“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum

“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews

Contemplating Infinity
By Alan Rifkin

Astronomers, supernovas and the fate of the universe.

A MOUNTAINTOP IN CHILE, with five giant ivory domes gazing upward. We’ve spent a few hours in a control room fiddling with computer images of stars--focusing the telescope by remote. Now the astronomer is performing what seems like an ironic ritual. He is going outside to have a look at the sky.

           So we open a door and practically fall out of the building into Eternity. The night is clear, and the mountain is so dark I can’t find my own toes--can’t see anything but the ancient moon and however many zillions of constant stars. “There’s the Milky Way,” Mark Phillips says at some point, just to say anything. The view from Earth runs flat across the disc of the galaxy, so a hundred billion layered suns converge into a band of light that pours from one horizon to the other. That’s how the Milky Way works.

           The great thing about astronomy is that it dignifies all your dumbest questions. What is going on out there? If space has a limit, what then? These are first-rate astronomical questions--astronomers mean to answer these questions. How old is time? How will it end? This concerns people like Phillips. Phillips studies supernovas, unthinkably violent exploding stars whose brightness gives a good measure of how close to us they are or aren’t. By establishing the locations of distant galaxies, they might possibly serve as surveyor’s marks to the edge of the physical universe--might, in other words, finally enable scientists to comprehend the size of all that is.

           That the galaxies were flying apart uniformly in every direction at once Edwin Hubble grasped in the 1920s; what has eluded people ever since is this expansion’s rate, which, played backward like a newsreel to the Big Bang, would settle questions about the universe’s size and age. (The size of an expanding universe gives away its age, and vice versa. The age is the same thing as the distance, in light-years, to the farthest shores.) The first so-called Hubble constant was crude: 520 kilometers per second of expansion rate for objects three and a quarter million light-years away--a figure that, on rewind, unhappily found the universe to be younger than the Earth. But a half-century’s refinements have brought the matter into meaningful debate.

           Here things get truly apocalyptic. Measure such cosmic distances, Einstein promised, whether with supernovas or anything else that works, and you’ll also detect the degree of the universe’s curvature in the fourth dimension, a fairly impossible concept for lay people to grasp, but gravity is the three-dimensional manifestation of this curve. And to know how much gravity there is in the universe is to see, in every sense, the future crashing in through the now. If there’s too little gravity, the universe should expand inexorably. Space-time proves flat and endless; the stars fizzle and die. Too much gravity, and the whole thing would ultimately implode--space-time swallows its tail. The first case implies that existence had a Beginning (all this expansion had to start somewhere); the second implies it’s a fluke. Many calculations, coincidentally or not, have pointed toward stalemate--all the cosmic music suspended between two catastrophes.

           One last scenario is that the universe collapses and re-explodes, ad infinitum, a cycle embedded in eternity. This idea has its saving Zen. Hubble’s own protégé, Allan Sandage of Carnegie Observatories--70-ish and volatile, with a Nixon-style enemies list--insists it’s been proved. This makes Phillips and his teammates the sticklers: pointing up flaws in old measurements, waiting for the truth to seem obvious.

           “So far,” Phillips says, “we’re focusing on this issue of whether all supernovas are the same intrinsic brightness.” There’s special reason to think they are, having to do with the critical mass required for such stars to explode. But the data “suggests they’re a little complicated--that some fade out faster than others.” By systematic search, the team has found 50 supernovas in three years (pre-search, it was two or three a year), and they’ve chosen 26 as useful ones to study. As of the night I’m visiting, they’ve finished their analysis of half. They smell the finish line.

