I keep forgetting to blog my science writing here. There’s such a lag (a whole 12 hours or more!) between when I write it and when it’s published, I guess.
Anyway, here’s one:
The ordinary matter with which we are familiar? the stuff of stars, planets, your couch and kitchen table? makes up just 5 percent of the universe’s mass, the new results show.
Scientists call it “dark matter” and “dark energy.”
And what is that?
“We haven’t a clue what either one of them is,” said Princeton University astrophysicist James Gunn.
Cool! You got to interview James Gunn. Every time I read about one of his hardware hacks to keep some research project going or telescope operating, it sounds so impressive. So of like the hardware equivalent of a Linux command-line guru: pulling together small bits and pieces from all over to get the job done. Except that you don’t normally need to fish your command line tool out of the surplus “to be discarded” bin.
Unfortunately, when I was reading this article, I could not get a line from the movie Time Bandits out of my head: “So that’s what [an invisible wall] looks like.”
I first learned about Gunn some years ago when I read Richard Preston’s book “First Light”. Then I find out he’s working in New Mexico on the Sloan project, which meant an excuse to meet him! From the story back in 1998 (it’s apparently not on the web any more):
The Gunn legend revolves around an unusual pair of skills — he is both a world-class theoretical astrophysicist and a world-class tinkerer.
That means he can think about the universe’s important questions and design the gizmos to answer them.
“I’ve always sort of kept a foot in the scientific camp and a foot in the engineering camp,” he said. “It’s not profitable to ask questions you can’t answer.”
Gunn’s latest gizmo was taking shape in a back room at the Apache Point Observatory one recent weekday afternoon.
It’s an electronic camera, sibling to one you might use to take a home video but vastly more powerful.
To build the best map of the sky, Gunn had to build the largest electronic camera.
“It’s definitely the biggest thing running,” said University of Michigan astronomer Gary Bernstein.
The Sloan camera is the latest in a string of astronomical instruments on which the Gunn legend is based. They include one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s main cameras, and a device called “four-shooter” used to extend the reach of what was at the time the largest telescope in the world at the Palomar Observatory in California.