The Part I Love is Talking Science With My Friends
After a long hiatus, I’m resuming the travel required to write my book Back Roads, Dark Skies: A Cosmological Journey. For those just tuning in, I am traveling across the United States by car, visiting observatories and labs where the science of cosmology is practiced. Drawing from William Least Heat Moon’s classic travelog Blue Highways, the book emphasizes twin perspectives: new ways of seeing lead to new things to be seen, but also new things themselves require new ways of seeing. In cosmology, new technology has led to discovery, unanticipated finds that have thrown our understanding of the Universe into delightful confusion. (Well, sometimes delightful.) However, in trying to understand many of these newly discovered phenomena, researchers are driven to develop new techniques.
Being a travel book, though, I am also seeking a new way to see through travel and exploration. Cosmology is a very familiar field to me, but often the person closest to a subject is the worst to try to explain it to a lay audience. By going to particle physics labs and astronomical observatories, I am learning to see my own discipline in a new way, in hopes that it will help me bring it to my readers. As you can tell, this book is different from most cosmology books (A Brief History of Time is perhaps the best example), where the focus is on highly speculative ideas and Big Theories. While theory will always inform the research I discuss—and, being a theorist myself, I can’t help but discuss theory—the primary emphasis of Back Roads, Dark Skies is on experiment and observation. Without these things, theory is nothing but the ramblings of creative people, unconnected to reality.
In May, I visited Fermilab in Illinois (with a detour in search of Grote Reber, one of the founders of radio astronomy) and the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota, which houses several particle detectors. The journey that begins tomorrow will take me to the Southwest (with a stop in Louisiana). Here’s my scientific itinerary, just in case I vanish in west Texas and am never heard from again.
- Tuesday, October 23: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) near Livingston, Louisiana. (That sentence has altogether too many ells.) LIGO is the only observatory in the United States looking for gravitational radiation: waves in spacetime itself produced by violent phenomena such as supernova explosions or colliding black holes.
- Thursday, October 25: McDonald Observatory in western Texas, site of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET). The HET is the instrument conducting the Dark Energy eXperiment (HETDEX): an ambitious observation of the spectra from approximately 1 million galaxies, with the goal of measuring the rate of the acceleration of the Universe precisely.
- Friday, October 26: Apache Point Observatory (APO) in New Mexico houses the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescope, possibly the most important telescope you haven’t heard of. (It’s the hipster telescope, even though it’s digital.) For many years, the SDSS project has surveyed galaxies and other astronomical objects, providing a wealth of data on the Universe. The current phase is focused very early galaxies.
- Monday, October 29: The Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) is south of Tuscon, Arizona. VERITAS uses four telescopes to detects the highest energy cosmic rays and gamma rays as they create showers of light when they enter Earth’s atmosphere. These very high energy signals provide information about exotic phenomena: supermassive black holes, supernovas, and the like.
- Tuesday, October 30: Mount Graham International Observatory has two telescopes of interest to me. The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) consists of two large mirrors mounted in tandem to increase resolution; as such, it is a particularly valuable instrument for looking at very distant objects. The second telescope is the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), which performs observations along the boundary between infrared and microwave light. This portion of the light spectrum is one of the most promising for observing the first galaxies and stars in the Universe.
- Wednesday, October 31: the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) is the most famous of the telescopes I’m visiting, largely thanks to its cameo role in the movie Contact. The VLA consists of 27 radio telescopes, each of which is a dish 25 meters in diameter.
As you can tell, this is a somewhat grueling schedule, but given my limited funds, it was the best I could do. If someone wants to hire me to repeat the trip later with (say) a professional photographer, and follow a more leisurely pace, I will not say no. (I’m still waiting for that return call, National Geographic.) I will check in as much as I can, and blog whenever I have the opportunity. However, the main product of the trip will be Back Roads, Dark Skies, so don’t expect me to give too much away!