Maui Connections

Considering its intimidating name, the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy Maikalani Advanced Research Center in Pukalani feels downright friendly whenever it holds an open house like it did to celebrate IFA’s 50th anniversary last Friday evening.

Parked cars stretched for blocks in all directions around the two-story facility located midway between Longs and the Kamehameha Schools Maui campus. From the outside, the modern building is modest, unimposing. But inside are labs filled with exotic equipment capable of transporting you — your mind, at least — into the core of the sun, or to far-off galaxies to search for the most minute signs of life.

From the parking lot, where there was ice cream, to all the high-tech magic shows inside the labs, the institute was overrun with kids on Friday. It added a kind of Halloweeny energy for them, out after dark, becoming part of a happy, excited knee-high pack of curious minds.

Telescopes in the parking lot turned those twinkling dots in the night sky into worlds of light filling the eyepiece. Inside were labs right out of a sci-fi movie. Despite signs on some doors warning of laser danger, there were friendly experts to explain what they did in there.

The fact that the kids were getting the wonder of astronomy, instead of trick-or-treat candy, didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. But there were also treats for us older, wide-eyed tourists to the cosmic realms where the scientists live, probing, testing and making their discoveries.

Over an exotic assemblage of mirrors, lenses and lasers, professor Stuart Jefferies patiently introduced me to the surface of the sun, which isn’t actually a surface at all, but a roiling photosphere that in my mind sounded like a slow boiling pot of thick soup.

He guided me under that layer, all the way to the sun’s core, and the huge forces of energy it can unleash with a single solar flair or sunspot. His research is devoted to predicting these occurrences far enough in advance to protect the Earth’s man-made satellites and cyber-infrastructure from their potentially devastating effects.

Upstairs, Kevin Lewis and Svetlana Berdyugina were showing a model of a new Planets Foundation telescope being built and installed in an already existing structure at the Haleakala summit. Its mission: to seek out life on the nearest 100 exoplanets outside our solar system.

Their equipment is sensitive enough to register tiny light and color changes that might signal something like photosynthesis going on. Adding an extra human dimension, the foundation raised the money for one of the mirrors on the exotic telescope through a Kickstarter campaign.

Down the hall in the Pan-STARRS lab, a wall of computer screens compiles data from astroids moving close to Earth. Thomas Lowe made some of the intricacies comprehensible to us earthlings with visual aids like a single photo of Hawaii’s night sky created from 400,000 separate exposures, each around 45 seconds long, taken over a period of four years.

As much as these numbers boggle the minds of the astronomically challenged, the remarkable thing is that we can wrap our minds around the concepts at all. The cutting-edge devices helped, like Gary Greenberg’s 3-D equipment and nifty new glasses to reveal the wonders of the microscopic world; or Lewis’ camera that merged visual and infrared images into colorful shapes with our faces on them. More illumination was provided by all the lightbulbs going off above people’s heads.

The wonder of discovery doesn’t care how old you are. University of Hawaii Maui College librarian Jeffrey Marzluft was sharing it with sons Ezekiel and Phineas. Cindy and Paul Schumacher were enjoying it with their grandchild.

The minds of astronomers and astrophysicists thrive in those far-away reaches of all we know, but the heavens reach out to nonscientific types, too, like poets, or romantics, or dreamers. I couldn’t help noticing all the Subarus in the parking lot, their logo derived from the Pleiades star cluster. We wish on stars, we dream of them, our imaginations fly to them.

A full moon hung in the inky sky as I left the institute, feeling more hopeful than I have in a while. It was heartening seeing technology being used to expand knowledge and our sense of wonder . . . as opposed to just adding smartphones and social media to our list of addictions.

And observing all those kids’ enthusiasm, along with all the island teens who have been inspired by the institute’s education and outreach specialist J.D. Armstrong, offered reassurance about the future of our own planet — along with all the twinkling lights in the telescopes.

For news about the astronomy institute’s latest research and upcoming events, visit www.ifa.hawaii.edu.

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at rickchatenever@gmail.com.

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