'Playing Around With Telescopes' To Explore Secrets Of The Universe

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The 200-inch Hale Telescope, a masterpiece of engineering at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, was the world's largest telescope until 1993. (Courtesy of Palomar Observatory/California Institute of Technology)
The 200-inch Hale Telescope, a masterpiece of engineering at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, was the world's largest telescope until 1993. (Courtesy of Palomar Observatory/California Institute of Technology)

Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomy and planetary science professor at the California Institute of Technology, is a serious astronomer. But not too serious.

"We astronomers are supposed to say, 'We wonder about the stars and we really want to think about it,' " says Kulkarni — in other words, think deep thoughts. But he says that's not really the way it is.

"Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys,' " he says. "I really like playing around with telescopes. It's just not fashionable to admit it."

Make no mistake, Kulkarni says by "playing" with toys like optical telescopes, radio telescopes and space telescopes, astronomers have made measurements that reveal the age of the universe, the fact that it's expanding and that there are lots of other solar system besides ours out there.

Many of those fundamental discoveries — including measuring the rate at which the universe is expanding and determining the composition of stars — were made using telescopes at the Palomar Observatory, which Kulkarni now directs. He invited me to visit so I could get a sense of the wonder astronomers feel when working at the observatory.

Man of contrasts: Shrinivas Kulkarni is one of the world's foremost astronomers, but he also raises rabbits, is fascinated by the history of economic collapse — and dreams of being a bartender.
Man of contrasts: Shrinivas Kulkarni is one of the world's foremost astronomers, but he also raises rabbits, is fascinated by the history of economic collapse — and dreams of being a bartender.

On a Wednesday morning earlier this year, I picked Kulkarni up from his home near Caltech's Pasadena campus. The drive from Pasadena to Palomar in the mountains north of San Diego takes about 2 1/2 hours.

Kulkarni was born in India in 1956. He has been an astronomer his entire professional life. But look at the whole person and you'll see a man of contrasts. He loves Brazilian music. He raises bunny rabbits. And he says one of his deepest passions is the exact opposite of astronomy: It's the history of great economic collapses.

"Something like astronomy is terribly important because it's about the universe," he says. "We are learning something totally fundamental — how where we live comes about. But it's not something immediate. It really doesn't matter if the Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago or 13.75 billion years ago. On the other hand, economics, it sure is actually unimportant in the long run, but it surely matters today."

As we approach the observatory, the road starts climbing through a forest on the side of a mountain. A little farther ahead, a large dome appears, stark white against the blue sky.

"Now you can see the 200-inch or sometimes called the 'Big Eye,' " says Kulkarni.

The dome at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, shown in a long-exposure nighttime shot, houses the 200-inch Hale Telescope.
The dome at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, shown in a long-exposure nighttime shot, houses the 200-inch Hale Telescope.

For nearly 50 years, the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar was the largest in the world. It's a masterpiece of engineering. Even though it's aging, Kulkarni says it can still be used for good science. Besides, he loves it here.

When the dome slides open, the view of the sky is breathtaking.

To stand here with Kulkarni is to bring together the past and the future. For as much as Kulkarni delights in this place, as inspiring as it is to be here, he says actually visiting a telescope is soon to be a thing of the past.

"The best way to do astronomy is to get the astronomers out of the dome," he says. "And the human in the loop becomes monotonous. If a machine can do it, honestly, I think everyone is happy."

Machines are good for studying the sky because they have no preconceived notions about what they'll find. Astronomers, Kulkarni says, just don't have the imagination to know what to look for.

"The sky is so much richer and so much more imaginative than the imagination that you should always approach it with a certain sense of openness," he says.

Kulkarni says you look at the information the machines collect and try to figure out what it's telling you. That's the way you make discoveries.

Kulkarni is 58. I asked him if he thought he'd ever get tired of playing with his toys. He said not really — but he knows someday he'll have to try something different.

"My wife's been on me about what I'll do after I retire. She said, 'You're always running around and doing things.' And I want to be a bartender."

A bartender?

