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SUNDAY READING

The Fabric of Space : At Palomar Observatory, Astronomer Maarten Schmidt Helped Piece Together a Patchwork of Quasars

December 20, 1987|RICHARD PRESTON

The following is from the just-published "First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe," an account of Palomar Mountain and Hale Telescope, the largest working optical telescope in the world. At Palomar, Maarten Schmidt discovered in 1963 that quasars are remote, burning beacons, and in the years since he has pushed the telescope deeper into space. SO MUCH ABOUT quasars remained unfathomable. In 22 years Schmidt had not found more than partial answers to his questions about their birth and death. He once said that in his mind's eye he imagined science as a cloth being knotted together by many hands, in the manner of the anonymous Flemish weavers of old, who had worked side by side on benches. . . . He once said, "I have strongly the feeling that as an astronomer on the earth, you are a link in history, because in science more than anything else, and certainly in astronomy, you build on what your predecessors did. You contribute a little here, you put in a couple of links there. It's all being knitted together, and a few of the stitches are yours." He sensed the presence of others working on the tapestry, other astronomers seeking a pattern in the redshift cutoff, arguing with one another, taking up threads, tying up small knots while, mysteriously, a design appeared. "And then," he said, "the fabric goes on." When your life as a scientist was over, you could always find your stitches in the cloth later, you could say, "Well, they are there."

From the book "First Light" by Richard Preston. Copyright 1987 by Urania Inc. and reprinted with permission of the Atlantic Monthly Press.

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