SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Astronomers don't cure diseases. They don't save endangered species. They don't generate wealth. But they get to look at stars. And occasionally, they uncover the secrets of the universe. For some, that makes astronomy pretty irresistible. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been exploring what makes scientists tic as part of his project Joe's Big Idea. Today, Joe takes us inside the world of a leading astronomer who's hooked on the stars, but has his feet on the ground.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The night before I met with Caltech astronomy professor Shrinivas Kulkarni, a friend of mine asked me what is a universe anyway, and is there anything beyond the universe? I didn't really have a great answer, so the next morning when I went over to Kulkarni's house for breakfast...
SHRINIVAS KULKARNI: Let's go eat.
PALCA: I asked him.
Last night, at dinner, we were trying discuss what a universe was.
KULKARNI: Well, these are very profound philosophical matters, Joe. And usually, I consider myself - however oxymoron-ish it may sound - as a practical astronomer, whereas people who think about those things are academic astronomers. (Laughter).
PALCA: Practical astronomers do things like measure distances and analyze spectra.
KULKARNI: But you don't try to figure out what is beyond the universe 'cause that's getting pretty deep.
PALCA: Kulkarni says yeah, I know we astronomers are supposed to say, oh, I wandered out one day, and I looked up at the stars, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. But really...
KULKARNI: Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call us, boys with toys.
PALCA: Boys with toys.
KULKARNI: And I think there's nothing wrong with that, except...
PALCA: Boys with toys.
KULKARNI: ...You're not supposed to say that.
PALCA: At the same time, playing with those toys has allowed astronomers to make measurements that reveal the age of the universe, the fact that it's expanding and that there are lots of other solar systems out there besides ours. Many of those fundamental discoveries were made using telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in California. Kulkarni is now director of the observatory. He proposed a field trip so I could get a sense of the wonder astronomers feel when working there.
PALCA: The drive from Pasadena to Palomar in the mountains north of San Diego is about two and a half hours.
KULKARNI: It looks like good for observing. It's very clear.
PALCA: Kulkarni was born in India in 1956. He's been an astronomer his entire professional life. But look at the whole person, and you'll see Shri Kulkarni is a man of contrasts. He loves Brazilian music. He raises bunny rabbits. And he says one of his deepest passions is the exact opposite of astronomy. It's the history of great economic collapses.
KULKARNI: Something like astronomy is terribly important because it is about the universe, OK. I mean, we are learning something totally fundamental - how the way we live comes about. But it's not something immediate. It really doesn't matter if the Big Bang happened 13.7 billing years ago or 13.75 billion years ago. On the other hand, economics - it's actually unimportant in the long run. Terribly important in the short run, but it surely matters today.
PALCA: We spent a lot of the car ride talking about Enron and the dot-com bubble.
Wow, we're going up this really windy road up the side of a mountain.
A little further ahead, a large dome appears, stark white against the late afternoon blue sky.
KULKARNI: And now, you can see the 200-inch, or sometimes called the Big Eye.
PALCA: For nearly 50 years, the 200-inch telescope at Palomar was the largest telescope in the world.
It's a masterpiece of engineering. And even though it's aging, Kulkarni says it can still be used for good science. Besides, he loves it up here. When the dome slides open, the view of the twilight sky is breathtaking. To stand here with Shri Kulkarni is to bring together the past and the future. For as much as Kulkarni delights in this place, as inspiring as it is to be here, he says actually visiting a telescope is soon to be a thing of the past.
KULKARNI: The best way to do astronomy is to get the astronomers out of the dome. We just get better data. And the human in the loop becomes monotonous, really, I mean, night after night. If a machine can do it, honestly, I think everyone is happy.
PALCA: The other reason Kulkarni says machines are good for studying the sky is that they have no preconceived notions about what they'll find. He says astronomers just don't have the imagination to know what to look for.
KULKARNI: The sky is so much richer and so much more imaginative than the imagination that you should always approach it with a certain sense of openness.
PALCA: Kulkarni says you look at the information the machines collect and try to figure out what it's telling you. That's the way you make discoveries. Kulkarni is now 58 years old, and I asked him if he thought he'd ever get tired of playing with his toys. He said not really. But he knows someday, he'll have to try something different.
KULKARNI: My wife's been hounding me about what I'll do after I retire. She said you're always running around and doing things. And I want to be a bartender.
PALCA: A bartender?
KULKARNI: It's a fascinating job.
PALCA: Well, a man can dream.
PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News.
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