A Dot in the Sky – Translation
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
1969. Rosario, Argentina. And this man…
[Víctor Ángel Buso]: My name is Víctor Ángel Buso.
[Daniel]: He was ten years old. He was playing with some toy cars in his living room when his mom, who was in her bedroom watching TV, calls him.
[Víctor]: She says: “Víctor, come here. Víctitor, come here.” And when I go, I see that she was crying. And I say, “Why are you crying, mom?” She says, “Come here, come here, Víctor, you’re never going to forget in your life what you’re about to see.”
[Daniel]: And his mom was right, because right there, on the screen of that black and white tube TV…
(SOUNDBITE FROM ARCHIVE)
[Neil Armstrong]: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind…
[Víctor]: I started watching, and I said: “What is this we’re looking at?” She says: “This is the moment man sets foot on the Moon.”
(SOUNDBITE DE ARCHIVO)
[Neil Armstrong]: …United States. It’s different, but is very pretty out here.
[Daniel]: It’s hard to imagine how he felt at that moment. Those images of Neil Armstrong, those bounds on the surface of the moon, the United States flag, the photos of earth from space. It’s no exaggeration to say it changed everything. Realizing that our planet is one of many, in a galaxy of planets. That we’re insignificant. Miniscule. It’s one of those revelations that leaves you speechless.
And, well, now imagine facing that at Víctor’s age. For him, what he saw on TV that was a deciding moment for him. It awoke in him a tremendous curiosity for looking at the sky. A curiosity his parents encouraged.
Like that time on January 5th, on the Night of the Three Kings, when his mom took him out to the yard…
[Víctor]: And she crouched down with me like this. And told me that from the moon, one of the Three Kings was looking at me. He was looking to see if I was behaving myself. And I still see the magi.
[Daniel]: Or that other time, when his dad woke him up before dawn to ask him if he wanted to see a comet. Víctor was surprised and said yes. So the dad put a blanket over him and took him out to the yard.
[Víctor]: Right then, I was holding onto my dad’s legs, looking at the comet. It was Comet Bennett, and it was a, uh… very pretty with its tail all spread out. Those were important formative moments for me. I think that those things influenced me later because I remember them all.
[Daniel]: And those experiences made him obsessed with wanting to see beyond what he could see with his eyes, even beyond what other humans had seen before.
Rosina Castillo, an Argentinian journalist, continues the story.
[Rosina Castillo]: Víctor has been an amateur astronomer his whole life. In other words, he never studied it formally at any university, but it’s something he’s always been passionate about. He makes a living as a locksmith, a trade he learned from his dad when he was young. And, in fact, that skill in locksmithing, of paying attention to details and working with small pieces, helped him later with astronomy.
When he was 11 years old, he started playing with two magnifying glasses that his mom had at her beauty salon.
[Víctor]: So I started looking at anything I could with a magnifying glass: leaves, bugs, whatever, anything you can think of.
[Rosina]: One day, he decided to put the two magnifying glasses together, putting one behind the other…
[Víctor]: And I start looking in the distance to see what happened with the light and I see a column, I remember, with a telephone cable that was about 100 meters from my house. And I realized that it looked bigger.
[Rosina]: So he ran to tell his mom what he had done.
[Víctor]: “Ah,” she tells me, “Look, you made a telescope.” I say, “And what’s a telescope for?” And she says: “For looking at the stars.” The stars.
[Rosina]: Víctor wanted to know more. So he looked through the books they had at home and found a big illustrated dictionary.
[Víctor]: And there I looked for a telescope, telescope, telescope, and I find a basic blueprint of what a telescope is. And there’s the Galilean telescope, and there’s the Newtonian telescope, which was made with mirrors.
[Rosina]: Telescopes have evolved, and they’ve become more and more autonomous. But those two models that Víctor mentioned, which were designed hundreds of years ago, are the most well-known. One was the one Newton used, and it works using a system of mirrors to observe large regions of space that are very far away.
The other telescope was the one Galileo used, and it has one lens in front of another that you look through. That allows you to point at a specific object and see it in greater detail.
Víctor made that kind, a Galilean telescope. Though, of course, a very rudimentary version. First, he took the lenses out of the two magnifying glasses he had. Then, using playdough, he attached the bigger one to the base of a wax can and the other one to a smaller tomato can. The smaller can fit perfectly inside the other can and slid easily so Víctor could move the object he was pointing at farther or closer.
[Víctor]: I couldn’t wait for nighttime, so I could test out my makeshift telescope.
[Rosina]: He wanted to look at the stars, like his mom had told him. Especially the Three Sisters, or as they’re called in other places, the Three Kings. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry, they’re easy to recognize: they’re three very bright stars in a diagonal line. Technically they’re called Orion’s Belt.
So that night, Víctor pointed his telescope at those stars.
