Postcard from the Edge

Freelance Astrophysicist is back! I’ve finished graduate school and moved across the country to California, and now I’m figuring out whether it’s possible to actually be a freelance astrophysicist. In the meantime, I’m working on a full site redesign with my friend Nick James; we’ll be rolling it out over the next week or so. There are already a few tweaks in place, most notably the new banner image at the top of the page.

So what’s the new banner picture? It’s a picture taken by a robot over one-and-a-half million kilometers away from the earth — over three times farther away than the moon — of the oldest light in the universe. This is impossibly faint light: it took a full year for the robot to collect enough light to take this picture. And even if it weren’t so faint, we wouldn’t be able to see this light with our eyes because it’s beyond the range of visible light, stretched by the expansion of the universe over the last 14 billion years, out of the infrared and well into the microwave range. And even this robot, with its microwave-tuned eyes that can stare at the whole sky for years on end, even this robot has trouble seeing this ancient light, because there’s something much brighter blotting it out over a huge swath of the sky: our own galaxy, the Milky Way, the luminous purple ribbon stretching across the middle of the image. The ancient light — which is called the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) — is just that red-orange mottled pattern in the background. But despite all these difficulties, the robot (called Planck, after the great Max Planck) has still managed to take a more detailed picture of the CMB over the entire sky than anyone else ever has. And that picture, in turn, holds a vast quantity of information about what our universe looked like in its infancy, a mere 380,000 years after the Big Bang. That information is being analyzed right now by the team responsible for building, deploying, and running Planck; they will be releasing the data and their analysis early next year.

I like being alive now, at this moment in history — we live in a time of wonders.

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