Cosmic Design

Do aliens exist? Are there answers in the stars? While much of the heavens remain a mystery to us non-astronomy dilettantes, Carnegie Observatories’ new telescope will lead to new discoveries and may finally put an end to the perpetual speculation.

BY: Lian Dolan


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This may come as a surprise to some of the locals, but Pasadena is not the center of the universe. Blame Galileo who figured out about 400 years ago that our galaxy revolves around the sun, not the earth—or the Rose Parade. But hold your heads up high, Pasadenans, because although we may not be the center of the galaxy, according to Dr. John Mulchaey, Director of The Observatories of the Carnegie Institutes of Science, commonly known as the Carnegie Observatories, “Pasadena is the center of the astrophysics world.”

Take that Cambridge. Both Cambridges.  Fill out a roster of former and current scientists at Carnegie Observatories, Caltech and JPL and Pasadena is the top pick in everyone’s fantasy astronomy league. The brainpower of the Rose City is responsible for some of the biggest, best and most important telescopes in history. More proof? Google “Pasadena Astro Talks” to discover a weekly calendar packed with lectures titled, “Interstellar Dust Grain Composition from High-Resolution X-ray Absorption Edge Structure.” The talks are followed by something called “Astro-Coffee,” a beverage I’d like to get my hands on.

But why Pasadena?  According to Dr. Mulchaey, the city’s Astro bona fides go back to 1904, when noted astrophysicist George Ellery Hale left Chicago for the sunny, clear skies of Pasadena with the financial support of the newly formed Carnegie Institute of Science. Hale founded the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory and with each new and bigger telescope, changed the face of modern astronomy and astrophysics.  In 1912, Hale set up shop on Santa Barbara Street with a small campus and a view of the mountains. The Carnegie Observatories is now home to 65 scientists, staff and technical support people focusing on cosmology, the study of the origins of the universe.

I only recently discovered the Carnegie Observatories after being invited to a lunchtime talk by a friend.  I took college astronomy Pass/Fail so I won’t try to explain in any detail gravitational waves, cosmic flashes and black holes, but trust me: it was Big, Big, Big Stuff.  I wanted to find out more about this secret scientific gem.

As the energetic and engaging Dr. Mulchaey tours me around the Pasadena offices, pointing to Carnegie’s celebrity scientist photos and talking of their discoveries, it’s like the Greatest Hits of Astrophysics. Magnetic fields in the sun! How stars work! Dark Matter! But it’s the work of pioneering cosmologist Edwin Hubble that holds the Number One with a Bullet spot.

‘The Universe was discovered here,” Mulchaey declares, the perfect tagline to sum up Carnegie’s heritage. Before there was a famous space telescope named in Hubble’s honor, there was his 1929 discovery that not only was the universe a 100-fold bigger than previously known, it was expanding. Mulchaey assures me, “It was a really big deal at the time.” Hubble was a true cosmic rock star, gracing the cover of Time Magazine, hobnobbing with Hollywood and surprising his good friend Albert Einstein with his findings. And it happened right here in Pasadena. As Dr. Mulchaey says, “The work done here changed our vision of the universe.”

What’s unusual about the set-up at Carnegie is that the scientists only do science. There are no pesky undergraduates to teach, no time spent gathering grants, no mandatory timelines for publishing research.  The researchers are provided with salaries, telescope time and travel expenses.  The Carnegie Equation looks something like this: Time + Telescopes = Eureka.  Mulchaey, whose own work centers on finding black holes in the smallest galaxies and a phenomenon called Fast Radio Bursts, explains, “We have some scientists who take five years to put out one paper. And we have scientists who put out five papers in one year. There is no other job like it in observational astronomy.”

Because the San Gabriel Valley is no longer a pristine place to observe the heavens, Carnegie is part of an international consortium that operates massive telescopes in Chile and is in the process of building the world’s most powerful telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope or GMT, as those in the know call it. The GMT is being designed and engineered in Pasadena with the mirrors manufactured in Arizona, then constructed in Chile. The billion-dollar project will be completed in 2024. And what will it mean for the astronomers of Carnegie? And more importantly, what will it mean for us, the good people of Pasadena?

The GMT will allow scientists to answer the known questions about the birth of galaxies, other ‘earth-like’ planets and possible signatures of life. I resist asking Mulchaey about aliens out of respect for his work. I also resist asking him about time travel because that would be just plain embarrassing to me. Do you think you’ll discover any sort of grand cosmic design, I ask instead. Mulchaey thinks for a bit and then answers like a true scientist, “No.”

What excites Mulchaey most about the GMT and gives me the chills is the possibility of  “the laundry list of what we don’t even know we don’t know.” Explaining the significance of the work done at the Carnegie Observatories, Mulchaey continues, “The real reason we do this is to discover the things we never expected. We’re all looking for the leaps that help us understand the universe better. The universe has been around for 13.7 billion years and understanding who we are and what we’re doing here is part of our evolution as a species.”

Does that qualify as a cosmological mic drop? Hale, yes!

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