A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In A New Era of Discovery

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9781416552161: A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In A New Era of Discovery

LATE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, what had been a fevered pace of discovery in astronomy for many years had slowed. The Hubble Space Telescope continued to produce an astonishing array of images, but the study of the universe was still fractured into domains: measuring the universe’s expansion rate, the evolution of galaxies in the early universe, the life and death of stars, the search for extrasolar planets, the quest to understand the nature of the elusive dark matter. So little was understood, still, about so many of the most fundamental questions, foremost among them: What was the overall structure of the universe? Why had stars formed into galaxies, and galaxies into massive clusters?

What was needed, thought visionary astronomer Jim Gunn, recently awarded the National Medal of Science, was a massive survey of the sky, a kind of new map of the universe that would be so rich in detail and cover such a wide swath of space, be so grand and bold, that it would allow astronomers to see the big picture in a whole new way. So was born the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a remarkable undertaking bringing together hundreds of astronomers and launching a new era of supercharged astronomical discovery, an era of “e-science” that has taken astronomy from the lonely mountaintop observatory to the touch of your fingertips.

Critically acclaimed science writer Ann Finkbeiner tells the inside story of the Sloan and how it is revolutionizing astronomy. The Sloan stitched together images of deep space taken over the course of five years, providing a remarkably detailed, three-dimensional map of a vast territory of the universe, all digitized and downloadable for easy searching on a personal computer, and available not only to professional astronomers but to the public as well.

Bringing together for the first time images of many millions of galaxies—including the massive structure known as the Sloan Great Wall of galaxies, never seen before—the Sloan is allowing astronomers and armchair enthusiasts alike to watch the universe grow up, providing so many discoveries at such a fast pace that, as one astronomer said, it’s like drinking out of a fire hose. They are watching galaxies forming and galaxies merging with other galaxies, seeing streams of stars swirling out from galaxies, and forming a new understanding of how the smooth soup of matter that emerged from the Big Bang evolved into the universe as we know it.

Ann Finkbeiner brings the excitement and the extraordinary potential of this new era of astronomy vividly to life and allows all readers to understand how they, too, can become part of the discovery process. A Grand and Bold Thing is vital reading for all.

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About the Author:

Ann K. Finkbeiner, who herself lost a child in 1987, is an award-winning science journalist, co-author of The Guide to Living with HIV Infection, and author of The Jasons and A Grand and Bold Thing. She has won a number of awards for medical and science writing and is the co-owner of the blog: LastWordOnNothing.com. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
Stakes Worth Playing For


I earned my spurs by doing other stuff, but instruments are what I enjoy.

—Jim Gunn, Princeton University

JAMES EDWARD GUNN is thin and pale and below medium height; his hands are outsized and look remarkably competent. He has mild, dark eyes and a look of remote sweetness. Sometimes he goes into trances and you can’t tell whether he’s concentrating on something he’s looking at, or thinking about something else, or just in a state of sleep and energy deprivation. For some reason, he almost always wears Hawaiian shirts.

With nonastronomers, he is patient with ignorance and polite to the point of deference. He’s patient and polite with astronomers too, though now and then he gets wrought up at what seems to him to be willful stupidity or inattention to exactness. Once wrought up, he continues to talk politely but with increasing intensity, and some words are in aural italics or, if he’s writing, in capital letters. Sometimes he ends up saying something he shouldn’t. When he’s not traveling, he spends most of his time in the basement of Prince-ton University’s Peyton Hall, in a crowded but highly organized electronics workshop. In the middle of the workshop is a circular six-foot vacuum chamber that has been obsolete for years but is too big to be moved out through the door; Jim put his desk behind it, where, from the door, he’s invisible.

Jim is famous. He has a named chair in one of the world’s best astronomy departments and has won nearly every prize available to an astronomer, including a MacArthur and the National Medal of Science. Astronomers admire him for his ability to build astronomical instruments, use them to make observations, and explain the observations with theory. Theorists claim Jim as a theorist and observers claim him as an observer. He’s that good at everything.

Jim was born in 1938 in Livingston, a small town in the oil fields of east Texas. His father was an exploration geologist who moved to new oil fields every six months or so; Jim grew up in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida. With all that moving and because he was an only child, he was pretty much a loner. His closest friend was his father, who had set up a machine shop in a trailer that moved with them—during the war, when parts were hard to get, his father had to make them himself. From his father, Jim learned the construction of intricate things.

Jim was five years old when he read The Stars for Sam, which, while written for children, was not written for five-year-olds. The book said that all the stars in the sky were in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and that the Milky Way was only one of many galaxies, all filled with their own stars and scattered throughout space. Each one of those galaxies could be called an island universe. All together the universe held 30 million of them, and they could be classified by shape—spiral, elliptical, etc.—and cataloged as in a museum. When Jim was six, he and his father sent away for lenses and built a telescope. The next year, Jim found his father’s old undergraduate astronomy textbooks and read them, fascinated by the idea that the universe had a beginning.

