Blog Post

La Palma, three events in the Orion Nebula Cluster and the Corona Crisis by Pavel Kroupa

With this journey I purposed to visit the astronomical communities on the Canary Islands as part of the Erasmus+ program led by Petr Kabath at Ondrejov Observatory.

I left for La Palma and Tenerife on the 9th of March 2020 after a few days in Bonn. Before then I had been a week in Prague and prior to that I had been two weeks on a trip to Perth in Western Australia attending an ESO/ICRAR conference in February, held at The University of Western Australia which had, decades ago, accepted me as an immigrating student without a formally completed Abitur and released me years later on my trajectory towards the then Camelot of Astronomy: the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. Throughout February and March 2020 I was constantly checking the travel restrictions and warnings by the German Federal Foreign Office. I had travelled from Germany to Australia via Singapore when the Corona crisis was already in the news, and real in Singapore where we were all temperature-scanned on arrival. When I left Bonn for the Canary Islands, the crisis was still only in the news (and in Italy) but being suppressed, the WHO inappropriately ostracizing Taiwan’s knowledge. Incidentally, I had just visited the ASIAA in Taiwan in November 2019. I was fevering forward to the La Palma and Tenerife trip, aiming to give a talk at the Isaac Newton Group (ING in Santa Cruz) during the first week to then, on the 14th of March, fly to Tenerife to visit Alexandre Vazdekis at the IAC and to meet up with his group including Tereza Jerabkova and with Zhiqiang Yan who was to fly-in from Prague. Tereza is a PhD student in Bonn and Prague, now on La Palma and at the IAC as a temporary GranteCan support observer, and Zhiqiang is working towards his PhD at Charles University. During that second week on Tenerife I was to give a colloquium and we were to progress on our collaboration on the formation and evolution of elliptical galaxies using the IGIMF theory. And amiably, the food and drinks on the Canary Islands, the vistas and colorful architectural styles, the ocean and volcanic landscapes, the quaint South American influence and unique Canary culture all make this an enchanted and even mystical must-be-there place.

Thus, I travelled to La Palma still in high hopes as the Corona pandemic unfolded around me. At Madrid (MAD) airport tension was evident, people keeping distance, but business was as usual. I flew on with an Iberia direct flight to Santa Cruz on La Palma. Seeing this volcanic island again reminded me of my very first visit in 1989, when I journeyed there as an Isaac Newton Scholar from Cambridge on behalf of my PhD supervisor Gerry Gilmore to observe for ten days with the Isaac Newton Telescope. Reminiscing this came with mixed feelings though as I re-lived in my mind’s eye that fearfull fanatically frantic fast taxi drive-up to the observatory as a consequence of which I fell very sick and never ever returned, after that memorable ten-day spout, to a telescope to observe.

On La Palma I was kindly received by the seminar organizer Ovidiu Vaduvescu at the ING in Santa Cruz and was given a nice office to work in, the ING offices being next to the new black beach of otherwise colorful Santa Cruz. My ING seminar on March 10th commenced to be on “Early Cluster Evolution”. After the seminar, I spent my time in the ING offices working on my next presentation, “The Impossible Local Group of Galaxies”, which was to be given as a colloquium at the IAC on Tenerife on the 17th of March. I also continued work on a manuscript I was finishing.

Figure 1. A lunch place, Casa Tey, in pre-Corona Santa Cruz upon my arrival (9th of March).

