There are two ways of measuring time at a telescope; two separate displays on the console tell Jeanette the ordinary earth-based time, and also sidereal time. The time of stars. The two loop round each other, one lagging behind the other and then leap-frogging it, depending on the time of year. Tonight the sidereal time is two hours behind the ordinary time and Jeanette can’t stop staring at the large red numbers ticking away, even though it reminds her of her mother compulsively watching the TV. Watching and waiting for the future to be brought to her, because the present is so unbearable.
‘Jeanette, look at this!’
It’s four in the morning, the dead hour when all you can do is try and stay awake, but Maggie sounds alert, excited even. This is almost the first thing that Maggie has said to her all night so, intrigued, she stands behind her to get a better look at the screen, yawning discreetly into her hand.
She sees oval blobs of different sizes, the largest as big as a thumb-nail, and there are about thirty of them altogether making up a cluster of galaxies. A thin arc, no wider than a couple of pixels, appears to join two galaxies near the centre of the image.
‘Nice,’ says Jeanette, but something is puzzling her, ‘That’s the wrong galaxy,’ and she points at one of them, at its faint whirlpool arms.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We already know its redshift – so it’s not in the cluster.’ Maggie doesn’t reply, but Jeanette has to carry on, ‘It must be an interloper.’
They’re both silent now. Neither of them needs to say the obvious; that the interloper can only appear to be connected to the other galaxy through being superimposed on it in this two dimensional image. But according to its redshift that’s impossible; the standard big bang model says that a galaxy’s redshift is a measure of its distance. Two objects with different redshifts are at different distances and they can’t be physically connected in the way that these galaxies appear to be.
‘The link looks real, though.’
‘It does, doesn’t it?’
They smile at each other. They don’t know what it means, but it is unexpected, and therefore interesting. Not many unexpected events happen in their work; usually they do observations for which they have already predicted the results. This is the drawback to working in a well-established science where the main theory is sketched out and all they are doing is colouring in the details.
Maggie pats the empty chair next to her, and Jeanette sits down.
‘We should repeat the observation, make sure it’s not just a cosmic ray or a random fluctuation.’
‘Make it longer this time, we can probably go to twenty minutes before the centre gets saturated.’
The next twenty minutes take a long time. They don’t normally repeat their observations. She thinks what a privilege it is to be able to wind back the clock and reconstruct a splinter of reality. You can’t do this in everyday life, can’t just say to a soon to be ex-lover, ‘Hold on, rewind, let’s go back to that bit where we still had hope and try again, differently this time.’
The repeat observation is finished and they hold their breath as the image is read out onto the screen. The link between the galaxies is still there and Maggie lets out a whoosh of air. The telescope operator carries on reading his newspaper, it’s not his job to get excited about these things.
They spend the rest of the night analysing the images in more detail, their heads bent together in front of the screen. Maggie adds the images together and cleans them of contamination, while Jeanette does a quick calculation of the size of the link. Here, on this image, it’s just thirty pixels long, but out there it’s larger than the entire Milky Way. She squints at it from the side of the screen; perhaps it holds a secret, like Holbein’s anamorphic skull. It’s really very faint.
‘Take a look at this,’ Maggie says, a few minutes later. She’s done something to the data so the link looks brighter, and more obvious.
‘You’ve smoothed it?’ asks Jeanette.
‘That’s kind of cheating.’ Now the pixels have been smeared over each other so each one shows some of the light from its neighbours.
‘Makes it look good, though?’ Maggie is grinning.
‘Why don’t we write a separate paper about this?’ Jeanette asks, ‘We could probably do it really quickly.’
‘Does it warrant an entire paper?’
‘Maggie!’ Jeanette laughs incredulously. ‘This could be amazing! This could be evidence against the entire big bang theory!’
Maggie sits up, ‘You’re not serious! One tenuous link between two galaxies at different redshifts? What about all the evidence in favour? We’re not dismissing that.’
‘I’m not saying one thing or the other. But it’s a major observation. Let’s publish it and see what happens.’
‘You actually think people are going to look at this and question – everything?’
Jeanette hesitates, ‘Yeah, maybe. That’s what we do. Or what we should do. Ask questions.’
She’s asked questions all her life, and now she’s an adult the questions get answered. Or at least listened to.
When she leaves the observatory a few days later, travelling down the tightly curled mountain roads back to bird song and rain, the realisation of what they want to publish begins to dawn on her. Are they seriously suggesting that they have evidence that the Big Bang model is wrong? They’ll have to be cautious. As long as they stick to the actual data and avoid drawing any conclusions it should be ok.
But it’s not until she’s in the plane going home, listening to the comforting hum of the engines, that she’s able to see the sky clearly again.