           I’m in Chile to see what a typical night’s labor is like, and because every astronomer in the world seems to be here. The Atacama Desert has the second driest skies on earth (Antarctica is No. 1). Also, key parts of the heavens are visible only from Southern sightlines. There are 25 major telescopes in the Chilean Andes--if Martians flew over Chile, they would probably wave. On nearby mountaintops, all the grails of astrophysics are being sought. Such as, understanding the Great Attractor (an unseen force may be pulling the galaxies toward it with the gravity of 20,000 trillion suns). Such as, understanding Dark Matter (something like 90 percent of the mass of the universe seems to be invisible). The New York Times has described the level of competition here as a “second space race.” (In a development worthy of Monty Python, U.S. dominance was challenged at one point by a colossal European project named the “Very Large Telescope.”) Recently, some hippies informed Phillips that the Earth’s “magnetic center” had shifted, abruptly, from the Himalayas to Santiago, Chile. “Hence,” the story went, “all these astronomers.”

THE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR of the U.S.-run Cerro Tololo Observatory, Phillips is gangly and bearded and has a casual way of talking, as though he’s chewing on a toothpick. His teammate Nick Suntzeff is balding and mustached and reminds me of Dabney Coleman. He’s writing down the night’s menu for the telescope, which works like a jukebox: slew to the chosen quadrant of outer space--hear the ghastly canistered sound of the 100-ton dome revolving--then dive to the chosen cosmic depth. There are 600,000 square degrees of sky, and 100,000 galaxies in each degree. The task is to photograph as many research priorities as possible before sunrise. A Night in the Life of the Universe.

           There’s excitement tonight on two accounts. Following a recent supernova sighting, the Internet is hopping: Does 1994 D have you on the edge of your seat? what’s your predix for maximum brightness? what would Sandage’s be?

           At his keyboard, Phillips sturdies himself to the challenge, crunches some figures, types out his reply: maximum brightness is 7 days away.

           The European Southern Observatory at La Silla, 100 miles north, is predicting four days, but Phillips likes his guess. “Would you say, Nick,” he prompts his partner, “that our record has been better for the most part than the ESO’s?”
           Suntzeff’s response is a mock-serene “Of course.”

           The other exciting email arrives from San Francisco around 9 o’clock like a rock through a window. The whole crew stands around in sneakers and pressed Levis and sweatshirts to read. Space Tether May Be Visible At Dawn! Phillips at first is properly cynical. “See what it’s like to be an astronomer?”

           Hello M Phillips! we have reason to believe the SEDS-2 space tether may be visible over chile at dawn tomorrow morning. the tether is a 20 km long polyethylene string 0.8 m in diameter hanging from the second stage of a delta rocket . . . surprisingly it is quite visible given the right lighting conditions . . . extremely interested in your observations . . . if nothing else, it’s quite a spectacular sight . . . up to three full moon diameters . . . --mike fennel, tether applications

           “Mike--up--yours,” Phillips says, while he composes his real reply, which is a request for details. The night has taken an unpredictable turn, and the universe feels wayward, space debris falling where it will.

           Over several hours Phillips has been working with a fidgety momentum, tapping his pencil to a series of ‘60s CDs. The Kink Kronicles. Twenty Years of Jethro Tull. (Phillips was 16 in ‘68.) The music adds a dorm-room air to what could be the inside of a submarine. There are track lights with bare bulbs and transom windows to no place, and Godzilla-movie instrument panels with masking tape to mark the settings. REALTIME DISPLAY. ARCON DATA ACQUISITION. TWO DIMENSIONAL PHOTON COUNTER. The CHARGED COUPLED DEVICE is a video-cam display with 4 billion pixels. The most unromantic of all traditions in astronomy is that the constellations are displayed as black spots on a white field--ink splotches, melanoma--because in the days before LCDs, astronomers got used to looking at photographic plates, which are negatives. A keystroke can reverse the black stars to white, but practically no one ever bothers.