The visit was very nice; with exciting discussions with Ovidiu, Chris Benn, Ian Skillen, Stefan Geier, Tereza and other students, also concerning the hypothetically possible placement of the TMT on La Palma. Nearby cafés (Figure 1) were a good place to have light lunches. A wonderfull community lunch I took part in was organised on Thursday by IAC astrophysicist David Jones. But as world events evolved, it turned out that mine was to be the last seminar to take place on La Palma, because by Friday the island locked down. Curfew came not entirely unexpected. After Italy, Spain was engulfed by the Coronavirus and the island has few intensive-care beds. My original plans were already shattered on Thursday, when the IAC on Tenerife announced it would not accept any visitors and all planned colloquia were cancelled. Thus, Zhiqiang Yan had to cancel his trip from Prague. After Friday all people on La Palma were confined to their accommodation and most telescope and scientific operations ceased. Police patrolled the city and I was stopped when returning from shopping. This was a little dicey since I had discarded my shopping receipt, was obviously a foreigner and the representatives of law and order, while being polite, were not amused. I was allowed to go on directly to my accommodation, their car in the same moving reference frame behind me, and I closed the door with the feeling that next time another door might shut behind me. My return flight from Tenerife via Madrid to Düsseldorf on March 22nd was cancelled by Iberia around that time too, leaving me stranded on the island. This would not be the worst that could have happened and I was secretely entertaining hopes for months-long strandedness next to the “Strand”, since being marooned on a beautiful island with palms, mountains and a pleasantly warm ocean around it with wonderful snorkeling places in nearby Los Cancajos (introduce picture) carried it’s allures and was not unprecedented in the stories.

Figure 3. My face mask consisted of a mountain neck gaiter and part of o plastic cover, cut to sit on the nose, March 22nd.Santa Cruz upon my arrival (9th of March).

But no-one was allowed to go out; neither for jogging nor to the beach for swimming. And so it came to pass that the island was there, with empty streets and empty beaches but in all its sunny beauty, with the surrounding bathing waters and it’s wildlife in and around it teasing us as the days drew by.

It transpired that Iberia would not fly me out, and even if it would have, I actually felt that I preferred neither to travel through MAD nor through Düsseldorf with train onwards to Bonn because the state of North Rhine-Westphalia had, by then, developed into the German Corona hotspot. So, on the 16th of March I sought in the internet and bought a Eurowings (EW) flight scheduled for the afternoon of March 24th from the island of Gran Canaria directly to the airport Cologne/Bonn. I on-line-purchased a Binter Canarias flight from La Palma to Gran Canaria for the morning of 24th of March. A few days later, this Binter Canarias flight was cancelled, as the islands were essentially stopping their inter-island traffic. I had to find and take a flight on March 23rd, which however now meant I had to also find accommodation on Gran Canaria for one night when all hotels had been closed down. Through I did find privately-owned accommodation near the Gran Canaria airport, so the escape started to become a real possibility. But I still needed some face protection, since I would need to mingle with other people in this time of crisis. I conferred with Tereza Jerabkova and was able to fabricate a perfectly 100% safe face mask (Figure 3).

Figure 4a. At the airport on La Palma in full protective gear, March 23rd.

And it worked. Taking taxis to and from the airports in full protective gear (Figure 4a), I flew to Gran Canaria, stayed over-night and even did some shopping there for dinner and, thinking ahead, for travel supplies. Entering the booked apartment was fully automatic and I never met the people owning it; modern telecommunications however enabled complete information transfer.

I flew out on the badly delayed penultimate commercial flight in the afternoon to reach Cologne/Bonn some 4.5 hours later. The pilot of this next-to-last EW flight out from an island with little Corona did not want to leave behind any people who needed to evacuate to the Bonn/Cologne region which was so ripe with Corona. It would barely have been possible to leave the islands later (Figure 4b).

Figure 4b. Arrival in el Burrero on Gran Canaria, 23rd of March. Staying as long on the islands as technically feasible. The next day I would take the penultimate commercial flight out with no-going beyond the stop sign thereafter. In the front bottom is my splendid purple suitcase – two motorised police patrols crawled by, the officers eying it rather wearily.

The usually bustling airports were, by now all but deserted: the arrival and departure screens dead and empty, shops closed and barricaded, no café open, the few people walking around moved slowly and were dispersed, faces not recognizable as many wore masks. On arrival at the Bonn/Cologne airport we had to wait a long time in-queue, the many wheel-chaired health-compromised evacuees up in-front. The details of every passenger were meticulously recorded by a large team of medical people and we were all commanded to go into self-quarantine for two weeks with explicit instructions how to proceed in the event of illness.

