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Barth Netterfield loves his job. As a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto, he enjoys the best of both worlds for a scientist. As a teacher, transmitting his knowledge to the next generation, he is invigorated by his lively students. And for several months a year, he takes part in exciting research in a lab or in flight experiments. In June 2005, he took part in the BLAST mission. A telescope attached to a gigantic balloon carried out a unique investigation of the sky to study the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies, and star clusters.
"Most of the year, my time is spent preparing lectures, research proposals, dealing with accounts, interacting with post-doctoral students, meeting with engineers, and advising graduate students. I try to do some lab work whenever I find time but it's difficult. That's why I welcome the few months of the year fully dedicated to field work-this year, it's been spent preparing to fly a balloon-borne telescope."
Dr. Netterfield came in contact with astronomy in the most ordinary way—by going outside at night! "From astronomy, I developed an interest for physics when my grade 10 math teacher suggested I read a book on relativity!"
Dr. Netterfield and his colleagues are working on a variety of projects. "We are just finishing the analysis of BOOMERANG03, a balloon-borne telescope that has been looking at the Cosmic Microwave Background— the light emitted from the primordial plasma that filled the entire universe during the first 380,000 years following the Big Bang."
"We are also analyzing the data gathered by BLAST to learn more about the history and process of star formation. And we have just submitted a proposal to build a balloon-borne telescope that will look for gravitational waves emitted in the early universe, giving us a look at what it was like just a tiny fraction, or 0.0000000000000000000000000000001, of a second after the Big Bang."
This animation illustrates the theory of the Big Bang, a gigantic explosion that might be the origin of the creation of the universe.
(Animation: Hubble Space Telescope, ESA, M. Kornmesser, and L. L. Christensen)
The balloon-borne telescopes that Dr. Netterfield is developing have a great advantage: "The Earth's atmosphere is only partially transparent, or even opaque, for the wavelengths of light we need to observe in order to achieve the science goals. On a stratospheric balloon, we are above about 99.5% of the Earth's atmosphere, which improves the situation dramatically."
Of course, working on these projects has allowed him to make some interesting discoveries. "From data acquired during the 1998 BOOMERANG flight, we were able to determine the age of the universe—about 14 billion years old—and its geometry, which is flat, also called Euclidean. We also determined a bit more about its composition, that it is 5% ordinary matter, about 30% dark matter, while the rest is dark energy."
These discoveries are a fine reward for being out there working on this groundbreaking research. And the reward can take many shapes. "In 2002, we were in Antarctica for a BOOMERANG flight. The receiver required 24-hour-a-day monitoring prior to the launch. A week before Christmas, two students and I were on duty at the garage, out on the Ross Ice Shelf, 15 km from the base, when a Condition 1—that means total whiteout conditions, with all travel prohibited—trapped us there."
"After decorating the balloon's gondola with Christmas lights, and grabbing a snack from the galley, we watched Carpenter's The Thing—a movie in which an alien decimates an isolated Antarctic research base. It seemed like the right thing to do in such a situation. It was an odd but special moment, to watch this movie on our little TV while the winds rocked our wooden barn, and to realize that our storm was much better than the one in the movie!"