MAUNA KEA, Hawaii -- I was recently having lunch at a lovely and only slightly overpriced cafe overlooking the Pacific in the historic resort region of Kailua-Kona on the dry side of Hawaii's "Big Island" (the island itself is also named Hawaii). I hopped in a rental car and traveled 60 miles by road, ascending nearly 3 miles in elevation from the dry, breezy coast through thick clouds shedding rain and hail onto my windshield, and finally reemerged into sunshine in the last few miles of the journey as I approached the Mauna Kea observatory complex, a collection of more than a dozen advanced telescopes that arguably serve as the eyes of mankind.
As technology has advanced over the centuries, we've been able to look exponentially farther into the depths of the universe with each new generation of super-sophisticated telescopes and supporting stargazing instruments. But somewhat ironically, getting top performance out of this equipment has meant locating it in increasingly isolated and even extreme spots around the globe, like Spain's Canary Islands, Chile's Atacama Desert, or here, on top of a 13,800-foot dormant volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that last erupted about 4,500 years ago. … Read more