Cosmic Cadence by Barnard Browne
Before the Europeans came across the ocean in their creaking boats, there was a time that no one can now remember except in dreams. When they awoke, they found the vault of heaven rotating above them and the stars grouped together in island universes as numerous as the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world combined.
The first stars had already burnt out and spread their metal-rich cinders across the galaxy to seed the next generation of stars. They in turn had collapsed and ignited, overwhelmed by the tender but relentless force of gravity and then cooled into a matrix that could supported life. And so, at the very moment that the universe became self-aware, the dreamtime ended.
Much later, I travelled to one of the places where the descendants of the first men had built a powerful telescope to winnow the ancient light so that we might understand the forces that shaped us. Here the outback sky is dark enough to capture light from the galaxies while eliminating the unwanted background glow from the night sky which has a terrestrial origin.
Installing a mask containing tiny holes drilled at the expected location of each galaxy captures the cosmic light while rejecting the chaff. Light passing through the holes can then be split by colour to yield the chemical composition and age of the galaxies.
Despite the quality of its optics, success was hostage to the precision of the alignment between the galaxy images and the corresponding holes in the masks. Any error would erase information that may have come from the edge of the universe some 14 billion years ago.
Since the instrument was a prototype, we could not afford computerised control – so we fell back on a simpler system – a caged monkey.
The “cage” was an archaic feature which made it possible for a research student (or a similar ape!) to ride inside the telescope as it tracked across the sky and make any necessary adjustments to the instrument.
Once the telescope had been slewed to the right position and adjusted to ensure galaxy light was coming cleanly through the holes, there was little to do but plug into the cosmic dreamtime like the first men 50,000 years ago.
Due to the faintness of the targets the exposure times were very long, so I would often wake up to find that the cosmic clockwork had turned me upside down while I slept.
I wasn’t the only monkey – we took it in turns to ride in the cage. Walking outside the dome, through the surrounding grove of gum trees I listened to the hum and buzz of the outback night while my eyes adapted to the profound darkness. I was perplexed by a repeated pattern of triplets: tap-tap-tap … tap-tap-tap. Eventually I realised that this was caused by the loping gait of the kangaroos who had come to see what I was doing.
In their eyes I could see a reflection of the southern sky. More spectacular than the north, it conceals the centre of our own island universe whose dynamical centre – a giant black hole - is betrayed by the canted orbits of stars reddened to near-invisibility by the shroud of dust and gas that surrounds it.
This was one of those rare moments when the infinite becomes visible as the fabric of the universe swims into view.
“To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour” (William Blake).
What did the kangaroos see in my eyes?
Later, I had the chance to build a fully automated instrument for the north. No monkey or Kangaroo was needed but I still miss the dreamtime and the tap-tap-tap cadence.