CMPnote– Despite the few excellent and beautiful photographs, what follows is sort of tourist promotion tool which gives about my home island a narrow and uncommon view; something which has nothing to do with the common citizens’ life style. Besides that, not all Canarian aborigines were guanches or tall and blonde, and the telephone has not much to do with the Gomeran whistle, just to mention couple of bugs.
MAY 05, 2016
(National politics correspondent at Newsweek)
Way, way out in the Atlantic Ocean, at a point where one of Earth’s four cold water currents meets the searing African desert winds, nights are dark as prehistory.
Once the sun sets on the volcanic archipelago known as the Canary Islands, a misty net of extraterrestrial white light blankets the sky from horizon to horizon. Until dawn, every ray of visible starlight in the entire Northern Hemisphere and much of the Southern Hemisphere gathers overhead. That sprawl of sky over a small island speck on the black ocean suggests, like few other experiences, the nanosecond that is human life.
Such black nights and clear skies have beckoned astronomers to install some of the world’s most powerful telescopes on volcanic peaks in this archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa. As scientists use these state-of-the-art observatories to search out signs of the Big Bang, at sea level 8,000 feet below, tens of thousands of mostly British pensioners and brides-to-be on “hen parties” are getting drunk and sunburned.
Five million tourists annually visit this Spanish territory from colder climes to bask in Europe’s only subtropical weather. The port at Tenerife, the largest island, is the third-most-visited cruise ship destination in Europe.
Behemoth floating parties disgorge thousands of passengers daily in wintertime, the high season. Most of them are oblivious to the fact that they have just disembarked on an island with three official, Unesco-sanctioned Starlight Reserves —locations where efforts are being made to preserve darkness and fend off light and air pollution to protect access to starlight. Only a small percentage of tourists make the two-hour nauseating and twisting ascent to the telescopes— giant, bulbous white towers, perched at the windy top of Mount Teide.
That may be about to change. Astrotourism is already a component of the Canaries’ booming tourism industry, drawing about 200,000 visitors annually. But with the 2014 designation of the islands as part of a larger EU SkyRoute itinerary for visitors, and the creation in 2011 of a music and astronomy festival, Canarian officials believe more star trekkers will soon be taking the winding drive up the mountain at dusk to sit on what might be called one of nature’s sky-decks.
Island officials and the Spanish government are trying to cement the islands’ reputation as a key destination for both amateur and professional astronomers. In 2007, scientists and policy makers from some 50 countries met on the smaller island of La Palma for the first International Conference in Defense of the Quality of the Night Sky, producing a declaration on “protecting the sky as a basic right for all humanity”.
The Gran Telescopio de Canarias, the largest optical-infrared telescope in the world and one of the most advanced, at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times
Among other matters, they discussed outlawing light pollution in La Palma, home to the world’s largest optical telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory. The island happens to be the second-best location for infrared and optical astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere, after Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, according to astronomers.
The Canary Islands telescope sites are run by astronomers at the Institute of Astrophysics (IAC) in Tenerife, a local research organization that operates the European Northern Observatory. The islands have also hosted telescopes from 28 nations over the last few decades.
With the support of Unesco, the institute in 2007 created a Starlight Foundation and a Starlight Initiative, devoted to keeping night skies dark. With Unesco, the IAC has been certifying “Starlight Reserves” around the world, defined as sites dedicated to protecting darkness from light and air pollution. Currently Starlight Reserves are certified in Chile (also home to one of the world’s largest telescopes), Nova Scotia and Portugal, in addition to the Canary Islands.
Officials in Tenerife also took the lead in the European Union in promoting stargazing as a tourism pastime in other nations, too. They spearheaded the creation of the EU Sky Route, which traces “an astronomical highway” for tourists across seven participating territories sharing exceptionally dark night skies, including locations in Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Poland and the Canary Islands.
Mount Teide forms a black pyramid at the center of the half-barren, half-green island of Tenerife. Teide is a Unesco World Heritage site and also a designated Starlight Reserve. Teide Natural Park on and around the mountain, with its abundant hiking and proximity to beaches, is said to be the most visited natural park in Spain, according to Unesco, thanks to numerous daily flights into Tenerife’s airports from Barcelona and London.
On the highest point on the nearby island of La Palma, at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, hundreds of researchers work at the Gran Telescopio de Canarias (Great Telescope of the Canary Islands).
