The University of Arizona thought it had a perfect plan to pull astronomy in the United States out of its doldrums. In a single bold stroke the university would end the nation’s serious shortage of telescopes (The Scientist, August 8, 1988, page 1)—and establish itself as one of the leading observatories—by building the world’s largest instrument and six other scopes on the 10,000-foot peak of southeastern Arizona’s Mt. Graham. The university dubbed the plan the Columbus project, and hoped to be close to completion in 1992, perhaps even to be part of nationwide celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage of discovery.

But the astronomers’ grand scheme was brought to a halt by opponents far more potent than any Columbus could have imagined—environmentalists. Charging that the planned Mt. Graham observatory threatened both a pristine mountaintop and an endangered red squirrel, conservationists and ecologists—along with federal agencies—bogged the...

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