           The telescope itself--about the size of a helicopter, perched under the visor of the dome--is a stop on a tour, baroque hardware: Leonardo meets NASA. Astronomers visit it mainly to fix a mechanical problem. To get to it, you can take an elevator, but that means carrying a carful of warm air up the shaft, which is bad. In the 20-year life of this observatory, as fainter, farther stars have been studied, image-quality concerns have so intensified that a little unwanted warmth can ruin everything. “If they had to build the big dome again,” Phillips says, “they wouldn’t,” because big buildings invite offices, which attract people, who breathe out vapor. In its obsession with cold, Cerro Tololo has moved all its machinery downstairs and will eventually remove the offices entirely. The building is more valuable as a sheath for the telescope.

           Inside the dome everything echoes, and there are steel maintenance rungs up the walls maybe five stories high. Once, on a visit, Chile’s minister of the economy asked if he could climb up--for safety’s sake, Phillips tried undiplomatically to deny him. He felt an urgent horrified kick from an aide and overruled himself, and the minister scaled to the top of the tank. There’s this macho ethic in astronomy--loosely, don’t complain about climbing stepladders in the dark--and it has combined elements of slapstick and horror. Astronomers have been crushed to death by revolving domes. Mark Aaronson, at Kitt’s Peak in Arizona, was one of the 1980s’ brightest astronomers, and a creature of quick motions. He flung open a door to look at the sky at precisely the wrong instant: the dome was revolving, and it crushed him between door and jamb. Sometimes, on instinct, a tired astronomer tries to balance a moving telescope by holding onto it with his arms, and it sweeps him up grandly into the sky. He hangs and screams with no one around, finally choosing to drop, breaking a leg or maybe two. Ladder injuries are rare--there’s a circus-style net below the observer’s cage--but at Tololo someone once fell down the tube of the telescope to its giant mirror on his back like a bug. It was a 120-foot drop, but at a slope, so he wasn’t badly hurt.

           The chair of the telescope rests on rails that tilt to help the occasional live observer stay level. The chair also swivels something more than 360 degrees, but with a limit in each direction. Computer programmers devise cook’s tours to torture visiting astronomers, who in all the swiveling and tilting lose their orientation and tip over and abandon their chairs, crawling for mercy on the bottom of the cage.

           Rough, but not so rough you can’t hear astronomy’s giants laughing at these new guys with their keyboards. Twenty and 40 years before, astronomy meant straining over eyepieces, sliding hand paddles for focus, teardrops freezing to lenses in the drafty domes. Hubble’s pupil Allan Sandage--the aging warrior in the fate-of-the-universe debate--had his roots in that era. In the Southern California of bomb tests and postwar hubris (Fritz Zwicky proposed shooting artillery bursts over Palomar to make the air more transparent), Sandage was the prodigy in a bomber jacket, widely considered the greatest astronomer of the century. Later to become a curiosity. “He always talks about the Mount Wilson dining room,” Suntzeff says, “which was called the Monastery, because it was all men, and in the old days they always had to wear ties. So a few years ago, when I was observing and I heard Sandage would be there, a friend and I arranged to walk into the dining room wearing coats and ties.” Sandage “appreciated the joke,” Suntzeff says, but his voice is so gentle you suspect it was a complex moment.

           In Dennis Overbye’s 1991 history, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Sandage comes off as both brilliant and sentimental, and distracted by an inability to choose his battles. For nearly 50 years he had been working to rescue Hubble’s soul from limbo, bringing that unruly expansion constant down from 530 to near 50--implying a universe 20 billion years old, with just the right gravity to collapse and be reborn in cycles; i.e., to oscillate forever. The twenty-billion-year heartbeat, it’s been called. A religious child, Sandage grew up to call the universe a divine miracle. But corrections by people much younger kept pushing the Hubble number higher, and the universe back into chaos.

           Phillips and Suntzeff keep this generational conflict tactful, at times practically offering to split the difference. “The difference between a 50 and a 75,” Suntzeff says--and then he laughs. “I mean, if astronomy gets something accurate to better than a factor of two, it’s a tremendous achievement.”

           Phillips has pulled out records of two supernovas tonight, whose rate of fade suggests a Hubble constant of around 70. “Seventy is like kissing your sister,” he says. “It’s neither 60 nor 80. But it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what the answer is.”

