Tag Archives: Adler Planetarium

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 2: Coming of Age

by Shane L. Larson

Astronomy from your backyard is dominated by naked eye stargazing, and optical telescopes that gather exactly the same kind of light you see with your eyes. There are a few amateurs who ply the skies with radio telescopes, or build cosmic ray detectors in their kitchens, but for the most part it is traditional telescopes. When I first started my studies in astophysics, this was still largely true of professional astronomy, though there were a few advanced experiments that were building the technology needed to survey the Cosmos using astroparticles, and a robust effort to design what would become the world’s first successful gravitational wave detectors.

One of the things that is true of all telescopes, no matter how they are designed to see the Cosmos, you can always build a better instrument that can observe more. In the context of astronomy, “more” means detecting cosmic phenomena that are difficult to perceive, or probing deeper into the distant Universe.

My two current telescopes (both homebuilt). The one on the left is called Equinox (12.5″ f/4.8 Dobsonian Reflector) and the one on the right is called Cosmos Mariner (22″ f/5 Dobsonian Reflector).

For optical telescopes, bigger is better. The larger the mirror, the easier it is for the telescope to capture a few tiny bundles of precious light that arrive on Earth and gather them all together in one place (your eye, or a camera) so there are enough to be bright enough to see. When I first started in backyard astronomy, I had an 8-inch telescope, which is about 30 times larger than the pupil of my eye, and so can gather almost 850 times more light than my eye. That first telescope of mine has been passed down to my daughter as part of her growing interest in backyard astronomy. It has changed its look, but its heart is still the telescope that I spent many hundreds of hours out under the night sky with. I’ve built a new, bigger telescope to replace my old one. Shown above is my telescope called Cosmos Mariner, and has a 22-inch mirror in it. That mirror is about 80 times larger than my pupil, and can gather more than 6000 times the light my eye can!  Mariner can probe deep into the Cosmos, and I use it as often as I can to soak in the wonder of the night sky.

The Hubble Space Telescope. Arguably the most capable and successful telescope ever built by humankind. [Image: NASA]

Professional astronomers have also been building bigger and better telescopes. Shown above is the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990, and is arguably the most successful scientific instrument in history. It’s mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter, but it peers at the Universe from a vantage point high above the atmosphere of Earth. In its three decades of observing, it has seen farther and seen more than any telescope in history. All told, some 10 to 15 thousand papers have been written about what Hubble has seen in the Cosmos. When we build a machine like Hubble, we always have grand plans for it. One of the tasks we had in mind was to use Hubble’s size and vantage point high above the Earth to take a picture of the Cosmos unlike any other before it. We picked a non-descript region of the sky in the constellation Eridanus, and over the course of a decade, asked Hubble to go back and look at that point over and over and over again, until it had stared at that one spot for a total of 23 days. You take all those individual pictures, and you stack them together to make a single new picture.

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field (XDF). [Image: NASA/ESA]

What you find is that in a region of the sky where you thought there was nothing, there is very definitely something. We call this picture the Hubble Extreme Deep Field. This image covers an area on the sky roughly the size of the eye of needle, held at arms length. Within it, virtually every fleck of light and color you see, is another galaxy. All told there are some 5000 individual galaxies in this image, implying that across the entire sky there are several hundred billion galaxies. This is what we mean when we say the Cosmos is vast beyond our wildest imaginations.

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field is a flat, two-dimensional image not unlike other pictures you are used to looking at. But one of the things we can do in modern astronomy is measure the distances to galaxies, so we can make a movie of what it would be like if you could dive into this image, making the impossible journey from Earth to the most distant galaxy in the image. If we launch ourself on that voyage, the first thing we notice is that over most of the journey, we are travelling through nothing at all.

The Universe, on the grandest scales, is mostly empty of any ordinary matter like you and me or stars or galaxies.  As we plunge deeper, we do encounter groups of galaxies — they tend to cluster and grow together, making a vast cosmic web that fills the entire Cosmos. Many of the galaxies we pass look familiar, like we expect galaxies to look. But as we travel farther and farther into the Deep Field, we are looking back farther and farther in time, until we reach the most distant galaxies in the image. These are the youngest galaxies we’ve ever seen, born barely 450 million years after the birth of the Universe. Astronomy is a special kind of time machine — looking back across the Cosmos is looking back in time. We can see how galaxies were long ago, in an effort to understand how our own galaxy might have been long ago as well.

The surface facilities of IceCube at South Pole. [Image: IceCube Collaboration]

Our colleagues in neutrino astronomy have been building their own new generation of observatories as well. Today, the pre-eminent neutrino observatory in the world is located at South Pole Station, and is called IceCube. IceCube is a series of 86 deep cores drilled 1.4 to 2.4 kilometers down into the Antarctic ice. Long strings with camera modules are lowered into the bores on cables, and the ice refreezes around them; all told there are more than 5000 cameras (“Digital Optical Modules”) in the array.  Observing with IceCube is in principle the same as KamiokaNDE — neutrinos pass through the Antarctic ice, and sometimes interact with the atoms of the ice to produce a burst of light that is picked up by the cameras on the strings. 

The IceCube array is encased in the ice underneath the surface station. [L] The long ice cores contain strings with cameras, and when an event passes through the array the light is detected by some of them. [R] The most energetic neutrino event yet detected, on 22 September 2017. [Images: IceCube Collaboration]

In September 2017, IceCube picked up the most energetic neutrino ever observed. It blasted through the array at  20:54:30 UTC (around 2:54pm Central Standard Time), and was detected by a long sequence of camera modules that stretched from one side of the array to the other. Looking at the shape of the data in the array, and in particular which side of the array lit up first in the detection, allowed astronomers to point backward from IceCube to the point on the sky where the neutrino came from.

An artists impression of a blazar, a type of active galactic nucleus with a supermassive black hole at the center, and an energetic jet pointing at the observer (us, on Earth). This is the type of object the IceCube neutrino event was traced back to. [Image: DESY Collaboration]

Using this pointing information, astronomers searched that region of the sky and discovered a blazar called TXS 0506+056. A blazar is a kind of galaxy that has an active galactic nucleus (AGN). AGN are supermassive black holes that have a swirling maelstrom of gas and material around them that slowly feed the black hole. When gas gets close to the black hole, the gravitational attraction propels it onto high speed orbits around the black hole. All of the gas swirling around together interacts strongly with the rest of the gas and as a result gets very hot; hot gas glows brightly, especially in ultra-violet and x-rays, both very energetic forms of light. The bright light can be seen in telescopes from Earth indicating the presence of a supermassive black hole. As the gas swirls ever inward, some of it eventually falls into the black hole, vanishing forever. Some of it, however, is spining so fast it cannot fall onto the black hole, and gets squirted out into an energetic jet, propelled away from the nucleus of the galaxy at enormous speeds. This is characteristic of AGN; a blazar is simply an AGN where the view from Earth is staring directly down the jet.

All the material being ejected down the jet is moving at very high speeds, and still collides with other material making its own way out through the jet. This energetic environment is not unlike our own particle accelerators here on Earth, and at some point along the jet a collision between particles created the neutrino we detected with IceCube.

This is once again multi-messenger astronomy — observing the same astrophysical object, using both astro-particles and telescopes. What is different in this case is the discovery was led by neutrino astronomers, who guided telescopes toward the right place in the sky.

The twin 10-meter Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Now, most of us know what astronomers know: black holes are AWESOME. Active Galactic Nuclei are not the only big black holes in the Cosmos. There is, in fact, a massive black hole much closer to home, in the center of our own Milky Way. Astronomers on the ground have been building bigger and bigger telescopes, and today among the largest telescopes in the world are the twin 10-meter Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. We’ve been using the Keck Telescopes, togther with others around the world, to peer at the exact center of the Milky Way for the past two and a half decades. The telescopes have been able to detect a small cluster of stars we call the “S-Cluster.” We’ve been watching them long enough now that we have not only seen the stars move on their orbits, but we’ve seen some of them complete their orbits.