Thus, my last trip for the time being ended with self-isolation and facing, like all of us, a new future where we meet people, colleagues and students and give lectures over the flat computer screen while sitting for endless hours getting lethargic and growing fat. But much worse is the plight of some billion+ people planet-wide who lost their income with all the unclear and many-fold tragic consequences this may have. The clean blue sky without the myriad streaks across it signals daily that perhaps a small endangered animal which should not have been eaten in China inadvertently became the most powerful and brutal ally to Greta Thunberg’s otherwise politicized Friday’s-for-Future movement towards ensuring the health of our ecosphere.

Figure 5. Previously humming Santa Cruz de La Palma, March 18th.

While still pleasantly marooned on the islands with empty streets (Figure 5) and looking out on the ever-lasting and yet constantly in-motion ocean and eternally reshaping cloud formations modulated by the volcano (Figure 6), one’s hair sprouting but my whiskey at Eddie’s Barber out of reach, opaque thoughts may begin to cloud one’s mind:

My ING talk was on early star-cluster evolution addressing the exciting and very unexpected evidence for three co-existing populations of very young stars in the Orion Nebula Cluster discovered by ESO-astronomer Giacamo Beccari et al. (2017) and the verification of them using Gaia DR2 data by the then ESO-student-of-the-year Tereza Jerabkova et al.(2019). This can be nicely understood through the first generation of stars forming its ionizing members which halt further star formation. By virtue of them being energetic binary systems, they dynamically eject each other from the forming cluster, as explicitly shown by computations by the then Alexander-von-Humboldt-Fellow Long Wang et al.(2019), this process having been invented in the Havelská Koruna in 2017 in Prague during MODEST17 (Figure 7). With the massive, devastating stars gone, the now ionized gas can recombine again and form molecules, with the molecular gas in-fall from the feeding filaments forming a new population of stars. This process repeated such that the cluster is presently forming its third population whose devastating stars are now ionizing the nebula again. It is quite possible that the nebula began shining (again?) only about 10000 years ago as the central star in the Sword of Orion, the ignition perhaps being witnessed by our stone-age ancestors and the very last of the Neanderthals. The three-fold rise and demise of star formation in one place can thus be seen in a mythological place on the sky, the central star of Orion’s Sword conceivably shining as a memorial to our rise and their demise.

Figure 6. Alexandre's Island.

These three events in cosmic history can also, but only in a literature sense, be seen as being reflected by the three sequences in the development of the Western Civilisation. It began with Mycenean Greece, a culture which left us fables of ancient gods and heroes inscribed into the sky and which was based on ransacking, ravaging and enslaving people, as famously portrayed by Homer’s fall of Troy in the Iliad which can be interpreted as formulating and founding the western ideals of individualism in a non-ideal world but which also depicts the end of a long era of archaic heroism. The next epoch emerged from this, after the first dark ages, as the shining classical Greek and Roman era whose economy was based on slave labour. But it gave us, among many other ingredients, the alphabet, the sciences, the Olympic games, Aristoteles, law, the innovative, revolutionary and defining New Testament which teaches compassion, forgiveness, love and divine equality of all people. This world ended with mass-immigration of uneducated barbarians, leading to the second dark age. Most people today would not know that this dark age brought quite possibly the most significant social change to Western Europe and perhaps to the whole planet ever: the abolition of slavery, which had accompanied human societies since immemorable times, by the christianising societies on the western mainland. Out of the remaining Roman and Greek world arose a new, even more powerfull third Western Epoch. The increasingly free and thus industrialising societies (according to a German proverb, “Stadtluft mach frei”) which emerged from these christianised people, spawned the third new era which we are part of now. This third epoch encompasses the planet and has reached heights beyond previous imagination, with ethnic, gender and animal rights and the idealised concept of protecting all life evolving ever more rapidly into a form yonder divinity-beliefs which may partially already be found in some much more ancient other cultures. It stands that those who followed The Jewish Teacher from Nazareth made paradise where the sick are cured, lame can walk and blind may one day see, where you enter your warm home in the winter, touch the wall to have light and drinking water avails as you please. In principle we now can, from the few elementary particles and the rules of their correlations, calculate an entire tree or rocket from first principles. Never heretofore has a civilization reached such heights. But while brilliant beyond measure to the point of being Celestial, He was not divine and did not teach about the fragility of what sustains us.

