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  Field Notes From
Search for Other Earths

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From Author

Tim Appenzeller

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Mark Thiessen

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Mark Thiessen (top) and Rebbeca Hale


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Search for Other Earths

Field Notes From Author
Tim Appenzeller

Best Worst Quirkiest
    I spent roughly a week with astronomers at La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. It's a spectacular place. During the day, you look out on endless dry mountains; at night, you gaze up at a sky filled with a brilliant Milky Way and two smaller galaxies, called the Magellanic Clouds, which look like cotton puffs. Europeans run the observatory, and it has a European feel. There are espresso machines in the corridors and unhurried meals (lunch, dinner, and midnight snack, from noon to 2 a.m.), where astronomers from Chile and all over Europe chat in their common language, English, about politics, movies, and science. From time to time I sensed a little bit of Euro-American tension—one astronomer jokingly called me "an American spy"—but mostly it was great fun.

    I had decided to begin the story by describing how Swiss astronomers found a new planet around another star—a discovery I witnessed during a trip to La Silla Observatory. Several months later, as I was wrapping up the article, I learned that the "discovery" may not be real. That's how science works: The early signs may look good, but until researchers check and recheck their findings, they can't be sure. But this turn of events left me in a fix because I had just lost the dramatic beginning that the story needed. Then the same astronomer confessed that he had been tracking what might be another planet, far more exciting than the one that had vanished. His group would be making the final observations just a week before my deadline; did I want to come? I jumped at the chance. My editors at National Geographic gave me an extra week to finish the story, and I headed off to Chile a second time.

    Astronomers have their eyes on the stars, so you might not think they would be very interested in wildlife. But they are at La Silla. Tiny desert foxes gather outside the telescope control room at dusk, waiting for the observers to arrive from dinner with their pockets stuffed with dinner rolls. It's an observatory ritual to feed the foxes and watch the sun go down before settling in for a night of star watching.
    On a more serious note, the astronomers also keep watch for vinchucas, or assassin bugs, small insects that can spread a nasty illness called Chagas disease. Vinchucas have been known to creep into buildings at La Silla, and the scientists fight back with a bug spray or a well-placed shoe. One building even displayed a chart of vinchuca sightings, listing when each was seen, where, how big it was, and its fate. Reassuringly, the usual entry was "RIP."


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