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

If you remember back to your early classes in physics or astronomy, you may remember that someone like me once told you that if we can measure orbits, the Universal Law of Gravitation (published by Newton in 1687) can be used to discover the size of the mass that is driving the orbit. For the S-Cluster of stars, the size and timing of the orbits says there is a 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the galaxy. How do we know it is a black hole? It is emitting no light, and it is so small it competely fits inside the orbits of the stars!

Among this cluster is a star we call SO-2. It is the star closest to the black hole. Every 16 years, its highly elongated orbit dips down to its closest point (what astronomers call the “periapsis”), and zips around the black hole in a quick slingshot. In just the course of a few months, this 15 solar mass star completely changes the direction it is moving through space. THAT is the power of a massive black hole! In May 2018, we watched SO-2 make the second periapsis pass we’ve seen since observations began (the last was in 2002), giving us the most precise measurements to date of the properties of the black hole. By all accounts, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way has all the properties and behaviours predicted by general relativity.

This story serves to introduce us to one of the emerging wonders of modern astronomy — that we are beginning to understand that we can use gravity itself to probe the Cosmos. In the case of SO-2 we are using the influence of gravity to tell us something about the black hole, an object which by definition emits no light. But a century ago, when general relativity was newly minted and first being pondered by Einstein, he had another notion: perhaps we could observe gravity itself — don’t use telescopes at all, but instead build a machine of some sort that plumbs the Universe with some other sense, a sense that we humans do not posses at all.

This illustrates the basic premise of gravitational wave detection using laser interferometers. [TOP] Imagine a ring of small masses. If a gravitational wave is coming straight out of the screen at you, it distorts and warps the ring, first making it long and skinny, then a bit later making it short and wide, and then back again. [BOTTOM] The idea of detection with an instrument like LIGO or LISA is to use mirrors for three of the masses on the rings. As the distance is warped between the masses, the time it takes a laser to travel between them changes. [Images: Shane L. Larson]

Einstein’s idea was simple. What you and I call “gravity” fills space and can change with time, and so the information about how it is changing must be able to be transmitted from one place in the Cosmos to another at the speed of light or less. That propagating message is what we today call a “gravitational wave.”  It is one thing to deduce that such gravitational signals must exist, and quite another to decide what that means and how to build an instrument to detect them. It took until 1957 for physicists to even come to agreement on what gravitational waves do to the world around us. After much arguing and debating and confusion and aggravation, it was realized that they warp spacetime — they change the proper distance between any two masses in a repeating pattern of stretching the distance out and compressing the distance down.

The effect is extremely tiny, so tiny as to be unnoticeable in everyday life, and so tiny as to be discouragingly small if you want to build an experiment to look for the effect. But physicists are a diligent and resilient bunch, and a few of them began to think about exactly how to build such an experiment. Fast forward to today, and six decades of thinking have culminated in one of the most exquisite astronomical observatories ever built: the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory — LIGO. In 2015, LIGO was the first gravitational-wave observatory that was able to successfully detect gravitational-waves, in that case from two merging stellar-mass black holes. Many more discoveries followed, all of them of black holes, until August of 2017.

Left to Right: LIGO-Hanford (Hanford, Washington), LIGO-Livingston (Livingston, Louisiana), and Virgo (Pisa, Italy).

In late August, people across North America were gearing up for a total solar eclipse that was going to race across the continent from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21. But just four days before, in the early morning hours in North America (7:41am Central Daylight Time), the Universe blasted us with gravitational waves. This particular event was unlike any previous gravitational wave event we had seen. It was accompanied by an almost simultaneous burst of gamma rays, detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope, in orbit high above the Earth. The two LIGO facilities, together with our European colleagues using their Virgo detector outside of Pisa, measured the masses of the event telling us we had just observed the merger of two neutron stars — a kind of dead stellar skeleton that can be left over when stars explode at the end of their lives. LIGO and Virgo were able to pinpoint the location of the event to a small region on the sky. By the end of the day, as the Sun set on professional telescopes around the world, the search was on and the fading light of the event was discovered in a small galaxy known by the name NGC 4993. The light gathered by observatories around the world over the next many months (and continues today) showed that this event was an explosive phenomena known as a kilonova. In less than 24 hours, this single event transformed modern astronomy — literally, in the blink of an eye.

The initial detection resolved a great mystery that had confounded astronomers since the 1970s — short gamma ray bursts (like the one detected by Fermi) were the signature of merging neutron stars (detected in gravitational waves). The continuing observations of the kilonova resolved another great mystery — kilonova are the expanding, cooling shattered remains of merging neutron stars. From that cooling and expanding morass of nuclear material that was once the neutron stars, the stuff of us is made in large quantities — the heavy elements on the periodic table, built from the death of dead stars!  All of these ideas are ones that astronomers have speculated about, imagined, and calculated for many years up to now, but the observation, the multi-messenger detection of gravitational waves and light has, for the first time, shown us that some of our thinking is along the right tracks.

It is remarkable to witness this evolution in our thinking about the Cosmos. When I started in astronomy (both in my backyard and in my professional endeavours), our thinking was dominated by telescopes because those were the instruments we had and the tools we had been successful at building and using. We were just starting to try to expand our toolbox, to develop a new repertoire of machines to unravel the story of the Universe and our place within in. Now, at the middle of my life and career, those idle daydreams, those grand ponderings of what might be possible, have come to fruition. 

Now we turn our eyes to the future, and ask “what next?

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This post is the first of three based on a talk I have given many times over the last few years, updating it each time to reflect the latest coolest things. The complete set posts of the series are:

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 1: A Love Affair with the Cosmos

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 2: Coming of Age (this post)

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 3: The End is Just the Beginning

This post was enabled by a new version of the talk done as a Kavli Fulldome Lecture at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The talk was captured in full 360, and you can watch it on YouTube here. If you have GoogleCardboard, click on the Cardboard Icon when the movie starts playing; if you watch it on your phone, moving your phone around will let you look at the entire dome!

I would like to thank all my colleagues at Adler who worked so hard to translate what was in my brain into a story told in the immersive cradle of the Grangier Sky Theater. The talk was given on 9 Nov and 10 Nov 2018.

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The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 1: A Love Affair with the Cosmos

by Shane L. Larson

The night sky over the Pando Forest in central Utah. Pando is an 80,000 year old aspen grove — it has seen almost 30 million nights like this one, far more than any single human will ever live through. [Image: Shane L. Larson]

The Cosmos is vast in ways that are difficult for humans to wrap their brains around. That doesn’t stop us from talking about it, of course, but it is vast, none-the-less. What do I mean by “vast?

The Universe is 13.8 BILLION years old, 100 million times older than the oldest human. When you and I go out at night there are almost 10,000 individual stars we can see with the naked eye, but the Milky Way has some 400 BILLION individual stars, and there are some 500 BILLION individual galaxies in all the Cosmos. If you and I could somehow take a road trip, from one side of the Milky Way to the other, travelling at the fastest speed possible (the speed of light) it would take us 100,000 years to go from one side to the other —1000 times longer than any human has ever lived. And the entire Cosmos itself is far vaster.

These sorts of factoids are fun to know and think about. They melt your brain, and they can impress your friends and family at a dinner party. But what is always remarkable to me is even though you and I occupy only one small part of the Cosmos in space and time, we have still managed to piece together a story about the history of the Universe — its overall size and content, when it was born, how it has lived its long life to date, and what its ultimate future might be.  As a species, we have only been cognizant of the science we call astronomy for a few centuries, though we have been looking outward into the Cosmos for far longer. But in those few centuries, in just a handful of human lifetimes, we have managed to piece the story together. Even though a human only lives through the merest flash of a moment in Cosmic time, less than a single heartbeat in the life of the Cosmos.  This is a story about how we learn what we learn about the Universe around us and our place within it.