When he was twelve, his father died suddenly of heart disease and Jim felt part of his life had emptied out permanently; he didn’t like to think about it. So he focused his energies on power tools. He designed and built twenty or thirty model airplanes, a couple of telescopes, furniture, a hi-fi, some rockets, and played around with high explosives.

High school was mostly in Beeville, Texas, where he was astonishingly good at science and math, and where he read Frontiers of Astronomy by the British astronomer Fred Hoyle. Hoyle hadn’t liked the theory that the universe was created in an explosion and had named it, snippily, the Big Bang theory: “an explosive creation of the Universe is not subject to analysis,” he said with some justification. Hoyle’s own theory, laid out in his book, was that the universe lives, and has always lived, in a balanced and steady state—an excellent idea, Jim thought. Hoyle went on to say that everything in the universe was related: “From the vast expanding system of galaxies down to the humblest planet, and to the creatures that may live on it, there seems to be a strongly forged chain of cause and effect.” All astronomical evidence could fit into one framework, Hoyle wrote, and that framework was the laws of physics. Since those laws were comprehensible, the universe was comprehensible too.

For a high school student, this was powerful stuff. The laws of physics are a set of rules you can believe, you can build on, and they hold for every place in the entire universe. And all the pieces of the universe—the earth, the planets, the sun, the lives of all kinds of stars, the galaxies, the universe’s expansion—were intimately related, and so they should click together into one coherent picture. But Hoyle warned that lovely as this picture is, we shouldn’t believe it until we have tested it in every way. The picture, the theory, must be exposed to observational attack from every direction and still endure. Only then, wrote Hoyle, would we be in a position to obtain a complete understanding of the universe as a single, interlocking thing. “The stakes are high,” he wrote, “and win or lose, are worth playing for.” Jim decided to be an astronomer.

For college, Jim stayed in Texas and went to Rice University in Houston, which was the best university in that part of the world. He’d been accepted at other schools, but Rice charged no tuition for local students and Jim’s family—his mother had remarried—was not well-off. To cover living expenses, he won scholarships and achievement prizes. Rice didn’t offer a major in astronomy, but Jim decided that was fine: instead, he’d major in astronomy’s foundations, math and physics. Besides, he thought, while astronomy is easy to learn, physics is hard and you can’t pick it up on your own. As it turned out, he found he was flat-out good at it. But he hadn’t stopped reading astronomy books, and the summer before he went to Rice, he’d built a little 8-inch reflector telescope for which he’d ground and polished the mirror; while he was at Rice, he added a motor to drive the telescope, then a camera to take pictures of what the telescope saw. He finished it during his senior year and wrote it all up for the observers’ column in Sky & Telescope.

In 1961, the year he graduated summa cum laude, Time ran a feature called “Top of the Heap” about some “extraordinary” college graduates, and Jim was one of them. Jim studied ten hours a day, Time said, and his only extracurricular activity was astronomy club. His physics professor was quoted, saying, “I’ve never been able really to determine the limits of his ability. I’ve never been able to ask him an exam question that he can’t give a perfect answer to.” Because scientists have to get doctoral degrees—the philosophiæ doctor, the PhD—and because Jim was now fascinated by physics, he applied to and was accepted at the astronomy department at the California Institute of Technology to study Einstein’s general relativity, the physics that was the basis of all studies of the universe.

Caltech looks like a garden—jewel-green grass in brown, dry Southern California, flowers and flowering trees, winding paths, little fountains and pools and waterfalls—set among pale stuccoed buildings with red tile roofs, connected with arcades. It’s light and graceful and silent. At Caltech, Jim felt that he’d landed in the midst of an intense community of scholars who knew the answers to his questions, with whom he had no trouble being heard, who treated him as one of their kind. He felt almost light-headed with joy.

Happily, Caltech was also rich. It owned several telescopes, which were situated about 100 miles south of campus on Palomar Mountain, and one of them, the 200-inch Hale Telescope, was the biggest in the world. With a bigger telescope, you can see things that are fainter and farther away; the farther away, the farther back in time. The early universe had for years been the province of theorists only; until recently nobody had actually seen it. When Jim got to Caltech, Caltech’s astronomical observers had just found the earliest and most distant things anyone had ever seen.

These distant things happened to be sources of intense radio waves—Caltech also owned a radio telescope. And because astronomers have a human prejudice toward the optical wavelengths in which they see, Caltech observers had double-checked the radio sources with optical telescopes. The radio sources were outright odd. They looked like pinpricks the way stars do, but the other information about them had been unintelligible. A Caltech observer named Maarten Schmidt had just figured out that the radio sources made sense only if these starlike things were at highly unstarlike distances.

