This evening I visited my friend and colleague Peter Woolliams and from his back garden in Teddington he helped my son Maxwell and myself acquire several images of the Moon which were ‘stacked’ and ‘stitched’ together to produce the above image. Wow! Please click the image for a larger version and just wonder at the detail visible. I never thought I would ever have even a partial authorship of such an image. We also took an image of Jupiter which I will post when I have processed it, and Peter guided us around some interesting objects in the night sky. For the first time in my life I saw a nebula (the Orion Nebula: see good image or something closer to what we saw) and tiny smudge of light that it was, I was fascinated.
This was not easy to do. It required a fair bit of equipment – around £1000 worth including all the computers and cameras – and after a couple of hours we were freezing cold. The images also took a good deal of processing to get them this clean. And it made me reflect on exactly how difficult it is to draw cosmological conclusions from astronomical data.
One of the most profound cosmological ‘conclusions currently being drawn from astronomical data is the proposal that a large fraction of the Universe is ‘missing’ – i.e. that there is ten times more ‘dark matter’ than there is conventional matter made of protons, neutrons and electrons. I treat all cosmological claims with the same disdain as Lev Landau who said “Cosmology: Never in doubt: always wrong” but some claims seem to be more well-founded than others. The deduction of cosmic expansion seems pretty robust, but the implication of the existence of a new forms of matter from observations of galaxies seems to me to be rather less robust. And so I was happy to read in my Scientific American newsletter that people are raising their sceptical voices about this issue. At the same time others are inevitably raising the possibility that Dark Matter consists of even more amazing particles.
Now I don’t know the answer to this question, and nor does anyone else on Earth. And gazing into space tonight this basic fact – that we just don’t know what is out there – seemed like a really solid fact to me. And a cold one at that.