Cosmic Cartography

When plotting out my stories, I spend a lot of time looking at maps. This can be especially useful when writing historical fiction. Boundary lines change and even physical features can change because of human activity or natural phenomena such as earthquakes. Also, maps reveal the limitations of those who made them. Before the modern era, mapmakers didn’t have satellites to define coastlines or mountain ranges. People on the ground had to do their best to measure and calculate distances and translate those into maps.

While working on the DESI survey at Kitt Peak’s Mayall survey, I feel a little like one of those early cartographers. Of course, our job is to measure the distance to as many galaxies as we possibly can and make a map of the known universe. As it turns out, I’m not alone feeling this way. Graduate Student Claire Lamman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was inspired to create an illustration in the form of an antique map called Cosmic Cartography. You can see the artwork in detail and read about it at a post Claire wrote for the DESI blog at

Recently, my wife celebrated her birthday. Like me, she enjoys old maps and she also enjoys challenging puzzles, so I gave her a 1000-piece puzzle of the Cosmic Cartography artwork.

Cosmic Cartography Puzzle

Not only am I reminded of cartographers from long ago who made maps, but I’m reminded of science fiction stories where starships on patrol had the job of making maps. Of course, such starships require a team of highly trained people and one of the great ways to build teamwork is to have a set of common logos. In science fiction, these often take the form of badges or patches on uniforms. In my world, these might be stickers on laptops, T-shirts or ball caps. With that in mind, the DESI team actually created a place where you can order these kinds of items. One of the items is a poster of Claire’s Cosmic Cartography artwork, which can be ordered as a jigsaw puzzle, which inspired the present for my wife. If you want to show your support for our project mapping the universe, you can find all the cool DESI Swag at the project’s Redbubble shop:

As it turns out, the puzzle was a bit more of a challenge than some other similar puzzles my wife and I have done. Redbubble is a print on demand company and the puzzle was printed on somewhat thin cardboard and the jigsaw cuts didn’t have a lot of variation, so it was possible for pieces that didn’t belong together to attach better than they should. Still, my wife and I persevered and assembled the puzzle. It was fun to discuss the different elements of the artwork. Some notable elements are the Mayall telescope and dome and an area of the map itself representing the MzLS survey, which I helped with. There’s a circle showing the Sloan Digital Sky Survey map. I was at that telescope’s dedication ceremony in the 1990s. There’s even Baoban, the DESI coyote. The coyote gets his name from two sources. BAO stands for Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations, which is the science which allows us to accurately determine distances to galaxies and “Ban” which is the Tohono O’Odham word for coyote.

Working on the puzzle proved a good opportunity to both spend some time with my wife and to reflect on the talented and bright group of people I’m privileged to work with.