byAnnFinkbeiner

AnnFinkbeiner’sAGrandandBoldThing:AnExtraordinaryNewMapoftheUniverseUsheringInANewEraofDiscoverydocumentsthefoundingoftheSloanDigitalSkySurvey-andisouttoday!

“Delightful,”saysPublisher’sWeekly!

“Totallyawesome,”saysTheAwl!

TheSloanDigitalSkySurvey,beguntenyearsago,ismapping100millioncelestialobjects-andmeasuringdistancebetweenamilliongalaxies,givingusthefirstrealmapofwherewelive。

Andhere,an?

excerpt!

“Andwhatdoyouwanttodowiththenewtelescopes,”IaskedWallaceSargent,who’saCaltechastronomer。

“That’saboringquestion,”hesaid,“andtheanswerissoboringIwon’tanswerit。

It’slikeyou’reaVictorianexplorerlookingforthesourceoftheNileandwhenyourunacrossthePyramids,ifyouhadanysenseatall,you’dinvestigatethem。

Pardontheexpression,butIpointthefuckingtelescopeattheskyandseewhat’soutthere。

”-interviewwithWallaceSargent?

1991

TheHubbleSpaceTelescope’sfirstimagelookedlikeallhell。

Amonthlater,lateJuneof1990,thetelescope’spoliticalshepherd,JohnBahcall,foundoutwhathadgonewrong。

Hecalledsomeinterestedlocalastronomers-JillKnapp,DonSchneider,andparticularlyJimGunn-andsinceastronomyinPrinceton,NJ,usuallyinvolvesfood,heinvitedthemtosupperataRoute-206strip-mallChinesediner。

HetoldthemthatNASAwasabouttoannouncethatthetelescope’sperfectmirrorhadbeengroundtotheperfectlywrongshape。

JimGunn,whohaddesignedandoverseentheconstructionofthetelescope’sprincipalcamera,hadalsoseenthefirstimage,andhadthoughttheproblemmightbefixed。

Butno,nowBahcallwastellinghimno,itwasthemirror’sshape,thetelescopecouldn’tfocus,theproblemwasirrevocable。

JimandBahcalldidmostofthetalking。

Whyhadn’ttheastronomersoverseeingtheNASAcontractorscaughtthemistake?

Itwasadumbmistake,abeginner’stextbookmistake。

Nordidtheythinkthatastronautscouldchangeoutthemirroronatelescopeinorbitnearly400milesup。

Couldtheythemselvescomeupwithanybrilliantideas?

Notatthemoment。

Certainlyanykindofrepairwouldtakeyears,money,andalotmoreeffort,andtheybothhadalreadydumpedtheirlivesandcareersintoit。

DonSchneider,whohadbeenJim’sgraduatestudentandwasnowworkingwithBahcall,sattherefeelingoverwhelmed。

JillKnapp,whowasmarriedtoJim,mostlylistened。

DinnerswithBahcallalwaysstartedearly,sotheyallwenthomeearly?

too…。

OnJuly19,1990,Jimsatdowntowritealettertohiscommunity。

“Myviewandpointareverysimple,”hebegan。

“Weareadisciplineoftechnicalincompetents,happytoletourorNASA’sengineersbuildourtoolstotheirdesires,byandlarge,notours。

”Hebeganusingcapitalletters:“ItwasanASTRONOMICALfailure;itwasanASTRONOMICALsatellite”-andtookashotatNASA-”anditdoesnotmatterawhitthatitwasprobablysomefoolatPE[Perkin-Elmer,theNASAcontractorforthemirror]thatcauseditandsomeentirelyexpectedfailureofNASA’scriminallyinfantileQAprogramthatfailedtocatchit。

”Thenhetookdeadaimattheastronomers-”NotthattherewouldhavebeenenoughtechnicallycompetentpeopleinthefieldtohavetakenthetwoG$anddoneanythingwithit。

”Heconcluded:“Youmaycertainlycirculatethisletterifyou?

wish。



Theletterwaselectronicanditwasprintedoutandtapedtoofficedoors,forwardedandpostedtoelectronicbulletinboards,andtalkedaboutinthehallsofastronomydepartmentseverywhere。

AfterwardJimdecidedtocutbait;hegaveuphisprivilegestousethetelescope。

“Iwasjustterribly,terriblydisheartened,”hesaid。

Hedidn’tthinkithadachanceinhellofbeingfixed?

anyway。

NASA,ofcourse,pulledoffaningeniousfix,installedbyastronautsdanglingimprobablyoverthetelescopeupinspace。

TheHubbleSpaceTelescopewentontofindthetwonumbersandtookgorgeouslysharppicturesofeverythingelse:oftiny,distant,goldengalaxiesandnearbyelectricbluewhirlpools,ofradianttowersofstarbirthandtheopalescentmistsoftheirdeaths。

AnupgradedversionofJim’scameratooksomeofthebestof?

them。

Jimregrettedhavingcutbait,butonlyalittle。

Hehadjustcomeupwithanotherideaforanothercamera,evenbetterthanHubble’swithbiggerCCDs。

He’dputthecameraonanunassumingtelescopeontheground,turniton,andletthenightskyrolloverit。

Itwouldmakethefirst-everthree-dimensional,digitalsky?

survey。

Thesurveywouldhaveamilliongalaxiesinit。

Withamilliongalaxies,youcouldmakeamapshowingwheregalaxieslived,andwhethertheylivedaroundothergalaxies,andwhetherlittlechainsofgalaxieswereactuallypartsofalargernetwork,andwhetherthatnetworkwasactuallyanetworkofnetworks,andhowbigitallgot。

Withamilliongalaxiesyoucouldmakeatruecensus:howgalaxiesdiffered,howbabygalaxieschangedastheygrew,andwhatkindsofgalaxiestheygrewinto。

Withamilliongalaxiesyoucouldwatchtheuniversegrowing?

up。

Jimthoughtamillion-galaxysurveywasintellectuallyhugeandpersonallyirresistible,themostcompletemapoftheuniverseever。

Itcouldliveincomputersandbeaccessibleatallhourstoallcomersforalltime。

Itcouldstartanewkindofastronomy。

Above:JimGunnreceivingtheNationalMedalofScienceinOctober,2009,for“thecrucialrolethosetechnologicalmarvelsplayedinthecreationoftheSloanDigitalSkySurvey,whichhascataloged200millionstars,galaxies,andquasars;discoveredthemostdistantknownquasars;andprobedtheepochofformationofthefirststarsandgalaxies。



AnnFinkbeinerisaproprietorofTheLastWordonNothing,wheretheyaretalkingaboutparasiticwaspstoday,andtheauthorofAGrandandBoldThing:AnExtraordinaryNewMapoftheUniverseUsheringInANewEraofDiscovery,whichisouttoday。