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Window on Universe Maps New Vision

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Margaret W. Bushee,

Man’s quest to understand his origins is centuries old. Impelled by what he sees as the main schism of our time – the “battle between faith and reason” – artist Jonathon Keats has endeavored to unite the two sides with the creation of an exhibit he named the Atheon, described as a “temple of science for rational belief.”

Opened in September in the new location of the Judah L. Magnes Museum – in a former typing school across from the Berkeley (Calif.) Public Library – it features 14-ft cathedral-style windows. Keats, inspired in part by the Genesis imagery that stained glass traditionally depicts, applied patterns to the windows’ multiple panes that represent NASA’s latest data on the formation of the universe.

Shown is part of a 14-ft cathedral window at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., the panes of which feature patterns representing NASA’s March 2008 full-sky map of cosmic microwave background radiation. Courtesy of Jonathon Keats.

The March 2008 full-sky map of cosmic microwave background radiation is the cumulation of data gathered by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Launched in 2001, the explorer’s multiyear mission is to measure the oldest light in existence – dating from about 380,000 years after the creation of the universe – and, thus, to pinpoint more accurately its age (13.7 billion years, according to 2003 data), geometry, content and evolution.

The instrument probe, at its L2 Lagrangian location a million miles from Earth – beyond the moon’s orbit – uses a method called anisotropy to measure the temperature of the microwaves that evolved from the residual radiation from the Big Bang. Comprising passively cooled microwave radiometers with 1.4 × 1.6-m primary reflectors, the instrument uses five frequency bands, ranging from 22 to 90 GHz, to collect temperature measurements that are accurate to one-millionth of a degree.

Anisotropy, which gauges relative rather than absolute temperatures by taking readings from more than one position, has recorded temperatures from 2.7249 to 2.7251 K (about −455 °F). The variations are indicated on NASA’s microwave maps as red and yellow for the warmer temperatures and blue and green for cooler – “hard data that is visually compelling,” Keats said.

The conceptual artist, who describes his project as a “thought experiment,” does not know whether explorations such as his can begin to fuse the domains of belief and science. Self-described as “deeply agnostic,” he will “step aside” when the exhibit closes in February 2009 with the hope that the “conversation” that it has evoked will continue.

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2008
Basic ScienceGenesis imagerygeometryLighter Sidemicrowave background radiation

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