La Palma, population 70,000, is home to a large colony of scientists and the remnants of a 1960s German commune, and it is also a tiny center for astrotourism. The economy revolves around astronomy, and besides the telescope and research center, there are 13 sky-viewing points on La Palma. Vacationers can even rent telescope-equipped holiday houses and sip a vintage called “stellar wine” from local grapes.
By day from some points near sea level on Tenerife, one can see the white columns of the telescopes perched miles high on the old volcano. Researchers use them to literally look back in time at starlight generated millenniums ago, and to advance humanity’s developing perceptions about space and time. The stars they seek out are so far away it takes millions of years for their light to reach our eyes, and for all we know, they may have died already.
Impulses both earthly and intellectually sublime coexist easily on the Canary Islands. The British lose their stiff upper lip down here faster than you can say Spanish sun, and a British television documentary called “OAPs Behaving Badly” recently reported that so many British retirees party hearty in the bars that one of them is known as “God’s Waiting Room”. Establishments like Bonker’s Bar, China’s White Bar, the Down Under Bar, the Drunk-N-Duck Bar and the Dubliner hold down the wilder end of the Canarian amusement spectrum. For the sober set, there are dozens of golf courses irrigated with desalinated water.
Tenerife’s astrotourism lure was bumped up in the last few years with the Starmus Festival, headlined by the likes of the late American astronaut Neil Armstrong and other stars of the space world. In the fall of 2014, in a vast conference hall in the Ritz Carlton’s Abama resort, a terra cotta red Moorish-styled compound, Garik Israelian, a Canarian astrophysicist, stood before 600 science aficionados from all over the world, with music from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” blasting from speakers all around.
A few hundred yards away, the Atlantic crashed into jet-black rocks and split the blazing afternoon sunlight into spray diamonds, but down in the conference room, travelers from as far away as Canada and China couldn’t have cared less about sun and sea. Everyone had their iPhones aimed at the wheelchair mounted with a black Intel laptop that almost obscured the small, slumped figure of the Cambridge physicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking.
Dr. Hawking, along with Brian May of the band Queen, who earned a doctorate in physics from the Canary Islands astrophysical institute sometime after recording “Another One Bites the Dust” and other rock anthems, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and several astronauts, were among the headliners at the second Starmus Festival in 2014, the pet project of Dr. Israelian.
Dr. Israelien is a rocker-scientist who had his own punk band and studied astrophysics in Armenia before emigrating to Spain with his family in the 1970s. He moved to Tenerife and began researching supernovas at the observatories, with Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and other ’70s rockers blasting on his earphones.
He welcomed attendees standing before a giant LED backdrop of a beam of light slicing through a triangle and splitting into a prism, homage to the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album, and the sounds of the band’s “Breathe” reverberating through the floor. When the music died down, he talked about the telescopes a few hours uphill.
“The huge eye looking out into space seems to me to be an uplifting symbol of humanity’s eye looking out into the vast universe where we live in such a small corner,” Dr. Israelien said. “But our species is capable of looking beyond”.
The islands are essential to extraterrestrial exploration now, but they played a key role in earthly exploration as well. Columbus “discovered” them in 1492, that banner year in the human enterprise of looking beyond. Drifting down the coast of Africa before steering west to discover the Americas, the explorer dropped anchor and fueled up on fresh water and fruit here.
The islands were not exactly new to mainland Europeans when Columbus arrived. The origin of their name is the Latin word for dog —cane — possibly because, as the ancient Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote, early Roman visitors to the islands encountered huge dogs. The small tropical birds we call canaries, native to these islands and others, are named after the islands, not the other way around.
But when Columbus dropped anchor, the islands were still inhabited by a tall, white-skinned people called the Guanches. They lived in the mountain caves, wore goatskins and mummified their dead in the Egyptian fashion. Teide, capped with snow in the winter, and the island’s name, Tenerife, are both words that come from the indigenous people’s name for “white mountain”.
On the nearby island of La Gomera, schoolchildren are still taught an indigenous whistling language that those inhabitants of the island used to communicate over distances before the arrival of the telephone.
But other than those few words and traditions, for the lost goatskin-wearing natives, Columbus’s arrival heralded the end of language, culture and time. Within two years of the explorer’s stopover, the Spaniards had colonized the islands and eradicated the Guanche, selling the survivors as white slaves on the Continent. What remains of them today are some of their names, like Teide, and words for some of the flowers that grow only along its rocky ridges.
