The Dream of Arecibo

By Jorge Inzunza

In 1972, Werner Herzog released the film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,”, a magnificent masterpiece that attempted to show the feverish search for El Dorado in the territories of communion between the Andes and the Amazon. The initial image shows us the clouds moving stealthily over the peaks of the Andes Mountains. The camera makes a smooth and constant approach to discover in the midst of the fog, the almost dreamlike movement of soldiers and indigenous people up and down the narrow paths of the steep slopes of the mountains. One false step and the fall would be deadly.

This Herzog scene appeared in my memory when I saw the first shots of The Biggest Dream ”, the documentary directed by Andrew Hernández. It is not the Andes, but the Central Mountain Range of Puerto Rico that is the protagonist of a brief trip of the camera. The clouds are camouflaged with innumerable jungle hills connected to each other. And soon we find ourselves, not with an expedition in search of gold, but with an impressive ship towards infinity: the Arecibo Radio Telescope (AO). A couple of seconds later we realize the magnitude of the accident on December 1, 2020 , when one of the main structures of the radio telescope – the Gregorian dome – fell, destroying the disk. The documentary continues its march showing us the relevance of this enclosure for the study of the ionosphere, atmospheric sciences, planetary sciences and radio astronomy sciences.

The paths that led me to find this documentary were winding. It premiered in Puerto Rico in 2021. I had already started my fantasy and sci-fi novel project “Luna de Arecibo”, interspersing research and writing. I visited Puerto Rico in 2021, but unfortunately the radio telescope was closed for visits due to the accident. It only reopened in March 2022. Learning that the documentary had been released, I waited a few weeks to find out if there would be any announcement to see it in the United States, however, there was no news. Despite the fact that the disaster impacted the scientific community and the country’s meteorologists, the documentary has not arrived. This led me to contact Andrew Hernández directly, and explain to him something that he already knew very well, the importance of this documentary for those of us who were interested in astronomy and the history of this wonderful place. He generously provided me with the documentary. After viewing this film, the need to make it reach a wider audience became evident, not only for the complex scientific observations, but also to talk about Puerto Rico.

The documentary allows us to recognize the intricate relationship between science and technology, all from an idea of William E. Gordon. The different subsequent stages of reform did nothing more than enhance and convert the AO into the most powerful ear and eyes on the planet when it came to observing the universe. With a dense conceptual development, for which I recommend watching the documentary a couple of times, the creators delve into the scientific disciplines that were promoted in the AO, some of which facilitated the acquisition of four Nobel Prizes.

A second reading of the documentary is found in the voices of its protagonists: scientists from the AO, university professors and high school youth from Puerto Rico. In all of them we discover a love for knowledge and the possibilities of a science, understood as a collaboration of points of view and as a collective ecological improvement.

And finally, we can see Puerto Rico. The damaged disc of the radio telescope represents the fragile situation of the island. Hurricane María, the social and economic crisis, and the political-administrative status are layers that reveal a complex problem. The silence of not having answers about what to do after the collapse of the radio telescope is present.

The documentary gives us an opportunity to dream again. The drive and ambition of the younger generations of Puerto Ricans is the hope to rebuild what was lost. El Dorado is in space, in the new frontiers of knowledge that we break.

Published by Jorge

Psychologist, educational researcher, dual language teacher, PhD in Education, and writer of children books.

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