[Víctor]: And then came the surprise because I started seeing little stars in the Three Sisters that I hadn’t seen just looking. In other words, it was capturing more than the naked eye.
[Rosina]: And that blew him away. He realized that there was a lot more out there beyond the moon he saw with his mom on the TV, beyond the comet his dad showed him in the yard, beyond the Three Sisters. He just had to find the way to see it. He remembers that moment perfectly.
[Víctor]: It was September 21st. Because I went and wrote it down in my notebook, and I said, “From this day on, I will dedicate my life to astronomy.”
[Rosina]: Víctor started secondary school in 1971 when he was 12 years old. At that time, a few years before the last military dictatorship, in Rosario —like in the rest of the country— there were a lot of protests from unions, workers, students, professors. Sometimes Víctor didn’t have classes at school because of the strikes, so…
[Víctor]: I went to the city library. And there I started reading the history of the great astronomers from the Middle Ages to now, about their lives, the things they built and I admired hat whole world, you know?
[Rosina]: He would also read about telescope lenses. His plan was to go to an optician and ask if they would make him a pair of lenses so he could see the stars better. The problem was that he didn’t have the money for that, and he wasn’t sure if they would fit.
So one day he learned that one of his classmate’s grandparents was selling a telescope. Víctor couldn’t believe the coincidence: at that time, it was hard to get a piece of equipment like that.
[Víctor]: And it was, I remember, a Brazilian telescope with a tripod made out of wooden sticks. A well-made aluminum center, a tube of laminated cardboard, a few lenses, and well, I didn’t have any money.
[Rosina]: They asked him for about 120 dollars at that time. It was a lot of money for Víctor, who was 12 and had barely had enough to pay for the bus ride from his house to school and vice versa, and buy some food.
But he was dying to have that telescope, so he started walking to school to save up his travel money, and he only ate when he got home. He collected cardboard boxes and bottles, anything he could sell, and he put peso after peso in a piggy bank. But it was taking him a long time. Several months had already gone by, and his classmate started telling him that his grandpa couldn’t wait long. Víctor needed money, and he decided to take the money out of his mom’s purse secretly. But before he could go buy the telescope, she realized and told him…
[Víctor]: “Look, there are two suspects here, either you or me. I didn’t spend it. So, it was you. What happened to the money that was here?”
[Rosina]: Víctor got very nervous and decided to tell her the truth…
[Víctor]: And I told her that I had taken the money to buy a telescope. And she was surprised. I showed her the bank where all the money was, and she told me: “Ok, I’m going to help you.”
[Rosina]: She gave him the money he needed, and he was able to buy it.
[Víctor]: That first telescope, imagine what that was to me, a treasure, right? I remember I would explore, looking at all the planets. Long hours observing. It was a very small telescope, but for me it was, I don’t know, Palomar Mountain.
[Rosina]: Palomar Mountain, in California, is home to one of the most important observatories in the world. Víctor drew what he saw in his telescope: comets, stars, galaxies, nebulas. He didn’t have access to any astronomical catalog where he could learn what these objects were exactly because he didn’t have the internet either.
[Víctor]: So, I decide to make my own catalogs. In other words, I loc… I locate the objects in the sky and put my own name on them: Buso 1, Buso 2.
[Rosina]: Buso, like his last name.
What Víctor knew about astronomy he had learned at the library, and that was already a lot, considering his age and the little information he had access to. But when he finished reading all of those books he knew he wanted to know more. The question was how.
He learned that at the Rosario Observatory, which had opened two years earlier, they were starting an astronomy course, and of course, he wanted to take it. The problem was that it was directed at people who had finished secondary school or who were about to finish, and he was barely in his second year. Still, he went and asked if he could go to the classes just to listen, and they told him he could.
[Víctor]: It was three days a week. I went to school in the morning, and in the afternoon, I went to work with my dad. And then, in the early evening, I took a bus to the observatory where they gave the class.
[Rosina]: The people who took the class were older than Víctor. The idea was that the ones who graduated from there could work in the observatory later. So, to keep from getting bored in classes he didn’t understand very well, like trigonometry, he started talking to a classmate, Daniel Manzur, who was closer to his age and was in his final year at secondary school.
Daniel told him he liked astronomy because the principal of Cristo Rey Primary, his grade school, was an astronomy fanatic. He had a telescope and taught the students things. He told him that his name was Rogelio Pizzi and that he was a Catholic priest.
[Víctor]: I say: “What? A cleric, I mean, a priest likes astronomy?” And I say: “Will you introduce me to him?”
[Rosina]: Víctor was curious. He knew that the church and astronomy had been on opposing sides several times, but later he found out that several priests have been astronomers and have made important discoveries. Like the case of Georges Lamaître who was the first person to posit the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe; or Francesco Maria Grimaldi and Giovanni Battista Riccioli who more than 300 years ago made a detailed map of the moon which is still used to study it today.
