbling fumaroles. Before we explored the fantastic pre-dawn landscape, though, Jaime warned us about the dangers of the hot pools and fragile ground.

These geysers, unlike those at Yellowstone, exuded very little sulfur odor. Nonetheless we were warned that noxious gases could disorient the tourists (played here by Paul Todd, Colleen Messing, Jane Pappalardo, and Audrey Buyrn). The garish colors around the hot springs were not, however, a psychedelic vision. They were masses of green cyanobacteria ("blue-green algae"), red algae (red tide at 14,000 feet!) and elemental sulfur (held here by Paul). Colonies of strange lichens grew on some of the drier rocks. The greatest treat, though, was Paul Todd's guided tour of the extremophiles - organisms that live in extreme environments. There were rock-eating cyanobacteria (lithotropes) and cyanobacteria that lived in water boiling at 85 C. Tiny snails, brine shrimp and copepods lived in the hot pools (shown here as various black specks; Judy Todd, Jean Wood, and Paul Todd seem pleased with their finds). The expertise within the group itself added much to our enjoyment here and elsewhere.

As dawn approached the geyser activity increased. The geysers don't erupt like those at Yellowstone, however the pressure grows in a diurnal cycle culminating shortly after dawn. The billowing clouds formed an impressed backdrop against the high Andes to the East.

After a nice picnic breakfast of sandwiches, cookies, fruit, and coffee, we drove to the north side of the geyser field where we saw impressive mineral layers deposited over millenia next to bubbling potholes (see the dormant tabletop geyser) and one tremendously powerful geyser which, to everyone's delight, created a rainbow against the morning sunlight. (Chip Wood, Juan Carlos Torres and Ann Kreis, Jane Pappalardo and Colleen Messing, and Ed Bertschinger take advantage of the locale to let off some steam.) After dawn we saw numerous birds including a Variable Hawk being chased away by Andean gulls (observed here by Mary Kohler and Jaime Droguet), and an Ash-Breasted Sierra Finch.

On the return trip the group split in half. One group went to the Puritama Hot Springs. The rest, including a couple of us suffering from altitude sickness, went directly back to San Pedro. Descending in elevation, we recovered enough to enjoy stops where we saw vicunyas and numerous flamingos and coots in a small seasonal pond showing a beautiful reflection of the snow-capped Andes in the background. Around this lake, as elsewhere in the region, local people had placed rock cairns in devotion to the sacred earth. Away from the oases, the land looked very much like the surface of Mars.

After lunch in San Pedro, most of the group shopped, rested, or swam in the nice pool at the Hosteria. After drinks from the hotel bar, I gave my second, and most challenging, lecture ("What the Largest Structures in the Universe can tell us about the Smallet"), on some of the ways that astrophysics and cosmology inform us about particle physics in the early universe.

Following a very pleasant dinner in town, about half of the group attended Alain Maury's second tour of the southern sky while the rest got some much-needed sleep. This night the skies were perfectly clear and stunningly beautiful. The Magellanic Clouds hung like cotton candy high in the sky; 30 Doradus was visible to the naked eye and beautiful through binoculars. Other highlights included the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri (the nearest star system to ours), Eta Carina (a fabulous nebula and dust cloud surrounding a terminally ill star), Saturn (through Alain's telescopes we saw not only the rings, but Titan and several other moons), and especially the bright nearby globular 47 Tucanae. I was thrilled also to identify the bright stars Beta Pictoris and Epsilon Eridani, two nearby stars harboring planetary systems (which of course are too dim to see directly!). By the end of the evening I had to agree with Alain's assessment that the Southern sky is much more beautiful than the Northern one!

January 28, Archaeology of San Pedro; travel to Antofagasta

At 9am we went to the archaeological site of Pukara de Quitor, a 12th century Indian fortress at an oasis of the Rio San Pedro. Walking up the hill in the early morning heat, we stopped to examine the alternating mud and chalk layers of an ancient sea. We climbed up around the reconstructed ruins while Jaime told us how the Spaniards took the fortress in 90 minutes in 1540 using cannon and horses. Without this oasis, the Indians were forced to retreat hundreds of miles. (Here Miguel Tauszig discusses the seige with Christine Petrucci, while Jane Pappalardo and Bill Layson examine the scenery.)

