For all those who think quarks are quirky and a quasar is an electronic gadget, there's John Conway.
While gazing into outer darkness may not solve all universal secrets, Conway, a 28-year-old British astronomer, thinks stargazing will provide the answer to the age-old brain teaser. "To me, answering the question of how the universe began seems to be a question everyone should be interested in," Conway said, while on a stopover in Salt Lake City to present a lecture at Hansen Planetarium.Conway, a postdoctoral fellow at California Polytechnical Institute at Pasadena, spends his days gazing at the outer edge of the black holes, his high-powered radio telescope focused on galaxy NGC 1275. He is the youngest scientist featured as part of "The Astronomers," a six-part weekly series being aired by KUED. The series will start at 8 p.m. Monday.
Paleontologists study extinct plants and animals, using the fossils buried in the earth's layers as a keyhole to peer through history. Astronomers study history in a similar way, using telescopes trained on the heavens as a time machine peering across light years.
"Unfortunately, we haven't yet got telescopes powerful enough to look deep into space, (but) we're looking further and further into time."
Conway's research involves linking images produced by radio telescopes all over the world, comparing data to obtain high-resolution images of objects far, far away. "Everything you see in the sky compared to what I see in the radio (telescope) is a million times closer."
The galaxy he is studying is a couple of suburbs, or about 16 million light years, away from the earth's neighborhood. While the name - NGC 1275 - is not especially catchy, the star system crowned with a central black hole is. Conway said most space bodies appear to be minding their own business, but he terms this "the cannibal galaxy," because it swallows matter and gases and surrounding galaxies.
Theoretically, a black hole is a collapsed star so condensed that neither light nor matter can escape from its gravitational field. Its force causes matter to clump together, Conway said, and the temperature inside is enough to keep things together. He admits that black holes not only swallow energy but have captured the public's imagination. "It's got a nice name, hasn't it?"
While no matter can escape from a black hole, a black hole appears to generate energy. That energy is what Conway and other astronomers are studying. For some reason scientists don't yet understand, the disc around a black hole heats to such a hot temperature that it appears to accelerate matter with a motion similar to a whirlpool. By analyzing images that measure the accelerations, astronomers hope to puzzle out more information about the formation of a galaxy.
Conway and a group of astronomers are using powerful radio telescopes, which look like giant satellite dishes, to perform experiments called Very Long Baseline Interferometry. The technology in the powerful telescopes is about 15 years old. But only in the past six months or so has it been possible for the scientists to make world links, thanks to the easing of the Cold War. Previously, the Soviet military wouldn't reveal the exact locations of its telescopes.
Astronomers in the United States, Western Europe and the Soviet Union train radio telescopes on a certain celestial object, record the signals emitted and compare those gathered. As a side benefit, by comparing the worldwide data, scientists can actually follow movements in the earth's crust. Someday, they might be able to track earthquake motion. "Even when you do pure science you find things that are useful in the end," the astronomer said.
Conway tries to forget romantic notions about stargazing when he works, but he lets the beauty of the universe provide motivation. And despite his enthusiasm for his work, he admits his high-powered brand of astronomy isn't easily explained to friends or other non-scientists. "I don't force galaxies down their throats."