           A year before, Sandage himself passed through Cerro Tololo, and Phillips questioned how precise the data could have been on a supernova from one of those freezing, teary nights in 1937. There had been, as Phillips saw it, certain inexactnesses with photometry back then. Based partly on a re-examination of the 1937 plates, a new Harvard study said the universe was between 9 and 14 billion years old, the youngest and weirdest universe yet. Sandage was meanwhile re-computing the Hubble constant by measuring galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope--rolling the dice and hitting 50 every time.

Tethers can be used to throw objects from one orbit to another. electronically conductive tethers can be useful to plasma physics experiments--mike fennel (tether applications)

Please send me email asap to establish that we have a connection--mike fennel (tether applications)

GRABBING THIS CHANCE to witness polyethylene-string history, Phillips doesn’t delay. He sends confirmation. Mike Fennel (Tether Applications) finds time to respond with projected viewing parameters about ten seconds later.

           At 4 a.m., Suntzeff is watching the universe slide by, plucking out samples. “Here’s 1992BK,” he says. (Supernovas take years to fade out completely.) “The supernova went off in the middle of this galaxy, so I’m setting up now to subtract the galaxy’s brightness.” He takes a sip of tea, tearing through a manual for the right lens filter. “The night is clear, so we’ll use the opportunity to calibrate a lot of images. But the ‘seeing’ isn’t good”--i.e., there are distortions,shimmerings caused by the wind--“so we’re not going to look so deep.” (Worst seeing I’ve seen in a long time is a construction peculiar to astronomy.)

           Phillips is stroking his beard, scrolling through more e-mail about the distance to Supernova 1994D. (Astronomers share data pretty freely, unless a couple of teams are in a race to publish something.) “Given 1’ seeing and Tonry’s distance, plus a good 2048 CCD, we could solve it in three hours, maybe less,” writes George Jacoby of Kitt’s Peak. “There really isn’t any hurry--the galaxy isn’t going anywhere.”

           Phillips points at the screen. “Tonry has this idea about ‘mottling,’ where the more distant the star, the less its light is mottled, so you use that correlation to approximate the distance.” The technique gives a Hubble value of about 80, which would put Supernova 1994D in a galaxy 13.7 megaparsecs away.

           Far away, I keep having to remember, is long ago. The light from our sun is 8 minutes old when it reaches Earth. The explosion I’m witnessing now is 40 million years old when we see it go off. Which puts it all of maybe one 500th of the way across the universe. Or a 250th, depending on whose Hubble constant you use. In one 20,000th of that time, at its seismic creep rate along the North American Plate, the Los Angeles basin will have already dived off the coast of Alaska. It’s weird to think of Earth and time as practically eternal, yet never quite. You kneel on a trap door, praying to a mortal sky. The rock of ages slips away. I’m pretty interested in this Great Attractor, personally.

           Time to check in on Supernova 1987A, a local favorite. It was the first supernova clearly visible to the naked eye since 1604--i.e., since four years before the invention of the telescope. It made the cover of Time. “You can’t see it very sharply anymore,” says Suntzeff, but the light from the first explosion still “echoes” in the gases of the galaxy, and it will echo for 100 years. In first bloom, the event was so bright that observers wished it were a little farther away. They fashioned masks to shade the lens, converting the 4-meter telescope to the equivalent of a 4-incher, something from a hobby shop.

           The discovery was something of a feat. At a neighboring facility, observer Ian Shelton was tracking Halley’s comet through a region of the Garge Magellenic Cloud, our nearest neighboring galaxy, an opaque sea of dots to you and me but to Shelton every dot had its place, and the plates looked wrong. He had the prank victim’s intuition that one fleck didn’t belong. It was bright enough that he wouldn’t have likely missed it in the past--bright enough, in fact, to see without a telescope. He worried for a minute about a lot of ways of cross-checking the plates and reshooting the plates before it hit him to look over his head. He did, and became the first person since Johannes Kepler to see a supernova without the use of an eyepiece.