In retrospect we should have spent less time at the ruins to give ourselves more time at the magnificent Archaeological Museum. This is a real gem of pre-Columbian culture showing the evolution of agriculture, technology, art, and more from neolithic times up to the Spanish conquest. We were impressed by the large collection of pipes for inhaling hallucinogenic drugs. Surprisingly, it was not only the priests who did this; much of the middle class also enjoyed altered states of consciousness. What comes around, goes around. The most striking displays, however, were the Chinchorro mummies (the practice preceded even the Egyptian mummies), including several with thick tresses of dark hair. Other bodies had become naturally mummified in the desert after burial in clay pots. Jaime's enthusiastic descriptions of the exhibits added to our enjoyment.

After the museum trip we had lunch, relaxed, or shopped for a few hours until time for my third lecture, "The Search for Black Holes and Gravitational Waves: The Ultimate Tests of Einstein's Relativity." It was a bit too warm in the room in the mid-afternoon sun, but the lecture was easier and briefer than the second one so that we were soon on our way to the airport at Calama for a flight to Antofagasta. This time the flight attendant welcomed the "MIT Black Hole Tour".

The mild humidity in the seaside town felt wonderful after four days in San Pedro de Atacama. The largest city in the mineral-rich north (copper, lithium, and nitrates are mined in vast quantities), Antofagasta is a working-class city of tract housing springing up along the border between the desert and the Pacific Ocean. The Hotel Antofagasta is comfortable and well located on the beach, and offered wireless internet access from the hotel lobby. The best feature of the hotel, however, may have been the patio where we enjoyed our drinks after sunset while Black-crowned night herons watched from their perches and Peruvian Pelicans foraged in the tide pools below.

January 29, Paranal Observatory

At 9am the next morning we boarded the bus for the trip to the Paranal site of the European Southern Observatory, home of the VLT (Very Large Telescope, often described as the world's largest). We first made an entertaining stop at an Antofagasta beachside parking lot to pick up coolers containing our lunch. After these were removed from the trunk of a small car, Miguel and Jaime haggled with the driver over the price, leading the rest of us to speculate on the nature of the contraband being procured for our group.

The drive was made longer by a wrong turn; the bus driver had to backtrack over 20km of dirt road costing us close to an hour. In order to double check the driver, Howard Messing asked me to determine the latitude and longitude of Paranal, which i was able to do to within about ten arcminutes (13 miles) using Bob Johnson's tourist map.

Along the way, Paul Todd collected soil samples for his research on extremophiles in the most Martian-like terrain on Earth. We all enjoyed Paul's explanation of how his company was testing the ability of terrestrial microbes to live in simulated Martian climates (either in the laboratory or in the Atacama). Near Cerro Paranal the rainfall is measured in millimeters per decade. The aridity and strong ultraviolet radiation from sunlight effectively sterilize the soil.

Around noon we got our first glimpse of the four VLT domes up on the mountain beyond the visitor center. Our first view of the impressive technology was the concrete engineering test version of a thin 8.2m mirror in the parking lot. Pulling out the contraband coolers, Miguel, Gerardo and the bus driver then conjured a magnificent picnic lunch for us on the terrace outside the visitor center, complete with Chilean wine and the "Chilean papaya" (a fruit shaped more like a bell pepper and tasting like a sweet peach).

After lunch Hernan Julio (shown here with Ed Bertschinger) gave us a wonderful introductory astronomy slideshow beginning with this quotation:

If you choose a career in science, make sure you help people understand what you do. That will always be part of your work.
         - Elazer Edelman, director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center.
We then donned hardhats for the tour into the observatory. Hernan leads public tours for the European Southern Observatory at its Paranal and La Silla locations and we were fortunate to have his leadership at the VLT. The telescopes were awesome, technologically very advanced and not appearing to suffer from any lack of resources. We saw the active optics system of mirror sensors and supports that prevents the enormous, thin primary mirrors from sagging under their own weight. Even more impressive to me was the large number of instruments mounted at both the Cassegrain focus (hanging off the bottom) and the Nasymth platform (on the side). It looks as if the Europeans are trying to do everything.

Howard and Colleen Messing join Jane Pappalardo (center) beneath the Cassegrain focus, while Miguel looks on the helium refrigerator of an infrared photometer.

