Reviews: Astronomy Resorts and Telescopes

Discover Magazine reviews astronomy resorts, telescopes and more.

Feb 1, 2003 6:00 AMApr 27, 2023 2:39 PM


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February 2003 Books

The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers By Juan Luis Arsuaga

Four Walls Eight Windows, $25.95

From the time quarrymen unearthed portions of a Neanderthal skeleton from a cave above the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, the hapless hominid was an object of derision. Late 19th- and early-20th-century anthropologists imagined Neanderthal Man as big-browed, slope-headed, long-jawed, hairy, and ham-handed—a heavily muscled brute lacking anterior brainpower, a troglodyte hunched dumbly in a cold Paleolithic cave. The only thing the poor brute had going for it, according to the evolutionary reckoning of the day, was that it might be the missing link between primitive apes and modern humans.

During the last 20 years, the Neanderthal's image has undergone a dramatic makeover, thanks in large part to Juan Luis Arsuaga, a professor of human paleontology at the Complutense University in Madrid. "The Neanderthals were not simply primitive versions of ourselves," argues Arsuaga in this somewhat rambling survey of scientific data that he and others collected. "They were not lesser humans with very limited mental faculties. . . . In their particular epoch they were just as 'modern' as our ancestors, the Cro-Magnons." In Arsuaga's view, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Cro-Magnons (Homo sapiens) were "alternative human models." Both were intelligent, technologically adept species who evolved independently from the same ancestor and who, for a time, lived side by side. The title of Arsuaga's book refers to a necklace of perforated teeth found at Grotte du Renne, France. The fact that Neanderthals wore jewelry, he contends, is a clear indication of their self-awareness, even if they may have stolen the idea from Cro-Magnons.

Other paleoanthropologists—most notably Erik Trinkaus of Washington University and Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History—have also helped burnish the Neanderthal's image. But Arsuaga possesses what previous researchers did not: a mountain of evidence to back him up. That mountain, the Sierra de Atapuerca, is a 3,550-foot ridge near Burgos in northern Spain. At the end of the 19th century, excavations for a railroad through the Atapuerca exposed multileveled and labyrinthine limestone caves holding ossuaries of human and animal remains, as well as cave paintings and artifacts. Research in the Atapuerca was haphazard until the 1970s. But beginning in 1982, when Arsuaga joined the teams working there, digs in the foothills revealed the most extensive fossil record of Neanderthal and Neanderthal ancestors ever discovered, representing a million years of human occupation. (Many of these finds will be on display in an exhibition, The First Europeans: Treasures from the Hills of Atapuerca, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from January 11 to April 13.)

The Atapuerca inventory includes bones of horses, rhinoceroses, hyenas, and bison consumed, and perhaps hunted, by humans 780,000 years ago. Which humans? Examinations of remains at the site revealed what the Atapuerca team members identified as a Neanderthal precursor, a species they named Homo antecessor, which they believe emerged from Africa to settle in Europe, southwestern Asia, and the Middle East. By the time Neanderthals evolved from the descendants of H. antecessor some 127,000 years ago, they were already well adapted to the region's more temperate climes. This new hominid would have been light-skinned to absorb more sunlight. Its thick leg bones reveal a human powerful enough to hunt large carnivores, as well as gather seeds, plants, and nuts. But Neanderthals were also brainy. Their hunting methods imply the ability to plan into the future. They created their own tools, then improved upon them. They used fire. In one cave, in a stratum 300,000 years old, Arsuaga found the carefully placed remains of 32 individuals who were direct ancestors of the Neanderthals. Such a burial ground suggests the hominid's awareness of its own mortality. Neanderthals "were humans, not just in the taxonomic sense of belonging to the same evolutionary group and sharing many genes with us," writes Arsuaga, "but in the more spiritual sense of belief and emotion."

Furthermore, "any kind of long-range economic planning," such as that required by hunting and gathering, "also implies the use of language," argues Arsuaga. "If it is true that consciousness and language are inseparable," then Neanderthals, rather than being at the mercy of animal instincts, "acted consciously." They may even have had the gentility and maxillary facility to play the flute—one was found at an archaeological site in Slovenia—and the soul with which to appreciate it.