After Columbus, the great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt landed here in the 18th century and explored the islands, identifying one of the four cold water currents in the world drifting past the islands, which partly accounts for the near-perfect weather. The sky is literally cloudless 90% of the year.
While one side of Tenerife is gray rubble, the islands are mostly fertile, producing kiwi, bananas, mangoes, apples, tobacco and wine. Tenerife is filled with microclimates, green toward the north and barren to the south. In winter, it is possible to swim on the beaches and, an hour later, ascend the volcano and stand in three feet of snow.
The islands’ bounty and idyllic —and strategic— location made them a colonial prize by the 18th century, and it was here that the Spaniards shot off Admiral Horatio Nelson’s right arm with a cannon while defending Tenerife against the British Navy in 1797. He survived and went home with a condolence prize of casks of sweet Canarian wine, for which the British developed a taste that has not abated to this day. George Washington supposedly toasted the revolution with a glass of it.
For modern-day American visitors, the Canary Islands resemble the Caribbean, but possess facilities and characteristics of Europe: hospitals, low crime, relatively high standard of living, Spanish culture and healthy, delicious food (great tapas, olive oil, indigenous white goat cheese and a local delicacy, “wrinkled potatoes” boiled in salted water until the water evaporates). But the chief difference between Tenerife and, say, Aruba or the Bahamas is the island’s role in international space endeavors.
Dr. Israelien conceived Starmus, the island’s science and rock festival in 2011, and its name is short for “star music”. The concept of music from stars —unlike the medieval “music of the spheres”— actually has some basis in science and Dr. Israelien has made a study of it.
“When the first sound waves were detected in stars, about 10 years ago, I realized this whole new branch of astronomy was starting —he said—, we have tools to detect those sound waves. They are low frequency, infra-sounds, the timbre is different, but I can take the sound … and I can move it to our domain, so we can hear it. It’s playing the piano, 10 octaves down”.
Dr. Israelien, who is compiling a library of the star sounds, likes to think big (he’s working on projects to help Armenian and other orphans in Syria).
In the fall of 2014, at the second Starmus, he had 600 attendees, a repeat attendance by Dr. Hawking, and the participation of the local government and tourism agencies. Dr. Israelien plans a third, even larger Starmus festival from June 27 to July 2 this year devoted to discussion of the search for life in the universe. “The only place and best place to do something like this is here —he said—. In one hour we can get a bus and get to a star party with the biggest telescope in the world, at night. There is no place on the planet where you can do that”.
Dr. Hawking is again expected, along with 10 Nobel laureates, a gaggle of American and Russian astronauts, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist, author and television personality, a rock star himself.
Among the science-lovers who trekked across the planet for the last Starmus were two Canadians, Gordon MacLaren and Greg Davies. The men, a marketing executive and an engineer, are among Richard Dawkins’s million-plus Twitter followers, and when Mr. Dawkins tweeted about the event, they thought it sounded cool. They each forked out $5,000 for full access tickets, and undertook a 36-hour odyssey, arriving from Toronto just in time to hear Mr. Dawkins give his talk on “A Taxonomy of Alien Life”.
When told that a single tweet had enticed a pair of Canadians to travel to the remote island, Mr. Dawkins asked if they had traveled together. When told they had, he replied dryly: “That’s a single data point”. The curmudgeonly atheist biologist was later spotted in a Hawaiian shirt, poolside, amiably chatting with the reborn Christian American astronaut Charlie Duke and his wife, Dorothy, who had come to Tenerife armed with Creationist literature to share with the attendees.
The surreal spectacle of the geekfest in paradise reached a peak when more than a thousand people packed a hall for Dr. Hawking’s lecture, and Dr. Israelien produced a 1970s style rock ’n’ roll entrance. Dr. Hawking, eyes closed, was wheeled onstage to form the human centerpiece of a flashing light and sound show accompanied by a thundering rendition of “A Hole in the Sky”, by the doom metal band Atoma. Dr. Hawking later said he thoroughly enjoyed the Starmus festival. “It is a combination of science and rock music, both of which I love”, he wrote in an email. He said he hoped that he would be invited back, and he was.
Courtesy of Hiram Pérez