NIKKI WHITE: POLAR EXTREMES
CHAPTER 30: $19 MILLION BURNT RUG
April 14, 2020
I followed the old man up the snowy stairs and into the tallest, newest telescope at the South Pole. Snowbow had given us a lift in a snowcat because it was 60-below and dropping fast. We entered the circular building at the base of the rotating telescope. The shell of the thing stared into space at an angle.
Once we got inside and shed some layers of winter gear, Willem showed me around.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“It’s my shift and you’re my assistant,” he said. “I gave my regular assistant the night off.”
“Better than washing dishes, eh?”
Willem grabbed a bunch of ropes tied together and yanked them to one side. Then he hit some buttons on a console, causing the whole clam shell to rotate toward us in the center until it locked into place right above us. After admiring it for a second, Willem used a step ladder to climb up and open two handles on what looked like a big white cabinet that was facing down at us. He swung both doors of the cabinet all the way around so it was fully open. Then he stepped down the ladder, removed it and flipped on a light.
“Have a look,” he said, waving me on.
I moved under the opening and stared through the inside of the massive telescope. It went up and up and up, with windows near the top and darkness above it all. It looked like you could fit a small rocket inside it — that’s how big it was, narrowing at the top.
“Cool,” I said.
Willem practically spat at my response. “Cool? That’s $19 million worth of cool!”
“You must get some sick close-ups of the moon.”
Willem shook his head in disgust. “Don’t they teach you anything in your pathetic American schools? We ain’t looking at the fucking moon with a massive instrument like this.”
“Have you ever wondered, Thomas, where we all come from? Where this whole universe we live in got started?”
“Not a whole lot.”
“Well, I figured that so let me try to get you up to speed.”
“The universe started about 14 billion years ago with a huge release of energy called the Big Bang. To give you some perspective, Earth is about 4 and a half billion years old. With this telescope, we can see the light and other waves of energy produced before the galaxies, stars and planets were even born. We can see what space looked like when the universe was very young.”
“If the universe was 100 years old today, this telescope can show us what it looked like when it was about 8 minutes old.”
“That is some holy shit. We’re studying what is called the cosmic microwave background for signs of the Big Bang’s earliest ripple effects. We’re also learning more about the 95 percent of the universe that we cannot see — dark matter and dark energy.”
“Is that why they call this the Dark Sector?” I asked.
“Maybe you do have a brain in that skull of yours. That’s one reason. Another is this telescope does most of its work during winter, when it’s dark all the time.”
I nodded and walked over to a bulletin board, which was plastered with all kinds of information and photos on it.
“Yes, study that and learn more about what we do here while I perform some routine maintenance tasks,” Willem said.
“Have you shown Nikki or Adam or Bill this place yet?” I asked.
“Because they haven’t earned the right to see it yet and you have,” he said, strolling over to a computer on the far side of the room.
Me? Head of the class? That’s 14 billion jolts of Big Bang-style explosive shock right there.
I leaned in and looked closer at the bulletin board of telescope stuff. One wicked weird photo caught my eye.
“This image shows a section of the universe 14 billion years ago, as mapped by the South Pole Telescope. The image shows 1/100th of the sky.”
That was the note in small print underneath the photo.
Then I squinted at the picture for an even closer look. No moons, no stars, no planets and no galaxies. To me, it looked like they zoomed in real fucking close on a piece of burnt rug.
Hell, I could’ve gotten them a shot like that for free and pocketed the $19 million myself.