The End of Astronomy?

9 05 2011

Astronomy as we know it…. Is it the beginning of the end?

The Monty Python foot from the skyWe are creatures that respond to change, to uncertainty, to excitement. In a society where either the media, or the filters we create around us, cater to our most basic desires, what is the role of awe, wonder and curiosity about the vast Universe around us?

Some would point to the immense interest in technology that today’s youth display as testament to them being the most scientific generation ever. But i-pads, fads and widgets are the mothers of necessity rather than invention. When you strip away the social aspects of technology, just how motivated by science are they? Is there an urge to piece together the building blocks of reality? Unweaving the tapestry of creation in which our lives are woven, if you will.

So perhaps my title should be The End of Interest in Astronomy?, but that isn’t quite as catchy.

yawningAn EU survey highlights that the majority of the younger population (15-25) doesn’t see the sky above them as something really worth knowing about. Only 1 in 5 note significant interest in astronomy. The interest in technology and the environment is 200% higher. Even more disturbingly, while only 11% are disinterested in environmental issues, almost four times as many are disinterested in astronomy.

wrestlingFor those of us that work in astronomy these numbers are a punch in the stomach. Have we overestimated public interest arising from inspiring words by Carl Sagan years ago? Or, taking a positive view, perhaps the youth of North America are fundamentally more interested in the heavens above than our European cousins? While a N. American survey is sadly lacking, some countries, Latvia for example, show an interest in astronomy that is four times the European average.

But in my darkest moments, I wonder, could astronomers themselves be partly to blame for these interest levels? Have we just not engaged people the way we should?

The true measure of astronomy’s value is how it contributes to our society. While there is plenty of data to suggest it has many economic benefits, astronomy has given us a cultural legacy of immense proportions – it has taught humankind its true place in the universe. As some have said, to understand the Earth’s value, we actually had to leave it.

Bad analogiesSo is the lack of interest apparent in the youth of Europe just a matter of communication? Have astronomers failed to explain themselves and their work in ways that the public can easily understand? Are the analogies we use failing to inspire? The following xkcd strip beautifully explains the challenges we face.

For many years I saw research in very black and white fashion. I subscribed to the idea that if I couldn’t explain the value of what I was doing in a paragraph, I wasn’t doing anything useful. It’s a deceptively appealing concept that makes things sound like they have their place. No arguing, no dilly-dallying, you can explain why it’s useful or it simply isn’t.

grandparentsBut just try explaining General Relativity in a paragraph, or Quantum Theory. You can’t just sit granny/grandpa (assuming they aren’t physicists of course) and walk them through the details in 30 seconds – there are entire books that try to explain those concepts. Yet, these complex ideas underpin some of the most critical technologies we have today – think GPS or semiconductors. And don’t cop-out by saying the technological & economic applications mean those are important.  Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, developed in the 1600’s, was separated by centuries from commercial applications in communications satellites.

So communicating ideas has always been a problem. Are the portents of doom perhaps then more driven by the idea that astronomy research is somehow becoming less relevant?

A number of prominent astronomers (e.g. Andy Lawrence) have written about how the questions of astronomy are becoming progressively tougher to answer. And how, as we push back the boundaries of our knowledge, and delve into the immensity of details underlying the universe, the questions we can truly answer are becoming more specialist.

It’s true that we’ve answered the easy questions. We’ve figured out the geometry of the Universe, how galaxies cluster and some of the more simple aspects of galaxy formation and stellar structure. Many of these things could be explained quickly and succinctly.

GaiaBut there are a great many challenges ahead. The Gaia mission to develop a 3-d map of a billion stars in our galaxy, will revolutionize our knowledge of stellar motions, and despite decades of study we still don’t have a comprehensive understanding of how stars interact with spiral structure. This is an immense challenge.

jwstHubble Telescope’s long talked-about replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope is also coming in 2015. We’ll see the first galaxies in our Universe and uncover evidence of the earliest giant black holes. Complemented by 30m class ground-based telescopes, such as the TMT or E-ELT, the light-capturing power of telescopes will rise by an order of magnitude. The SKA radio telescope, will reveal the Universe at radio wavelengths in ways we can only imagine today. And tantalizingly, evidence of alien life might possibly be found with these instruments.

So when I was asked, “What will Canada lose if we don’t invest in astronomy?” I responded: “It’s simple. When scientists announce another planetary system with life has been found, and answer one of the most profound questions humanity has asked, do you want a Canadian to have any chance of making that announcement?”

But aside from answering amazing science questions, our challenge as professional astronomers is to reach out and communicate about the incredible science we get to do. And in turn, to pass on our awe at how amazing the Universe around us really is.

We aren’t even close to the end of astronomy. The Universe has more up its sleeve than we’ve yet to imagine.


Top Ten unexpected benefits of astronomy

9 01 2011

Cosmoboy’s been very busy working on the Long Range Plan for Canadian astronomy over the past few months. It’s been incredibly rewarding to look in detail at the world-leading research that is going on in Canada. The statistics show that when measured relative to the size of our country, Canadian astronomy is the most successful in the G8 – something that all Canadians can be proud of. We aren’t just good at hockey!

