Pathology and the Speed of Light

TMT enclosure and view of primary segmented 30 m mirror (
Professor of Pathology and Chemistry
Associate Academic Head, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Executive Director, Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA)
As the more aged and perceptive of you know, while I act as the Associate Academic Head of our Department, I do not speak Pathology well at all. Perhaps it is not surprising then that I spend a significant amount of time, when I am not speaking Pathology badly, speaking Astronomy badly instead. Let me explain.

I spent 10 years as the Associate VP Research for UBC, completing in 2011. Part of my job as AVPR was to help groups on campus who had the energy and hunger for improved infrastructure to attract CFI funds and in doing so I met a number of astrophysicists who, fortunately, enjoyed a beer after work on occasion. I was not too surprised, then, to find a cluster of them in my office one day in 2002, looking for someone to represent their UBC community in a new organization being floated as a national body of universities that took astronomy seriously. Knowing no better I agreed and eventually when the smoke cleared found myself as the Chair of the Board of Management of a new organization called ACURA (Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy; this acronym was carefully chosen by colleagues in Quebec as it has the same acronym in both official languages and hence saves the new federally incorporated body immeasurable amounts of typing). This put me in regular touch with astronomers and their work habits, which amounts to instrument building, star gazing and analysis in most cases. Canada in fact has a very high quality astrophysics community and regularly LEADS THE WORLD in the average number of citations per paper published, so we get lots of attention in international projects.

After three years of serious lobbying we amazed ourselves by the project being awarded $240M by the Harper Cabinet for a 15% share of the viewing time

ACURA, as it evolved, warped into a thinly disguised lobby group aimed at raising profile and funding for large international astronomy projects in which we had a professional interest. The apple of our eye in my experience has been the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) project for which we had been involved, via the Herzberg Institute of the National Research Council centered in Victoria (the big white dome seen above Elk Lake as you drive into Victoria from the ferry), since early design ideas were floating around the international community. We raised some CFI funds to participate in the final design of the telescope but needed real money to be included in the construction of the enclosure, telescope and instruments to interpret the images it produced. Enter ACURA, and after three years of serious lobbying we amazed ourselves by the project being awarded $240M by the Harper Cabinet for a 15% share of the viewing time, most of the investment providing the enclosure (from Dynamic Structures of Port Coquitlam, see illustration above) and the main adaptive optics unit that corrects the images for atmospheric distortion and which will give TMT, with its ~100 ft diameter primary segmented mirror, a resolution that far exceeds the Hubble Space telescope.

I am now one of the Board of Governors for the TMT corporation headquartered in Pasadena (Cal Tech is one of the partners) so am keeping up with the project and even learning a little astronomy, not a subject that I had spent much time with except for summer nights in my youth; it has been great fun and continuously amazing as the telescope project matures and I understand more around the water cooler at TMT HQ. Let me illustrate with just one example that actually had me gasping when I heard it related by a famous astronomer.

Recently astrophysicists have had some initial successes detecting gravity waves. When I was a physics student such things were just concepts with nothing behind them but Einstein’s assurance that they were how gravity effects became evident at a distance if a sudden change in mass or density of a body occurred. Big Al assured us they would travel our from the source at the speed of light and were in fact just twitches in the geometry of the universe. No evidence - but a lot of other stuff he claimed turned out to work so it was worth considering.

Well, in 2014, after much work and analysis, an unbelievable experiment known as LIGO was successful in detecting the passing of a gravity wave originating from the collapse of two black holes into one, with a big change in density of the product. This occurred 1.3 billion years ago but on September 15 2014 the gravity wave produced registered on two separate versions of LIGO detectors that were 3000 km apart and oriented 90 degrees to each other, and, even better, had the wave forms predicted for events like this; ta dahhh, Big Al wins another one and Nobels followed in its wake.

But wait, there’s more.

What blew my mind was the fact that the g-wave had taken 135 million years to get here but the flash of light showed up only 2 seconds later!

Last August 17 the LIGO twins sniffed out a binary neutron star collision that occurred 135 million years ago, only this time the community had been aware of this possibility so all kinds of telescopes were trained on the area of the sky where this was to occur. It paid off: not only did the g-wave show up but the collision emitted a flash of light that was also recorded. What blew my mind was the fact that the g-wave had taken 135 million years to get here but the flash of light showed up only 2 seconds later! This is the kind of result that keeps my interest in astronomy high and reinforces the notion, often hard to recognize in dealing with the human condition, that there are some constants in life. No wonder people like to look at the stars...