Finally, Víctor and Father Pizzi met and started sharing their love of astronomy. Víctor kept going to the class at the observatory, and he was also going to the optician school at la Universidad Nacional de Rosario to talk to students and professors to learn more about how they ground lenses.
Then, almost every night, he met with Father Pizzi on the school’s terrace. They set up the priest’s telescope, which was better than his, and they observed the stars.
[Víctor]: So, I was diving headfirst into… into astronomy.
[Rosina]: They shared what they were learning, discussed what they were reading there. And now that Víctor knew how to take photos through a telescope, they were recording what they saw. And while they were observing the stars…
[Víctor]: I saw the priest grumbling, grumbling…
[Rosina]: Grumbling… Because the telescope was heavy and he had to take it out to the terrace in pieces and set it up there. And that whole process took him about an hour. After doing the observation, they had to take it apart again to bring it back down. It was a whole ordeal. So Víctor, who by that point was 18…
[Víctor]: I offered to build a dome at the school. I had some knowledge of metalworking, I know how to solder, you know, the iron rods to set up a structure.
[Rosina]: A dome like the ones they have at professional observatories, that protects the machines they’re using from the elements, without having to take them apart, and that opens when you’re going to do an observation. Víctor had learned locksmithing with his dad and knew how to build things. The priests looked at him warily, then Víctor told him…
[Víctor]: You think I’m too young, you think I’m not going to do it. And after a moment he nodded.
[Rosina]: Víctor, who at the time was making some money working with his dad, said that he would buy the first part of the iron rods, solder them together and that he would put together the structure until he ran out.
[Víctor]: And if you really like it and are convinced, well, you’re going to have to put the rest of the money. What do you say, father?
[Rosina]: The priest thought about it a moment and agreed.
After a few weeks, the dome started taking shape. The priest was convinced that Víctor could make it, and he bought the rest of the materials. When the structure was ready, he had to make a decision about what material he was going to use to cover it. That’s very important because that’s how the dome was going to be protected from water, wind, and heat. For that, they had two options:
[Víctor]: You can make it out of canvas, that heavy canvas on trucks. I won’t tell you it’ll last forever, but it’ll hold up for a few years.
[Rosina]: And would be cheaper than the second option: metal plating, a few sheets of rustproof metal that were sure to last longer and better protect the dome. They had to show the two options to the school’s principal so he would help them with the money.
But before they spoke with the principal, there was a solar eclipse they were able to photograph. Later, they took those photos to the city’s newspaper and they published them.
[Víctor]: That was what really got the observatory to take off. Because imagine something scientific in a newspaper the whole city read. That’s a lot of people. So, we started getting congratulations, that they’d seen us in the paper and congratulated us on the job.
[Rosina]: Cristo Rey school started being recognized for its observatory.
[Víctor]: Well, when the principal saw that, it didn’t take us long to decide that we were going to cover the dome in sheet metal, even if it was more expensive.
[Rosina]: Father Pizzi and Víctor’s project started attracting other people.
[José Luis Sánchez]: I’m José Luis Sánchez. Uh… I’m 64 years old, and I got started in astronomy when I was 11 or 12 years old.
[Rosina]: José Luis’ dad gave him a telescope when he was young, and later he studied at Cristo Rey school. There he met Father Pizzi, who taught him physics in his second year, and explained how to use star charts to identify stars. José Luis graduated sometime later and didn’t have contact with the school again, but he always remembered what the priest taught him.
One day, when he was 20 years old, he was coming home from work and passed by the school…
[José Luis]: And I see the dome there… “Wow,” I said, “The priest’s dream came true.” So I parked, stopped, and knocked on the door.
[Rosina]: He introduced himself to the doorman. He told him he was a former student and asked for Pizzi. When the priest came out, he recognized him right away.
[José Luis]: And he tells me, “Come on Fridays, there’s a group of a few… of a few kids and one of them is the one who made the dome.” And it turned out it was Víctor.
[Rosina]: José Luis decided to join the group, which at the time had six people. From there, he became friends with Víctor, and there he started taking pictures of galaxies, stars, nebulas, eclipses, comets. Here’s Víctor again.
[Víctor]: I really miss that whole period. We spent a lot of hours together at night enjoying… with that whole group of guys. We had time, not a lot of money, but he had enthusiasm, drive.
[Rosina]: A drive that brought them, in 1984, to make an amazing finding.
The world of astronomy has its own calendar. There’s a record of some events that repeat every so often, and scientists know when these events are going to occur. Halley’s Comet passes the Earth every 75 years, more or less, and since 1982, it started being detected by large telescopes. Of course, the astronomy group at Cristo Rey School couldn’t miss an event like that.
