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Toronto astrophysicists pretty much figured out origins of universe Add to ...

Thinking deeply about the cosmic past isn't a social picnic either. Across the table, an Argentine-born Perimeter Institute fellow named Luis Lehner is lamenting the impossibility of a theoretical astrophysicist having a social life. (Astronomy is different: Some U of T astronomy classes are 50 per cent women. But there were only half a dozen female astrophysicists at the CITA think-in.)

If you tell a woman what you do, that you're a theoretical astrophysicist, she says, 'Oh, you must be really smart.' That kills the conversation. Dr. Lehner

Dr. Lehner adds: "What do you say? 'Yes, I am?' If you don't feel like talking, you say you're a physicist. If you do want to talk, you say you're an astronomer."

On the other hand, he and his colleagues all look 10 years younger than they are. "It's because we don't work 9 to 5 all day long. We get to do what we love."

Physicists love an elegant equation - but the reality may be much messier

However much they love their work, astrophysics will be harder for the next generation of theorists. The easy problems have been answered.

"In the old days, there was not that much data," Prof. Bond admits. "And so we could play. The younger people in the field are seriously constrained. Where are we at now? We are in quest of the subdominant and the anomalous."

Astrophysics is once again heading into unclaimed sky, into what physicists call anthropic theory. The ideal of physics, Prof. Martin points out, has always been "to get everything simplified into one simple equation." But the conditions required to explain persistently knotty aspects of the universe - dark energy and dark matter, which make up a majority of the stuff out there, or the statistical improbability that carbon will show up on a planet in a form that can support life (a fact that made even Fred Hoyle think the universe might have had a "guiding hand") - may require upsetting exceptions. There may be less order in the universe than the astrophysicists hoped.

"Our theories tell us most of the space in the universe is doing this accelerated expansion, but accelerating at much, much higher rates than we're experiencing in our pocket," Prof. Bond says. "So the rules of the game may depend on your own little pocket. Now there's an evolutionary aspect - survival of the fittest in the universe is where we're getting to. That changes the idea of what's fundamental."

These deeper conundrums will require larger experiments, more expensive telescopes and more powerful computers. (Tiny CITA is the second-heaviest user of SciNET, U of T's massive supercomputer.) Mike Lazaridis, the charismatic co-inventor of the BlackBerry, bravely seeded the Perimeter Institute with $170-million of his own fortune to study sexy, cutting-edge challenges in physics - cosmology is but one of six research pods. But Perimeter has also vacuumed up more than $175-million in federal and provincial grants since 2003. That's an average of $24-million a year - eight times the annual budget of CITA, despite CITA's international track record.

"The worry," former CITA director Scott Tremaine says (he went on to head Princeton's department of astronomy, and is now at its Institute for Advanced Study), "is that we'll get to the point where we can't understand things, but we won't be able to afford to get an answer. It's not like genomic biology, where for the next 20 years they know what they are facing - a long future of rapid progress."

But not everyone is worried. "I'd call it exciting," Peter Martin says. "When people like me started off, we had no idea what we'd be researching today."

As Norman Murray, CITA's current director, points out, the brand-new, year-old Kepler space telescope is already beginning to reveal Earth-sized planets outside our own solar system - places, in other words, that could support life. They will be huge discoveries.

The trick - the real act of faith - is to keep looking, gazing into the deep past by planning and paying for the immediate scientific future. After all, the Herschel Space Observatory, also launched a year ago, was first proposed in 1982 - when CITA itself was just constellating. Its latest pictures prove Herschel was a genius stroke of foresight, capable not only of peering into distant, gauzy galactic clouds where stars and planets are forming, but of tracking intragalactic paths of life-forming water molecules.

"Some people didn't live to see its results," the 62-year-old Prof. Martin says. It's the only time his scientific rigour goes wistful. "I'm hoping I live long enough to see some of it."

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