Figure 7. The formation of multiple stellar populations in an embedded cluster (drawing by Tereza Jerabkova). Taken from Kroupa et al. (2018).

And so dark clouds on the horizon have become evident. The plundering of everything associated with our rise leaves its mark. The thin planetary skin we live in has been heating up ever faster and abnormally at the same time the Sun may be lessening its glare. The ecological, economical and human implications are immense and most likely catastrophic. Ever more people in this skin logically implies pandemics. And, major socio-economic-geo-strategic transformations are often, if not always, associated with deep changes in scientific understanding. Thus, the emergent humanistic ideas a few hundred years ago according to which all people are equal associate with the emergent understanding of a non-anthropocentric evolving physical Universe, and the discovery of space-time and matter being relative arose with the global transformation as symptomized via the first and second World Wars which grew a new world order.

Is a similar process evident today? I would argue yes! Very deep cracks have been opening up, not only in the way science is being conducted today: The scientific method appears to be breaking down. This is the case in general, and specifically in the field of cosmology, where dogma strengthened by over-important and over-rewarded professorial chairs defines the cosmological model despite observational evidence increasingly indicating that our physical model of the Universe may well need to be rethought at a fundamental level, see e.g. Kroupa (2012), Vavrycuk (2018), Di Valentino et al. (2020) and Merritt (2020) . Today, what an “important scientist” beliefs has become more decisive than actual scientific fact. There are strong indications that the rational scientific method is failing as reflected by the failure of the WHO and, at the same time, we see the dark clouds of major socio-economic and ecological upheavals approaching. Global warming, the Corona pandemic and alien migration into an increasingly arid, African-like Western Europe are merely acute symptoms.

Figure 8. The old military road to Endenich, April 2020.

What might the outcome of this, perhaps third, demise be? It is clear that primitive societies based on archaic ideological texts will survive, perhaps even taking-over rule by being massively bolstered by over-idealistic Western-European Politocrats and agonized people being drawn-in by the devil’s chanting in perhaps the most beautiful of all languages, while advanced humanistic teachings are forced, via political correctness, onto the same level as archaic inhuman ideologies. Vocal adherents of this political correctness scream at the Central European nations that open borders are without alternative, while shutting close the doors of their own homes and properties. Will our current open, multi-ethnical and trans-genderising high-tech near-to-totally-connected on-the-verge-to-space-travel world-civilization master this perhaps third major test we are now witnessing?

In this sense, looking at the mythological Sword of Orion, it’s central “star” may be seen to epitomize our world events. But even there, the action is not over yet as further stars are born. Let us not forget that despite its beauty, every star cluster ever born, even the most glorious one, vanishes as all its members disperse in the much wider Galaxy, leaving little trace of its existence apart from a slowly dispersing tidal stream, much as sparkling dust might settle after a wondrous event.

In a post-World-War(s) self-re-formulating country with new spiking minarets and banlieues taking root, the old Roman road I follow daily eastwards (Figure 8) goes on to the Rhine where the old border used to stand. Gazing eastwards from where Beethoven was born across this majestic river into the old Germanic wilderness where Siegfried for the first time unified the tribes against the Roman dragon, I would so very much like to take a flight to my ovocné knedlíky served daily at the Havelská Koruna and Czech beer in the beloved golden City of a Hundred Spires. Looking instead South-West past the nearby prehistoric volcanos of the Eiffel, I wonder when I can take wing again to Alexandre’s volcanic island. The sky above remains so very empty and quiet.

I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Petr Kabath of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the PI of the Erasmus+ program, who made this journey possible and who, above all else, kept contact and was evidently worried about the various Erasmus+ members being stranded on the Canary islands.

* introduction picture above : The author at Loc Cancajos, March 11th.

Pavel Kroupa, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet, Bonn