So what happened to this intelligent, capable species? As Arsuaga tells it, beginning some 100,000 years ago our own Cro-Magnon ancestors began pushing north into Neanderthal lands. Some 60,000 years later, temperatures began to cool and glaciers descended. These changes were severe enough to radically alter the habitat. Our species, in its gradual progression northward, discovered new ways to deal with the changing environment. The Cro-Magnons built shelters of mammoth bones covered with animal skins; as forests vanished, they found new fuels to keep their fires burning. They created needles to sew their clothing. They used spear-throwers. They may have devised new methods to foster communication between groups. Neanderthals, caught in the pincer between the cold from the north—which may have depleted the animal herds they hunted—and the new human species arriving from the south, were, it seems, less able to adapt. "By the time that the cold reached its fiercest point beginning 25,000 years ago, modern humans were prepared to survive the worst," Arsuaga writes, and finally supplanted the Neanderthals almost across the entire range.

The hills of the Atapuerca might have been the Neanderthals' last stand. There's evidence that for a few thousand years both these human species occupied the area; they may even have interbred, although DNA evidence shows no such relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans. Ultimately, Neanderthals vanished, and only we survive. "It would thrill me more than anything," writes Arsuaga, "if I could say that I had even a drop of Neanderthal blood to connect me with those powerful Europeans of long ago." It's not likely that such a connection exists, but Arsuaga forges an equally important link: By coaxing Neanderthal Man out of his dark cave, he allows us to appreciate this hominid not merely as some ungainly progenitor but as truly one of us—a fellow human.

The Science of Love A psychologist's cruel experiments let us hug our kids again

By Elizabeth Royte

Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

By Deborah Blum Perseus Publishing, $26

Harry Harlow was a mean-spirited alcoholic whose scientific work at times seemed to mirror his own nastiness. In one of the dozens of controversial psychological experiments he conducted at the University of Wisconsin beginning in the 1960s, he set out to induce a state of hopelessness in rhesus monkeys by placing them at the bottom of an inverted pyramid with slippery sides. For two days the monkeys tried to climb out, but by day three they remained hunched in a corner. Despair had triumphed.

Ultimately, however, Harlow revolutionized modern psychology by providing scientific proof of an age-old maxim: Love conquers all. In this intriguing biography, Deborah Blum reveals that Harlow's research was grounded on the premise that love is a phenomenon that can actually be measured and analyzed. By studying what happens to young rhesus monkeys when they are deprived of affection, he discovered that a mother's love is the foundation of healthy childhood development. This is now a given in modern psychology, but when Harlow began his investigations a half century ago, the topic wasn't even considered worth studying.

In his early studies of primate intelligence, Harlow raised infant monkeys in sterile isolation and found that the animals became antisocial and were unable to form friendships. Perhaps touch, he theorized, was crucial to their development. In a now-famous experiment, he offered the babies a choice between a cloth mother and a wire mother with a milk bottle. Overwhelmingly, they preferred softness to sustenance—a breakthrough discovery that undermined the prevailing Freudian view that the provision of nourishment alone formed the basis of infant-mother love. Early attachment, Harlow concluded, "is the start of our ability to connect with others."

In subsequent experiments, he made an even more provocative discovery: Love makes you smarter. Psychologists were already aware that the longer children stayed in foundling homes, the lower they scored on verbal IQ tests. To find out if isolation and loneliness could actually dull the brain, Harlow compared the intelligence of monkeys raised in nurturing environments with that of a primate population he kept confined for 12 months inside dark boxes. The second group, Blum writes, didn't explore or play and "appeared alive only by the thud of [their] heart." When these monkeys became mothers themselves, they were devoid of love for their own infants. At the time, psychologists generally discounted the influence of the environment on intelligence; Harlow proved them wrong by demonstrating that a high-functioning monkey could be turned into a pathetic, low-scoring specimen by depriving it of crucial social interactions.

Harlow's work won him considerable fame and accolades, but gradually his personal life began to disintegrate. Divorce and later the terminal illness of his second wife brought on severe depression. Alcoholism gradually engulfed him, his ties to his own children unraveled, and he devoted ever-larger portions of his lab time to writing sarcastic doggerel. In recounting Harlow's decline, Blum doesn't lose sight of the historical and ideological context that originally spurred him to quantify love. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, psychologists maintained that the cuddling of children was a sentimental indulgence that merely transmitted disease (which indeed it did, in crowded, dirty orphanages). The new field of psychology, struggling to prove its rigor and precision, imposed its "scientific" view on a generation of post-World War II parents all too willing to place their trust in experts.

