IAU: The singular future of astronomy

The Hubble Deep Field

The Hubble Deep Field

For many centuries, astronomy has been a powerful inspirational force driving people to look further, build bigger, go deeper. Indeed, other physical sciences, mathematics and engineering have benefited greatly, and continue to benefit, from astronomical research. At the IAU general assembly I heard many speakers comment on the “Golden Age” of astronomy we currently finding ourselves in. But as one speaker argued, when was astronomy not in a Golden Age? An entire 4-day session at the GA was devoted to the topic “Accelerating the rate of astronomical discovery”, which had some fascinating talks about the way astronomical discoveries are made and how technological changes underpin progress in astronomy.

An important theme running through many talks in the session was the power of the individual in astronomy. The balance between the individual and the crowd has always been a delicate one. Many early scientists faced disbelief or even wrath from peers and society for their discoveries, from Copernicus‘ “heretic” claims of a heliocentric universe to the initial rejection of Saha‘s equation of ionisation equilibrium by the 1920’s scientific establishment. Several talks were love stories to the mavericks whose doggedness, eccentricity and creativity changed the face of astronomy, culminating in Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell‘s wonderful own account of her discovery of the first pulsars in the 1960s.

A few good men

Fittingly, the session was opened by Bob Williams, who as Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute allowed scientists to point the Hubble Space Telescope at an unremarkable region of sky for tens of hours using his so-called director’s discretionary time. The richness of the resulting Hubble Deep Field images blew away even the most jaded professionals and it accompanying paper has gathered many hundreds of citations. Williams, who is taking over as the new President of the IAU, talked about the need for an evaluation of the astronomy research system to drive the culture of discovery. In particular, he called for directors of facilities to be given more power over the allocation of telescope time to shy away from committees that “have a tendency to minimize risk”.

Williams’ vision and will to explore and adopt change were impressive. When an audience member’s suggestion of a more open, web-based approach to peer review of journal papers, his dismissive chuckle that this was even for him, “a little far out” suggested however that his vision for “power of the individual” applies mainly to individuals at the top.

Protecting the young

Simon White, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, in contrast, spoke of the need to protect and harness the power of young astronomers in particular. Young graduate students and postdocs are often enlisted in large projects for infrastructure work: writing software, reducing data, debugging. While these are hugely important aspects of a large project, they hardly ever constitute original research, leaving the youngsters lacking in scientific and intellectual credit.

In the era of Big Astronomy, dominated by large surveys and international facilities, young scientists need to be given the opportunity to get creative and spend time on a problem, rather than be enlisted into an army of identikit data miners who will as individuals not be able to make a significant contribution. In instrumentation, the corporate culture necessary to build the observatories of the future require a corporatist dedication to a project, often conflicting with the requirements for an academic career. Marketing and science research, as it turns out, are not so compatible in one  career.

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White's recommendations

The good crowd

Individuals’ creativity may well need protecting from the mediocrity of the masses, but crowds are not all bad. Jocelyn Bell-Burnell discovered a whole new category of objects by building her own radio telescope, operating it, and poring over 4 months’ worth of data in the form of several kilometres of paper reels. With telescopes today churning out gigabytes of data in the space of a few nights, a modern-day Jocelyn is increasingly unlikely to make a similar discovery in her dataset today. The data deluge from today’s observatories, and particularly those of the future, will demand a new approach to data analysis, as astronomers will simply not have the time and resources to examine the datasets with the diligence that led Bell-Burnell to her surprising serendipitous find.

Powerful computers, automated pipelines and virtual observatories can help. But human brains are exceptionally suited to tasks such as pattern and shape recognition – tasks that are notoriously hard to teach a computer to do well. Citizen science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, which has enlisted over 200,000 volunteers to help classify galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Images leading to several significant discoveries, have demonstrated this to stunning effect and created a large and vibrant community of astronomy enthusiasts in the process. Could citizen science projects be the future of serendipity in astronomy?

Both individuals and the crowd clearly have a place in modern astronomy. In this age of global participation, we all have the opportunity to help continue the culture of discovery in astronomy, as citizen scientists, as professionals or both. It’s up to all of us to come up with the bright ideas to best exploit our new facilities and the data they will generate. I know there are many out there, and I’m looking forward to discussing them at .Astronomy in Leiden later this year.

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  1. […] the answer, and on that they agree. Given his views on the future of astronomy (which I wrote about here), I would have thought he’d be all in favour of setting bright students’ creative minds […]