By going up to a catwalk we were able to look down on one of the VLT primary mirrors. (There are 4 identical large telescopes; we viewed one.) The dome was refrigerated to keep the temperature about 11 C, much cooler than the daytime temperature outside, in order to minimize temperature differences (and the deleterious "heat waves" caused by rising air currents) at night.

Outside we saw the small "outrigger" telescopes whose light can be combined with light from the four main telescopes using the technique of interferometry. We then went into the control center where astronomers work; each setup appears in quadruplicate. We were most impressed by the discussion of adaptive optics presented by an Australian astronomer. He showed us a photograph of the new VLT laser guide star system (with a yellow laser tuned to the sodium D lines streaking into the sky from one of the big telescopes), whose laser had been turned skyward for the first time only the night before. He described the two different adaptive optics systems already in use for bright stars (using Shack-Hartmann and wavefront curvature sensing, respectively) as well as the VLT interferometer. I was bowled over and more than a little chagrined at how the Europeans were running past the U.S. owing to their much better funding.

Evidently the Europeans have more money than they need for science, as their "dormitory" for astronomers is rather a tropical resort, an architectural masterpiece complete with interior gardens (see calla lilies) and a swimming pool.

The long bus ride back was made more pleasant by a game organized by Ann Kreis. Everyone wrote a sentence or two revealing something about themselves. We then had fun trying to guess the assignments of unusual facts to people. A group as varied and accomplished as ours had some wonderful stories to tell!

Having spent so much time at the observatory (our group impressed the astronomers we met with extensive questions and great interest), some adjustment of evening plans was necessary. Instead of speaking after dinner, I gave the last of my four lectures ("We are not Alone: Other Solar Systems, Other Earths?") during dinner. We were fortunate to have the presence of Prof. Benito Gomez Silva, a biologist from the University of Antofagasta and and expert on desert life. After dinner, Christine Petrucci and Jane Pappalardo gave a wonderful impromptu concert of jazz singing and piano at the hotel bar - I enjoyed seeing the dancing spill out onto the hotel lobby.

January 30, La Serena and the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory

In the morning we flew south from Antofagasta to La Serena where we met our next local guide, Judith. Without stopping at the hotel, we took the road east into the mountains, going up the Elqui Valley. It was a beautiful though long drive. Stopping for lunch, looking up the valley we saw Cerro Pachon topped by the international SOAR (Brazil-NOAO-North Carolina-Michigan) and Gemini South (US and 6 other nations) telescopes. Down in the valley we saw the Capao cactus, which is similar in appearance to a Saguaro. The cactus is host to a parasitic plant, the quintral mistletoe, with a bright red flower. We also saw tuna prickly pair cactus, whose leaves are attacked by the cochineal insect, the source of a bright red dye.

After lunch we finished the long drive up to Cerro Tololo, site of 4-meter Blanco Telescope. There we were met by Malcolm Smith, director of AURA's Observatory in Chile (consisting of the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, Gemini South, and SOAR). (AURA is the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, a consortium that operates most of the publicly funded observatories run by the US. MIT is a member of AURA, hence we were visiting longtime friends at CTIO.) Dr. Smith graciously guided our tour of the Blanco telescope. This older telescope, the twin of the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona which I used as a graduate student, has been outfitted with new instruments so that it remains productive despite the more advanced technology of telescopes like the VLT and Magellan. Dr. Smith spoke proudly of the supernova survey work being done there which provides much of the recent evidence for cosmic acceleration and dark energy.

In the Blanco control room, astronomer Leslie Hebb of the University of St. Andrews explained her research on galactic star clusters. We then took the elevator up to the observatory floor and admired the massive structure of the 4m telescope. The group enjoyed crawling into the Cassegrain cage although they did not experience the telescope slewing while they were taking data! (Having had enough of that in my youth, I skipped the cage.) One of the highlights was when Manager of Telescope Operations Oscar Saa opened the dome slit and slewed the telescope down low (while Miguel and Hernan posed for a photo) so that we could see the mirror. I was taken aback by this, both because of the warm air let into the dome which would heat the telescope, and by the presence of spots on the mirror! But the group enjoyed the fact that the 4m telescope was much more approachable than the VLT.

Mary Kohler led us with another fun activity on the long drive back from Cerro Tololo. She enlisted volunteers to speak about something important in their life. I was touched by the depth and breadth of experiences shared. What a great group of people this was to spend 10 days with touring Chile!

