In the tea room on the eight floor of the physics building, it is blindingly sunny and breezy out on the terrace and we shrink from the light of our nearest star and sit indoors somewhere towards the middle of the room, you munching on a bar of Galaxy and us both drinking tea.
You tell me that you are an observer, unlike some others who are calculating the expansion of our universe from the big bang and comparing their results to the data. You say that there are stars forming in our universe that we cannot see because they are shrouded in dust. So, you look at the sky for a longer wavelength of light that is re-emitted by the dust clouds. The majority of the history of the universe is encoded in wavelengths longer than what can be seen, much of what was visible light now stretched out by the expansion of space time.
Your data comes from the satellites, Planck which surveys the whole sky and Herschel which looks in great detail at small cones, producing vast amounts of data ‘like no one else has ever had before’. So much data that you have to be good at statistical analysis to find what is interesting. You also use telescopes in Australia, Chile and Hawaii (and the Hawaiian shirt you’re wearing is a souvenir).
You cross match objects identified by Planck with the more detailed data from Herschel and forensically analyse particularly when the Herschel data reveals intriguing forms. You tell me that you are looking at two ‘bat shit insane’ structures at the moment, like you have never seen before.
I say, what you do is like panning for gold and you think this is apt.
In your office, on the large monitor we look at some data from Herschel. The screen is a sparkling sweep of gold, like a sandy beach. You tell me it is a small piece of the sky, 36 square degrees. It is shot through with white speckles and you tell me that each one is a galaxy. This idea takes my breath away and we both marvel at the thought. It’s a piece of the celestial canopy; there is no indication of how far each scintilla is away and I think of Rebecca Elson’s circus tent with the dazzling roof.
A handful of fine purple circles are marked out across this glittering display, each indicating possible interesting things and you point to the two that are the potential ‘bat shit insane’ ones, their forms characterised by fine and wispy filaments. And we look and imagine how they might be indications of larger structures sweeping across the sky.
Day in, day out you work with and talk of vast distances and timescales and in doing so, you domesticate these scales. They are everyday terms to you. When I ask you, you say your writing is where you explore your own ‘sense of wonder’ and the place of people in this vastness. In an unimaginable five billion years from now, our galaxy will collide with neighbouring Andromeda and you have written a story set in an era after that.
David L. Clements is an observer of our universe working mainly on extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology. He also occasionally writes science fiction and has appeared inAnalog, Nature Futures and a number of anthologies, including the forthcoming One Weird Idea. He also teaches aspiring sci fi writers about physics.