By Eric Swedlund
As you read this, a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx is hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, scanning the surface of an asteroid 1,600 feet wide named Bennu. OSIRIS is looking for the right place to gather a sample of the asteroid’s surface to bring back to Earth. Back here on our home planet, on a clear weekend night, kids are looking up to the stars through a 16-inch telescope—at Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium on the University of Arizona campus—inspired by what they’re seeing.
From astronomy and medicine to Earth and climate research, Tucson is a hotbed of scientific inquiry, with an incredible history of pioneering discoveries and potential for even more breakthroughs. What makes Tucson’s science prowess stand out is the public accessibility to real research of breaking discoveries. The University of Arizona is known as a world leader and trailblazer in fields like astronomy, ecology, geology, hydrology, and tree-ring research.
Here on the ground
Yes, tree-ring research. A unique (and beautiful) building on the south end of campus is home to the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, where the science of dendrochronology—or tree-ring dating—was developed. Walk into the lobby to see a massive slice of a tree trunk, telling the story of the environmental history of where that giant once stood.
North of Tucson, about a 45-minute drive from the main UA campus, a glass-and-steel structure that looks like a futuristic dream of a colony on Mars is one of the world’s most extraordinary scientific facilities. Biosphere 2, built in 1991 and owned by the UA since 2011, is a 3.14-acre terrarium open to the public for daily tours where scientists have the opportunity to research at a scale large enough to mimic field conditions, but with the control of a laboratory.
Much of what makes Tucson’s landscape unique has contributed to making the city internationally renowned for science as well, an advantage that university leaders and public officials have cultivated and preserved over the decades as the city’s reputation has grown. The clear, dry skies make Southern Arizona one of the world’s best sites for astronomy, and home to more research telescopes than any other place on Earth. The mountains rising from the desert-and-grassland lowlands lead to a striking biodiversity—known as the Sky Islands—and are natural boons for ecological and climate studies.
Look To The Skies
For curious visitors and locals alike, many of the telescopes, labs, and archives are publicly accessible, as are the world-class researchers, making for awe-inspiring demonstrations, educational attractions, and thought-provoking lectures and presentations.
The UA’s astronomy program began humbly a century ago, when A.E. Douglass (who also founded the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, making him a real Renaissance man) began a first-rate observatory on what was then a far-flung corner of campus. Then in the late 1950s, with the founding of NASA and the Kitt Peak National Observatory (rising 6,800 feet about an hour southwest of Tucson), the university rapidly expanded its space science programs. Today, the observatory offers tours of the night sky, including the seasonal Meteor Mania programs.
“UA researchers led by Gerard Kuiper mapped the moon and did the science for the space race to land on the moon and that’s a great story,” says Shipherd Reed of Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium. “Kuiper founded the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, which continues to this day and is one of the big reasons that UA is a leader in planetary science. There’s no other university that can claim to be the lead on NASA missions, like the Phoenix Mars Lander and OSIRIS-REx asteroid study.” Learn more about space exploration and Tucson’s role in furthering that endeavor with exhibits and planetarium shows for all ages at Flandrau.
For Earth-bound astronomy, the UA invented the spin-cast method of creating large telescope mirrors, a breakthrough that’s allowed astronomers to peer deeper into space, and with more precision, as they probe the beginning of the universe. Tours showcase the Steward Observatory’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab underneath the east wing of the football stadium. The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter houses the largest public telescope in the Southwest, offering viewing nearly every night of the year, as well as astrophotography workshops.
Science extends off campus as well, with the popular UA Science Lecture Series every spring and the UA Science Café Series, which connects scientists and audiences for presentations in more casual settings, including Magpie’s Gourmet Pizza and Borderlands Brewing Co.
What’s remarkable about the University of Arizona’s science programs is the breadth of the science activity, from exploring other planets and stars down to the smallest microorganisms on earth. Not many other places can do that. Even more rare? The opportunity for non-scientist types to experience so much of it.
A living laboratory of both the desert and human history in the region, Tumamoc Hill, on the edge of downtown is a remarkably accessible spot to connect with what makes Tucson special.
An ecological preserve in the heart of the city, Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill spans 860 acres and has been a place of sustained research since 1903. That permanent study launched the scientific fields of ecology and arid land studies.
“There are so many layers to the space, and one of the things that’s important to keep in mind is you’re walking in a living lab; not just an ecological one, but a cultural one as well,” says Dr. Ben Wilder, director of the Desert Laboratory. “There’s very significant cultural history that’s preserved on the site, and then there’s 115 years of science. Basic concepts about how the desert works came from this piece of land.”
Tumamoc and the surrounding area along the banks of the Santa Cruz River is the longest continually inhabited site in the United States, with radiocarbon dating showing maize cultivation 4,100 years ago. About 2,500 years ago, a village was built on the hill, and later, extensive farming at the base of the hill supported Hohokam settlements. In 1757, the Spanish established Mission San Agustín del Tucson near the base of the hill.
Tumamoc Hill is open to the public from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Thanks to the moderate incline on the winding, car-free paved trail and the reward of a spectacular panoramic view, the hill is popular with joggers, walkers, photographers, and bird watchers.
Download the new Tumamoc Tour app, free for iOS and Android devices in both English and Spanish, for a richly informative cultural history of the site and valuable scientific information about the Sonoran Desert. With the app in hand, in just 45 minutes, you get a full sense of Tucson: the culture, the desert, the views, and plenty of exercise.