That evening we had an elegant and very enjoyable dinner at the Hotel Costa Real in La Serena, with distinguished guests Malcolm and Anamaria Smith (Anamaria recommended that we visit Easter Island next time!), Jeremy Mould (Director of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory), Miguel Roth (Director of Las Campanas Observatory), Mark and Michelle Phillips (Mark is Associate Director of Las Campanas Observatory and a pioneer of supernova measurements of dark energy), and Frank and Terri Perez and his wife (Frank is Magellan Site Manager and Chief Engineer). As if meeting these distinguished guests wasn't enough, I met several other astronomers in the hotel - it's a favorite of international astronomers visiting the Chilean telescopes!

After dinner about half of the group drove 1.5 hours by bus to the Collowara Observatory, a public observatory in the mountains near the scenic town of Andacollo. Despite the inexperience of our guides (white flashlights should never be used during nighttime viewing), we had spectacular views of a moonless, clear sky. The Magellanic Clouds were so bright they gave me shivers. More than one member of the group gasped or exclaimed in awe when they saw 47 Tucanae through a 14-inch telescope. Although we didn't get back until 2am, the evening was one of the highlights of the trip.

January 31, Las Campanas Observatory and the Magellan Telescopes

After a few hours' sleep we packed, checked out of the hotel in La Serena, and boarded the bus for a long drive to see the Magellan Telescopes, the centerpiece of our trip. Fortunately the roads were smooth enough so that many of us were able to sleep on the bus. On our arrival at Las Campanas we were greeted by Frank Perez (at the right in this photo, which also features Paul Todd on the camera, Mary Kohler, Juan Carlos Torres, and Jane Pappalardo). Unlike the Paranal and CTIO observatories, Las Campanas is funded and run by a private organization (the Carnegie Institution of Washington) with partnership in the new Magellan Telescopes provided by MIT, Harvard, the University of Arizona and the University of Michigan. Because of this strong connection we were in effect visiting family.

Jane Pappalardo and the Magellan Telescopes.
Jane Pappalardo and Ed Bertschinger beneath the Magellan Telescopes.

Frank began by giving us a brief tour of the 100" Dupont telescope. Although built with old technology, like the Blanco telescope at CTIO it remains very useful because of its wide field of view. Compared with the VLT and Blanco telescopes, however, the Dupont seemed tiny.

Next we went to the control room of the Baade telescope (named after the pioneering Carnegie astronomer Walter Baade) where Al and Jean Duerig, Audrey Buryn, Christine Petrucci, Judy Todd, Ali Moiin and Bob Jesurum listen to Frank Perez. Baade is one of the twin Magellan Telescopes. Unlike the VLT, the control room resides in the telescope dome itself. After receiving an overview from Frank, we went up to the observatory deck to see the telescope itself. Compared with the Blanco, the Magellan telescopes are remarkably short and squat. And unlike the VLT, the mirror is fully enclosed in its cell because when the telescope is operated the mirror is literally supported on air. Rapid airflow through the mirror cell and support structure (note the giant air hoses behind Frank's hand and also to the right) keeps all exposed materials at ambient temperature, virtually eliminating thermal air disturbances and thereby significantly improving the image quality. The Magellan Telescopes have the best seeing in the world, prior to the use of adaptive optics.

Light coming down from the secondary mirror can be directed by a tertiary mirror into one of several instrument ports on the side of the telescope (white disk in upper center). The IMACS imaging spectrograph is visible on the Nasmyth platform at the right.

Jane Pappalardo (here on the steps of discovery) and the rest of us were enormously proud to see how much had been done with so little. Each Magellan Telescope costs a small fraction of a single VLT; they are simpler and yet have distinct advantages in their large field of view and overall image quality (the VLT excels, however, in imaging bright objects with its adaptive optics system). The group was impressed by the elegant use of technology, including the use of a simple slip ring and bar codes to encode the dome rotation angle.

Next Frank showed us the adjacent mirror resurfacing facility. After the old aluminum layer is washed off the mirror is put into a high vacuum, cooled to liquid helium temperature so that any contaminants freeze onto the walls of the cryostat, and then coated with a 50 nanometer thin film of aluminum. Frank showed us a pane of glass coated this way; the aluminum is so thin that one can see a light bulb through it, and the mere smudge of a thumbprint removes the aluminum. Next he showed us the actuators used in the active optics system attached to the 6.5m honeycomb mirrors. Most interesting to me was the Shack-Hartmann system and guider probe within the focus ring attached to each of the working telescope output ports. Frank then took us to the second Magellan telescope, Clay (I wonder what Judy found so funny!). We saw the MagIC camera (built by Jim Elliot and Paul Schechter at MIT in collaboration with Harvard) attached to the focus ring at one of the output ports. Frank did an excellent job in showing and explaining to us the main technical elements of the instruments and the telescope.

