dark energy

He first developed an interest in astronomy as a high school junior in Kent, England. He joined the UT Faculty in 1969. Now, after 10 years as director of UT’s McDonald Observatory, David Lambert is planning to retire. 

“When I step down, I shall be 75, and that sounds old enough to let someone younger have a shot,” Lambert said. “It will be nice to get fresh blood into the system.”

Lambert, who is also an astronomy professor, will step down by August 2014. He said he has not yet decided if he will continue to teach. Astronomy professor Chris Sneden is chairing the search committee to find a new director — he said the committee has already compiled a shortlist which includes candidates who already work at UT. 

“The ideal director has to lead a major research enterprise and hopefully improve it through the years, but the director has got to be more than a good scientist,” Sneden said. “The director must be a person who is able to work with people, and share a vision for how the observatory will prosper in the future.” 

Lambert also emphasized the leadership aspect of the director role and said it was one aspect of the job that he had not anticipated. 

“I think I didn’t understand how interesting and complex dealing with an organization this size would be, especially in terms of personalities,” Lambert said. “People come in all different flavors, and that presents all different kinds of challenges.” 

Lambert said his proudest accomplishments as director include his work securing funding for the Hobby-Eberly Dark Energy Experiment, which the Observatory hopes to begin next year. 

Dark energy, a term used to represent the unknown force causing the universe to expand faster than scientists predicted it would expand in the 1990s, is not yet understood in the scientific community. 

“Normally, when something explodes, it eventually slows down, but the universe sped up again,” chemistry senior Pablo Alvarez said. “It’s like a car running when we don’t know what’s fueling it.” 

“Even astronomers and physicists don’t know what dark energy is,” biology junior Nicole Vojnovich said. “We can’t calculate it definitively.”

The Hobby-Eberly project, the first major experiment to search for dark energy, will use the McDonald Observatory’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope to collect data on at least 1 million galaxies over 9 billion light-years away, creating a map of the universe larger than anything that exists in the world today. The map will allow astronomers to chart the growth of the universe through different periods in history. Lambert said he hopes the project will help contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy.

“My hope is that we will carry out the observations for the Dark Energy Experiment, and really make a very, very serious contribution to understanding what dark energy is,” Lambert said. 

Lambert, who came to UT almost 45 years ago in order to use the McDonald Observatory’s telescopes, said he appreciates the full-circle nature of his work. 

“I’ve had great fun using the telescopes at McDonald – basically made my career using them,” Lambert said. “It’s fun to continue to improve the facilities and enlarge them in such a way that the next generation of young people can make their own careers here.” 

Though he is ready to retire, Lambert said he will look back fondly on his years as director. 

“I’ve enjoyed it,” Lambert said, laughing. “I hope I’ve contributed a little.”

While scientists are out there working on the big questions like the nature of matter, the meaning of time and what dark energy is, they’re not working on the truly important questions that affect average everyday people. Questions like, “Why does shaking a martini make it taste better than stirring it?” or “How long of a line could you draw with a single pencil?” The editors of New Scientist have put together a collection of such questions along with the best answers submitted to them in “Why Can’t Elephants Jump?” and the result is delightful, if insignificant.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each composed of questions submitted by readers related to a given subject, along with some possible answers submitted by other readers. Sometimes the answers conflict, but that’s part of what science is: heated debate over trivial questions.

As such, these aren’t necessarily definitive answers and more than a few may leave readers scratching their heads thinking, “That can’t be right,” which again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, what’s bad is the unsatisfactory explanations of how we know. Most answers are provided with authority as the only reason to believe them, rather than descriptions of experiments that someone’s performed. Science’s explanatory power is its most valuable element, but that rests — sometimes teetering on — its experimental backbone.

As a result, there’s no real insight that one takes away from the book. It’s entertaining enough, and while one will close its final pages having learned factoids, there’s no big picture to take away from it.

Still, that’s not that big of a deal when you consider that you will now know what would happen if you jumped into a pool of jelly. “Why Can’t Elephants Jump?” may not be a classic of the science genre like “The Selfish Gene” or “The Demon Haunted World,” but it is a fun read and will provide hours of coffee shop discussions about things that science can answer, but usually doesn’t take the time to.

Printed on Monday, November 14, 2011 as: New Scientist collection answers trivial questions