It was a unique opportunity. The last time it had passed by the Earth was in 1910, when photography wasn’t advanced enough to capture it. This is José Luis.
[José Luis]: Photos of Halley’s Comet, of its return, had never been on the cover of any newspaper. So, we were on the hunt.
[Rosina]: On the hunt for Halley. If they didn’t do it now, they would never do it because the comet wouldn’t pass by again until 2061.
But they couldn’t point the telescope at just any part of the sky. First, they had to know the coordinates it was going to cross. The problem was that at that time, it was hard to access astronomical information. Víctor remembers.
[Víctor]: At that time, everyone had their ears like this… their eyes on the lookout, at all the magazines out there that took… the magazines came a month later here from out there, where they had all of the information and everything.
[Rosina]: After searching and searching, they managed to get a map of the area around where Halley’s Comet was going to appear. So, it would be easier to find it. But it couldn’t be from the observatory because there was a building blocking the area where they had the best chance of finding it. So, they started going out to find the best place…
[José Luis]: We went out to the country, looking for the best sky, where it wasn’t humid, where there was no fog, where there was no mist.
[Rosina]: But it wasn’t just about pointing the telescope at the spot Halley’s Comet was going to pass over. When they were they focused on that zone, they just say a bunch of bright points, and the comet —which was just barely approaching and didn’t have a tail— looked like just another star. How would they know which one it was? Víctor explains…
[Víctor]: You have to take… basically point it at the right region, where supposedly it will be, among all those stars, and take a picture today, a picture tomorrow, and a picture the next day.
[Rosina]: Then they would put the negatives on the projector at the school and project the pictures on the wall. Then they would start observing every star that appeared in those photos.
[Víctor]: You have to see what little dot is missing from a picture and find where it went.
[Rosina]: And that little dot that was moving was Halley’s Comet. Everyone in the group spent several days looking at those photos, looking for that famous little dot.
[Víctor]: Until one day, we found it. When we found it, we went, developed it, we transferred it to paper —that little piece— we turned up the contrast and sent it to the newspaper. On the front page: “At Cristo Rey School in Rosario Argentina, Halley’s Comet Detected.”
[Rosina]: They were photos of the comet just as it was approaching the Earth. The same finding as other professional observatories…
[Víctor]: So, we were fighting in the big leagues… Do you know what that was?
[Rosina]: They started being recognized in the rest of the country, and they were motivated to keep photographing Halley’s Comet in the years during its passage near the Earth. But this time they wanted to capture it in all its glory, with its fiery tail.
But to do that, the telescope has to be moving —remember the Earth rotates on its axis— so the telescope has to move against that rotation to properly focus on the comet.
That’s easy when it’s an automatic device that takes digital photographs, but theirs wasn’t. In the early ‘80s, those technologies didn’t exist and the camera roll wasn’t infinite, they had to do the tracking by hand, over the course of half an hour, with high precision. José Luis remembers that one by one they took turns spinning the little wheel that moved to telescope on its axis, and since they couldn’t stop…
[José Luis]: It was kind of funny because one person was guiding it, moving the wheel. The other person put their hand over the other person’s to keep the wheel moving. The one who was there pulled his head away, and then you went in, with your head there at the crosshairs of the eyepiece, and you went for two minutes, and then the next person came, rotating like that until the 30 minutes it took to get that photo were up, and that photo was spectacular, spectacular.
[Rosina]: After developing the photo, Father Pizzi put it on a piece of paper and wrote the whole description: how bright it was, how many kilometers away it was, how it evolved. They gave it to the newspapers. For Víctor, it was incredible.
[Víctor]: It was proper news about Halley’s Comet. I mean, journalists were lining up at the entrance of the school. Well, that brought us into the limelight.
[Rosina]: Father Pizzi died in 2002, and the astronomy group started to disband little by little. Some of them left the city, others started having other responsibilities, and others just lost interest and retired.
Víctor got married, had a daughter, and kept working as a locksmith. Like we said, he never formally studied astronomy. He didn’t need a degree to validate his knowledge, and he didn’t need to make it his job either.
Since Father Pizzi wasn’t there anymore, someone had to take over the observatory and the most obvious choice was Víctor. He wanted to keep doing observations from there, but the condition the school gave him was that he had to teach the teachers astronomy. Víctor accepted: during the day he worked as a locksmith and at night he taught classes. But he didn’t feel good about it all. Astronomy was his great passion, not his job.
[Víctor]: Father Pizzi’s death, plus these things that were going on… I started to feel the thing was, you know, getting stale for me.
[Rosina]: After two years there, Víctor didn’t want to continue. He didn’t like being forced to do things, just to fulfill a contract, and even less if it had to do with astronomy.
