The Final Frontier

To solve the mystery of dark energy—a phenomenon that could reveal the origins of the universe—Texas astronomers need a $34 million telescope and a little bit of luck. There are only two problems: it may not be dark, and it may not be energy. In fact, it may not exist at all.
Illustration by Dan Winters

One evening last October, a University of Texas at Austin astronomer named Gary Hill stood behind a lectern at Miss Hattie’s Café and Saloon, which occupies a restored nineteenth- century bank building in downtown San Angelo, and cheerfully proclaimed his ignorance. “We really don’t understand the universe,” he said. “We thought we did, but it turns out we only understand about four percent of it.”

A dozen or so people, among them businessmen, the editor of the local newspaper, a school librarian, and a couple of college professors, had assembled at Miss Hattie’s, where the lace curtains and rose-print wallpaper harked back to a time when the universe was no larger than our own galaxy and Newton’s laws seemed to explain it and a tunnel linked the building where we sat to a nearby bordello. There was something old-fashioned too about the fact that a bespectacled, British-born scientist had traveled from the state capital to give a talk to the curious and that the curious had turned out to hear what he had to say. His subject, on the other hand, was the very future of cosmology and physics

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