In Search of Astronomy’s Holy Grail

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

by Steve Nadis
Cambridge, Massachusetts

[Author’s note: The overuse of the term “holy grail” -- both within science and the journalistic establishment that attempts to describe the “inexorable march of progress” -- has reached a crisis in the same way that medicine, and the environment as a whole, suffer from the excessive use of antibiotics. Both precious resources -- the holy grail designation and the medicines that sprung, indirectly, from Alexander Fleming’s laboratory molds -- ought to be saved for when they’re really needed. With regard to the grail, such discretion has not been the norm in any scientific field I know of, particularly in astronomy, where indiscriminate application of the term is rampant. Had we exercised a modicum of restraint, the whole sordid episode described below might have been avoided. But we didn’t and thus, to quote Bela Lugosi in his final performance, “the story must be told....”]

* * *

I have an obsession, which I like for the reason that it is my own and not, so far as I’m aware, shared by anyone else: I want to know the holy grail of astronomy. Though some may consider grail research a “trivial pursuit,” I consider it a noble endeavor, conjuring up mythic quests of old. My longstanding dream is to capture the grail and unveil it, to great effect, at the next annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) or the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -- the number of A’s yet to be determined. If the process takes longer than anticipated, I might have to air my findings at an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) convention, though I hope to net the prize while my faculties, and those of my audience, are still intact. 

To snare my quarry, I needed a strategy. Like Darwin, I subscribe to the notion that most mysteries will succumb to the powers of observation. My intellectual forebear did not conjure up his evolutionary theories from first principles but rather by discerning patterns in the seemingly aimless behavior of orchids, wasps, and other living creatures. I’ve taken a similar approach to the grail by attempting to infer its meaning from context, studying the many instances in which it’s used to find a common strand that binds them all together. It’s the classic scientific paradigm: observe, analyze, synthesize (or, as the deconstructionists have it: repress, regress, redress). Throughout this journey, my notebook has been my HMS Beagle, #2 black ink my seas.

Although  the  investigation is still ongoing, and is likely to be “ongoing” for a decade or more, I have made some headway in the form of one incontrovertible fact: the grail is a slippery beast, constantly shifting its guise. In various articles published in the past dozen years or so, the holy grail of astronomy has been identified as:

• a planet orbiting a sunlike star

• protostars

• an extrasolar planet capable of supporting life

• a pulsar orbiting a black hole

• detecting methane in the Martian atmosphere

• finding liquid water on Mars

• finding life beyond Earth

• finding a comet

• finding primordial intergalactic helium

• identifying the source of the diffuse X-ray background

• determining the Hubble constant

• nailing down the universe’s age

• proving the existence of gravity waves

• devising a theory of quantum gravity

• the re-sighting of Hermes

• the discovery of still-living Population III stars.

And that is but a mere sample.

Although my inquiry is at an early stage, some tentative findings have emerged: there’s no single holy grail of astronomy but rather a multitude. For every grant proposal and press conference, there is a grail, it seems. When that term has already been taken, astronomers can  and  do  resort  to  using  “the  missing  link,”  “face  of  God,” “quantum leap,” “Eureka moment,” and other shopworn substitutes. The holy grail appellation, moreover, is fleeting: one accomplishment receives the designation only to be toppled by another more spectacular result, often within the span of weeks or months. It’s a constant succession -- a process that brings to mind struggles named after Darwin himself. Those astronomers endowed with a surfeit of hubris claim the grail for themselves; others accept the crown when offered. But none, so far, has retained the title for long nor truly owns it.

I won’t present the detailed results of my quest for the grail here other than to say they will be published soon in a highly prestigious journal.

[ed. note: The followup to this article can be found here.]

This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2006 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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