Polar Science

One of the key reasons for me to come to the Pole is the amazing science being conducted here. On the coast at McMurdo, there is a great variety of observational science being conducted ranging from geophysics on Mt. Erebus, through benthic and marine ecosystem studies under the ice, palaeozoology and palaeobotany on the fossil beds exposed in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and the dry valleys, micro- and crypto-biology in the freshwater lakes and sediments of the dry valleys and on to astrophysics being conducted by long range balloons launched from the Long Range Balloon (LRB) facility near McMurdo which sends high altitude balloons on month-long laps around the continent before releasing their payloads to be recovered from the Ice.

But at the Pole, the science is dedicated pretty much to meteorology and atmospheric studies and to astrophysics. Which is why I was here. After having read so much over the years about IceCube, BICEP, the Keck Array and the South Pole Telescope (SPT) it was really exciting to get to see these amazing instruments in person and to have a chance to talk to the scientists about their work.

I got to know the group of scientists working on BICEP and the Keck Array while awaiting flights to the Pole and over dinners in the galley. They were enthusiastic about showing me around their telescope and to explain in detail the upgrades that they were installing. 

The Martin A. Pomeranz Observatory (MAPO) containing both BICEP and the Keck Array.

The Martin A. Pomeranz Observatory (MAPO) containing both BICEP and the Keck Array.

All of these instruments (BICEP, Keck and the STP) are dedicated to observations in the microwave, millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths. This is the lower energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum (between infrared (heat) and radio waves). The South Pole is an ideal location for observing at these frequencies because the atmosphere is very dry (water vapor is opaque at these frequencies), the Pole is high (9,300ft/2,800m) and so the atomsphere is relatively thin, the ambient temperature is very low (these instruments are chilled even further to a fraction of a degree Kelvin), radio and heat pollution is minimal, the weather conditions are relatively stable and "mild", there is good infrascture already in place and finally, of course, it is night half of the year. All of these factors make the arduous (and expensive) task of moving people, equipment and energy to the end of the earth worthwhile. 

All of these instruments are focussed on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB); the relict radiation permeating the universe that is the remnant of the "Big Bang". This is the oldest light in the Universe! The light that's still permeating the entire Universe from the moment the lights went on! Over the 14 billion years of its continued expansion (and cooling) the extreme high energy left over from the initial universal expansion has shifted into the microwave range and now can be observed as a faint (almost) isotropic glow across the sky. Each of these telescopes has a unique approach to observing the CMB and gleans different data accordingly.

One of the 5 cryostats from the Keck array being tested and calibrated after having its sensors replaced - soon to be super-cooled and reduced to a vacuum.

One of the 5 cryostats from the Keck array being tested and calibrated after having its sensors replaced - soon to be super-cooled and reduced to a vacuum.

MAPO houses the Keck Array which uses 5 super-cooled telescopes called "cryostats" each of which is sensitive  to a particular frequency. The aim of the instrument is to detect polarization in the CMB which will give information to help understand the first 380,000 years of the Universe's existence after the Big Bang - the period of rapid expansion know as "inflation". To detect the subtle variations in the microwave background the cryostat must be cooled to just 0.25º above absolute zero - the theoretical temperature where all atomic movement ceases (-459.67ºF / -273.15ºC). That's really cold - even for the Pole! The CMB itself is only 2.75º above absolute zero - it's had a long time to cool down after all!

One of the silicon microwave detectors surrounded by its precision machined niobium alloy housing which becomes super-conductive when super-cooled.

One of the silicon microwave detectors surrounded by its precision machined niobium alloy housing which becomes super-conductive when super-cooled.

Inside the Keck array - with 4 out of the 5 cryostats in place. How do they keep track of all those wires?

Inside the Keck array - with 4 out of the 5 cryostats in place. How do they keep track of all those wires?

Hanging with the excellent BICEP/Keck team and some other polar folk along for the tour. You can see the pointy end of the cryostats emerging from the mount. The instrument is surrounded by a plywood and mylar shield to reduce heat interference from the nearby buildings at the Pole.

Hanging with the excellent BICEP/Keck team and some other polar folk along for the tour. You can see the pointy end of the cryostats emerging from the mount. The instrument is surrounded by a plywood and mylar shield to reduce heat interference from the nearby buildings at the Pole.

In the adjacent building is housed the South Pole Telescope and the latest version of BICEP - BICEP 3.

The South Pole Telescope primary mirror (left) and the shielded aperture of BICEP 3 (right). The outhouse is on the extreme right and is considerably lower tech!

