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The Bright Ages: Stargazing With Big-Buck Chuck

At the top of Mount Palomar, up a winding road of Indian casinos and groves of citrus and pine, about an hour inland from Oceanside, sits the Hale Telescope, for decades the crown jewel in the world of astronomy. Since the early 1990s the telescope has been eclipsed by a series of even bigger, fancier models, but as far as Caltech astronomer Chuck Steidel is concerned, Hale is far from obsolete. Like camera and car aficionados, Steidel reserves his deepest reverence for the classics. “Simplicity and workmanship,” he says. “That’s what Hale is all about. There is nothing else like it.”

This evening, Steidel, dressed in a button-down shirt, jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, has come once again to Hale in pursuit of a long-term goal: finding galaxies at the farthest reaches of the universe.

Success with that kind of project takes smarts. Steidel has plenty. Last September the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its coveted, unsolicited “genius” grants, handing him half a million bucks, no strings attached. You could call him Big-Buck Chuck.

The thing is, Steidel never wanted to be a science geek. “I hated physics,” he says of his college years at Princeton. “I was much more into literature and music.” So he played guitar, wrote songs and sang backup in a series of garage bands. The first stars he discovered were of the rock ’n’ roll variety — as a college radio DJ he helped introduce REM to the masses. But with astronomy Steidel seems to have found enough astral intrigue to engage the creative reaches of his mind. He also likes the world of academia because it helps him avoid painful social situations. “I’m no good at small talk,” he says. “I’m mostly scared of people.”

The outside of the dome that houses Hale is painted bright, eye-burning white. Once inside, though, the space is dark and cavelike, and Hale is a looming, muscular machine. Standing next to it I feel a powerlessness akin to scuba diving with sharks deep in the ocean or encountering a tiger on an African plain. Not that there is any danger here, but I can’t help sensing that this is the turf of a mighty beast, and that I am a rather vulnerable visitor.

At Hale’s base, a flying saucer–looking disc holds a curved, 200-inch mirror. Above that there’s a hollowed-out arch that looks like a magnet; this is attached to the prime mirror, encased in what looks like a giant tin can. Inside the can sits a faded black chair. During Hale’s early days, an astronomer would climb in and photograph the night sky. Now all the images are taken by computer and transmitted to the control room where the astronomers work. A few months back, Caltech acquired one of the largest wide-field infrared cameras ever built. It can photograph galaxies up to 12 billion light-years away. Tonight that camera is nestled in the place where the astronomer used to sit.

At dusk we ride an elevated platform up to the top to watch the dome slide open. We see the misting valleys below and a blanket of pink along the horizon give way to a darkening night sky. The first stars appear. We retreat to the control room: It’s time to work.

Steidel isn’t the only one pursuing the secrets of the heavens. But he was among the first to try a new method. Instead of simply gazing at images of varying depths and trying to sort out where everything is, Steidel divided the universe into manageable slices, or epochs, and started charting each galaxy within it.

These days he’s working on what he thinks might be the most important epoch in the history of the universe, one he calls the “Bright Ages.” Steidel shows me two images. Each is a tile-sized square with a beige background covered in tiny black dots and a few, much larger dots that look like cigarette burns. Each tiny dot represents a galaxy in the target epoch. The “cigarette burns” are much closer stars that are getting in the way. As he explains the images, Steidel gets excited. During the Bright Ages, he says, which occurred between 10 and 12 billion light-years ago, more than half of all the stars in the entire universe were created. Since humans are mostly made of carbon and all carbon is made in the center of stars, Steidel says, “Fifty to 60 percent of the makeup of our bodies probably comes from the stars born during this epoch.”

But even in the most fascinating job, the spectacular often gives way to the mundane. This night is a case in point. The work consists of cataloging as many of the estimated 500 to 600 galaxies as possible, data that will be refined in the coming months. What that looks like onscreen is a bunch of letters and numbers and the occasional blurry image. No windows. No stars.

As Steidel settles in for a long night, I have one last question: What is he doing with his cool half-mil? So far, not much. This is a man accustomed to thinking of time in terms of eons — he doesn’t feel the need to rush into anything. He did buy himself a vintage electric guitar for his 40th birthday a few months ago. “This year I began my midlife crisis,” he says, smiling. “You can’t just have your nose to the grindstone all the time.”

—Sara Catania