Astronomy answers some of the most fundamental questions we can ask about ourselves and our Universe. Where did it come from? How did it evolve? How do the building blocks of life come together? It’s influence on our society is deep and profound in ways we frequently overlook: we call our greatest heros “stars”.

But looking to the future, our society faces many great challenges. Canada, in particular, struggles to maintain an effective level of industrial productivity. In this economic climate our government is looking to fund science that can help address the productivity issue. So one of the challenges in the Long Range Plan has been to determine how much astronomy contributes to technological and industrial growth. The answer: way more than we’d ever imagined!!!

Here’s a list of some of the most unexpected benefits of astronomy. If anyone thinks I’ve missed something obvious please let me know – I have avoided all the NASA Apollo spin offs deliberately. Even so, the list covers a range of applications from civilian to military. And there are many more! This is just the tip of the iceberg!

10. Theme-park ride engineering

Telescope support structures have to acheive unprecdented strength-to-weight ratios and control vibration efficiently. Much of the leading-edge design needed to meet these requirements has been carried over to a new generation of theme park rides. This multi-billion dollar industry is cut-throat, only the latest and greatest rides make the headlines and become popular. So any new technological advantage has the potential to be a real “money spinner”.

9. Fluid dynamic simulations

Astrophysicists understand the workings of stars, galaxies and so on by solving equations. Nowadays, computers help us solve these equations extremely quickly and with a level of accuracy that was beyond our wildest dreams 20 years ago. Many astrophysical systems are fluids and the algorithms used to study them have found applications in the oil and gas industry through to computer games. Cosmoboy has even given a presentation to game developers on the methods!

8. Ultraprecise mirrors for semi-conductor manufacturing

Optics are critically important to microlithography, a class of processes by which integrated circuitry is “printed”. Techniques initially pioneered to make the Hubble Space Telescope mirror the most accurate ever ground have been carried over into this field. The result is better made circuits and ultimately less costly manufacturing.

7. X-ray scanners for luggage analysis at airports

Astronomers are interested in detecting X-ray signals that while containing very high energy photons are still very weak (there are just very few photons, in some cases as few as a ten or so). To do this high sensitivity X-ray detectors, capable of detecting single X-ray photons, were developed a number of years ago. The technology behind these detectors has been adopted in luggage analysis to allow both low doses of X-rays and highly accurate images.

6. Imaging CCD technology development

Charge-coupled devices are the workhorse of astronomical imaging. While their development was recently awarded the Nobel prize (shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith) astronomy has pushed advances in CCD design year after year. Examples include improvements in the quantum efficiency of these devices, improved sensitivity at ultraviolet & X-ray wavelengths, and even new methods of CCD operation.

5. Medical and scientific imaging

Everyone knows astronomy creates lots of gorgeous images, but the raw data from the detector is much less clean than the final product. Over the years numerous algorithms and image analysis techniques, particularly using a process called Fourier analysis, have helped astronomers develop an exceptional toolkit for improving and calibrating images. No surprise then that many of these techniques have been adopted in other areas, particular the medical area, and many astronomy graduates actually wind up working in this field.

4. Advanced RADAR that can detect stealth planes

This advance came out of gravitational wave astronomy. Detecting these weak distortions in space-time is unbelievably hard, and the electromagnetic radiation used in their detection them must be incredibly pure. The same technology has now be licenced to defence industries for detection of stealth planes and could also be applied to help commercial pilots detect turbulence.

3. Distributed “cloud” computing

Many people run the SETI@HOME client on their computer. The idea of farming out pieces of work to a “cloud” of computers wasn’t new when the folks at UC Berkeley started using it, but SETI@HOME really got people believing that this idea could be used effectively and thus pioneered its wider adoption. While SETI@HOME used the computers to look for alien signals in radio telescope data, the idea has been extended to protein folding, molecular docking and climate prediction. Cloud computing is now one the most popular computing models.

2. GPS operation and calibration

Accurate GPS operation relies on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Without taking this into consideration the errors in the GPS positions would accumulate at the rate of 10 kilometers a day! But equally as interesting, how do we know that the GPS reference frame isn’t drifting out of alignment somehow? Perhaps the best way to do this is to compare to a fixed number of objects on the sky – and quasars (among the most distant but bright objects known to us) are a good way to do this. ICRF2 reference frame, derived from 3000 quasars, provides an ultra-precise, celestial reference frame.

1. Wireless networking

The technology that makes reading your email in a coffee shop possible has astronomy to thank. A technique developed in the 1970s for analyzing signals from radio telescopes was applied by the same researcher 20 years later to reduce interference in radio-based computer networks. The algorithms required were then integrated onto chips that run the now ubiquitous 802.11 wireless standard.

So if you’re reading this in a Starbucks – thank astronomy! 🙂