Víctor and José Luis continued to be friends, even after Father Pizzi’s group had disbanded. Sometimes José Luis stopped by the school to say hello, but he noticed that he looked very unhappy.
[José Luis]: And one day I started to say to him, “Víctor, no… You’re… you’re very lonely. You need to do something in your home.”
[Rosina]: He recommended that he leave the school and create his own observatory. José Luis had already done it a few years earlier, and he was very happy. Víctor liked the idea, and he started to build the observatory in his home, with his own adaptations and measurements. The idea was to spend his time doing his observations in peace.
He finished building it in 2014, and I was able to see the final product with my own eyes. I visited Víctor at his home in September of 2018. From the outside, it looks beautifully simple: a rectangular front, a wide window with curtains, and an unassuming white door. But the biggest surprise is when you look up: a set of stairs comes out of the roof and connects the house to a large, white, cube-shaped structure with a dome on top.
To get to the observatory, you have to go up a flight of stairs to the roof, and then from there it has two floors: on the first one, there’s a small room where Víctor keeps his computer which is connected to the telescope and a large chalkboard where he writes mathematical formulas on.
Behind the computer table, there’s a set of stairs that leads to the second floor, the floor with the dome, where the telescope is installed. When we were there, Víctor took the plastic protectors off of the telescope.
[Rosina]: He told me that when he built the observatory, he got the same telescope that José Luis had, and they started calibrating them the same. They added the same components to it, bought the same cameras and the same software to take the photos.
They ended up with identical telescopes, and that has allowed them to make the same observations: if one of them starts taking photos and has to stop, the other can keep going from their own telescope. They decided this mechanism the Rosarian Gemini, like the Gemini Observatory, which is made up of two twin telescopes, on each of the planet’s hemispheres: one in northern Chile and one in Hawaii.
After taking off the protectors, Víctor grabbed the remote control, which is much bigger than a TV remote, pointed it at the telescope stand and typed in some astronomical coordinates. The telescope started moving.
[Rosina]: After a moment, it stopped. There Víctor pressed a control button, and the roof started turning over our heads. The dome started to make an opening right above where the telescope was pointing.
[Rosina]: When dome stopped, through the opening that had appeared, we could see the starry sky. It was beautiful.
During that visit, I came to understand that taking photos is vital for astronomers. I don’t know if this always happens, but when a person who isn’t familiar with astronomy, like me, is going to look through a telescope, the first thing they imagine they’re going to see are the closest objects: planets in the solar system, maybe the moon, things like that. But even though that’s a nice and fun part of the observation, there are objects that you can’t see by looking into a telescope, no matter how powerful it is. And that’s because they’re so, so far from the Earth that the human eye can’t capture that light. It’s not designed for that. I’ll try to explain it better with the experience I had at Víctor’s observatory…
[Rosina]: After Víctor set up the telescope and opened the dome, he started telling me about the lenses he was using.
[Víctor]: Yes, I use this one for expeditions, or if I want to use a different lens, it depends on what the object is…
[Rosina]: He told me to look into the viewer, and all I saw was a black circle. I swear it was a part of the sky where there was nothing. So, Víctor grabbed the camera…
And that is the camera in question?
[Víctor]: Yes, I can put on this one or any of the others. Inside that cabinet, there’s another camera…
[Rosina]: He put it on the telescope, and we went down to the first floor where the computer is. From there, Víctor had the camera take pictures of that same black circle, but with a high shutter speed so it could properly capture the image without the light from the city damaging it.
When the photos started to appear on the computer screen, I couldn’t believe it. In that dark spot, there was something like a circle full of stars, something that in astronomy is known as a globular cluster, which is a relatively small grouping of those objects.
He took the pictures he showed me that day with a camera that his friend José Luis also had. He bought it first and convinced Víctor to buy the same one so they could still have everything the same. He eagerly tried it out for the first time on September 20th, 2016.
When you point a camera at the infinite expanse of space, it’s important to always set a goal. That day, on September 20th, Víctor wanted to observe a galaxy, which in a few words is a collection of stars and other astronomical objects like planets and moons that are concentrated by a powerful gravitational pull. The galaxy where the Earth resides, as we know, is called the Milky Way, but it’s just one of millions and millions that exist in the universe.
So that day, after Víctor located the galaxy that he wanted, he took a picture of it, downloaded it on his computer, and did what he always did when observing a galaxy: he has a piece of software identify it and indicate what kind it is and where in the universe it’s located. On top of that, this software shows the record of who discovered it and what events have been observed in it, like the passage of comets, for example. With this information, Víctor can get an idea of the possibility of finding something interesting in that galaxy. If there’s nothing that grabs his attention, he can keep looking somewhere else. When I saw how Víctor did this, I thought it’s like an attempt to delimit infinite space.
