A changing science

Ken Tapping, July 10, 2013

In the sky this week…

  • Venus lies low in the west after sunset.
  • Saturn remains high in the south overnight. Mars and Jupiter lie low in the dawn twilight.
  • The Moon will reach First Quarter on the 15th.

The progress made in astronomical research over the last half century or so can only be described as stunning. Back in the 1960’s some scientists believed the universe was eternal and unchanging. Others believed that it had a definite beginning. Many thought that vegetation grew on the surface of Mars. Nobody knew there was anything interesting about Jupiter’s four largest moons. No planets other than those orbiting the Sun were known, and it was widely believed that we would probably never know of any. Today the scientific community is essentially unanimous in accepting the universe started just under 14 billion years ago in an event called “The Big Bang”. Years of robotic exploration of the Red Planet have found no sign of Martian vegetation. Among the moons of Jupiter, Io is the most volcanic world in the Solar System, and Europa is suspected to have a deep ocean, hidden under a thick crust of ice, and there could be creatures living there. In addition, there have been discoveries that could not have been dreamt of a few decades ago. Out in space, as far as our telescopes can see, there are millions upon millions of galaxies. The list of planets discovered orbiting other stars is now more than a thousand long. Over a few decades our vision of the universe has changed radically.

Part of this explosion in progress is being driven by technical innovation. New instruments are constantly being developed and older ones improved, and there are increasingly powerful tools for processing and exploring the data they collect. Not long ago, astronomical instruments could only be used to study one object at a time. Now it is possible to record data on thousands of objects in one observing session. Such data will be useful for many different projects, and obviously, the more projects the data gets used for, the better the return on each science dollar spent. However, to make that happen, the data has to be widely available in some coherent fashion, not sitting around observatories or research institutes in a variety of different formats, or perhaps stored on old recording media that today few can read. The explosively growing amount of data being collected exacerbates the problem. The result has been the development of one of the most useful scientific research facilities of all, the astronomical Data Centre. Most of the data ends up at there, where its format is standardized; it is archived and made easily available to any scientist wishing to use it. In Canada there is the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC), located in Victoria. A website is maintained where prospective users can go to obtain data. With the constant tsunami of new data flowing into the data centres, it is likely that the data we need has already been observed by some other researcher, and is waiting to be downloaded.

One other important factor in the exploding process in science is that knowledge begets more knowledge. The more we know, the more we can focus our interest on what we need to know. Moreover, thanks to the Internet, it is now easier than ever to communicate ideas and share data.

Not very long ago, doing astronomical research involved travelling to remote, often exotic, locations to either make or supervise our observations. Now for most projects our presence would be of little help, and with our ability to observe over the Internet and download our observational data, there is usually no need to leave the office. That of course is assuming that someone has not already made those observations and we can find them in our local Data Centre. One sort of misses those trips to exotic locations though.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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