Small Wonders

Gallery

This gallery contains 11 photos.

“The Noticers of the world are rare and beautiful gifts. … Pausing to delight in the simple joys of everyday life is the only way to truly live.” — Rachel Macy Stafford, The Hands Free Mama * ~ * ~ … Continue reading

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)


I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)


If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

Game-Changing Gambles

The Giant Magellan Telescope picked up Texas-sized momentum last month with a $50 million pledge from the University of Texas. Although it wasn’t our announcement, I found myself nearly as excited as I was on July 22, 2011, when I received the following email from Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff:

Shana, I don’t know if we can announce this yet, but this is a huge achievement! Ask Darren about when this can be made news.

The following news, relayed by Darren DePoy, from the latest GMT Board meeting included the following:

“The GMT1 primary mirror is now at 50nm rms figure. The goal is ~30nm (I think), but even at this level it is the best figured/polished large aspheric optic ever made and probably could be used as is. This is extremely good news!”

This is fantastic! The technology developed by Roger Angel has worked, and we now have a green light to start the other mirrors.

This made my day!

cheers nick

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

I’m definitely no scientist, but I’ve always found the GMT’s design beautifully intriguing and absolutely genius because of its originality and flexibility. The scientists behind it had the forethought (no doubt because they knew just how hard a financial sell it would be) to make it operational in stages, allowing for results (pretty sweet ones) even if it never raises enough funds to be fully completed. The fourth mirror represents that critical stage — the turning point. With UT’s pledge, it’s as good as cast, ensuring that, even if the worst comes to pass, the world at least will have more than leftover parts and a shell of a dream (see Texas Superconducting Super Collider) to show for all the hard work and previous investment.

In January, the GMT cleared two major hurdles, passing both its detailed design review and being approved to enter the construction phase. Of course, approval is one thing; having the financing to do so is quite another.

They say timing is everything, and Texas’ bold move couldn’t have happened at a better one. I can’t help but think of George P. Mitchell ’40 and how happy he would be to finally see the day when his home state got off the dime (figuratively and literally), following his own $33.25 million lead in that vital international leadership regard as he saw it.

Mitchell believed in the GMT when few else beyond the project’s originators did. Thank goodness for people like him — an individual not only with the financial wherewithal but also the vision to see the GMT’s potential just as clearly as the scientists behind it. Truly remarkable and heady stuff. And all the more fitting that it’s a pledge from one of his home institutions that likely puts it over the construction hump. Whoop!

So many said it would never get this far. And that such a risky design relying on not one but seven parabolic mirrors that put the double-capital Ps in precision polishing (in addition to being unprecedentedly huge) would never work.

I think as the GMT enters construction, its marvel will become more apparent. It’s hard to fundraise in the abstract, long-term, but once the project’s partners have a tangible object and definable, measurable progress underway, it will be far easier to visualize the possibility-laden bandwagon onto which these institutions are imploring donors as well as global science to jump.

Oh, and that first mirror and all its precision-polishing-representing-pioneering-scientific-achievement glory that Dr. Suntzeff was so ecstatic about in his email? It’s named for Mr. Mitchell. Oh, the places it will go and things it will help see!

The Giant Magellan Telescope's first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona's Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively. GMT1/"George" (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile -- a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT's seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.

The Giant Magellan Telescope’s first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona’s Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively. GMT1/”George” (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile — a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT’s seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters. (Credit: Joe Newton.)