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The Institute of Astrophysics of the Canaries, a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence, celebrates this year, 2015, an important event: the 30th anniversary of the official inauguration of its headquarters in La Laguna and the two Canarian Observatories. For this reason, the IAC has designed an exhibition: "Lights of the Universe" on the history, past present and future, of Astrophysics in the Canaries, which will be open to the public (free entrance) in the Sala de Arte (Art Gallery) Instituto Canarias Cabrera Pinto in La Laguna (Tenerife), from Saturday June 6th to Sunday 28th, and in the Salazar Palace of Santa Cruz de La Palma, from 16th September to 12nd October.

The IAC has benefitted from the patronage of the Gran Telescopio de Canarias (GRANTECAN), S.A., Canarias Cultura en Red, of the Autonomous Government of the Canaries, the Cabildo Insular of Tenerife, the “CajaCanarias” foundation, and the Social Foundation of “La Caixa”. In addition the Exhibition has benefitted from collaborations with the Museum of Science and the Cosmos, of Museums of Tenerife, Spanish television in the Canaries (TVEC) and the scientific institutions which participate in the Observatories.

Historical memory

On June 28th and 29th 1985, thirty years ago, the King and Queen of Spain solemnly inaugurated the Headquarters of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canaries (IAC) in La Laguna (Tenerife), the Teide Observatory in Izaña (Tenerife) and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in Garafía (La Palma) in the presence of monarchs and members of the royal families of five countries (Spain, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden) and two other heads of state (Germany and Ireland). Twelve minsters from European countries also attended, together with distinguished representatives of the scientific community led by five Nobel Laureates. In total more than 1,000 guests attended, with 200 accredited journalists from all over the world.

The exhibition "Lights of the Universe", that commemorates these acts, will be inaugurated in Tenerife by the IAC Director, Rafael Rebolo, in the presence of the authorities, the commissioners of the exhibition, those in charge of the telescopes at the Canarian observatories and IAC staff.

The exhibition, in Spanish and English, will be on two floors in the Art Gallery of the Instituto Canarias Cabrera Pinto in La Laguna. On the lower floor we will be invited to an audiovisual experience in the “GTC Kaleidoscope” named after the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, (the largest in the world, at one of the IAC’s observatories), to discover the pieces which the IAC has contributed to put in place in the jigsaw of the universe, and in which international scientific collaborations we participate. We will get to know interactively the characteristics and the scientific results of each of the telescopes, past and present, of the Teide Observatory and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, to compare the telescopes of yesterday and today, and to share many other memories. There will also be a projector room with various showings of audiovisual material related to Astrophysics in the Canaries. On the upper floor we also hope to awaken your senses with an interactive “solar immersion”, and impress the retina of the visitors with a composition of spectacular astronomical images related to Light, the phenomenon to which 2015, Year of Light, is dedicated. We will also show how research in Solar Physics is performed in the IAC with a video produced by the IAC itself.



Ignacio García de la Rosa

Juan Antonio Belmonte 

General coordinator:

Carmen del Puerto

Art coordinator:

Gotzon Cañada


IAC Science Communication and Culture Unit (UC3)

Venue: Salón de Arte, Instituto Canarias Cabrera Pinto (La Laguna)

Dates: from 5th to 28th June 2015

Opening times:

From Tuesday to Friday:  from 11.00 to 14.00 and from 17.00 to 20.00

Saturdays and Sundays: from 11.00 to 14.00 

Mondays and Festivals: closed

Contact: prensa [at] iac.es / 922 605200


The adventure of knowledge

The IAC is an institution dedicated to the production of scientific knowledge. Its laboratories are outside the Earth, in parts of the universe where conditions are so extreme that they let us put to the test the laws of physics which work on our planet.

The Exhibition “Lights of the Universe” aims to show the trajectory during the past 30 years of the IAC and the scientific institutions in the different countries which are involved in the Observatories. Spanish society, and in particular Canarian society, have invested resources in this adventure of scientific knowledge, and the IAC now gives them a summary of some of its results.


1. GTC Kaleidoscope

In this module the visitor can start his journey into a mysterious universe. An enormous kaleidoscope, offered by the GTC, will give a unique experience in which the image of the visitor will be reflected an infinite number of times in a changing and surprising cosmic landscape. This is no mere amusement. In some models of the universe, not now considered valid, space was considered boundless but finite, like the surface of a balloon. A ray of light setting off from behind us would reach our eyes after going all the way round the balloon universe, and we would see everything repeated, including ourselves. This is a genuine kaleidoscopic universe, to stimulate questions and experiments in cosmology, with music composed for the occasion by the “Black Mirror” group.

2. Projection room

On a large screen the visitors to the exhibition will be able to see a series of institutional videos and films of scientific outreach produced by the IAC, as well as images of the inaugurations in 1985 supplied by TVEC.