Well, a man can dream.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Astronomers don't cure diseases. They don't save endangered species. They don't generate wealth. But they get to look at stars. And occasionally, they uncover the secrets of the universe. For some, that makes astronomy pretty irresistible. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been exploring what makes scientists tic as part of his project Joe's Big Idea. Today, Joe takes us inside the world of a leading astronomer who's hooked on the stars, but has his feet on the ground.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The night before I met with Caltech astronomy professor Shrinivas Kulkarni, a friend of mine asked me what is a universe anyway, and is there anything beyond the universe? I didn't really have a great answer, so the next morning when I went over to Kulkarni's house for breakfast...

SHRINIVAS KULKARNI: Let's go eat.

PALCA: I asked him.

Last night, at dinner, we were trying discuss what a universe was.

KULKARNI: Well, these are very profound philosophical matters, Joe. And usually, I consider myself - however oxymoron-ish it may sound - as a practical astronomer, whereas people who think about those things are academic astronomers. (Laughter).

PALCA: Practical astronomers do things like measure distances and analyze spectra.

KULKARNI: But you don't try to figure out what is beyond the universe 'cause that's getting pretty deep.

PALCA: Kulkarni says yeah, I know we astronomers are supposed to say, oh, I wandered out one day, and I looked up at the stars, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. But really...

KULKARNI: Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call us, boys with toys.

PALCA: Boys with toys.

KULKARNI: And I think there's nothing wrong with that, except...

PALCA: Boys with toys.

KULKARNI: ...You're not supposed to say that.

PALCA: At the same time, playing with those toys has allowed astronomers to make measurements that reveal the age of the universe, the fact that it's expanding and that there are lots of other solar systems out there besides ours. Many of those fundamental discoveries were made using telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in California. Kulkarni is now director of the observatory. He proposed a field trip so I could get a sense of the wonder astronomers feel when working there.

Good plan.

KULKARNI: (Laughter).

PALCA: The drive from Pasadena to Palomar in the mountains north of San Diego is about two and a half hours.

KULKARNI: It looks like good for observing. It's very clear.

PALCA: Kulkarni was born in India in 1956. He's been an astronomer his entire professional life. But look at the whole person, and you'll see Shri Kulkarni is a man of contrasts. He loves Brazilian music. He raises bunny rabbits. And he says one of his deepest passions is the exact opposite of astronomy. It's the history of great economic collapses.

KULKARNI: Something like astronomy is terribly important because it is about the universe, OK. I mean, we are learning something totally fundamental - how the way we live comes about. But it's not something immediate. It really doesn't matter if the Big Bang happened 13.7 billing years ago or 13.75 billion years ago. On the other hand, economics - it's actually unimportant in the long run. Terribly important in the short run, but it surely matters today.

PALCA: We spent a lot of the car ride talking about Enron and the dot-com bubble.

Wow, we're going up this really windy road up the side of a mountain.

A little further ahead, a large dome appears, stark white against the late afternoon blue sky.

KULKARNI: And now, you can see the 200-inch, or sometimes called the Big Eye.

PALCA: For nearly 50 years, the 200-inch telescope at Palomar was the largest telescope in the world.

It's a masterpiece of engineering. And even though it's aging, Kulkarni says it can still be used for good science. Besides, he loves it up here. When the dome slides open, the view of the twilight sky is breathtaking. To stand here with Shri Kulkarni is to bring together the past and the future. For as much as Kulkarni delights in this place, as inspiring as it is to be here, he says actually visiting a telescope is soon to be a thing of the past.

KULKARNI: The best way to do astronomy is to get the astronomers out of the dome. We just get better data. And the human in the loop becomes monotonous, really, I mean, night after night. If a machine can do it, honestly, I think everyone is happy.

PALCA: The other reason Kulkarni says machines are good for studying the sky is that they have no preconceived notions about what they'll find. He says astronomers just don't have the imagination to know what to look for.

KULKARNI: The sky is so much richer and so much more imaginative than the imagination that you should always approach it with a certain sense of openness.

PALCA: Kulkarni says you look at the information the machines collect and try to figure out what it's telling you. That's the way you make discoveries. Kulkarni is now 58 years old, and I asked him if he thought he'd ever get tired of playing with his toys. He said not really. But he knows someday, he'll have to try something different.

KULKARNI: My wife's been hounding me about what I'll do after I retire. She said you're always running around and doing things. And I want to be a bartender.

PALCA: A bartender?

KULKARNI: It's a fascinating job.

PALCA: Well, a man can dream.

(LAUGHTER)

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.