Me in elementary school. I’m not sure what I’m doing in this picture, but I’m pretty sure I’m not getting into trouble [Image: Pat Larson]

I am a professional astronomer, but like most of us, my love-affair with the Cosmos began when I was young. I would spend long hours out in the backyard, laying on the ground trying to learn my constellations with an old beat-up paper star wheel. We didn’t have a telescope (they were expensive), but my mom is an avid birder and she had an old spotting scope. She used to let me take it out in the backyard and put it on an old card table, and I discovered there was far more to the Cosmos than my naked eye could see. I looked at the Moon and discovered craters, and mountains and sinuous canyons. I looked at the brightest points of light I could see, and found out they were Mars, and Jupiter, and Saturn — other worlds, tantalizingly close, but so very far away. There were other things to discover as well.

My Mom’s spotting scope (she still has it!). This is the first telescope I ever looked at the sky with.

In the corner of the sky we call Andromeda, there is a smudge of light that looks like a wisp of cloud. It is the most distant object you can see with your naked eye, and we call it the Andromeda Galaxy. It is 2.1 million light years away, which means if you step outside tonight and look at the Andromeda Galaxy, the light that falls in your eye and makes its impression on your mind is ancient light. It left the Andromeda Galaxy 2 million years ago, at a time when the most advanced hominids on Earth were Australopithecus, and the world was dominated by mega-fauna like sabre-toothed cats (smilodons) and mastodons. This is one of the fundamental truths in astronomy: looking out is looking back in time, and the farther we can look, the more about the long history of the Cosmos we can discern. As astronomers we are always on an epic quest to build better tools to help us probe farther out into the Cosmos. 

My first astronomical telescope, an 8-inch reflector I built called Albireo, based on Richard Berry’s excellent book “Build your own telescope” .[Image: Shane L. Larson]

Let’s look back to the time when I decided to become a professional astronomer, sometime during my early years in college. Thirty years ago, in 1988, I was already improving my backyard astronomy. I’d left my mom’s spotting scope at home, and after not too long had built my own telescope. It was bigger than my mom’s spotting scope, and could see much more of the Universe. At the same time, the largest telescope used by professional astronomers was the 5-meter (200-inch) Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar. At that time, it was the largest telescope in the world, a title it had held for 40 years since it was built in 1948. Astronomers are still using it today.

The 5-meter Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar was the largest telescope in the world for 40+ years. This image was taken in the dome on a night in 2009 when one of our observing runs was clouded out. Astronomers still use this telescope today. [Image: Shane L. Larson]

So what do astronomers do with these great machines? On any given night, whether you are looking through a backyard telescope, or looking through a telescope like the Hale, the sky looks much like it did the night before. The stars are still where you remember them, living out their lives slowly, changing little. We find new and interesting things, of course, but what we are often most interested in are the unexpected events — energetic and dramatic events that appear in the sky and then are gone. Astronomers call such things “transients.” Consider a “supernova.” One of the things we have learned over the past century is that stars, like people, are born, they live long lives, and they ultimately perish. When the most massive stars reach the ends of their lives, they die in a titanic explosion that, for a few brief days or weeks, sheds enough light to be visible in the night sky. The last time an explosion like this was seen in the Milky Way was in 1604, before the first telescope was ever used to study the sky!  Four hundred years ago, we didn’t know what supernovae were, but the events were momentous enough to note down.

An astrolabe from the Adler Planetarium collection, showing the Supernova of 1604. [Image: Adler Planetarium, notations from Pedro Raposo]

You can find written notations of the 1604 supernova in paper star atlases of the day, but one of my favorites is shown in the astrolabe above, which is part of the Adler Planetarium’s historical collection. An astrolabe is a mechanical device used to visually measure the positions of stars in the sky by eye. They are elaborate and intricate machines, but also stunning and artistic in their elegance and form.You’ll see on the upper right ring of this astrolabe that Supernova 1604 is marked, preserved forever in the solid copper record of the day. You’ll notice there are other transients on this astrolabe, including the previous supernova observed in the Milky Way (Supernova 1572), as well as the great comet of 1618.  My colleague Pedro Raposo, an astronomy historian at the Adler Planetarium, points out that depicting supernova and comets on an astrolabe is an indicator of how our understanding of the Universe was evolving. At that time, we didn’t know what supernovae and comets were. Their nature was widely debated, with many believing they were atmospheric phenomena. The fact that they were recorded on a mechanical starmap is an indicator that we were slowly coming to the understanding that these events were in the deep, cosmic sky. Our views about the Cosmos were changing.

Supernova 1987a, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, eight years after the explosion. [Image: STScI/NASA/ESA]

Now spool ahead to the 1980s. In 1988 we understood much more about supernovae than we did when that astrolabe was built, but we had never been given the opportunity to study one up close. In the entire 400 year history of telescopic astronomy, there has not been a supernova here in our own galaxy, close enough for us to see all the fine details and study how stars reach the end of their lives. But on 23 February 1987, there was a supernova not too far away, in a small galaxy next door to the Milky Way, called the Large Magellanic Cloud. We called it Supernova 1987A, and it was visible to the eye for several months. Astronomers could see it in their telescopes, and still today the most powerful telescopes can detect the faint echoes of light coming from the explosion.

But SN1987A was special for another reason. When a star dies in a supernova, it not only sheds light, it also releases a cosmic rain of particles called neutrinos. When this supernova exploded, 1057 neutrinos were released (that’s 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 neutrinos!), bursting out in every direction in the Universe. Neutrinos are notoriously hard to detect because they tend to go blasting right through matter as if it isn’t even there. When the neutrino burst from SN 1987A reached Earth, 30 trillion of them went through me and you and every other person on planet Earth, and we didn’t even know it! But astronomers had been thinking about this for a long time, and had constructed a special observatory — a neutrino telescope.

The Kamioka Observatory “KamiokaNDE” experiment, one of the neutrino observatories that captured a few of the neutrinos from SN1987a. [Image: ICRR/University of Tokyo]

A neutrino telescope is not like an ordinary telescope, because neutrinos are very difficult to capture. Instead neutrino telescopes watch for neutrinos interacting with other things. In 1987, the worlds largest neutrino telescopes were enormous tanks of very pure water underground. Sometimes when a neutrino goes through these tanks, their interaction with the atoms in the water generates bursts of light that can be detected with very sensitive cameras lining the inside walls of the tank. In the hours right before telescopes detected the light from the supernova, 25 neutrinos were seen in detectors around the world. Only 25 neutrinos from all the 1057 that were released in the supernova, but it was enough to convince astronomers they had seen neutrinos from the supernova. This was the first time in history that astronomers had detected an astrophysical event with light AND particles; this was the beginning of what we now call “multi-messenger astronomy.” It was a watershed moment in our quest to probe the Cosmos — we had, for the first time, used two machines to probe the Cosmos using different pieces of information together to make one story. It was the beginning of a new way of thinking and learning about the Universe, and it is a story that is still going on today.

This was the frontier of astronomy 30 years ago. In our next post, we’ll fast-forward to today and ponder how we plumb the deep sky with all our modern technology and combine it with the meager knowledge that we’ve gained over the past few decades.

=========================

This post is the first of three based on a talk I have given many times over the last few years, updating it each time to reflect the latest coolest things. The complete set posts of the series are:

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 1: A Love Affair with the Cosmos (this post)

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 2: Coming of Age

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 3: The End is Just the Beginning

This post was enabled by a new version of the talk done as a Kavli Fulldome Lecture at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The talk was captured in full 360, and you can watch it on YouTube here. If you have GoogleCardboard, click on the Cardboard Icon when the movie starts playing; if you watch it on your phone, moving your phone around will let you look at the entire dome!