With his often-cruel experiments, Harlow was the unlikely hero who got parents to reconnect with their children. The irony of all this is not lost on Blum. By the time Harlow died in 1981, embittered and alienated from his own children, he had established—scientifically and unassailably—the pre-eminence of parental affection. It is a testament to Blum's skill that she manages to elicit so much sympathy for a man so difficult to love.

February 2003 Places

Vacation to the Stars Astronomy resorts offer a cosmic escape from earthly routines

By Corey S. Powell

Star Hill Inn Sapello, New Mexico 505-425-5605

New Mexico Skies Cloudcroft, New Mexico 505-687-2429

I am 7,200 feet above sea level in northeastern New Mexico, but I might as well be 7,200 light-years away. Stars, nebulas, and galaxies dangle enticingly before my eyes as I peer through a powerful Celestron 14-inch telescope. Earth, a vague silhouette of rocks and trees, seems distant and irrelevant.

This is the lure of an astronomy retreat, a fairly new type of vacation spot where visitors can rent observatory-quality equipment and commune with the heavens. At the Star Hill Inn, my first stop, the primary goal is to introduce tyros to the glorious world on the other side of the eyepiece. Here is a place where I can really get away from it all: not by running off to the forest or beach but by escaping from the planet entirely.

The Star Hill Inn, located outside the town of Sapello, makes that cosmic journey as effortless as possible. At dusk, hosts Phil Mahon and Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon serve home-baked pie and ice cream in front of the observing deck. Then Mahon switches on the computer-controlled Celestron, a stubby hybrid telescope that combines mirrors and a lens, and takes his guests on a grand tour. One swing takes us to Uranus, its tiny disk tinted a subtle aquatic blue green. A minute later we swoop out to the Ring nebula, a wraithlike gray green bubble of gas exhaled by a dying star. At each stop, Mahon prepares us for what we are about to see and how best to see it, an essential lesson in the distinction between looking and observing.

Mahon's knowledge is wide but not always deep. He bluffs his way, not entirely successfully, through one visitor's question about stellar evolution. On the other hand, the laid-back mood of the Star Hill Inn creates a warm feeling of community. Guests peering through a 22-inch reflector telescope, sited a few feet away from our Celestron, invite us over to share their views. As the evening winds down, a few guests retire to the library to watch a video. My cabin, one of eight nestled in the woods along a gravel trail, is decorated in a pleasing, rustic-cute B&B style that mixes rough-hewn wood with fancy handmade soaps.

The mood shifts when I reach New Mexico Skies, about 30 miles east of Alamogordo. This part of the state is crammed with landmarks of science, including the Very Large Array, the Trinity atomic-test site, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Given the setting, I am not surprised that New Mexico Skies takes its astronomy seriously. The library is a place for consulting star catalogs, not screening movies. Out back, past a winding trail, owners Mike and Lynn Rice have constructed an astronomy gearhead's dream. Four white domes house a variety of modern telescopes (a 7-inch refractor, a 14-inch Celestron, and two other mirror-lens hybrids—a 16-inch Meade and a 12-inch Meade) on high-precision mounts. Three of these instruments are equipped with CCDs, digital light collectors capable of collecting research-quality images. I am looking at $200,000 worth of equipment.

I have come for an eyes-on experience, however, so I gravitate to the 15-inch and 30-inch reflectors that sit out in the open. Like the 22-inch telescope at the Star Hill Inn, these are Dobsonian designs, meaning they move on simple swivel mounts. A computerized box near the base contains a database of thousands of deep-sky objects. When I punch in what I want to see, little arrows appear telling me how to turn the telescope. I look in the eyepiece of the 15-inch and am stunned by the view of M13, a cluster of about a million stars that resembles a frozen swarm of cosmic fireflies. Through the 30-inch, I can discern the spiral structure of the Whirlpool galaxy, a pinwheel of stars similar to our Milky Way.

The sober mood at New Mexico Skies has its drawbacks. The cabins are comfortable but austere. Mike prefers talking about pixels to planets. Lynn provides a brief introduction to the night sky, then mostly leaves her guests to fend for themselves. When I ask her to recommend some attractive double stars to observe, she suggests I go online and do a Google search.