Later that night, Víctor was observing a galaxy called PGC 155 for a long time. And even though he didn’t find anything interesting in it, he likes what the camera was catching so much that he wanted to keep trying. He thought about moving the opening of the dome toward another patch of sky but since it was late and the dome is very noisy, and his neighbors were asleep…
[Víctor]: I decided not to move it. I said, no, if it’s already pointed at that galaxy, I’m going to take advantage of it, I’ll look at that piece of the sky. I’ll look, and that’s it, I say, whatever galaxy is up there.
[Rosina]: Because in one section of the sky like the one the opening of the dome was pointed at, there can be many galaxies… so he looked for one that was more photogenic.
[Víctor]: And I’m looking for this galaxy that has nice curls. I see the size, I see the luminosity… I say, “ah, this one is nice for a test”. The NGC 613.
[Rosina]: More than 60 million light years from Earth. Víctor set the camera to take a picture every 20 seconds to see if anything was moving and compare his photos with those from other observatories.
[Víctor]: And I start to see a pixel… just one pixel. And I say, “What is that pixel there?”
[Rosina]: It seemed odd to him because that pixel didn’t appear in the database on his computer’s software, or in the pictures he had just taken. He thought that it could be a blind spot on the camera or maybe a speck of dust that had gotten on it. But when he moved the telescope a little, the bright spot was there, in the same place. In other words, it was something that was there, millions of light years away, not on the camera.
He thought it could be an asteroid. Since asteroids move, maybe a few minutes earlier it had passed by one of the stars in that galaxy, and because of its light, Víctor hadn’t been able to see it.
[Víctor]: What asteroid could it be? I checked because I wasn’t sure. There’s no asteroid. I look to see if there was a variable star that was already cataloged, but there wasn’t.
[Rosina]: A variable star is a star whose luminosity changes when it’s seen from Earth. If it wasn’t that either, then what could it be?
[Víctor]: And while I’m taking more photos, I start processing them, and I see that the pixel is getting bigger. This is tremendous, I say, “What is going on here? If this is a discovery, I have to do it quick”.
[Rosina]: Report it quickly, because there are robotic telescopes all over the world scanning the sky and they report what they find immediately.
[Daniel]: Víctor had to make his report to the International Astronomical Union, the organization that records that kind of discovery, and tell them that he’d found something. Even though he didn’t know what it was exactly.
When we come back, Víctor’s discovery. After the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, Víctor took a photograph with his new camera of a bright spot the size of a pixel in a galaxy more than 60 million light years from Earth. That pixel appeared out of nowhere, and no object like it was recorded in the databases.
So, in order to tell the International Astronomical Union, Víctor had to know what he was looking at. The strangest thing was that the pixel wasn’t a pixel anymore: that object was growing more and more.
Rosina Castillo continues the story.
[Rosina]: Víctor needed a second opinion, preferably from a professional astronomer. But when he called some of the observatories in Argentina, they didn’t pick up. So he sent a message to fellow amateur astronomer asking him if he knew anything about what was going on and he responded…
[Víctor]: “No, no,” he says. “They won’t help you,” he says. “They’re all at an astronomers meeting in the city of Capilla del Monte, in the province of Córdoba. They’re presenting their work at a conference where they all bring their papers.”
[Rosina]: Víctor was starting to lose hope.
[Víctor]: Then I said: “Jeez, right now they’re going to meet? Today of all days?” I say. “Oh” I say, “Ok.” He says, “What do you need?”. I say, “It’s fine, it’s fine. I’ll take care of it.”
[Rosina]: Then, since it was one in the morning, he called Sebastián Otero, a college of his who’s also an amateur astronomer, who’s an expert in variable stars, the ones that change in brightness and are closest to what he saw. Sebastián answered half-asleep and Víctor, who was very anxious, told him…
[Víctor]: “I’m sending you a picture of the screen on WhatsApp and look at what’s happening in this galaxy. Compare it.”
[Rosina]: When Sebastián saw the photo, he was very surprised and told him he didn’t know what it was either. Víctor’s plan was that along with the information his colleague gave him, he was going to send an alert to the International Astronomical Union about an unrecorded object. Sebastián told him that if they didn’t know what it was, they couldn’t do that. But Víctor didn’t speak English, the only language you can use to make that alert, so he needed it.
[Víctor]: And I say, “Look Sebastián, do me a favor,” I say. “Let’s report it,” I say, “and I’ll call you a co-discoverer.”
[Rosina]: Sebastián agreed. They decided to put that it was a possible variable star and let the astronomers there figure it out later. They did the whole process: they filled out the form with the information about the telescope and the object. It was hard because since it was getting bigger in every picture, giving an exact size was impossible.