I would like to thank all my colleagues at Adler who worked so hard to translate what was in my brain into a story told in the immersive cradle of the Grangier Sky Theater. The talk was given on 9 Nov and 10 Nov 2018.

I also put this post up today to celebrate the occasion of Carl Sagan’s birthday. I, like many around me, was inspired at the right moment by exposure to Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”. Friday (9 Nov 2018) would have been Carl’s 84th birthday. He left us more than 20  years ago now, but I still hear his voice when I think about and ponder the deep mysteries of the Cosmos around us. Happy birthday, Carl.

The Aquarius Project 2: Into the Deep Void

by Shane L. Larson

When you stand on the shores of Lake Michigan, you cannot see the far shore. Many days of the year, the surf is a gentle lapping over stones or against breakwaters, but there are definitely days when weather whips the water into a frenzy, tossing up waves worthy of ocean waves. You can’t help but notice it is big water. 

Lake Michigan is the second largest of the Great Lakes, covering an area of 58,000 square kilometers and harboring 4918 cubic kilometers of water. In the early morning hours of 6 Feb 2017, a hunk of debris from outer space hurtled into Earth’s atmosphere, somewhere in the skies slightly to the west of Kewaskum, Wisconsin. Leaving a glittering trail of burning dust and shining brightly enough to cast shadows across the dark winter landscape of the Midwest, this space rock broke up and the fragments rained down about 10 miles off-shore in Lake Michigan, near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Despite happening at roughly 1:30am, 511 people across the midwest reported seeing it. All those reports, together with a few others we had heard, let us make a good guess where it might have fallen in the Lake.

Here “we” are myself and colleagues from the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, and the Shedd Aquarium. “We” are a few professional scientists and (sorta) grown-ups, and a remarkable group of young people from the Adler, called “The Adler Teens.”  In the grandest tradition of scientific adventures, we decided it might be fun to go look for fragments of this space rock. On the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Our expedition would be aboard the Neeskay, a research vessel belonging to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Scouring the bottom of Lake Michigan for a fallen space rock sounds like fun, but why would we do such a thing?  The answer begins far above our heads, in the inky dark between the planets. The solar system formed from a vast cloud of stuff that eventually accumulated into the planets and other bodies in the solar system. Just like when you clean your house, you don’t get every little fleck of detritus there is — there is always a little bit left over. The solar system is no different — there are bits of stuff floating around everywhere. You may remember from your ponderings of the night sky that there is a lot of such material between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, called the asteroid belt. There is an additional vast swarm of stuff surrounding the solar system called the Oort Cloud that is the origin of most of the comets we see.

But randomly drifting around there is also other stuff; when space rocks are in space they are called meteoroids. They are interesting because they hold a set of stories, about the early history of the solar system if they are left-overs, and about the historical nature of the other planets and moons if they are fragments blasted off of their surfaces in collisions.  If by chance, one of them should tumble into the Earth’s atmosphere, the tremendous speeds generate tremendous heat and the meteoroid becomes a meteor, a glowing coal of stuff that briefly illuminates the night sky. You and I call these things “shooting stars,” and if they are spectacularly bright, we call them “fireballs.” Finally, if one of these meteors should make it to the surface of the Earth, where it can be picked up and handled and oogled and tested, we call it a meteorite. Meteorites harbour the same stories they did when they were meteoroids, they are just much easier to get your hands on. IF you can find them.

Our sled, on the desk of the Neeskay, waiting to be launched.

So we made a plan to survey the bottom of the Lake looking for this meteorite. While the original concept had been to simply dive down with an amateur ROV (“remotely operated vehicle”), like one from OpenROV, or designing our own, the team rapidly came to the realization that we wanted to keep anything we found and bring it to the surface. A cool idea, but a challenging one at the same time.

As is often the case in science, having a cool idea means you also have multiple competing problems that must be solved. For the Aquarius team, the competing problems were this: how do you cover a vast, VAST area of the lake bottom, find everything that looks interesting, and get it all to the surface. Working your way through such a list of problems is exactly what science is, and it is an iterative process. You imagine a solution, you tinker with it, you build prototypes, and you test them. When the prototypes don’t quite work, or fail dramatically, or succeed in unexpected ways, you take what you have learned and modify or build a new version, and start the testing all over again. Eventually, your efforts stabilize and coalesce around a final product — a plan, an experiment, a workable design. For Team Aquarius that design was a sled we call RV Starfall.

The sled is a scientific device in the grandest tradition. If you just walked up to the sled not knowing what was, then the most apt description of it you might come up with is contraption. A contraption it is. Overall, it is about 1.4 meters long, about 1.2 meters wide, and about 25 centimeters tall. Its made of plastics and metal, with bolts and cables holding it together.  The superstructure of the sled is laid out by four vertical slats that define the shape. The slats are held together by cross-members that provide strength and rigidity. There are two sled-rails on the bottom, bent upward at the front, to help the sled glide over the underwater landscape, no matter what it might encounter (just like the rails on a winter sled or snowmobile). 

A computer model of the sled, viewed from the rear. Note the clear sample capture bins near the front, the curved edge of the sled runner on the bottom, the three magnet wheels across the middle, and the wire capture cages on the back. The red “bricks” on the slats are also magnets. [Model by Annelise Goldman]

Attached at various points on the sled are different devices that were designed to find and recover samples and interesting objects (“possible meteorite candidates”) from the bottom of the lake. The strategy that guided the sled design was passive collection without inspection — pick up everything that is potentially interesting, and bring it back to the surface for later classification and analysis. Look at the back of the sled. There you’ll see three mesh footballs — if they hit something like a small rock (or meteorite!) as they get dragged across the lake bottom, the tines of the mesh spread open and the forward motion of the sled pushes the rock inside, then the mess closes behind it effectively trapping it. A brilliant mousetrap for a meteorite!  There are also magnets all over the sled, strategically positioned to attract metallic fragments and hold onto them until the sled reaches the surface again.

The most active group of magnets are on the three wheels in between the vertical slats. As the sled gets dragged across the lake bottom, the wheels rotate and attach to any metallic fragments they encounter. As a wheel rotates up and over, it encounters a “scraper” that pries off any large bits and drops them into three catch pods (clear acrylic) between the slats. The idea here is that something large might attach itself to a magnet, but if you don’t pry it off and save it, something might later knock if off and you’ll never know you had it. On the bottom of the sled, there are some V-shaped brushes that guide material toward the magnet wheels, as well as a variety of other magnets attached on open surfaces to catch any “just in case” bits the sled might encounter. 

Last but not least, there is an attachment bracket on the front of the sled, where we could mount a video camera to send live pictures of the bottom of the lake back to the surface. The sled is attached to a cable, which is lowered by a crane into the water to the lake bottom. A video cable attached to the camera is clipped to the cable as it is extended, delivering live movie data back to the team in the control room (“Mission Operations Center”) on the Neeskay.

A maritime navigation map of Lake Michigan, east of Manitowoc, with Chris Bresky indicating where we are heading for the sled drops.

We had a boat, we had a meteorite recovery sled, but where do we go? Despite the immense size of the lake, we had a good idea where the meteorite fell from all the reported sightings and the signature on weather radar the morning of the event. Several of the meteorite experts on our team had used codes that they had written as part of their professional research to model the breakup of the asteroid, predict the sizes of fragments, and then simulate how those fragments would fly through the atmosphere and into the water. Those analyses produced a map of the most likely areas to find meteorite fragments of different sizes. One of our meteorite colleagues on the expedition with us, Dr. Philip Willink, took those maps and predictions and estimated the average separation between meteorite fragments on the lake bottom. He estimated that in the areas dominated by 1 to 5 gram pieces (about the size of a marble) we would have to drag the sled about 1.5 kilometers across the lake bottom to encounter 2 fragments. The lake is big, and those aren’t very good odds. But it’s also not impossible!

