Tag Archives: UH Manoa

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Science-fiction thriller comes alive in Manoa

A newly published novel by the late best-selling writer and filmmaker Michael Crichton titled Micro was inspired in large part by his visit to the lush forests of UH Mānoa’s Harold L. Lyon Arboretum.

The author-screenwriter of Jurassic Park and other blockbusters visited the Arboretum in May 2008 with his wife, Sherri, to get acquainted with the vast and varied landscape of the nation’s only university botanical garden located in a tropical rainforest. He died later that year while still working on Micro.

“Some of the Arboretum’s history and gardens, including the bromeliad garden, are depicted very well,” said Christopher Dunn, director of the Lyon Arboretum. “Several chapters focus on action and suspense in the arboretum. Great stuff! I’m delighted with it!”

This isn’t the first time that Lyon Arboretum’s tropical setting has inspired creative minds. It was also filmed in the movies Jurassic Park III and Tears of the Sun – and it’s been a setting for television’s Hawaii Five-0.

According to former staff Alice Katajima, Crichton was a quiet man, but asked a multitude of questions, particularly of the bromeliad garden and talipot palm.  Katajima gave the first-time visitors, the Crichtons, something to take home with them as a memento: a bag of jaboticaba (Brazilian grapes). “They also picked some skeletonized leaves from underneath the bodi tree,” she said.

Just like his other science-fiction books and true to Crichton fashion, Micro pits nature against technology. Based in Honolulu, the Lyon Arboretum is portrayed as the “Waipaka” Arboretum. Staff who took Crichton and his wife on a tour of the arboretum are depicted as characters in the book, including Katajima (as Alyson Bender) and Raymond Baker (as Vin Drake), who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the grounds and was an employee for 38-years before he passed in 2010.

The overview on Crichton’s official website states that Micro is about groundbreaking technology that has ushered in a revolutionary era of biological prospecting. Graduate students from Cambridge, Massachusetts are sent to the arboretum where they are promised access to tools that will open a whole new scientific frontier. Once they arrive, they are thrust into a hostile wilderness that reveals profound and surprising dangers at every turn, and find themselves prey to a technology of radical and unbridled power.

Crichton’s fascination with the Lyon Arboretum has obviously made a lasting impression. The book was completed by science writer Richard Preston after Crichton passed away to cancer in November 2008.

For more information about the Micro, visit www.michaelcrichton.com/books-micro.html.

As a branch of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, the arboretum serves as a center for educational activities on plants, arts, culture, geography and a range of other sciences. Approximately 34,000 visitors each year participate in classes, research projects other community activities or enjoy the beautiful plant and displays on the 200-acre grounds. The Arboretum is responsible for developing a major resource center for tropical plants with Hawaii-, Pacific Basin-, and Asian-focus, by enhancing its living plant collection and establishing an appropriate reference library and herbarium. For more information about the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, visit www.hawaii.edu/lyonarboetum.

Top photo: The Bromeliad Garden at UH Mānoa’s Harold L. Lyon Arboretum is depicted in Crichton’s posthumously published book, Micro.

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Mauna Kea, IfA played a role in Nobel physics prize

Louise Good, Institute for Astronomy publications editor

John Tonry headshot

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Astronomer John Tonry, a camera designed and built at the Institute for Astronomy and an observatory on Mauna Kea all played a role in the work awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics this month.

Tonry was a member of one of the two large groups of astronomers whose leaders received the prize for discovering that the Universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate and will therefore last forever.

The discovery, first announced in 1998, grew out of scientists’ efforts to compare how fast the Universe is expanding now compared with its expansion billions of years ago. They expected to find that the expansion was slowing down, suggesting the possibility that the Universe would eventually stop expanding and then collapse in a “big crunch.”

To study the problem, astronomers searched for exploding stars called type 1a supernovae in very distant galaxies, which could be used to measure how far away other galaxies are.

In 1996, when the project began, the most sensitive system for doing this kind of research was a giant digital camera designed and built at IfA and mounted on the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope. The telescope had superb optics and was located on Mauna Kea, where the skies are uniquely clear and dark, an improvement over conditions in Chile, where the work had begun.

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope against pink-tinged sky

Tonry spent his nights observing on the telescope and his days analyzing the data. There was no time to waste because supernovae explode brightly and fade fast. He needed to relay the locations of such explosions quickly so other members of his team could observe them using a spectrometer mounted on one of the two 10-meter-diameter telescopes of the neighboring W. M. Keck Observatory. Their job was to measure the speed at which the galaxies were moving away from us as well as to confirm the nature of the exploding stars.

Because these faint, distant galaxies are so far away, their light must travel for billions of years to reach Earth, thus providing a glimpse of our Universe at a time when it was much younger than it is now.

What they discovered was considered surprising, even shocking: the distant galaxies were moving apart from each other more slowly than were the nearby galaxies. In other words, the Universe must be expanding faster now than it did in the past.

Team members were amazed. Their reaction was: “It couldn’t be. We had better recheck our calculations.” But it was, and it has since been confirmed by other observations.

What could cause the expansion to speed up? It couldn’t be gravity because gravity always pulls things together. It had to be a new kind of pressure, since named “dark energy.”

Interestingly, when Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity in 1915, one of his equations hinted at the existence of such a pressure, but it took nearly 100 years for its significance to be realized.

What is dark energy? No one knows. But UH scientists are involved in the search for the answer—both through particle physics experiments at giant collider laboratories abroad, and ongoing observations at large telescopes like as those on Mauna Kea.

A similar version of this article was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Oct. 16, 2011, and on the IfA website.