This coming spring scientists will open dramatic new views of the universe. NASA plans to launch the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) to explore exotic environments such as those of supermassive black holes and neutron stars, which generate enormous power in high-energy gamma rays. Around the same time, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva, will begin providing an unparalleled view of nature’s fundamental building blocks and their interactions at the smallest distances. GLAST may probe some of the same microscopic phenomena as the LHC does and show us how these processes work in their natural cosmic settings. Such exciting and revolutionary times in science are rare.
Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation at the highest-energy, or shortest-wavelength, end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Vastly more energetic than optical light or even x-rays, gamma-ray photons each carry so much energy that it is possible to convert some of that energy into particles of matter, through processes that are implied by Albert Einstein’s famous E = mc2 relation.