Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is all the romance gone from astronomy?

In this article from CNN, astronomer and planet-hunter Geoff Marcy, nearing the end of a night on the Keck Observatory, laments:

"There are no eyepieces anywhere. In fact, we don't have an eyepiece for the Keck telescope. Some of the romance of astronomy is gone."
Is this true? Is technology removing the "romance" from astronomy?

Most people have the picture of the astronomer as a lone man on a mountain top, looking night after night through an eyepiece on the back of a giant telescope, somehow making measurements of other worlds and other galaxies. There was a time when this was true, but over the past 75 years, astronomy has been transformed by technology. Believe it or not, it was the phtographic plate, invented in the late 1800s, and not computers or digital cameras, that "doomed" the romantic view of astronomy. For, with a photographic plate, astronomers could see fainter than ever before and could take information home to study over long periods of time. By taking information home, more accurate measurements could be made, and more careful analysis performed. Suddenly, an astronomer didn't need months of time to gather all the information he wanted; he could gather a lot of information in a few nights and work on it for months to come.

With computers and digital technology, the science of astronomy has changed even more. Some astronomers don't go to the telescope at all -- some telescopes will take data for the scientist and send it over the internet. There are good points and bad points to this method of observing. I find the quality of my science data isn't as reliable when somebody else takes it, but for some telescopes, like the Hubble Space Telescope, there is no choice!

Modern technology has also opened up new fields that were impossible before. Planets around other stars, Geoff Marcy's main point of study, can only be detected with modern instruments. Yet now, as we find a wide variety of planets around all sorts of stars, our imaginations can run wild with ideas of what we may find. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken amazing pictures of everything from nearby stars and nebulae to the most distant galaxies in the Universe. Due to modern technology, we have discovered black holes a billion times more massive than the sun and watched stars exploding halfway across the Universe.

So, if you consider the "romance" of astronomy to be a lone man on a mountain top struggling to comprehend the Universe, then that romance is lost. But if you, like I, consider the romance of astronomy to be the exotic nature of the Universe around us, then modern technology only serves to open entire new worlds to the power of the human mind and imagination. (Note also that, due to positive changes in society, astronomers are no longer just males; an ever-increasing number of women are contributing to every aspect of the science.)

A News Note: This week, astronomers from around the country have congregated in Honolulu for the summer meeting of the American Astronomical Society. I am not there due to teaching commitments, but you will probably see lots of astronomy news in the coming days as new results are announced!

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