What is that grand and bold thing? " 'A Complete Survey of the Galaxies' " using a camera grid system with an unprecedented number of pixels for resolution to capture pictures in five different colors and determine redshift. Actually, the entire sky was not to be surveyed, but rather 25% of the northern sky. The project's 3.5 meter telescope was built and put into service at Apache Point in New Mexico. That, together with a 2.5 meter telescope mirror, permitted the observatory to eventually produce an avalanche of data (200 gigabytes of data a night). And that data, with the assistance of dedicated software, was funneled to various partner universities, the astronomical community at large and to the public on the Internet's SkyServer. Although a number of names were proposed for this grand undertaking, the final nod went to "Sloan Digital Sky Survey" (SDSS) in honor of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation which supplied part of the $25 million-plus financing.
A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In A New Era of Discovery traces the development of SDSS from astronomer Jim Gunn's early (1987) thoughts about how to use an array of linked CCDs (charge-coupled device) to build a camera that would allow a telescopic view of 120 arc minutes (greatly expanded from the viewing abilities of the time) and employ very enhanced image resolution. In 1988, he and several other astronomers began networking for collaboration and funding among their colleagues. In time, the University of Chicago, Princeton, the Fermilab, and numerous other institutions worked together over the 1990's to get SDSS up and running. Instead of the projected two or three year schedule though, many setbacks of both a technical and managerial nature postponed actual operation until 2000. But then it produced the scientific riches of which its creators had dreamed. In 2006, a new phase, SDSS-II began and is scheduled to continue until 2014.
Ann Finkbeiner's lucid and detailed history of SDSS includes technical detail and in-depth insights into the members of the team that made the project possible. Beginning in 2007, she conducted interviews with over 70 of the individuals involved in the work, and the book deftly ties their stories and their opinions into the bigger picture. We learn why there were bottlenecks in the project flow. We learn about setbacks such as cracked mirrors and pipeline software that was written by different people and didn't fit together. We learn about the CCD camera Jim Gunn built and how carefully it needed to be installed and then monitored. We learn about how, once the data did flow, thousands of amateur astronomers helped categorize the documented galaxies, comparing their photos to a set of eleven types.
If you read and were fascinated by Anil Ananthaswamy's recent The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, or previous volumes such as Mapping the Next Millenium: The Discovery of New Geographies, by Stephen S. Hall, A GRAND AND BOLD THING should go on your reading list. Even if you aren't generally a reader of popular science titles, you might become hooked by reading this accessible one. Finkbeiner possesses a gift for explaining the scientific and technical so that we can all appreciate the grand and bold thing that has been accomplished.