The South Pole Telescope primary mirror (left) and the shielded aperture of BICEP 3 (right). The outhouse is on the extreme right and is considerably lower tech!

The 10m primary "mirror" is made from carefully machined aluminum plates. The surface is accurate to fractions of a mm - perfectly smooth and mirror-like at the longer wavelengths the mirror collects.

The 10m primary "mirror" is made from carefully machined aluminum plates. The surface is accurate to fractions of a mm - perfectly smooth and mirror-like at the longer wavelengths the mirror collects.

The secondary and tertiary (covered) mirrors inside the building. Nice machining on that secondary!!!

The secondary and tertiary (covered) mirrors inside the building. Nice machining on that secondary!!!

The business end of the telescope (or "focal plane array") is another super-cooled cryostat.

The business end of the telescope (or "focal plane array") is another super-cooled cryostat.

You can read much more about these various instruments on the websites of the collaborating institutions who have developed and work with these instruments - e.g. SPT, BICEP and Keck Array.

The science is phenomenal and, for me, truly inspiring. The Keck Array and BICEP are searching for polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation to better understand the nature of the initial inflation of the universe immediately following the Big Bang. Essentially that are looking back in time to observe the universe before photons even came into existence! Wow!

And the SPT is mapping "primary and secondary anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background" (i.e. very subtle variations) to observe distant galaxy clusters, using the CMB as a kind of universal backlight to reveal the silhouettes of galaxy clusters. This will provide not only information about the formation of galaxies in the early universe but will help quantify the nature of and amount of dark energy in the universe. 

So why would an artist care about all this stuff??

Well, we are talking about the origin of the Universe here! Since we've looked to the heavens for the first time we have wondered at our existence and our place in the cosmos. I find it incredibly exciting that here in the early 21st Century we are on the brink of genuinely understanding the structure of matter and the history of the Universe. Not just proposing fascinating stories and myths that inspire awe but genuinely understanding through a process of critical inquiry and increasingly focussed analysis. What greater goal can there be for humanity?

I find the image of the CMB fascinating - some have called it the Universe's first baby photo. Those minute anisotropies can be read to reveal the development of the the first years of the Universe and give clues as to nature of dark energy. Such subtle variations in what was at first considered background noise, variations of a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, revealing such profound insights into the history and nature of the Universe. It is impressive and awe inspiring, don't you think? 

As an artist, I've long been interested in pareidolia - the tendency of humans to see meaningful patterns in random noise. And as a non-astrophysicist, I can't help but wonder if the patterns scientists discern in these subtle anisotropies might amount to a very sophisticated case of pareidolia. Astronomy has a rich history of mistaken (perhaps even hopeful) vision. Percival Lowell's painstaking work on the canals of Mars being a classic example. Lowell's vision was augmented by his beliefs and imagination (and probably the 19th century craze for canal building). Only later when higher resolution instruments with cameras attached resolved the surface into a cratered and eroded desert were the canals finally banished (from science if not from popular imagination).

Lowell's map of the Martian canals from 1895 - more information about the history of the Martian canals can be found here.

Lowell's map of the Martian canals from 1895 - more information about the history of the Martian canals can be found here.

I am curious about this nexus point where information is so minimal (so difficult to distinguish from background noise) that our imaginations are called into play to fill in the details. Scientists strive to create increasingly sensitive instruments and new algorithms to filter out the noise - to get a "cleaner" signal and "good" data. As an artist, I relish this ambiguous space were rationality and imagination vie for supremacy as we navigate a sea of noise.

“The next point is as to what constitutes proof. Now, between the truths we take for granted because of their age, and those we question because of their youth, we are apt to forget that in both proof is nothing but preponderance of probability. The law of gravitation; for example, than which we believe nothing to be more true, depends eventually, as recognized by us, upon a question of probability; and so do the thousand and one problems of daily life upon so many of which we act unhesitatingly and should be philosophic fools if we did not. All deduction rests ultimately upon the data derived from experience. This is the tortoise that supports our conception of the cosmos. For us, therefore, the point at issue in any theory is not whether there be a possibility of its being false, but whether there be a probability of its being true. This, which is evident enough when squarely envisaged, is too often lost sight of in discussing theories on their road to recognition. Negative evidence is no evidence at all, and the possibility that a thing might be otherwise, no proof whatever that it is not so. The test of a theory is, first, that it shall not be directly contradicted by any facts, and secondly, that the probabilities in its favor shall be sufficiently great.”

-Percival Lowell