After a fine lunch in the Las Campanas cafeteria (clockwise from lower left: Hernan Julio, Bob Johnson, Miguel Tauszig, our bus driver, Frank Perez, Miguel Roth, Chip Wood, and our local guide Judith) we went back up to Baade where MIT astronomer Rob Simcoe gave a superb explanation of his research on absorption lines quasar spectra caused by intergalactic gas clouds. Rob is a Pappalardo Fellow and will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT in September, 2006. We were fortunate that he was in the middle of a three-night observing run while we visited Magellan. I was impressed and pleased that Miguel Roth and Frank Perez both joined us for this time.

After questions and answers with Rob we went onto the observatory deck of Baade to see the mirror when Frank tipped the telescope down. Our local guide Judith was agog - we were seeing things no public tour ever does! The Baade mirror was clean to the eye despite its having gone nearly 18 months without cleaning; Frank explained that it would nonetheless be removed and cleaned during the next full moon. We took a group photo in front of this magnificent mirror.

Left to right: John Flicker, Frank Perez, Paul Todd, Terry Kohler, Chip Wood, Assen Nicolov, Mary Kohler, Juan Carlos Torres, Jean Wood, Jane Pappalardo, Miguel Roth, Judy Todd, Ed Bertschinger, Ann Tavan, Rick Tavan, Colleen Messing, Alan Phillips, Christine Petrucci (in front, hiding Sue McClary), Howard Messing, Bob Jesurum, Bob Johnson, Bill Layson, Ali Moiin, Lex Layson, Miguel Tauszig, Bill Kupsky, Jean Duerig, Al Duerig

To round out our visit we walked down the hill, passing by the Magellanic burros, to see the Science Support Facility, a small office building housing laboratories, shops, a library and offices for astronomers. We admired the plaque honoring Neal and Jane Pappalardo along with Cecil and Ida Green for their generous support of the project. Jane had visited Magellan before during the project dedication in December, 2000, but was now seeing the completed Science Support Facility for the first time.

After exchanging gifts and thanks with Frank Perez and Miguel Roth, we boarded the bus elated from the extraordinary visit we had just experienced. After such a full day, we still managed to get to La Serena airport in time for our evening flight back to Santiago. Soon we were fast asleep at the Hotel Plaza El Bosque, where we had begun our journey 9 days earlier.

February 1, Santiago

During the trip we developed close friendships so it was with some sadness that we began our last day together by visiting the Cousino Palace in Santiago. We donned protective covers on our shoes for the tour of this opulent jewel of the wealth Cousino family, built in the late 19th century by Luis Cousino for his wife Isidora Goyenechea. The family is now best known for its winery, Cousino Macul, while the palace is a museum. As always, our group had lots of questions as well as remarkable knowledge and insights. It was fun to watch the tour guide learning about Persian rugs from Ali Moiin (Ali on the left talks with Assen Nicolov outside the Cousino Palace) .

Next we boarded the bus for a short trip to the Maipo Valley, the central wine-producing region in Chile. We visited the Santa Rita Winery, site of fine phylloxera-free Cabernet grapes. Every few rows there was a flowering rosebush ready to provide early warning of phylloxera or other problems. In front of the Winery we saw a beautiful flowering Santa Rita tree (I didn't record it's English name) and a Chilean Palm. Inside the Winery we admired the gardens (Colleen Messing stands between the hedges) and relaxed in the cozy chairs (Al and Jean Duerig, Lex and Bill Layson, and Mary and Terry Kohler show how it's done). Lunch was held in the very nice Dona Paula restaurant and was accompanied by fine Santa Rita wines. After lunch I served as emcee for our final group game, reading the anonymous prize citations, songs, and poems that group members had written about each other. (My favorite was "Rocky Man", to be sung to the Elton John tune.) Then we went through the cellar where wines are aged in oak barrels before being bottled (in the facility behind Bill, Hernan, Lex and Miguel) and further aged in the bottle (no, we didn't sing "99 Bottles of Wine on the Wall" all the way home on the bus). We had a great time (as demonstrated by Chip Wood and Jane Pappalardo).