Phil’s roughed out calculation of how far we’d have to drag the sled to find a piece of the meteorite.

I tried on the survival gear during the safety briefing!

Using Phil’s prediction, we decided to do several mile long drags of the sled (“transects” across the fall field). With that in mind, there was nothing left to do except go out and start searching. The anticipation was palpable — this was literally what we had been waiting more than a year for, planning and imagining.

Scouring the lake depths for fallen space rocks is an all day affair. We arrived bright and early to our expeditionary vessel, the Neeskay. We had a safety briefing from our captain, tried on some of the survival gear, and we set sail. Our destination was off-shore about 16 kilometers, in about 70 meters of water. The Great Lakes are temperamental — soggy days and blustery weather can whip the Lake into a frenzy. But on this day we were lucky — the skies were clear, the winds were gentle, and the Lake was calm.

We loaded all our gear on board, we stowed the sled on the rear launch deck, and before we knew it, Neeskay turned in the harbor, and pointed her bow to the southeast. We were off. The moment we left the harbor was striking to me. Being a kid from a land-locked state, the view off the bow was one of completely open water, with not a speck of land in sight. If I didn’t turn around and look back the way we had come, it could have just been the endless blue expanse of the open sea.

[LEFT] Our expedition leader, Chris Bresky, lays out our plan for the day. [RIGHT] A map of our target area, showing the predicted density of meteorite fragments of a given size on the lake bottom, worked out using a computer model. The blue dashed line near the bottom of the oval shows our first drag, and the purple dashed line shows our second drag.

It was about an hour to our first drop point. On the journey out, we had a briefing about the target area and the drag plan. We would do two mile-ish long transects, one NE to SW, and one N to S. After the first transect, we’d pull the sled up, clean it off and store recovered samples, then drop it for the second run.

[LEFT] The sled is lowered into the water using a hefty steel cable being spooled off of a crane. ][RIGHT] As we let out cable and the sled descends to the lake floor, we clip the cable to our video feed that is bringing live images back to the surface.

When we arrived on site, we attached the sled to a tow harness, we bolted our video camera onto the nose, and we hoisted it up until it hung vertically over the deck. Pivoting it out over the edge of the boat, it hung poised over the water, just waiting for a moment, then cable began to unreel, it slipped beneath the waves, and was gone. The video feed was carried along its own cable. We didn’t want it to get tangled up on something, so every couple of meters we paused and  clipped it to the main tow cable to keep them together.

Pretty much the entire time the sled was in the water, the team huddled around a couple of computer monitors, watching the live video feed, and discussing what we might be seeing, noting down interesting time markers to go back and watch more closely. These were the moments we had been waiting for — having our experiment work successfully, and showing us something that had never been observed before.

In the operations center, the team could watch the video feed as the sled descended into the depths. At first, the image was a brilliant cerulean green, but as the sled descended, less and less sunlight from the surface was making it to the depths, and the images got darker and darker. The meager light from the camera lights revealed only a monochrome murkiness, and the faint shadow of our cable stretching out into the darkness above, where the team waited aboard the Neeskay.  And then….

Live video touchdown image from the bottom of Lake Michigan, 70 meters beneath the Neeskay.

Touchdown! The sled settled onto the bottom of the Lake, churning up a cloud of silt and dirt when it landed, not unlike the landers on the Moon. We had arrived!

As is often the case in science, we discovered something new and interesting immediately. Based on previous surveys of the Lake from two to three decades ago, the depths we were at had very little in the way of a visible macroscopic biosystem — a few lake creatures and fish, but by and large the temperature and light at these depths meant the lake bottom was a bare, open, abyssal plain. But that was not what we were greeted with on the monitors. In every direction, as far as our cameras could see, the lake bottom was covered in colonies of quagga mussels.

The lakescape we could see, as far as we could see in every direction, was dominated by quagga mussels. A few bare spots existed, but they were few and far between.

Quagga mussels, like their cousins the zebra mussels, are an invasive species in the Great Lakes, having been transplanted in the ballast water of ships that plied both the Great Lakes and other waters in the world. Over the past few decades they have been spreading through the Lakes, starting in large colonies in shallow waters, but clearly now also extending into the deeper waters. There are lots of interesting questions that immediately spring to mind. For instance: As we moved across the lake bottom, there are small patches here and there where the mussels hadn’t settled — what were those? Are the mussels not there yet, were they cleared away somehow, or is there something different about those patches? How far into the depths do the colonies extend? Are the depths they are reaching simply growing with time, or correlated with other environmental aspects of the lake (like temperature, lake currents, water chemistry, or other suspensions in the water)? Those are questions for another day, and a future expedition and a future team. As dutiful observers of Nature, we record our findings and the conditions under which we made them, together with thoughts we have, and report them to our scientific colleagues for further consideration.

Once we were on the bottom, we started our run. The captain revved up the Neeskay and we started trundling along our planned transect at about 1 knot (1 nautical mile per hour, which is about 1.15 mph = 1.85 km per hour). But as you might guess, it’s not that easy! We wanted the sled to glide over the bottom in contact with the surface. If we were going too fast, the sled started to “fly” from the hydrodynamic forces of the water lifting it like it was an airplane. We knew when we were on the bottom because we would see occasional puffs of silt and dirt, like the cloud we saw when we landed. If we were going too fast and flying, then we never saw any puffs and the mussels were really flying past fast. 🙂  The video below shows about 2 minutes of what flying over the area was like, extracted from the Aquarius video feed.

So for about an hour, all we could do was watch the video screen, occasionally talking with the captain about speeding up or slowing down by a smidgen. The mussels sailed by — endless lakescapes of mussels. Surprisingly, there were often apparent detritus from our civilization that we could see — bars of metal protruding from the lake bottom or other bits of shattered something. In many ways it was surprising, because you have this sense that the lake is vast and there is no possible way that humans could have somehow made their imprint on so much of it that a random trip across the bottom would turn up some artifacts from our civilization. But we have. It is a testament to how much time humans spend on the lake, and how far reaching our influence likely is.

Two examples of interestings “things” that passed with the field of view of the Aquarius sled camera. Possibly natural (wood?) and possibly anthropogenic (metal?). The team noted where they were, in case we ever want to go back and look at them too.

Eventually, we decided to haul the sled up, clean it off, and preserve any samples we found. The ascent was a little slower than the descent because as we hauled it up, we had to separate the video cable and the tow cable. Separating the two was not nearly as straightforward as clipping them together — while the sled is in the water and the cable is under tension, the two cables wind around each other, so as they come out of the water and are separated, all of the twists remain in place! The result is a giant spaghetti ball of cable that you have to manage as the sled ascends. It’s only 70 to 100 meters of spaghetti cable, but it’s a plenty big mess! If you’re watching on the monitor, eventually the sled video can see us up through the water as it ascends, a distorted fun house view of the team, peering eagerly into the water to see what secrets had been pulled up from the depths.

[TOP ROW] As we raise the sled, we have to cut the video cable free from the tow line, but it turns into a big spaghetti mess that must be managed as the sled returns home. When it is near the surface, it can see the mess above it! [LOWER ROW] When the sled is clear of the water, it drops all kinds of mud that it has been dragged through. We have to grab the sled, and pivot it back onto the deck so we can begin cleaning it.