An object’s distance can be read from its velocity—how fast it’s moving with the universal expansion—and its velocity can be read from its spectrum, its light spread by a prism into a rainbow. Superimposed on the rainbow are specific features—they can look like the lines of a barcode and are caused by the behavior of the galaxy’s atoms—at specific colors, that is, specific wavelengths. When the galaxy is moving away, its light takes longer and longer to get to us, and these features in the spectrum shift down toward longer, redder wavelengths; astronomers call this redshift. The larger a galaxy’s redshift, the faster it’s moving away from us and the more distant it is. Schmidt had already found a regular galaxy with a redshift of 0.46, meaning that it was about 5 billion light-years away.

Then Schmidt noticed that one of these radio sources, called 3C 273—with a redshift of 0.16, only about 2 billion light-years away—was enormously brighter than the redshift 0.46 galaxy. So Schmidt and his colleagues looked at the other odd radio sources and found more single starlike things, each forty times brighter than the biggest galaxies full of 10 billion stars. They named the starlike things quasi-stellar radio sources; later they shortened the name to quasars. In the next few years, they found a handful of quasars, each one farther away than the one before. No one had any idea what quasars were or what made them shine so brightly.

In 1965, when Jim was a fourth-year graduate student and hardly aware of quasars, he went to a talk Schmidt gave. Schmidt began with his first quasar and walked the audience through the rest one by one: 3C 254, redshift 0.73; 3C 245, redshift 1.02; 3C 287, redshift 1.05; 3C 9, redshift 2.01—10 billion light-years away, two-thirds of the way back to the beginning of the universe. These redshifts, these distances, these ages, were unheard of. Schmidt himself, who wasn’t yet forty years old, had only dreamed of getting such redshifts by the end of his career. Jim thought it was the most exciting single astronomy talk he’d heard.

Jim had gone to the talk with a fellow graduate student, Bruce Peterson, and sitting there listening, they noticed an anomaly in the spectrum of the quasar 3C 9. 3C 9 was in the early universe; the universe between 3C 9 and Caltech was full of hydrogen atoms, and hydrogen atoms absorb light at certain ultraviolet wavelengths. At those wavelengths, then, 3C 9’s spectrum should have been flat and dark, but it wasn’t; it was full of ultraviolet light. That light would be there, Jim and Bruce thought, only if something had changed all those hydrogen atoms—if their electrons had been ripped off, or ionized, by something violently energetic or hot. If so, that violence must have been coming from something like giant stars lighting up or quasars, whatever they were, doing whatever they did.

The dark place in the spectrum that should have been there became known as the Gunn-Peterson trough or the Gunn-Peterson effect. Finding an object whose spectrum showed the trough would mean finding an object from the time when the hydrogen atoms were still intact, before the universe created the first energetic, shining objects, when the universe was an infant. But the trough wasn’t there in 3C 9 at redshift 2.01, and no one knew how much farther back you’d have to go to see it—certainly farther than their instruments could now see. Gunn and Peterson published their idea in 1965 and because it was so clever, they became mildly famous for it. Jim was happy to have a trough named after him and wished someone would find it, but in the meantime he went on to other things until the day when instruments improved.

After Jim graduated from Caltech in 1966, he spent the next few years in the army, building instruments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab—Caltech’s astronomers had connections that could keep their star graduate students around telescopes—and then took a position as an assistant professor at Princeton. For a while, he worked with Princeton astronomer Jeremiah Ostriker on a theory about an unusual kind of regularly flashing star just discovered, called a pulsar. But Princeton didn’t have a telescope, and Jim felt he needed one, so in 1970 he returned to Caltech.

For the next ten years he stayed at Caltech, working meticulously and painstakingly on one research project after another, heading off on one subject, then digressing onto another—usually without giving up the first—and then digressing yet again. His style of research was uncommon. Most astronomers stake out claims on certain kinds of objects or certain parts of the universe: for example, Maarten Schmidt had spent much of his career studying quasars. But Jim worked on different populations of stars; the evolution of stars; the Milky Way; gravitational lenses; the particles of dark matter; binary stars; local galaxies; rare and peculiar stars; globular clusters; supernovae; quasars; and clusters of galaxies. Some of these subjects are related—classifying stars into populations can mean tracking the early, middle, and late stages of their evolution—but most are not. And all the while he was inventing and building cameras and spectrographs. He obviously had an enormous intellectual range and apparently the attention span of a housefly.

In fact, he seemed to have taken Hoyle’s interconnected universe to heart, studying each of the universe’s pieces to see if somehow they’d click together into one whole history. Toward that end, he began two long-term surveys of the universe’s opposite ends. Maybe if you could connect the near and far, the present and past ends of the universe, you could see how it changed with time and you could figure out its history. He started with the far end, the earliest things seen, the quasars.

Maarten Schmidt had been racking up higher and higher numbers of quasars, and the highest numbers seemed to be at the greatest distances. Other quasar hunters had joined him and found the same. Then, somewhere around redshift 3.0 or 4.0, the numbers dropped dramatically; quasar hunters called the drop the quasar cut-off. It seemed to imply that somewhere out beyond redshift 3.0, at even higher redshifts even earlier in the universe, quasars first appeared.

Before believing the cut-off, though, you’d want to expose it t...

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