Lunch at Santa Rita Winery:
Jean and Al Duerig, Mary Kohler, Chip and Jean Wood, Bill Layson, Gerardo Canessa, Bob Johnson, Colleen Messing, Howard Messing hidden behind Hernan Julio (clockwise from lower left)
Assen Nicolov, Ed Bertschinger, Jane Pappalardo, Alan Phillips, Judy Todd, Bill Kupsky, Christine Petrucci, Bob Jesurum, John Flicker, Sue McClary, Terry Kohler, Ann and Rick Tavan (clockwise from lower left)

The afternoon ended with our trip to the airport, where we made farewells to about half of the group. We also welcomed Judy Clapp, who joined us for the extension tour of the Lakes Region. Back in Santiago, I enjoyed dinner with Rick and Ann Tavan and Bill and Lex Layson at the Spanish Restaurant Pinpilinpausha.

February 2, Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas

We got up early to check out of the hotel and board the bus to the airport in Santiago. (Thank goodness for the real coffee at the Hotel Plaza El Bosque!) The LAN flight was, as always, comfortable; along the way to Puerto Montt I saw two smoking volcanos and a gradual change in the geography from semi-arid to lush and green. At the small airport we were met by one more bus (this one had less leg room than the others, alas) and our new local guide, Antonio.

Puerto Montt is at latitude -41.5 degrees, compared with -33.2 for Santiago and -22.5 for San Pedro de Atacama. When the bus stopped on a hill overlooking the port of Puerto Montt, it was windy and only 8 C on a summer's morning. Antonio explained to us that this part of Chile was popular with German immigrants because of its similarity to Bavaria.

We drove down to the port and had some time to walk around and shop. I stood in front of a monument celebrating the centennial of the German colonization. Once again I saw posters of the smiling new President Bachelet throughout town. Even more impressive to me as a sign of strong democracy were other campaign posters featuring a hammer and sickle.

Puerto Montt is located at the northern end of the Bay and Estuary of Reloncavi, which itself opens to the Gulf of Ancud. The converging coastline creates high tides (up to 7.5m) similar to those in the Gulf of Maine. Antonio enjoyed showing us the fish market, where we saw the favorite local fish, the Conger "eel"; Ali tried to decide on a cheese before buying a cheremoya, a thistle-like fruit with sweet petals. Paul pointed out bales of kelp of the type processed to produce carrageenan, the thickener used in many of our ice creams. We then boarded the bus once more for the short drive to Puerto Varas. Along the way we stopped for a relaxing lunch at a German-Chilean restaurant. Everything was in bloom, the houses and yards were beautiful. Behind the restaurant we found what might have become the next day's lunch. Elsewhere in fields we saw the wild Black-Faced Ibis.

After checking in to the Hotel Cabanas del Lago in Puerto Varas, we had a few hours to rest or walk around the fine small town. The hotel climbs up a hill at one end of the town. Most of us chose to take a much-needed siesta before having a nice dinner at the hotel. I dreamed about going out to look at the stars....

February 3, Lago Todos los Santos and Peulla

The next day we took a spectacular sight-seeing trip in the Lake District. Driving around Lago (Lake) Llanquihue (pronounced, according to a tourist sign, "Yan-kee-whey") we had fine views of salmon-fishing streams, stands of tall silver poplars, and a monkey puzzle tree at the Cafe Bellavista, which also featured rheas, sheep, and a female puma in heat. We stopped at the spectacular Petrohue Falls where we got fine views of Mt. Osorno (here with Bill Kupsky in the foreground, here with Judy and Paul Todd), a 2661m high volcano topped by beautiful glaciers. A short walk took us to fine views of the falls and Scotch Broom and dandelions growing out of cracks in lava flows laid down in 1850. Continuing the drive we saw a colorful Torrent Duck in the Rio Petrohue.

Soon we arrived in the town of Petrohue where we boarded a catamaran for a ride across the long skinny Lago Todos los Santos, named for its discovery on All Saint's Day (November 1). We had spectacular views of Mt. Osorno. The ride took us past Magarita Island and gave us fine views of a second volcano, Mt. Puntiagudo (with a single car ferry here in the foreground). For me, however, the views of Mt. Osorno and the many waterfalls formed by snowmelt from the mountains around the Lago were the highlights of the day. Looking across the lake, I saw about a dozen waterfalls on the trip, one of which seemed to be as long and beautiful as Yosemite's Bridalveil Falls.

