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Flying a Giant Candy Machine to Search the Universe : Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of theUniverse." 1991, by Dennis Overbye. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

January 13, 1991|Dennis Overbye | Dennis Overbye studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a contributing essayist to Time magazine

Allan Sandage, an intense young astronomer working with the telescopes at Mount Wilson and Palomar Mountain, led the search for the origin and fate of the universe. "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos" describes the passion and the controversy of that search. An excerpt.

The next few years--the early '50s--were among the happiest of Sandage's scientific life. He became the bomber-jacketed ace flying the 200-inch telescope deeper and farther than even its builders had dreamed. The '30s and '40s had seen revolutions not just in cosmology but in every aspect of astronomy and astrophysics, including a whole new understanding of the nature of stars--how they are born, burn and die. With the war over and with new telescopes, it was possible for the first time to test these new ideas.

The Hale telescope was affectionately known as the "Big Eye" to the Pasadena astronomical crowd, but Sandage liked to think of it as a giant candy machine. "I was a kid in a candy store that was so magnificent, full of everything that you wanted, that it was life's greatest carnival.

"I was the only one with a key to the store, and somehow the candy kept miraculously appearing."

Sandage inherited astronomer Edwin Hubble's generous allotment of observing time--35 nights a year on the 200-inch telescope alone--as well as the plates and data Hubble had already collected in his campaign to measure the universe. He spent most of half of every month, the half centered on the new moon, when the sky is darkest and the blue-water extragalactic sailors of astronomy come out, yo-yoing between Pasadena and Palomar.

Some astronomers preferred to stay in the control room, if they were observing as part of a team or using the telescope in the Cassegrain mode, in which the light was reflected back down from the prime focus cage through a hole in the center of the 200-inch mirror. It was warmer observing that way, and the astronomers could joke with the night assistant--the man who actually operated the telescope--eat cookies, drink coffee, go to the bathroom, catch up on paperwork or even sleep during lulls or long exposures.

Sandage liked being in the prime-focus cage.

Night after night he rode the lift through darkness, the dome rumbling and whirring like the secret machinery of the cosmos itself as the night assistant positioned the dome slit for the first of the observations that Sandage planned with military precision. He scrambled eagerly the few inches across the void and settled onto a tractor bench, lugging his sky charts, notebooks and photographic plates whose emulsions had been soaked in hydrogen or baked in nitrogen until the already sensitive grains were hysterical for the light that had left some star or galaxy before the human race was born.

The telescope pier, a hollow barrel, made a chest-high table in the center of the cage. At that point, the prime focus, a portion of the universe about one and a half times the apparent size of the full moon, was splayed out over the area of a postcard for inspection. Sandage was alone, at the center of the universe.

Einstein's relativity theory taught that the center of the universe was everywhere and nowhere. It was the present, wherever, surrounded by concentric shells of the past--history racing at him in the form of light rays at 186,282 miles per second, the speed of light, the speed of all information. The prime-focus cage of the 200-inch was the cockpit of a time machine, the finest and largest ever constructed, its yawning mirror pearled with starlight pointing in the only direction any of us could ever face: backward.

The moon he saw was an image composed of light that left its surface a second and a half ago, Mars glowing martial red was half an hour away, the center of the galaxy, hiding behind the thick star clouds of Sagittarius, 30,000 years. The cold eyepiece by which Sandage, sighting a star on cross hairs, could correct the fine movements of the telescope, steer it to his precise target, and keep it locked on the same celestial object, all night if need be--which was often the case--was an eyelash, a tenth of a nanosecond ago.

Sandage bragged that he had iron kidneys--he could go up to the prime-focus cage and not have to come back down for 14 hours, an entire long winter's observing night. That, he joked, was the main reason for whatever success he had as an observer, whatever candy he brought down--that and the wonderful instruments the Mount Wilson staff had built. Discomfort was part of the romance. "You sit there," Sandage chuckled dryly, "straddling the pier with your privates nestled up against the cold of the universe." In the winter he donned an electrically heated jumpsuit of the sort that bomber pilots used to wear.

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