           Phillips’ and Suntzeff’s shares of glory came later. They keep adding details through the years about the supernova, extrapolating backward to the star’s history, a form of stellar autopsy. “I think my strength,” Phillips says, “is playing with data and seeing things in data, particularly in spectra, that other people don’t. I’m not a very good physicist.”

           Phillips and Suntzeff both consider themselves workhorses, longshots in a field with too many failed geniuses--a self-image that in some ways folds neatly into the castaway adventure they’re on. Among the local staff, Phillips has been nicknamed “Gilligan,” apparently on account of his looks but maybe through deeper associations too. Liaison to visiting gringos is a role he relishes. He keeps warning me, with the trailblazer’s secret pride, about maniacal drivers on Santiago’s International Highway.

           Phillips spent his college years at UC Santa Cruz, next to Watsonville, where the signs say “Artichoke Capital of the World,” a terrain so similar to Chile’s that a newcomer could feel cheated. “My first night here, one the scientists’ wives said, ‘I’m going to serve you a local delicacy,’ and she put an artichoke in front of me.”

           Suntzeff went to Redwood High near San Francisco, circa 1970, in the scientific era of moonwalks and planetary probes. A classmate, he later realized, was Robin Williams: soccer player, nerd. Suntzeff won prizes in math, but in graduate school at Stanford came to the cold self-assessment that he might be ordinary. The Mozarts of math were few. Astronomy and physics, on the other hand, could be the stuff of Found Poetry: You had to get out there and fact-gather, give luck something to work with.

           Once you’d made the cut as an astronomer in the United States (reportedly 100 graduates annually compete for 20 jobs), you could do worse than move to Chile. Suntzeff lives in “The Compound,” a hillside colony of a dozen houses adjacent to the observatory’s office headquarters in La Serena, a coastal town about the size of Santa Barbara. The homes are prebuilt elsewhere, and the lots are braceleted by rocks like the graves of pets, but they have nice redwood terraces and a view of the Pacific two miles below. Everyone walks to the office in the morning downhill the way water would flow from a runny sprinkler. At 10 a.m., the scientists meet for tea in the reading room. At noon, they go home for lunch. A U.S. astronomer’s salary in Chile supports a house and family and a housekeeper too, and a seductive retro culture has developed. Visiting astronomers are chauffeured to day rooms attended by cooks and maids. The secretaries dispense marriage-manual wisdom. When Phillips was new to La Serena, a secretary prevented him from sampling the packets of Boldo tea on display by the coffeemaker. He asked why. She stiffened one forefinger, and then drooped it forward, shaking her head.

           Since the 1970s, fully 32 of the U.S. astronomers, Phillips included, have married Chilenas. (Suntzeff’s wife is Croatian.) Phillips, whose salary as assistant director of the observatory places him, according to one staffer, “several omegas above the rest of us,” lives off the compound in a house worth of a Hollywood producer. He drives home, listening to Jethro Tull and Cream, past low-rent suburbs, past fields of mango, past train cars heaped with iron ore that will return across the ocean as Japanese cars. His wife, Sylvana, is literary and bejeweled, and she lets the stars have their mystery. The two never talk about astronomy. Their sons boogie-board during the Chilean summer. It’s like a U.S. suburb, the 1950s in exile, with science as protectorate.

ON A TYPICAL LIST OF SUPERNOVA FACTS, every item reads like a misprint. In half a second, the density of a supernova multiplies itself by a factor of a million. A core the size of Earth collapses supersonically to the size of New York.

           Then it rebounds.

           Just the first second’s rush of escaping neutrinos--subnuclear flecks that pass through our bodies unseen--carries an energy, Phillips happily points out, “surpassing that of all the optic light emitted per second in the entire universe.” What Earth’s sun will radiate in its lifetime of ten billion years, a supernova exceeds a hundred times in the blink of an eye.