[Víctor]: We found ourselves half-fighting over the phone because I would give him a piece of information… I would give him the magnitude of the object, then we would fill out the form and say, “So, what magnitude did you tell me?” And I would change the number because I was getting a different measurement. He says, “Man, make… make up your mind. What magnitude does the object have? Is it 13 or 14?” “Look,” I say, “What can I say, more or less.” He says, “Not more or less, you have to give me the right information,” hey says, “this is serious.” I say, “Well, what can I say… it’s what I’m measuring.”
[Rosina]: In the end, they put an approximate measure, they provided their data and sent the alert. The only reply was: “Received, thank you.” And that was it.
Víctor stopped taking photos of the object that night and had to wait until the evening the next day to continue analyzing it. At that time, José Luis was doing a few observations in the country…
[José Luis]: And Víctor calls me on his cell shouting. It would have been the same if he was just shouting because he was 50 kilometers away and with him shouting with joy it was… it was enough. He didn’t need cellular communication Shouting: “Please, you’re in the country, take photos of it for me. Take photos of it. I saw it explode. A huge supernova exploded, and this and that.”
[Rosina]: A supernova. That’s what Víctor had discovered. A real cosmic spectacle. And for those who don’t know, a supernova is the death of a star: an explosion that blasts into space several elements like iron and nickel, energy, and most of all, a lot of light. That’s why the pixel in Víctor’s photos was growing. They’re gigantic, enormous spectacles that are as bright as a galaxy. In fact, that’s why Víctor knew it was a supernova, because of how bright it was. But not all stars end up that way.
There are several kinds of supernovas. The one Víctor discovered occurs with stars that have a mass eight times larger than the Sun or more. In other words, very, very, very big stars, larger than we can imagine.
At that moment, Víctor wanted José Luis’ help taking pictures of the supernova to have complete data. He was trying to complete the record that he had sent incomplete the previous night when he still wasn’t sure what he was observing, and since it was a big job, he needed help. But he had to do it quickly because when you send a discovery alert to the International Astronomical Union, a server sends that information to observatories all over the world so they can point their telescopes in that direction.
The problem was that when the astronomers realized that it was a supernova, they would rush to analyze it because those astronomical objects evolve very quickly, and in about a year, they cease to exist. If he didn’t send the data as quickly as possible, someone else would take credit for his discovery.
At the time, José Luis had already packed up all his equipment, so he promised Víctor he would take pictures from his house with his twin telescope. But when he got home, he had a terrible headache and was really tired, so he decided to go to bed.
He started to toss and turn in bed. He couldn’t sleep because he was feeling remorseful…
[José Luis]: I’ve known Víctor for 40 years, and I’m not going to take the pictures he asks me for. I got out of bed, I changed my clothes, I went up, opened the observatory, I set up my camera and started taking pictures.
[Rosina]: And thanks to that, Víctor was able to complete the record.
The next day, he started receiving emails, WhatsApp messages, calls from all over the world. Several international astronomers were interested in his pictures and wanted more information to do some research. But Víctor told them that he preferred that someone in Argentina do that research. Someone like her.
[Melina Bersten]: I’m Melina Bersten. I’m a professor at La Universidad Nacional de La Plata, and I focus on studying supernovas.
[Rosina]: Astronomy is a field that’s as infinite as the universe itself. You can spend your whole life focusing on observing the Sun, asteroids, variable stars, planets, moons, I could go on. Melina has spent more than ten years studying supernovas and has seen several in her career. That’s why when a Japanese colleague told her about Víctor’s discovery two weeks later, it seemed normal to her.
[Melina]: So, at the time, it didn’t… it didn’t… it didn’t seem so relevant to me. Until I found out that it had been an amateur astronomer from Argentina.
[Rosina]: And that’s when she got curious, wanting to know who this person was and how they had managed to photograph a supernova from an amateur observatory. So, she and her team contacted Víctor to ask him what he observed exactly.
The fact that Víctor was taking photos every 20 seconds when the object appeared caught her attention: since there were several photos in such a short period of time, it meant that the object appeared and grew very quickly. Melina asked him to send her the images. There were more than 100. When she saw them…
[Melina]: We realized that the supernova that Víctor discovered wasn’t just any supernova, but rather it was the discovery of the earliest possible evolution of the supernova.
[Rosina]: In a phase known as a shock breakout.
[Melina]: Which is the first electromagnetic emission from a supernova explosion.
[Rosina]: In other words, the exact moment that energy comes out of the surface of the star.
[Melina]: The explosion happened before. It can be hours or even up to a day earlier, depending on what the star is like. But to us, that light is going to reach us just when that shock reaches the stellar surface.
[Rosina]: To understand it more easily, what Víctor probably captured was the exact moment the supernova became visible, and even though it’s a phase that can provide a lot of very new information about the structure of the star…
[Melina]: It had been predicted by many models, including our own, but it had never been confirmed by observation.