3. History in pictures

 In the exhibition there are eight panels of graphics dedicated to historical highlights of the IAC and its observatories, containing a selection of important events which are linked together in a time-line. They start with “The origins… before 1985” which goes back as far as Isaac Newton, because it was he who, in his Treatise on Optics (1730) referred to the difficulties imposed on astronomical observation by the Earth’s atmosphere, and suggested that telescopes should be place “on the summits of the highest mountains, above the grosser clouds”.

In 1856 the British Astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth showed that high altitude sites do indeed offer clear advantages for astronomical observations. He came to this conclusion after making observations at different heights in Tenerife, first from Guajara, and later on from Altavista, close to Mount Teide.

Subsequently the French astronomer Jean Mascart, who travelled to Tenerife to observer Halley's comet in 1910 along with doctors from the recently founded World Health Organization (WHO), proposed to put an international observatory on Guajara mountain, a project which was never carried out due to the start of the First World War.

It was almost fifty years later, when astronomers from all over the world visited the Canaries to observe the solar eclipse of 1959, which was total from the Canaries, that the idea of a permanent observatory was again put forward.

As a result of this interest, Spanish scientists led by the astrophysicist Francisco Sánchez, measured the astronomical conditions of the Canarian sky for modern astronomy and, convinced of their excellent quality, promoted the excellence of this natural resource both within Spain and internationally.

In 1973 in the University of La Laguna, the University Institute of Astrophysics was founded, to which the Teide Observatory was later adjoined. Francisco Sanchez was named its director by OM (14/12/73).  On October 17th 1975, in a coordinated act of the University of La Laguna, the CSIC and the Mancomunidad de Cabildos (Island Council Commonwealth) of the Province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the agreement was signed, in the office of the Minister for Education and Science, which created the original Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (Astrophysics Institute of the Canaries), which incorporated the University Institute of Astrophysics and which formed the basis of a research centre with international dimensions. Even so, seven years more were needed until, in 1982, the IAC achieved its final juridical-administrative structure, in a law passed by Royal Decree.

On June 2nd 1979 the International Agreements of Collaboration in Astrophysical Matters were signed in La Palma, which opened the Canarian Observatories to the international astronomical community.

We now arrive at 1985, the year in which the IAC Headquarters in La Laguna, and the Teide Observatory, both in Tenerife, and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, in La Palma, were inaugurated. One of the panels is dedicated to these solemn inaugurations.

After than the panel “The last 30 years in pictures” gives a historic tour, year by year, from 1986 to 2015, which includes some of the activities undertaken, and to be undertaken, on occasion of this 30th anniversary.

The final panel of these series is dedicated to the Nobel Laureates who have visited the IAC or have participated in its activities.

 4. Memory nook

In this “nook” we show some items which also form a part of the history of the IAC, such as old and more recent editions on paper, videos in VHS, historic technical pieces, prizes, and marketing products.

5. Scientific highlights of the IAC

In a search for the answers of the basic questions of the Universe, the telescopes of the Canarian Observatories have allowed us to visit impressive cosmic landscapes, whose many images adorn the exhibition. However to produce pictures is not the only aim, not even the main aim, of the IAC. To evaluate scientific success is more subtle, because scientific advance is very like the collective solution of a giant jigsaw puzzle, where we do not have the final picture as reference. In the exhibition “Lights of the Universe” the IAC would like to show its contribution to the solution of this puzzle, pointing up some of the most important pieces which it has managed to fit in during the past 30 years. And it does so with an interactive module where visitors can discover those pieces placed by the IAC with a simple movement of their hand. This module will be lent to the Science and Cosmos Museum after the exhibition has concluded its itinerary.

To achieve these scientific highlights, the IAC has motivated the participation of a large scientific, engineering, technical, and administrative staff, who has managed to put the Canaries on the map of world astrophysical research. The history of the Institute has always been completely transparent, and the communications media have widely reported this circumstance. With the “Lights of the Universe” exhibition we want to condense these 30 years, and show that the young institution which inaugurated the Canarian Observatories in 1985 has known how to grow while maintaining its youth or, more important, its curiosity.

The 22 scientific highlights of the IAC which are shown in a module of the exhibition were selected from a list of more than 80 articles led by IAC researchers, published in high impact journals such as Science and Nature, and in other journals of reference, which have a long list of citations, which is the criterion normally used to evaluate scientific relevance. The final list was produced democratically by an internal selection process among the researchers of the IAC who evaluated the work of their colleagues, but were not allowed to vote for their own contributions.

6. Astrophysics in the Observatories

The “Astrophysics in the Observatories” module consists of touch screens which let us explore the past, present, and future telescopes, in the Teide and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatories. The telescopes are initially grouped into themes (“Solar Telescopes”, “Nocturnal Telescopes” and “Special Telescopes”) so that the visitors will be able to learn, for example, the relevance of the study of the Sun, the importance of the size of the mirror which gathers the light, or that the Universe needs to be observed at all wavelengths (from gamma rays to radio waves) in order to understand it. The final goal will be to reach the individual descriptions for each telescope, in which we summarize its characteristics, anecdotes, curiosities, and the highlights obtained with this instrument by IAC researchers and by the institution which owns it. The exhibition module which has been financed by the Cabildo of Tenerife, will be one of those lent to the Science and Cosmos Museum after the events scheduled to commemorate the 30th anniversary.