           Sometimes the blast leaves a corpse--a black hole a million billion times denser than gold. Or it leaves a “neutron star” spinning like a teacup. (The revolutions are timed in milliseconds.) Sometimes a supernova not only blows off its own material but bulldozes a canal through the rest of its galaxy. Gravity reclaims the gusher while the galaxy’s still siphoning into it, and you can see in pictures the stream of interstellar gas and dust bent back like a shower from a hose. Evolution hardwires us to stroll through this kind of violence like soccer revelers, compose a little night music, make ourselves at home. We’re totally, miraculously, insane.

           Astronomers aren’t so different from anyone else. Maybe a little more eclectic. They believe firmly in the existence of ETs--just by law of averages, given the size of the universe. They share, along with the sort of people who attend UFO conventions, the idea that the dinosaur Ice Age was brought about by meteors. “One asteroid in the last decade actually passed between the moon’s orbit and the Earth,” Phillips says. “Though people didn’t realize it until afterward.” (Another near miss was reported the next month.) “It’s only through the use of spy satellites designed to monitor nuclear testing that people have started to see how common these things are.”

           “It’s probable that one reached the Earth near Russia,” Suntzeff says. “There’s an area where all the trees were blown down and stripped of their branches.”
           I ask if any of this makes the universe seem unfriendly somehow.
           Phillips laughs. “I don’t know. I guess ever since I’ve studied science I’ve come more to understand that we’re just a tiny part of it all. Things are inevitable, and it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just what it is. Though it’s certainly beautiful.”
           “What intrigues me,” I say, “is how we’ve developed this answering capacity to feel the beauty of it.”

           “Even more so for us as astronomers,” Phillips says, “in that we’re privy to information most people don’t really have. Most people haven’t seen the Milky Way. Well, we’ve seen it hundreds of times, and we know exactly what it is. It blows me away every time I look at a map of the sky. So we have an appreciation for the complexity and the immensity of the universe that many people don’t have. I think many people would be frightened by it.”
           “And you’re not?” I say.

           “The Christians say God has an overall plan--and men say, ‘All right, in the end it’ll all be cool, because if we do good works and believe in God we’re all going to go to heaven.’ And that allows us to face death--as well as other things that are difficult to understand. Like, why does a child get leukemia at the age of 5? Personally, I think why this child got leukemia is there’s a physical explanation for it. Maybe a gamma ray came through the atmosphere at some time and altered his cells. But I know that’s a cold way of looking at it. And I’m sure on my deathbed I’ll be as afraid of dying as anyone else.”

YOU CAN THINK AND THINK about the universe and never get anywhere. But you can also see it everywhere you look. You can see the universe crush Robert De Niro into penitent sobs in The Mission. You can see Louis Armstrong hold the universe together with a note.

           Cosmologists, of course, take these phenomena literally--playing them back a frame at a time, trying to find the hidden strings. There’s a cockroachlike tenacity to cosmology, matching the shadow-dance of the universe step for step, holding all its mysteries to be knowable. And cosmology may be right. The old sensation of a magical, inscrutable heavens may finally be just a lie my genes have told to help me sleep. Or it may be a deep awareness that science is the height of human folly, that you could club the stars to death and never scratch the consciousness beneath them. Though you can’t help marveling at science for trying.

           For instance--and I’ve stopped trying to understand this--though the laws of physics and math fall apart at the level of quantum particles, cosmologists aren’t discouraged, because it all works out, awfully close anyway, if you theorize that the universe is woven out of tiny existential loops. (There isn’t even Nothingness between them--the loops define space.) Or possibly there are separate, impervious Bubble Universes, one for each incompatible system of math. And there is the Theory of Inflation, which says that whole slew of longstanding conundrums are explained if you add a little wrinkle to the Big Bang--the cosmos just has to morph disproportionately from virtual nothingness to the size of a grapefruit in the first 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second of existence. Cosmology will work this all out yet.

