As we make our morning coffee, pay our bills, greet our co-workers, send emails and texts, pick our kids up from school, and catch the tail end of a late night movie, it’s easy to forget such humdrum is not the totality of existence nor the sum of reality. Just beyond our blue borders, an ostensible infinite of planets, galaxies, stars, matter and energy disturbs and distorts, prompting our own insignificance. At the edge of the abyss our beloved earth, home and heart, remains nothing more but a spectrum of trifling consciousness, entertaining a momentary outburst of cosmic expression… In truth, reality here on earth and in the infinite space beyond, exists by immeasurable forms. Successions of interpretive information, reality is therefore incumbent upon perception – that is, how its intelligence is received and processed. And while there are a vast number of receptors able to receive reality beyond our own consciousness, (be it a virus, a simple or complex biotic organism, or matter and energy) totality of existence by way of reality is therefore extremely volatile, subjective and indefinite. There is no better way of deconstructing reality than the study of astronomy, astrophysics and quantum mechanics. Journeys into the universe via science and technology have revealed time and space to be relative and superfluous, reality, indistinguishable, and the tangible, mere abstractions. So what do we make of this overwhelming infinite impossibility?
For millennia, fascination of the starlit unknown has driven the appetite of humanity. Studying the cosmos by analyzing light emitted from stars, gas clouds and galaxies, human beings have thrived for thousands of years within budding interpretations, contradicting philosophies and juxtaposing realities that have since propelled our own social and technological evolutions. However, the most prominent developments in our understanding of the universe have only truly been realized within the last two decades. New complex and advanced technologies now deliver the kind of support needed to interpret forms of electromagnetic radiation. These radio waves, X-rays, infrared radiation and gamma rays, provide information on imperceptible areas of the universe, thus shedding light on what was once darkness. One of the most prominent places for studying such marvels is the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory at White Lake. Just a short distance from Penticton, British Columbia, the observatory was first established in 1959 to advance the field of astrophysics in Canada by exploring the universe using radio techniques. The radio astronomy observatory, under the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, is Canada’s largest and most prominent, situated within a carefully secluded and federally protected area, free from interference of man-made radio signals. To date, much of the research conducted at the observatory has corresponded to the study of hydrogen, the most abundant chemical element found in the universe. By studying the distribution of this cosmic building block in the Milky Way, astronomers have since been able to partly reveal the structure of our galaxy and universe. Other studies conducted at the observatory have also observed solar activity and charted other radio sources, (such as quasars and distant galaxies) as well as a large portion of the Milky Way itself. However the most remarkable innovation to take place at DRAO is essentially, a time-travel machine. Of course it won’t be humans travelling through time and space, rather a cutting-edge, highly advanced radio telescope, which will receive information emitted billions of years ago from our early universe in order to better understand its history and future.
The $11-million Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Experiment, (CHIME) will be the first telescope built in the country in over 30 years, and will be Canada’s largest radio telescope to date. Funded in part by a $4.6 million investment from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, renowned astrophysicists from University of British Columbia, McGill University, the University of Toronto as well as the DRAO will all be collaborating on the project. Dr. Mark Halpern, UBC astrophysicist and projected leader said, “Canada has been very, very effective in astronomical research but this is a standalone, entirely important Canadian experiment and we’re proud of that.” While a mystified scientific community continues to grapple with the fact that our universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, accosting preconceived notions of gravity and cosmic composition, newfound hopes have been placed on the success of this innovative telescope in order to provide greater insight and answers into the why’s, what’s, where’s and how’s. The radio telescope will listen for cosmic sound waves and analyze electromagnetic radiation, using components from the cellphone industry to digitally collect and interpret signals nearly one billion times per second in order to map the distribution of hydrogen and synthesize a three-dimensional image of one quarter of the observable universe. Radiation coming from the most far-off galaxies will allow researchers to observe billions of years into the past to deduce how the universe first expanded. While scientists believe the thrust of this expansion is derived from an energy density known as ‘dark energy’, (that is, an unperceivable object that does not give off light), information from the new telescope will potentially reveal more about its composition, (which is said to make up nearly 70 per cent of the known universe). “It’s almost like time travel,” said Kris Sigurdson, an astrophysicist from UBC and co-investigator on the project. “It’s looking back into the past and how the universe was at that time and it’s just amazing.”
The CHIME telescope is set to be the most sensitive instrument in the world for this kind of research. With no moving parts, the full size telescope will feature a 100 meter by 100 meter mesh that will entertain 10,000 square meters of ‘collecting area’, (larger than six NHL hockey rinks) filled with 2,560 low-noise receivers. Collectively, these receivers will scan half of the sky every day, gathering the electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves. The data will then be submitted and analyzed in partner labs at UBC, McGill University and the University of Toronto. However, as a measure of trial and error, work is only now underway to build a smaller “pathfinder” test telescope, about one tenth of the size of the real-deal, scheduled to be operational in April. This smaller version will enable scientists to confirm the success of all components in the environment before the equipment for the larger telescope is ordered. If the smaller version works as planned, construction on the full-scale model will proceed in late 2014.
So as we make our way about this little planet, day in and day out, to perceive reality and light and time and space in our own way, it is important to remind ourselves of the greater picture: the superior home and heart to which we belong and the infinite totality of existence in which we are an expression. Innovations such as CHIME are beacons in that darkness, a chance for us to reach out and grasp at our beginnings and our ends, to make sense of a senseless place that might only be understood by a fleeting illumination born in the innermost seed of being – the fundamental of existence and non-existence. So what do we make of the universe knocking at our door? We embrace it with arms wide open. We surrender and bloom. We thrive in our own unknowing, and we love all that is and all that is not. This is only the beginning.