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Master D Reaches for the Stars

June 9, 2011 by Reader's Connection

My thoughts leading up to this blogpost:

“The 500´s! Which natural science should I tackle? I did a post on physics a couple of years ago, and after rereading it I´m surprised to find myself still employed. Irvington Library´s Steve Bridge has suggested Krakatoa: The Day the Earth Exploded, by Simon Winchester (“the wittiest geologist around”), but I posted about Winchester´s Atlantic Ocean book this past December, and my Dewey Decimal journey must always be seeking out new vistas . . . 

“What was that I just said?”

The 000s. Generalities
The 100’s: Philosophy & Psychology Three Questions We Never Stop Asking
The 200’s: Religion What Was Lost: A Christian Journey through Miscarriage
The 300’s: Social Sciences How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle: A History of American Intervention from World War I to Afghanistan
The 400’s: Language Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages AND Wordwatching: Breaking into the Dictionary

The 500s. Natural Sciences & Mathematics

The 600s. Technology (Applied Sciences)
The 700s. The Arts
The 800s. Literature & Rhetoric
The 900s. History & Geography



A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering in a New Era of Discovery by Ann Finkbeiner

A Grand and Bold ThingWhen the grand, bold project described in this book was launched in the late 1980’s, there were, according to Ann Finkbeiner, 4,500 astronomers in the country and ten good-sized telescopes, almost all of them privately owned. Astronomer Jim Gunn thought that a survey of the sky could be mounted and that its findings about those galaxies out there could be available to all.

Johns Hopkins University, for example,  is scopeless, and when Gunn’s project–which came to be known as the Sloan Survey, because the Sloan Foundation was a major contributor–when the Sloan was pitched at Hopkins, astronomer Tim Heckman caught on right away:

what most impressed Heckman was . . . the potential contents of the archive . . . Just reading the proposal, Heckman could see that the Sloan was going to change the way astronomers without private telescopes worked: instead of taking a couple of years writing and rewriting proposals for three clouded-out nights on a public telescope, you could just take the interesting question that occurred to you and find the data you needed in the library of the universe.

Library of the universe? I thought that was us. I skimmed through some of Finkbeiner’s middle chapters, about infighting and the need to change project managers, in my hurry to have the drift scanning begin. (You don’t know what drift scanning means? Ha! It means you turn on your telescope and let the earth’s turning move the sky for you.)

When things get going at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, there are problems with dust, cosmic and otherwise, and problems with moths, and problems with getting the telescope to point and track. As a hard-core non-scientist, I’ll say that some of this science strikes me as weird. The 30.3-inch aluminum pan with 640 holes drillled in it, each for a different galaxy or “interesting object,” and an optical fiber coming through each hole, reminds me of walkie-talkies with tin cans and strings.

At night the astronomers were at Apache Point, and during the day there were the other guys, the caretakers with various backgrounds.

They climb a lot, hang on to the edges of things, and are aware of their jobs’ dangers; one of them slips on the metals stairs and everybody jumps and runs. “If someone gets hurt,” they say, “and it can’t be fixed with a Leatherman and duct tape, we just roll ’em off the front of the telescope and let the coyotes get ’em.”

Finkbeiner likes to write about cosmology–the structure of the universe and how it got that way and where it’s going–and the Sloan Digtal Sky Survey (there’s another link to their website, if you’re interested) is helping astronomers ponder that story.

1 comment »

  1. Miriam Guidero says:

    What a fascinating choice! I bet I am less of a scientist than you are, so I probably won’t read the book, but I loved the photos :). Every since I saw the IMAX film of the Hubbell Space Telescope last year, I’ve been enthralled with, well, Space. And what it contains. Good pick!

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