In the end, it is a matter of taste. For a relaxed weekend, try the Star Hill Inn. For an intense scientific retreat, you'll probably prefer New Mexico Skies. In either case, plan ahead: Do some background reading, pack a good field guide, and prepare to let go of the puny familiarity of our little world.


Celestron NexStar 60GT $299

Meade LX200GPS (8-inch) $2,495

Orion SkyQuest XT8 $499

Galileo revolutionized astronomy with little more than a three-foot-long wooden tube and a pair of 1.5-inch-wide glass lenses. Four centuries later, amateur stargazers can choose from a variety of sophisticated home telescopes offering a sharp and expansive view of the universe that would have made Galileo's jaw drop.

Celestron's NexStar 60GT is a simple refracting telescope similar to the one used by Galileo. But the NexStar is also loaded with what 21st-century astronomers call go-to technology: software-controlled drivers that can automatically focus the viewfinder on 4,000 preprogrammed celestial objects, including galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters. You first have to orient the telescope, either by punching in your location and time or by pointing the telescope at two known stars so it can triangulate its position. With a main lens that's only a modest 2.4 inches wide, the NexStar 60GT is roughly 10 times as powerful as Galileo's crude instrument, but it doesn't have the power to zoom in closely on many of the distant objects in its catalog. Still, the relatively low price and ease of assembly of the telescope will appeal to amateurs in quest of striking views of the moon and planets.

Meade's eight-inch LX200GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain is intended for amateurs with deep pockets and an insatiable desire to bring distant star fields into view. The telescope is a hybrid that has a lens and two mirrors: one to collect incoming light and another to focus the light into an eyepiece. The LX200GPS is another go-to telescope, but it also features a Global Positioning System receiver that helps it automatically pinpoint 145,000 stellar objects in its built-in catalog. Unfortunately, when asked during a test run to locate several well-known stars—including Polaris and Deneb—the automated system repeatedly missed its mark. Without the expertise of one of Meade's customer representatives, who are available only during the day, we had to manually point the LX200GPS, but we were rewarded with a close-up view of seven bright stars in the Pleiades cluster.

Orion's SkyQuest XT8, a reflector telescope with one 8-inch mirror, offers clearer and crisper views than the LX200GPS and at a more affordable price. It's relatively bulky but easy to assemble and operate. Beginning astronomers will need to consult star charts to help them locate the objects they'd like to see, but the research pays off: A simple glance into the heavens through the SkyQuest XT8 provides high-resolution views of such wondrous celestial phenomena as multiple stars (points of light that turn out to be systems of two or more stars), the colorful bands of Jupiter, and bright stellar nebulas. Galileo would have been delighted. — Maia Weinstock

February 2003 Science Best-sellers

1. The Universe in a Nutshell/illustrated Brief History of Time (boxed set) By Stephen Hawking, Bantam Books

2. The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story By Richard Preston, Random House

3. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature By Steven Pinker, Viking

4. E=mc2: The Great Ideas That Shaped Our World By Pete Moore, Friedman/Fairfax

5. The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works By Roger Highfield, Viking

6. On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy Edited by Stephen Hawking, Running Press

7. Full Moon By Michael Light, Knopf

8. Heaven & Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye Edited by Amanda Renshaw, Phaidon Press

9. The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World By Ken Alder, Free Press

10. Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and From Children Edited by Alice Calaprice, Prometheus * Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

We also like ... Books

Touch the Universe: A NASA Braille Book of Astronomy

Noreen Grice Joseph Henry Press, $35

Grice, an astronomer at the Boston Museum of Science, offers the blind and visually impaired a tactile tour of the universe as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Raised patterns are superimposed on Hubble's beautiful high-contrast images of stars, planets, galaxies, and gaseous stellar explosions, accompanied by brief explanations in braille.

Sahara: A Natural History

Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle Walker & Company, $27

The world's largest desert, which more than 2 million humans call home, is anything but dry. Hirtle and de Villiers, both journalists, describe a place that is not simply an expansive pile of sand but rather a complex natural ecosystem, complete with water reservoirs, swamps, underground aquifers, mountain waterfalls, and many hundreds of plant and animal species. — Maia Weinstock

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