After a couple of hours we arrived at Peulla and walked 10 minutes up one of the universal dirt roads to the town and restaurant. Along the way we saw more beautiful flowers, pampas grass bordering a marsh, and a giant-leafed Chilean rhubarb, the pangue. A sign warned us that the puma is native to the area. More irksome, however, were the horseflies which were attracted to blue clothing.

After a nice lunch at the Hotel Peulla (as usual, we enjoyed fine wines and conversation), we went back out into the strong sunshine and heat (surprising given how cold it was on our arrival in Puerto Montt) for a walk into the forest up to the officially-named Cascadia Velo de la Novia (Bridal Veil Falls, though not quite as impressive as the one I saw across the lake). Judy Todd and Ann Tavan took a break after hiking up to the falls. On the way back through Peulla, i admired the sign for the Ringed Kingfisher, having seen one in the morning on a telephone wire.

That evening we enjoyed dinner in Puerto Varas. Afterwards it was clear and dark enough to see the Magellanic Clouds. Be still my beating heart!

February 4, Chiloe Island

This day was a long bus ride to and through the northern half of Chiloe Island, the second largest in South America. The ferries came three times a day; a controversial 2.5-km bridge to the mainland is planned for the future. In the Chacao Channel we saw sea lions, Imperial Cormorants, and, at the shoreline, Black-Necked swans. On the island we also saw numerous Dolphin Gulls, Whimbrels, Turkey Vultures and a Chilean Flicker. We then drove to the provincial capital of Castro, arriving to a fine low-tide view of colorful houses on stilts (palafitos). We found that steam engine monuments are popular in Southern Chile.

After a traditional lunch of steamed clams, mussels, spicy sausage and salt pork we visited the Castro Market which seemed to carry almost everything, including live chicks, fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables, sweet honey from the Ulmo tree, and even green eggs for one's ham. The local gendarmes posed for a photo on the town square. To finish up the afternoon we visited a market featuring handmade goods near a historic wooden church at Dalcahue. Although the inhabitants are not wealthy, most homes had beautiful rose gardens. Finally, after a long drive, we took the aptly-named Southern Cross ferry back to the mainland followed by another long drive to Puerto Montt.

February 5, Puerto Varas to Puerto Montt to Santiago

The next day we had a much-needed free morning. I walked into downtown Puerto Varas along the shore of Lake Llanquihue where I admired the Southern Lapwings. The birdlife in southern Chile was spectacular - in addition to the species mentioned above we saw many Black-Headed Vultures and Chimango Caracara. Ann Tavan (a fellow birder!) and I enjoyed making these identifications, which were made possible with the Chilean bird book lent to us by Jean Duerig. (Our local guide Antonio was also indispensable!)

After lunch and checking out of the hotel we drove to the Lahuen Nadi natural monument. Here we saw one of the few remaining stands of the endangered Alerce. These cypress trees resemble the California Sequoia and have lived up to 3600 years. Arriving at a locked gate, we waited a while for the landowner to come open the gate before Bill Layson put his farming experience to work to open the gate for us. Afterwards Miguel and Antonio helped Bill cover up our tracks.

The forest walk was lovely. The high cover of the Alerce trees took us quickly into a cool, dark, lush forest. We saw the beautiful flowering Copihue, Chile's national flower, small clusters of umbrella ferns, and bamboo. It was amusing to ponder which side of the trees moss grows on. At the end of the walk came a surprise, a lovely afternoon snack in a tea room on the property.

From the forest we drove to the airport at Puerto Montt, from which we flew back to Santiago. Soon I was boarding the flight back to Miami, glowing with the pleasure of a fantastic trip.


The first night in Santiago I introduced myself to the group by noting that when I began as a faculty member at MIT I had not been told about two great fringe benefits - the international travel I would be doing as a researcher, and the pleasures of meeting with alumni. This trip brought home how lucky I am to be an MIT faculty member. I enjoyed tremendously meeting everyone and sharing my love of the cosmos. Thank you, everyone!

Ed Bertschinger, 28 February 2006