Cowboy Culture and the Universe

For his article “Probing the Biggest Mystery in the Universe,” journalist Richard Panek went all the way to the South Pole, where he was surprised by its incredible flatness. “I’ve just never seen a landscape like it,” he says, “and I grew up in the Midwest. There was absolutely nothing on the horizon. It’s just barren and beautiful for that.” He was even more surprised by how little the astronomers he talked to at the pole actually understood the subject he went there to report: dark energy, which may be the most powerful force in the universe. “They are kind of saying there is something there, but we don’t know what it is. For me, it’s mind-blowing that what we’ve always thought of as the universe is only 4 percent of what’s out there; that requires as profound a rethinking as the Copernican revolution. Or, it’s like we’re back in 1610, when Galileo comes out and says there are moons around Jupiter and everybody goes ‘Wow! That’s wild. What else is out there?’ I feel we’re at that stage now with dark energy. People may have heard about it, but they don’t really appreciate the implications of reorienting our entire relationship to the universe. It hasn’t really sunk in. So that’s what I’m trying to do in my work now.”

For nearly 15 years, Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote a syndicated column for The Washington Post Magazine, before giving it up to return to the kind of heavily reported journalism that she loves. “I like to immerse myself in cultures that people don’t know too much about—coal miners, oil riggers, air traffic controllers—that we’re all dependent on.” (Her sixth book, Hidden America: The Unseen World of People Who Make Everything Work, is due out next year.) For Smithsonian, Laskas wrote about the men and women who bring beef—some 62 pounds per person per year in this country—to our tables (“The Best Bull Ever?”). “I liked that it’s an industry that connects the old world with the new—the family farmer with the latest technologies,” she says. “It just seemed to be a story that covered so much ground, in terms of history, science and the mythical cowboy culture that we all know about from movies. We think it doesn’t exist anymore, but it does. When I found out there were cowboys, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going.’ ” I think you’ll be glad, as we are, that she did.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.