[Rosina]: No one had ever seen a breakout shock. That’s why it was so important to very quickly analyze Víctor’s photos and data and compare them to the supernova models that Melina and her team had on their computers.
[Melina]: Immediately, I took Víctor’s data, I put it in a model and right away it was compatible with this… with this breakout shock. Almost, almost without moving a single parameter within the model, right away it was consistent with this. Everyone was looking for this.
[Rosina]: And for more than half a century they hadn’t seen it.
[Melina]: Researchers in Chile, Japan, the United States, Europe. Large, very expensive projects.
[Rosina]: Not even the most modern, robotic telescopes, the kind that are scanning the millions and millions and millions of galaxies at any moment, and recording what they find.
[Melina]: A lot of money has been invested in trying to find what Víctor found.
[Rosina]: Why? Because a shock breakout is a completely unpredictable and very fast event. Imagine having an infinite sky in front of you and coming across something so improbable. Something as instantaneous as the flash of a camera.
And since they had never captured one, some scientists started to doubt if the shock breakout phase even existed, and they thought that maybe it was an error in the theoretical models. So, when Melina and her colleagues confirmed what it was…
[Melina]: And, well, that was when we said, “Ok, we’re going to try to publish this in the most prestigious scientific journal there is.”
[Rosina]: She’s referring to Nature magazine. She knew, of course, it wasn’t going to be easy. The world of scientific research, like almost every other field, isn’t perfect: there’s ego, jealousy, political interests, obstacles. Generally, certain academic institutions are taken more seriously than others, and those aren’t necessarily the ones from Latin America. On top of that, the fact that Víctor was an amateur astronomer makes the study less credible. And not just that…
[Melina]: When you go to a conference or whatever it may be, in general, they tend to… to… to listen to you less if you’re a woman.
[Rosina]: So, even though Melina and her colleagues had done a rigorous analysis…
[Melina]: I didn’t know if those things, uh… were there. We… we… we always had them in mind and knew that they were going to ask us to check our work a lot more than… than in other cases. And that’s how it was, that is, there was a lot to check. But, well, if we weren’t trying with a finding like that, we could never try with anything.
[Rosina]: It took a year for Nature to approve their research. But finally, in February of 2018, it was published: it’s called “A surge of light at the birth of a supernova.” and Víctor and José Luis appeared as co-authors along with the 20 other people on Melina’s research team.
What Víctor accomplished that of September 20th, 2016, was amazing. Melina describes it like this.
[Melina]: I always say that to me, Víctor’s discovery is equivalent, more or less, to… to… to the goal Maradona scored against the English. Not the hand one, the other one.
[Rosina]: It’s considered the goal of the century. It was in the quarterfinals of the ‘86 World Cup. Argentina versus England. Maradona got the ball in the middle of the field and started running…
(SOUNDBITE FROM ARCHIVE)
[Narrator]: There Maradona has the ball, there are two on him, he has control of the ball, he starts right, the global soccer genius, he leaves the pack behind, and he’s going to pass to Burruchaga… Maradona forever! Genius! Genius!
[Rosina]: He got past six English players, including the goalie.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ARCHIVE)
[Narrator]: Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta… Goooaaal… Goooaaal…
[Melina]: To put it in perspective, it really was something unique, right?
[Rosina]: The goal was one of a kind, and Víctor’s discovery was one of a kind. Of course, it had a lot to do with all the years of training, of observing the sky with father Pizzi’s group, of building and rebuilding his observatory. Maybe an inexperienced person wouldn’t have realized that what they were looking at was important.
But whatever the case, several experts calculated the probability of what happened to Víctor, and they all told him the same thing.
[Víctor]: That the probability you have of looking at just the galaxy, in the lifespan of a star which lasts millions of years, that you… that’s it’s nighttime, and you’re working in just the right spot and that it’s… that it’s clear out and it just explodes at night… And well, all that. They tallied up the statistics and said that it’s like winning, for example, the Quini 6 three times.
[Rosina]: The Quini 6 is a lottery in Argentina. In other words, what happened to Víctor is practically impossible, almost an astronomical miracle if you can use that term. But thanks to that whole series of coincidences, he became the first human in history to record the initial explosion of a supernova.
[Daniel]: Víctor continues to be an amateur astronomer, only now they invite him to professional conferences to give talks and share his experience. He’s become something of a rock star in the field of astronomy.
Víctor still lives in Rosario, in the same house where Rosina visited him, and he still does what he is most passionate about: spending hours in his amateur observatory where he made his incredible discovery.
In 2001, with his friend José Luis, he founded the Santafesina Astronomy Association, a group of amateur astronomers that holds conferences, share their discoveries and other important data in the field, and helps train new amateur astronomers in Argentina.
Rosina Castillo is a journalist. She lives in Buenos Aires.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, David Trujillo, and me. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas, Silvia Viñas and Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.