Working in the field of astronomy, there are many and wondrous things that one often encounters during the course of one's travels. In many cases, the sights are sufficiently novel as to leave one scrambling to place them in context in an inadequately rich cultural backdrop. This is, of course, ever-so-true for the images that astronomers pluck out of the sky each and every day.
Telescopes are often located at the very extremes of the earth (and beyond). These locations are generally selected for environments that are as benign as possible - but not from the point of view of their human operators: these considerations are purely driven by the needs of the machines. Locales that are very dry, cold, and high atop mountains figure prominently on the wish list for sites for observatories. These locations often have staggering vistas associated with them - stark landscapes that seem to have been ripped off the surface of the moon, rather than having anything to do with Mother Earth.
And finally, the telescopes themselves often defy convenient categorization, being objects of purpose-built wonderment that have lines that curve and swoop in unfamiliar ways. These machines are often reflections of their times (for example, the 100" Hooker telescope looks a lot like other large things of its era - battleships!) - the fingerprints of the technologies out of which they were born are all over them, even if they themselves look nothing like the more conventional applications of that technology. Think of what would have happened if Andy Warhol had been locked in a Dunkin' Donuts kitchen and told produce some art. It'd be something wacky & cool & unexpected, but you know it'd have a certain familiarity because it'd be deep fried and covered in powdered sugar, too.
Having recently come back to ESO's Paranal Observatory to use the VLTI, I sometimes reflect upon these things as I wander around outside on the observing deck. On the deck are the 4 outsized domes for the UTs (the cleverly named 'Unit Telescopes'), the VLTI building, and the 4 AT telescopes (the also cleverly named 'Auxiliary Telescopes'). The ATs are specifically designed to be used with the VLTI, and as such, rank high on my list of personally important astronomical glass. The ATs are interesting little telescopes1, designed to be compact and can even be driven around like futuristic street cars. The flat white finish could easily have been designed by Apple, like some outsized iPod (is it too late to trademark the term iTelescope?), but recently I have discovered an even closer cultural link for them.
It's something that nagged at me for some time - that "I've seen this before" feeling that I couldn't put my finger on. And then it hit me: the ATs could easily be mistaken for Marvin, the oppressively depressed robot from Douglas Adam's ever-so-delightful Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (at least, the movie version). The resemblance is striking - so much so, it gives me pause: did any of the film's producers visit Paranal before filming? Where did that Marvin design come from, anyway? And using Alan Rickman's voice in the movie for Marvin - it's just like when Rickman was in Die Hard, and they blow up the place, which of course is what happened to Paranal in Quantum of Solace. Coincidence? I think not.
1"Little" being a relative term - at 1.8m (71") in size, they're small only next to the 8.2m UTs.