           But there’s not much happening this second, this night, with the galaxies drifting by and the universe buoyant, all its balls in the air, like Mary Tyler Moore’s flung hat. And us scavenging around below, in the weird calm mirth of the freeze-frame, keeping our spirits up. We decide maybe to drop in on the facility’s other domes. We bop over dirt lots, dangling our pen lights in blackness outside. The visiting astronomers are at keyboards, pondering next moves over blinking cursors.

           I shake hands with a guy named Chris, part of a Harvard study of the southern skies. He’s trying to see if you can account for the gravity that brought galaxies together into clusters, and he’s trying to do this without relying on the theory of Dark Matter--which essentially explains any missing gravity by giving it a name. “And that doesn’t feel good,” Chris says. He is young and athletic-looking, and respectful in a way that wipes the last strains of Classic Rock right out of Phillips’ night. Phillips warns him: “I used to look like you.”

           Soon we’re plodding back to the 4-meter dome, past billions and billions of stars, not even looking up. At 5 a.m., Infinity is annoying. Phillips looks for any good e-mail, finds Mike Fennel. Fennel requests Phillips’ help (“as this is a very low-budget experiment) in relaying tether-viewing coordinates to Allan Dressler at Las Campanas. I linger at the coffeemaker, weighing a packet of Boldo tea, then think better of it.

THE VERDICT ON SUPERNOVA 1994D, as dawn approaches, is that it is still getting brighter. It conforms more with each day to one set of supernova precursors, and less to certain others--in its small way, this is influencing the cosmic debate. Three weeks later I’ll get a summary from Phillips by phone. The supernova, he says, maxed after four more nights. (The European prediction scored a bulls-eye; Phillips was three days over.)

           In terms of the supernova survey, the universe is still pretty much a battleground. “If we simply assume that all supernovas have the same intrinsic luminosity, then we confirm Sandage’s answer for the Hubble constant: about 53 or 54,” says Phillips. “But if we factor in our observations that say there’s a relationship between how fast a supernova fades and what its luminosity is, then we get a slightly larger value, something in the mid- to high 60s.” This translates to a 15-billion-light-year universe--a universe younger than some of its oldest stars. A nonsense universe. The result has provoked an unhappy letter from Sandage. “It’s not definitive, and it’s only a 12 percent difference,” Phillips says. “But it’s not in the 50s, where he likes it.”

           The SEDS-2 space tether is a nice little wonder to behold. We very nearly miss it. We barge outside at the appointed moment, forgetting penlights and binoculars and stopwatches; we have to rush back in to fill our pockets with these things. At last we are perched on the edge of the mountaintop, facing south and talking low with a few more bodies trotting toward us from the other domes. The sky is black, and the constellations hold us in their focus. We settle in.

           When it appears at 5:32, it’s so close and clear it seems phony. “Here it comes--wow,” Phillips says. It resembles a puppet that’s been shot from a cannon. The head is a white bulb, and it has a tail as long as the width of the moon and bent straight down, which seems odd; it whizzes straight toward us like a line drive--I feel myself digging in to break one way or the other. Then it’s straight overhead, and now past us, and we’re searching ourselves for those stopwatches and penlights, beating our coat pockets like guys on fire.

           It takes days to piece together what happened in half a minute--how the sun, on the brink of rising, underlit the polyethylene strand. How a collision with space dust must have clipped off two-thirds of its length. It was explainable in retrospect, but while I was actually watching the tether, I felt like anything was possible. I felt nervous and happy-footed at the same time, and I kept imagining that I could have been beaned. I had the sensation that there was some instinct of apprehension inside of me that could take the measure of space the way an animal measures a leap.

           Here at the bottom of the world or at the end of it, a lot of scientists believe that this sensation can be expressed in the form of a number. A few, like Allan Sandage, insist that the number has been found. Within 20 years, Phillips and Suntzeff assure me, the mystery of the age, size and fate of the universe will be closed.