Unimaginably Distant, Unimaginably Old

The space-based telescopes keep making amazing discoveries.  The latest is the Hubble space telescope’s identification of the most distant galaxy ever detected — a galaxy that is more than 13 billion light years distant from Earth.  That means that the light we are seeing now has traveled for 13 billion years to reach our space.  In fact, the light we are seeing from that galaxy emanates from stars that blazed only 600 million years after the Big Bang.  Those stars almost certainly exist no longer, having long ago gone supernova or turned into one of the other stellar objects that are created when stars die.  In that sense, the Hubble telescope is a real-life time machine that allows us to peer into the distant past.

The Hubble space telescope

Astronomers will study the new discovery with great interest, because it may help to provide answers to some very provocative questions.  What was the life cycle of early stars, whose intense heat produced the heavy element “star stuff” (to use Carl Sagan’s phrase) of which our universe is made?  How did the earliest galaxies form?  Why is light from such galaxies visible through the “fog” of hydrogen that should have resulted from the Big Bang?

We can expect more amazing discoveries along these lines as new ground-based and space-based telescopes using new technology come on line and begin to probe the heavens.

Cell Phones, Land Lines, And Survey Results

Public opinion surveys have been a staple of American politics for years.  They have a proven track record — at least, they do when the pollsters figure out how to identify an appropriate sample that mirrors the people who actually will cast ballots in the election and then reach those people to learn their views.  If you can’t accurately do both, you risk results that are as misguided as the infamous 1936 Literary Digest poll that embarrassingly predicted that Alf Landon would beat FDR in a landslide when in fact the exact opposite occurred.

In the modern cell phone and smart phone world, can pollsters know with any assurance that they have reached an appropriate sample of voters?  For years, pollsters relied on land line telephones to conduct their surveys.  Recently, however, many Americans have dropped their land line phones as a nuisance and unnecessary expense.  In 2007, nearly 13 percent of American households had no land line phone.  By 2008, that number had jumped to 20 percent and it has only increased since then as millions more — including Kish and me — have gone totally wireless.

The question for pollsters is whether the demographic and political characteristics of wireless households are different from those of households that still cling (bitterly?) to their land lines.  Some pollsters think that may be the case, reasoning that cell phone-only people probably are younger, unmarried, don’t own a home, and so forth.  That may have been true initially, but my guess is that as wireless-only status has become more common, and even old farts like Kish and me have joined that segment of the population, the differences have been minimized.  The important point, in any case, is that no one really knows.

So, in these days leading up to Election Day, let’s not pay too much attention to the polls and their competing results.  The only poll that really matters is the one that will occur on November 2, and all registered voters — be they wireless Gen Xers or land line fogies — will have an equal opportunity to be counted.