As the sled emerges from the water, there is a flood of mud that is released as water sheets off of it, but we move it aboard and finally it is laid down on the deck. What happens next is a burst of activity: every member of the team moving to do something to get us ready for the next transect. The captain turns the boat and heads to our next drop point. A group grabs the spaghetti ball and takes over an entire side of the Neeskay to untangle it and lay it out, untangled, for the next drop. A cadre of people with cameras and smartphones are taking pictures of everything, documenting what is going on. And the sled itself is surrounded by a pack of the Aquarius team, shoulder to shoulder, digging in to clean the sled and preserve the recovered samples.

[LEFT] The moment the sled was on the deck, the Aquarius Team was swarming all over it. No known force in the Universe could have kept them away. [RIGHT] Getting the mud off was a chore; spraying it off worked well, but then the mud had to be gathered off the deck and sifted through.

The philosophy of the sled clean-off stage is simple: keep everything for later. Set aside interesting stuff for careful consideration later.

There is a lot of mud. Some of it we spray off, carefully sifting through it for anything that was surrounded by the gooey stuff. The cleaning teams grabs great gobs of the stuff and mashes their hands through every little bit of it, looking for anything small and solid. We find rocks, we find clear bits of metallic somethings. We keep it all, and toss it in big 5 gallon buckets. The buckets are marked with the day of the expedition, and the transect that we made, so when we get back to the lab we’ll know where the samples came from. We find stuff stuck to the magnets — all the magnets — so we pull it off, and stick it in the buckets. Every now and then we find a mussel; what do you do with that? You see if it sticks to a magnet! If it sticks, you keep it — it probably has eaten something metallic (possibly a meteorite fragment) and we want to know what it is! If it doesn’t stick, we toss it back into the Lake. If something looks particularly interesting, we show it to one of our meteorite experts, who decide to toss it in the general buckets, or keep it in a special “oooo interesting” container. 

[TOP ROW] The magnets collected plenty of material. Notice the fine grain black stuff — this is “magnetic mud,” the kind of stuff you can pick up in a sandbox with a magnet, comprised largely of metallic rich grains. [LOWER ROW] We mash through ever little bit of mud with our hands, looking for fragments and interesting bits. With the mud cleared away, there are a variety of different things we find, almost all of which we keep.

The entire clean-up takes 30 to 60 minutes, and by the time we’re done, the spaghetti cable is untangled, and we’re ready to make a second drop. We hook RV Starfall back onto its cable, pivot out over the water, and drop it in for a new run. Wash, rinse, repeat!

Really interesting looking samples are set aside, to make sure we look at them more closely later, and to insure that we don’t lose them in all the detritus.

But all too soon,  you discover the day has wiled itself away. The Sun is heading toward the horizon, you have buckets of samples, thousands of pictures, hard drives full of video, and notes, thoughts, and observations from everyone on the team that need to be collected, collated, read over, pondered, and speculated with. 

With the happy melancholia that accompanies the end of any adventure, the team looks to shore as the captain turns the bow of the Neeskay to the west, and we begin to steam toward home.

Now, the samples are back in the lab, and the next long bit of hard work is happening — consulting with scientific colleagues who are experts in meteorite identification, and figuring out what all this stuff is!

Now, our samples are in the lab. Fall is winding away and winter will be here soon. This is the time for careful lab work and analysis of all the samples we’ve found. There are, perhaps, fragments of our meteorite in the collection. If there are, we will be beyond excited. But if there are not, the samples still represent a treasure trove of knowledge about one small part of Lake Michigan. Contained in those carefully preserved samples is a story, yet to be understood, about the geology and history of human influence in that part of the Lake. We’re going to find out what we can learn from that hard earned haul — truly a treasure, valued in the sweat and joy and mystery of its recovery.

———————-

This post is the second of two describing my adventures with the Adler Planetarium’s AQUARIUS team. The first post was here: https://wp.me/p19G0g-LB

You may also enjoy listening to the Adler Planetarium’s podcast series about Aquarius, it is excellent. You can hear them online here:  https://www.adlerplanetarium.org/education/far-horizons/aquarius-project-podcast/ 

The Far Side of the Sky

by Shane L. Larson

I grew up in the Rocky Mountains and the American West, from Colorado to Oregon to Montana. Since the earliest days of my youth, I’ve been an explorer of sorts. When I was growing up, my parents had carefully delineated boundaries for our adventures that kept us close to home. I don’t think they needed to worry much, because fronting the northern edge of our domain, there was a creekland paradise of bushes, fallen logs, and crumbling cliffsides that sloped down to shoals, rushing rapids, and gentle fords where we could wander back and forth across the water course. This was the frontier — full of adventure, mystery, and discovery.

A map from memory of the creek adventureland near the house where I grew up.

A map from memory of the creek adventureland near the house where I grew up.

Nowadays, my explorations are less filled with the wanderings of boyhood, and more focused on the world around me. I’ve walked through the deep pine forests of the Rockies, reveled in the roaring spray of mountain waterfalls, peered over the precipice of vast canyons carved from the stone of the Earth, and stood in darkened mountain meadows soaking up starlight billions of years old. All of these experiences sit well with me, but this last one truly moves me.

All my life, I have always carried one over-riding dream with me — I want to see the far side of the sky. I would love to climb into a ship, “accustomed to the breezes of heaven” (as Kepler once wrote), and set sail across the great dark between the planets and off into the vast deepness of the galaxy. To travel beyond the confines of the Earth is the ultimate dream.

I’ve often wondered where this dream came from. How did I become so enamoured with exploring the vastness of the Cosmos? I asked my Mom about this once, and she responded, “You’ve kind of always known about this stuff, ever since you were a little feller.” But I know it is all her fault, because if I ask a slightly different question, like “When did I start watching Star Trek?” she replies, “Oh, I started you on that when you were about three.” 🙂

But in all seriousness, I think my parents are largely responsible for me being an explorer. They were my first science teachers. My dad is a plant ecologist. He was born and raised in the ranch country of Colorado, he was a fist generation college student, and received his PhD from the Colorado State University. My mom is a forester. She was one of the first women in the country to enter forestry school at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas. One of the earliest stories I remember my parents telling is a story about science. After my mom and dad were married, they went on their honeymoon to Canada, driving my dad’s pickup truck (a brown Ford F150 that we had through my high school days; we called her “Bertha”) and camping along the way. The way my mom tells the story is they were driving down a lonely stretch of highway in northern Montana, and she was sitting there thinking to herself “Damn he drives slow; what’s he think he’s doing? It’s the long skinny one on the right, Larry!” She was getting ready to say something, when my dad turns to her and says, “See that duck over there? He’s flying at 45 miles per hour!”

A male Mallard Duck.

A male Mallard Duck.

That is an awesome story! It is very typical of what I expect from both of my parents growing up. They were always cognizant of the world around them, and masters of not just figuring things out, but of noting and measuring the world around them for the sheer joy of it. There was no grand reason why my dad had to know that mallard duck was flying at 45 miles per hour, other than his own pure, curiosity about the matter. They always encouraged this kind of curiosity among me and my brothers when we were growing up.

Somewhere around the 4th grade, I distinctly remember sitting outside at our picnic table, staring at the Moon with my mom’s Bushnell spotting scope she used for bird watching. It was, as far as I can remember, the first time I had ever looked through a telescope of any sort. I don’t know how or why I came to be out on that patio with that spotting scope; perhaps my mom suggested it, or maybe I got the idea from a picture of Galileo in my favorite book, National Geographic’s “Our Universe” by Roy Gallant.

[L] "Our Universe" by Roy Gallant (still one of my favorite books!)  [R] Galileo observing the Moon, from Gallant's book.

[L] “Our Universe” by Roy Gallant (still one of my favorite books!) [R] Galileo observing the Moon, from Gallant’s book.

