Virtual Observatory

May 20th, 2003 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized

astronavIn today’s New York Times (no link as it disappears within a week), the article talks about the ambitious project underway to digitize and unify all the observable data and images into a single coherent user interface of the observed cosmos. In time, I have no doubt we will all have access to the same thing astronomers do. Reminds me of that scene with Picard and Data in Star Trek: Generations, in the Astronavigation room:

The telescope that Dr. Szalay and his colleagues have constructed is not built of glass and metal. It is a virtual observatory, consisting of terabytes of data collected by dozens of telescopes on Earth and in space, and the software necessary to mine these data for scientific gems.

Like much of the rest of science, astronomy has been the beneficiary — and victim — of Moore’s Law, which states that the capacity of computers and other silicon-based devices like charge-coupled devices, or C.C.D.’s, doubles every 18 months. (The C.C.D has largely replaced photographic film in astronomical cameras.)

Projects like the National Virtual Observatory, which was created in response to the tsunami of data that is threatening to drown astronomers, is creating a new branch of science, Dr. Szalay believes.

Science, he points out, was “originally empirical, like Leonardo making wonderful drawings of nature.” He continued: “Next came the theorists who tried to write down the equations that explained the observed behaviors, like Kepler or Einstein. Then, when we got to complex enough systems like the clustering of a million galaxies, there came computer simulations, the computational branch of science. Now we are getting into the data exploration part of science, which is kind of a little bit of them all.”

Because its primary tools are computers rather than giant, multimillion telescopes, this new form of astronomy has the potential to democratize science.


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