7. International collaborations

 During the last 30 years the IAC has been involved in more than thirty collaborations in international "big science" consortia. Among these we can pick out networks of telescopes dedicated to outstanding lines of research, such as helioseismology or frontier experiments such as the detection of the echo of the Big Bang, or the search for exoplanets. We should also pick out collaborations whose aim is the construction of large telescopes, such as the EST, or important instruments such as HARMONI for the E-ELT. Finally the IAC has had an outstanding participation in big collaborations to carry out space experiments, with ESA or NASA, with space missions as important as the SOHO, Herschel, and Planck satellites, or, in the near future, Plato, aimed at detecting a twin planet to the Earth, which might contain life, around one of the nearby stars.

 8. Time machines

The exhibition will also put on show an old telescope made at the end of the XIX century, and used on the expedition to the Meteorological Observatory of Guajara (Las Cañadas del Teide) led by the French astronomer Jean Mascart, accompanied by a large number of European scientists, to observe the approach of Halley’s comet to the Sun during the spring of 1910. Next to this telescope, which has been restored by the Science and Cosmos Museum, Museums of Tenerife, (MCC) and lent to this exhibition by the Atmospheric Research Centre of Izaña (of the National Meteorological Agency), we show a 1:50 scale model (in this case lent by the MCC) of the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC), which has a diameter of 10.4 m and is at present the largest optical-infrared telescope in the world. Telescopes of yesterday and today, genuine “time machines”.

9. Solar Immersion

In this space, on the upper floor, and designed by a group of independent freelance professionals, the visitors will be able to interact with the Sun, manipulating its powerful activity in a direct and intuitive way. They will be able to observe, and even cause the tremendous flares in the corona, accelerate or slow down the solar cycle, change the spectrum of the light emitted by our star, and do this not only individually but in groups. It will be a question of testing, playing with, and getting to know the most temperamental heavenly body in our solar system.

10.  The Sun from the IAC

The Sun rules over our solar system. A furnace which was formed over 4,500 million years ago, and which is still alight. Although it is a small yellow star, one of hundreds of millions in our Galaxy, it is in reality a more complex and enigmatic system than it may appear at first sight. To understand what it is made of and how it works is still a major challenge for scientists. The history of the IAC is strongly related to this star; the research line of Solar Physics was one of the first to be developed, towards the end of the 1970’s. Since then the IAC has become established as the major reference on a world level, for the study of the Sun.

For this reason, the exhibition “Lights of the Universe” will show a video, produced by the IAC which illustrates this particular contribution. A mosaic, in which the team of researchers devoted to studying the Sun, shows, as if with one voice, the research activity developed at the IAC. Through this testimony we will learn the scientific value of the research, and the quality of the telescopes and of the technical developments which have led to the IAC being declared a “Severo Ochoa” centre of excellence. 

11.  Lights of the Universe

“Lights of the Universe” is the generic title chosen for this exhibition for a number of reasons, one of them being, clearly, because in 2015 we are commemorating the “International Year of Light” which the IAC also wants to celebrate. Four panels show, by means of attractive images, various aspects related to Light:

“Light and Astrophysics”

Astrophysics is an observational science. This means that we cannot interact directly with the objects we are studying, and we need to wait patiently for the light to tell us about everything which is happening in the universe. We are limited by the astronomical distances between objects, and also by the velocity of light itself.  Although extremely high, we would ideally like it to be higher.

“Cosmic Light”

It is an exciting challenge to try to explain the Universe around us by means of a handful of photons: that the Universe is 13,800 years old, that it is in accelerated expansion; that the galaxies are made up of hundreds of thousands of millions of stars; that the stars are born, live, and die; that there are exoplanets around the majority of the stars... we need a handful of photons and a great deal of imagination.

“Eclipsed Light”

The eclipses are, without a doubt, among the most spectacular astronomical phenomena for us human beings who are always inclined by our nature to observe any change in our surroundings. We can imagine a universe without any other planets, without stars, or galaxies, but never a universe without the Sun or the Moon. When they align in their cosmic dance they can produce marvelous light effects.

“Luminous phenomena”

We do not always need sophisticated instruments to study and to enjoy the sky. Often there are other keys, such as to be in a outstanding place, or to understand what we are seeing. Some of the luminous phenomena which we can observe from privileged places on Earth are the result of the interaction between the light which reaches us from the universe (especially from the Sun, our nearest star), and one of the two shields which protect us from its more violent aspects: either the atmosphere or the Earth’s magnetic field.

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