Somehow, I ended up on the patio with my mom’s spotting scope, staring at the Moon. I was transfixed. I had seen pictures of the Moon, but I had never seen it up close, and personal. I wasn’t looking at some picture some astronaut had taken. I was seeing the Moon with my own eyes; light from every crater and mountaintop that night was funneled into my eye and burned into my brain.

My Mom's spotting scope.  This is the first telescope I ever looked at the sky with.

My Mom’s spotting scope. This is the first telescope I ever looked at the sky with.

What is so alluring about the sky? Galileo was not the first person to be fascinated with the sky, but he was the first person to see it up close. His first telescopes were poor ancestors of my mom’s spotting scope, but they let him see further than any human had ever seen. He too turned his telescope to the Moon, and on a summer’s night in 1609 beheld what I would see almost 400 years later. Not a smooth vista of alternating bright and dark shades, what you can see with your naked eye, but rather a wonderland of illuminated plains and soaring mountains dotted with a mind-boggling array of craters of various sizes, overlapping everything else. What he saw astonished him; the telescope challenged the conventional wisdom of the day, and presented Galileo with new mysteries and new ideas that had never occurred to him (or anyone else in the human race!). He found that Venus went through phases, just like the Moon. He discovered four brilliant points of light orbiting Jupiter — the Jovian Moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto; they were the first worlds to be discovered in the collective memory of our species. He discovered that Saturn had a ring, though his telescopic view was poor enough he did not understand it as such; “Saturn has ears,” he wrote. When he turned his telescope to the darkened sky, he found that it revealed stars that could not be seen with the naked eye, and that the Milky Way was not a diffuse band of light, but was comprised of an uncounted multitude of stars, each casting a little bit of light toward the Earth.  Galileo published his astonishing discoveries in the spring of 1610, in a book called Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”; you can view a digital copy of the book here).

Those views were the beginning of a journey, for Galileo and for millions of others who came after him, gazing skyward through telescopes and dreaming about what lay beyond the cerulean boundary of the sky. Astronomy with your eyeballs is awe-inspiring, astonishing, mind-boggling, and soul nourishing all at once. But for some of us, myself included, there is still a dimly lit corner of my heart that longs to go to the places I can see — to touch the sands of Mars, bound down mountainsides on the Moon, and gaze skyward to see our home the Earth suspended against the velvet of night. I would dearly love to touch the Cosmos, up close and personal. As it turns out, I can, at least in small part.

In the Sky Pavilion of the Adler Planetarium, they have a vast display about our homeworlds — giant planets hanging overhead, large displays with all the wondrous facts our telescopes and robotic emissaries have revealed, a full size model of the Curiosity rover (about the size of a Mini Cooper!). It’s an awesome place to lose yourself.

The Solar System Gallery, in the Sky Pavilion of the Adler Planetarium.

The Solar System Gallery, in the Sky Pavilion of the Adler Planetarium.

Off to one side, they have a large, metallic meteorite — a 1000 pound chunk of nickel and iron, a fragment of the 150 foot wide meteorite that impacted in Arizona 50,000 years ago and created the Barringer Meteor Crater. Now I’ve seen plenty of meteors in my museum wanderings, but I still like to touch them, to feel them under the palm of my hands and knowing that this thing came from outer space! But the other day, while I was caressing the fragment from the Barringer meteor, I noticed a trio of other displays that hadn’t captured my attention before.

A fragment of the nickel-iron meteorite that struck in Arizona, creating the Barringer Meteor Crater.

A fragment of the nickel-iron meteorite that struck in Arizona, creating the Barringer Meteor Crater.

The first held two fragments of asteroids. Fragments I could touch. One came from Vesta, the third largest asteroid in the asteroid belt. The other came from Ceres, the first minor body discovered in the solar system between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter. Once considered an “asteroid”, astronomers now call Ceres a “dwarf planet”, in the same league as our much maligned favorite child of the Sun, Pluto. There has been much talk recently of a human mission to an asteroid, and many have dreamed of mining the asteroids for the untapped riches they may hold (see John Lewis’ excellent book, “Mining the Sky”). It seems unlikely that I will be selected for one of those missions, if they ever occur. But there I stood, in downtown Chicago, touching an asteroid none the less.

Four pieces of rock from the far side of the sky, which you can touch at the Adler Planetarium. [Upper L] A piece of Vesta. [Upper R] A piece of Ceres.  [Lower L] A piece of the Moon. [Lower R] A piece of Mars.

Four pieces of rock from the far side of the sky, which you can touch at the Adler Planetarium. [Upper L] A piece of Vesta. [Upper R] A piece of Ceres. [Lower L] A piece of the Moon. [Lower R] A piece of Mars.

A bit farther on, there is a fragment from the Moon. A fragment I could touch. Humans have not been to the Moon for 41 years; only 382 kg of lunar material was brought back from the Moon. But there I stood, in downtown Chicago, touching a rock from the surface of the Moon.

A little farther on from that, there is a fragment from Mars. A fragment I could touch. Humans have never visited Mars, though as you are reading this, our emissaries Opportunity and Curiosity are roving the surface of Mars, sampling the air and testing the rocks, rolling ever onward toward their distant horizons. Our robots have carried sophisticated laboratories with them, and have taught us much about the rusty rocks and soil of Mars by doing experiments in situ, on Mars. But there I stood, in downtown Chicago, touching a rock from the surface of Mars.

Four fragments of rock from the far side of the sky, from the four closest worlds to Earth that I could imagine humans visiting in my lifetime. Four close worlds that I could reasonably (though perhaps improbably) be able to visit before I drink my last Slurpee at the ripe old age of 107. Touching rocks from the far side of the sky really speaks to the explorer buried deep inside me.

One of my friends from graduate school once used as his signature file the words of an ancient Hawaiian chant:

E `a`a `ia makou e ho`okele hou. `A`ohe halawai ma`o oa aku.
(We are challenged to sail once again. No horizon is too distant.)

The vast blue frontier of the Pacific Ocean.

The vast blue frontier of the Pacific Ocean.

Hearing the chant roll through the back corners of my mind, I imagine the unbridled joy of the ancient Polynesians, setting out into the trackless blue waters of the Pacific, not knowing where they may make landfall, but only knowing that if they pressed on far enough, they would.

Were there new lands to discover and settle? Perhaps. Would there be fertile landscapes to provide sustenance and security to a family or a village? Perhaps. Would there be other denizens of the Earth, willing to trade the products of their livelihood for the products of yours in a mutually beneficial economy? Perhaps. But I don’t like to think that’s why they sailed the seas.

The far side of the sky, like the wide blue ocean, promises something much more than distant, undiscovered lands — something valuable beyond measure. Grandeur. There is something to be said for the discovery and exploration of beautiful places. It’s good for the spirit.

Time to go exploring again. 🙂

NOTE: I confess to quoting the line about grandeur from the HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon”, Episode 10: “Galileo Was Right.” It is my most favorite episode of that entire series. Go watch it now.

The Secret of Life

by Shane L. Larson

I have wide ranging and eclectic musical tastes. My iPod spins up Chris LeDoux, AC/DC, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dead Milkmen, Lisa Hannigan, The Clumsy Lovers, Usher, and Mojo Nixon in rapid succession and with reckless abandon.  Every now and then, there are some gravitational waveform sounds that spin through too (hear gravitational wave sounds at LIGO;  be sure to click “Listen” on each of the pages!).  Among my favorite tunes is a song by the indefatigable Faith Hill, called “The Secret of Life.”  The point in the song is that there is no secret to life, but my favorite part of the song is that “the secret to life is in Sam’s martinis.”  I’ve never had one of Sam’s martinis; for that matter, I don’t even know who Sam the Bartender is.  But I can imagine the diaphanous joy that Sam’s special flair with the gin and twist must bring to one’s palette. Mostly because I too have had special moments where the simple sensory interface of taste has produced a moment of pure joy (you should try my wife’s Kale Soup).

