Dawn Of It All: New Mega Telescopes Will Let Us Travel Back To Origins Of Universe

Artist's impression of the E-ELT in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Artist's impression of the E-ELT in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Yann Verdo

PARIS – To infinity ... and beyond!

Within the next decade, if all goes according to plan, we Earthlings will have two crucial instruments at our disposal to probe the outer reaches of the universe. Doing so, will allow us to go back in time to the very birth of the universe, 13.7 billion years ago or so, since seeing far is tantamount to seeing early: the light emitted by a galaxy ten billion light-years away from Earth shows us, by definition, this galaxy as it was ten billion years ago ...

Yes, we know: Mind-blowing.

The first of these two instruments is a giant eye, 39-meters in diameter, supposed to be built by 2020 on a mountaintop in Cerro Armazones, Chile. The construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), the next-generation telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), will not begin until 90% of the funding has been pledged by the member states – which is not the case yet. But a milestone has just been reached with the project receiving the support of three new countries – including France – last month at the ESO council.

The second instrument, also scheduled to be up and running in 2020, is not an optical telescope like the E-ELT – but a radio telescope. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), composed of a myriad of parabolic and dipole antennas scattered through Southern Africa and Australia, can be described a giant pair of ears listening to the radio waves emitted by the distant universe.

The projects’ estimated costs: 1 billion euros for the E-ELT; 1.5 billion euros for the SKA.

Astronomers from all kinds of disciplinary fields – planetology, astrophysics, cosmology, etc. – expect a lot from these two Earth-based telescopes which will work in parallel with the future James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that NASA will put in orbit in 2018. "Apart from solar physics, the E-ELT will be able to tackle almost all the key questions of astronomy," says Denis Mourard, deputy director of the National Institute of Sciences of the Universe of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Twenty times more sensitive than the Very Large Telescope – its predecessor at the ESO – the E-ELT will be an invaluably powerful tool in the detection of new extra-solar planets. Almost all of the 850 or so exoplanets that have been discovered to date were found indirectly – by methods that allowed their existence to be guessed, not seen. Only the most massive exoplanets, several times the mass of Jupiter, have allowed themselves to be scrutinized, orbiting very-hard-to-see dying stars known as "brown dwarfs."

In this regard, the E-ELT’s high-resolution power is nothing short of a revolution. It will provide us with images of exoplanets that are very similar to the Earth, and reside in their parent star’s so-called habitable zone, i.e. at a distance where the temperature allows the existence of liquid water. More importantly, the E-ELT will allow us to perform a spectroscopy of these planets – and therefore analyze the composition of their atmospheres, in the hope of detecting the signs of a possible extraterrestrial life such as water, carbon dioxide or ozone. "The Grail," as Jean-Gabriel Cuby, the director of the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Marseilles, puts it.

Shedding light on "The Dark Ages"

Another "Grail" – this time within the range of both the SKA and the E-ELT – would be to finally lift the veil on the birth of the universe. Most of its first billion-years of existence remain elusive. This infantile period is called "The Dark Ages", an age during which the first stars were formed in vast gaseous clouds of hydrogen and helium – the two essential elements that emerged from the Big Bang. The SKA is particularly well equipped to study these opaque clouds – the 21-centimeter line radiation from primordial hydrogen cannot be seen by optical telescopes but is within the spectrum that radio telescopes can detect.

This does not mean that the E-ELT will not have its say. The images of the distant universe that it will provide will help us to have a more accurate idea of the value of some of the most fundamental "cosmological constants," the parameters that have been having a profound impact on the physical properties of the universe for the past 13.7 billion years. Like the way it swells in all directions like a rubber balloon, with each celestial body running away from the other. We have known since 1998 that this rapid cosmic expansion (inflation), far from slowing down over the billions of years, is accelerating under the influence of a mysterious repulsive force called the "dark energy," although it is unclear at what rate.

In order to find this out, cosmologists will point the E-ELT at a distant galaxy and measure the speed with which it moves away from the Earth. Repeating the same action 20 years later on the same galaxy, they should be able to deduce, by subtraction, how much the cosmic expansion has accelerated in the meantime. The answer will not be known until 2040 at best. Going back in time requires patience.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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