Todd Hartley: I’m With Stupid |

Todd Hartley: I’m With Stupid

Todd Hartley
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Based on my routinely exhibited ability to make grandiose statements that can’t be proven wrong but for which I nevertheless have no proof, I’ve always thought I would make an excellent astrophysicist. As such, I like to stay apprised of the latest trends in space exploration, and last week I saw a couple of news items that caught my eye.

The first concerned the creation of the world’s largest mirror, which was built on a remote mountaintop in the Chilean desert and passed its scientific verification last week. The gargantuan virtual looking glass, which is composed of four huge, rotating telescopes and measures 424 feet in diameter, is now ready to start looking farther out into the heavens than any other land-based optical telescope ever has.

In the tradition of comically boring telescope names, the array at the Paranal Observatory has been christened the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and its opening was lauded by, among others, Frederic Gonte, the head of instrumentation for the observatory. Gonte called the event a “milestone in our quest for uncovering secrets of the universe.”

I’m as big a fan of telescopes as anyone, so I don’t want to seem as if I’m denigrating the VLT, but I don’t know how much of a milestone this really is. I say this in light of the fact that on the same day as the announcement of the opening of the VLT, the Hubble space telescope released yet another stunning, close-up interstellar image, this one of a spiral galaxy in the Cetus constellation.

I’ll be excited if the VLT can somehow see farther or take cooler pictures than the Hubble, but I think it’s unlikely that a giant mirror is going to uncover any new universal secrets. This is not a knock on the VLT as much as it is an acknowledgment of the fact that there are some things we’ll probably never know.

But what if we were able to create a mirror so large that it could see all the way to the center of the universe, if indeed there is one? What would we see? And what would we call it?

Reflection being what it is, I personally think we’d see some people with a giant mirror looking right back at us, and we’d call it Bizarro VLT, but that’s just me. I bring the issue up, though, because in other science news that I know nothing about but consider myself an expert on, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is starting to see farther in the other direction than any particle accelerator ever has before.

A massive underground science project near Geneva, the LHC has been smashing protons together since 2009 in an attempt to see the tiniest thing in the universe, a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson. Back in December, the LHC announced the discovery of its first new particle, which it dubbed Chi_b (3P), a name that just rolls off the tongue.

Based on what we think we know about science, the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” must exist and is the key to understanding how everything has mass. So far, however, it has defied all attempts to observe it. But what if we eventually detect it, and somehow we can see it? What will it look like?

Might I posit that the Higgs boson and the center of the universe, should we ever observe them both, will look exactly the same. If I had to guess, I would think they’ll probably look a lot like the sun and other stars – just very, very tiny ones and very, very large ones, respectively. Either that or they’ll look like a bunch of people with a giant mirror.

The thing is, though, that even if we find the Higgs boson or pinpoint the moment the universe began, even if we get to the point where we think we know how everything works and came to be, I don’t think it will get us any closer to understanding why everything works or why everything came to be. Those are still decisions that we’ll all have to make on our own.

So what’s my point, ultimately? I’m not sure, but I think this is my way of saying I agree with Newt Gingrich that it would be cool to have a permanent base on the moon. It would be exactly what we need to solve all of America’s problems.

Is that true? I don’t know, but like all good astrophysicists, I defy you to tell me I’m wrong.