As a scientist, I am often prone to holding the viewpoint that there is no question that science cannot answer — it is an awesome tool for exploring our connection to the Cosmos.  And so, with the dulcet tones of Faith Hill ringing in my ears, I find myself pondering: what is the secret of life? Can science tell us what the secret of life is?  This is a brilliant question that a large fraction of the human race would like to know the answer to!  But it illustrates one of the most important points about science: you have to know what the question means!  What are you really interested in when you ask a question, and does that question reflect that innermost desire of your curiosity?

“What is the secret of life?” could mean many things.  Maybe the question is about the origin of life.  Imagine a collection of atoms, derived from the primordial hydrogen that formed in the Big Bang, reprocessed through the ravenous nuclear appetite of stars.  At what moment do those atoms come together and suddenly become aware?  This is a question that science does not have an answer for, but there are tantalizing suggestions from a famous investigation called the Miller-Urey Experiment, conducted at the University of Chicago in 1952.  The gases of the primordial Earth’s atmosphere were sparked with lightning, just as in the early days of of our planet.  The result is the easy production of amino acids, the building blocks of all the proteins that make up all the living organisms on Earth.  It is not life itself, but it is the stuff of life.

The Miller-Urey experiment (schematic, left) is simple enough to be built of common laboratory equipment. Stanley Miller, sparking the experiment with a Tesla coil (right).

The Miller-Urey experiment (schematic, left) is simple enough to be built of common laboratory equipment. Stanley Miller, sparking the experiment with a Tesla coil (right).

“What is the secret of life?” could be asking how is it that life sustains itself. This was once a great mystery, but it is a secret science has wrested from Nature.  In the fine details of different organisms, the exact process is different, but the mechanism and outcome is the same. Large complex molecules (like sugars and carbohydrates) are broken by chemical processes in your body.  The breaking of chemical bonds, breaking big molecules down into smaller molecules, releases energy.  This entire process is generically called cellular respiration, and it is what makes living organisms go.

Glycolysis, whereby sugar (glucose) is broken down into energy. The energy released in this process manufactures high energy compounds like adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which carries energy to all of your cells.

Glycolysis, whereby sugar (glucose) is broken down into energy. The energy released in this process manufactures high energy compounds like adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which carry energy to all of your cells.

More often than not when people ask “what is the secret of life?” they are asking “what can I do to be happy?”  Interestingly, this is almost a question that science can answer.  To put a finer point on the question, one could ask “under what conditions do people think they are happy?”  Dan Gilbert and his colleagues at Harvard have studied this extensively (watch his great TED lecture on this), and the answer seems to be that your brain is a fantastic machine for synthesizing happiness.  Take his advice seriously: do not ever become a drummer for the Beatles.

As a university professor, I often suggest to my students that the secret to life is to do what makes you happy.  They sit down in my office, earnest in their uncertainty, desperate to please their parents, desperate to do well in school, and desperate to make a good life for themselves.  I tell them, “Do what makes you happy.”  Whatever you decide to do, pick something that makes you want to jump out of bed and live your life every day. Don’t just have a job to go to work.  You don’t want to be Elton John’s Rocketman, where all that science you don’t understand is just your job five days a week.  Have a job that gives you joy, so when you close your eyes at night you don’t dwell on being downtrodden.  When you decide how to live your life, you have to decide what the secret of life for you will be. And it will be different for everyone!

What is the secret of life for me?  I wake up every morning wanting to be stupefied with awe.  That’s why I’m a scientist, because every day the Cosmos stupefies me with awe — awe at its simplicity, at its mystery, and its unending delight in being knowable and unknowable all wrapped up in one package.  My days are filled with playful riddling, noodling my brain around puzzlers that Nature has happily created and left for some random atoms called humans to figure out.  Our playful game of confusion, discovery, elation, and renewed mystery fires me every day.

Why do I look through telescopes? Why do I keep building bigger telescopes?  Because I am stupefied with awe every time I gaze deep into the sky at the faint glow of the Veil Nebula.  Stupefied with awe at the fact that I am staring at the echo of a star’s death, light that began its journey toward Earth more than 8,000 years ago, before the beginning of recorded human history.

Preparing for a night of stargazing (left). A view of the Veil Nebula (NGC 6992, right), typical of what is seen through a telescope like that shown on the left.

Preparing for a night of stargazing (left). A view of the Veil Nebula (NGC 6992, right), typical of what is seen through a telescope like that shown on the left.

The power of the Cosmos to move people in this way is nothing new.  There are likely thousands of stories about people moved in their cores by deep contemplations of the Universe and our place in it.  Let me tell you one story, about a retired Sears Roebuck executive-turned-philanthropist named Max Adler. When he retired, Adler had heard of a new device, built by the Carl Zeiss Company in Germany, that could project a realization of the night sky on the interior of a darkened dome.  In 1928, he made a trip to see the device in action.  The visions of the night sky beguiled Adler, and he made a dedicated effort to construct the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere.  In May of 1930, the Adler Planetarium was opened in Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan.  For Adler, the planetarium was a symbol to remind us that we are all part of one Universe.  He said, “In our reflections, we dwell too little upon the concept that the world and all human endeavor within it are governed by established order and too infrequently upon the truth that under the heavens everything is interrelated, even as each of us to the other.”  A different, and profound secret of life — we are the Cosmos, and the Cosmos is us.

[left panel] Max Adler with Dr. Oskar von Miller (L) and Ernest A. Grunsfeld (R) at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where Adler first saw the Zeiss projector in action.  [center panel] The Adler Planetarium on opening day, 12 May 1930.  [right panel] The Adler Planetarium today.

[left panel] Max Adler with Dr. Oskar von Miller (L) and Ernest A. Grunsfeld (R) at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where Adler first saw the Zeiss projector in action. [center panel] The Adler Planetarium on opening day, 12 May 1930. [right panel] The Adler Planetarium today.

The Adler Planetarium is one of the oldest and most venerable institutions for connecting people to the Cosmos in the world.  Every day, you can walk its halls and be stupefied with awe.  This week, in Chicago, they named a new president for the Adler, the ninth in an unbroken chain of leaders dedicated to beguiling people with the wonders of the Cosmos.  I’ve had the chance to talk with the new President, Michelle Beauvais Larson (President’s Page at the Adler), and must say I am beguiled by her optimism and passion for the future.  For her, the secret of life, her passion, is to do great good, and the way to do great good is to encourage people to think big thoughts. “The future of society lies in the education and imagination of its people,” she says.  Astronomy is a vehicle to inspire deep thinking; it is difficult to look deep into the Cosmos and not be struck by a sense of looking into the grandest of secrets.

Michelle Beauvais Larson, the ninth leader of the Adler Planetarium.

Michelle Beauvais Larson, the ninth leader of the Adler Planetarium.

So rejoice in the simple pleasure of seeing the world around you — sunlight sparkling through the drip of rain off your eaves, a cat’s instinctive passion for slaughtering shoelaces, the disconcerting mystery of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, a child’s innocent delight with coins spinning on the floor, the full Moon rising over the city as everyone bustles home to their lives and families.  The secret of life is that we are self-aware and curious.  As collections of sentient atoms, as the Cosmos made self-aware, we can take in the world around us and revel in the simple joy of awareness and discovery, but indulge our passions and strive to comprehend.  It happens to every one of us; if it didn’t there wouldn’t be libraries, or Wikipedia, or museums and planetaria, or magazines devoted to cross stitching, or kits for building your own guitar, or telescopes you can own and set up in your own backyard.  We are wired to see and think about and rejoice in life.

In the end, I think the secret of life is not “nothing at all,” as Faith Hill concludes.  The secret of life is everything around you.  Close your laptop, turn up the music, look around, and indulge yourself.