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By Scott Sullivan


Starlight by Proxy

How many photons have there been in the history of the universe? 4,000,000,-000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, say astrophysicists. More or less.

Since we don’t know when — or even if — time started, nor where/if the universe ends, this could be an optimistic estimate. Still, it’s good to keep these guys busy lest they do something rash like split atoms. How did that turn out last time?

Photons are the fundamental particles of visible light. They are why we see, although we can’t see them individually. They’re too tiny.

To count them, scientists used the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope to measure extragalactic background light — the entire emission from all the stars in the universe. Such light is “precious for cosmologists,” says University of Padova astrophysicist Elisa Prandini, “as it encodes the stars’ formation history from the end of the cosmic Dark Ages hundreds of million years after the big bang up to the present day.”

You remember the big bang, right? As I recall from my research years at Purdue University, it happened at the Cary Quad Nude Olympics.

On the first subzero night of the second semester, per ancient rite, certain males at this institution would, upon firing a cap pistol, take off running around an oval wearing shoes, hats and nothing else. Whoever lasted longest … won?

I recall little past that except waking up the next morning to a burst of illumination there may be more-fruitful ways to pursue my studies.

Extragalactic light is hard to observe directly because it is swamped out by emissions from nearby stars — “nearby,” in this case, meaning within the Milky Way galaxy’s 200,000 light years. So astrophysicists measured “starlight by proxy” using gamma rays — which, like their cousin photons, are also are everywhere you can’t see.

Using 739 blazars (super-massive black holes at the centers of galaxies) and the Fermi’s gamma-ray detector, scientists surveyed starlight across history. At least history as they know it.

The universe, per their measure, is 13.8 billion years old. The stars really began to bloom, like birthday candles, when it was 2 billion. Star formation peaked a billion years later and has declined thereafter.

My decline only seems like 12 billion years. Since my Nude Olympics big bang, light has waned to where I feel nothing — not man, science, nor the gods we make up — is inerrant.

This is more liberating than depressing. Take the BRAIN+ pill as seen on TV’s “Shark Tank.” The challenge with selling me this to address Mild Cognitive Impairment is to catch me when I still have addled wits left to buy it.

The ad shows a guy with a white smock and stethoscope next to a seal that says “Doctor Recommended.” Which or what kind of doctor it doesn’t specify.

“Stage 1 – Awakening” takes a few weeks till your starter sample wears off. Next: “Stage 2 – Realization: The Wow Phase,” “Stage 3 – Enlightenment: New You;” and “Stage 4 – Maintanance.” Stage 5 is learning how to spell “Maintenance” correctly.

In no time I’ll be a new me, the ad says. My wife likes “new me,” but when is “no time”?

What I need more than brain pills is an emotional support gator. The Associated Press reports Joie Henney of York Haven, Pa., has doctor approval to keep Wally, a 5-foot-long alligator, as a pet to help him deal with depression.

“When I came home and was around Wally, it was all OK,” Henney says. OK for him till he suffers a reptile dysfunction. Can Viagra grow him a new arm too?

Hope remains for pill peddlers, astrophysicists and ex-Nude Olympians, some of whom since college have risen to high ranks in our society.

Counting photons may not be folly. But folly itself? You can count on that.