Friday, March 21, 2014

The Golden Age of Astronomy

When we look to the past it is clear that there have been golden ages associated with different cultures and technologies. For instance in the 1920’s to 1940’s there was the golden age of radio, from 1960 to 1975 the golden age of general relativity, and so forth. However, what most people may not realize is that we are actually in the beginning of the golden age of Astronomy and the related Physics pertaining to our Universe. The amount of new information pertaining to our Universe, collected by telescopes such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, has been so massive that astrophysicists such as Ray Norris from CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility has stated that we are in the beginning of a golden age of astronomy.

So why does Ray Norris consider this to be a golden age? Well, when we look at all the Universe, it is clear that we have long been observing only that 4% of the Universe composed of normal matter; the other 96%, composed of dark matter and dark energy, has yet to be explained through physics. However, with the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider, these unknown entities can be further studied. What this means is that there is potential for many new discoveries and that the fields related to space are ripe with opportunity. From this it may seem that the Higgs Boson discovery as well as the massive amounts of new information gathered from sky surveys can be considered the start of this age. But actually when you also consider the technology surrounding the field of astronomy, as well as the amount of interest in the field it is hard to put an exact date to the start of this golden age.

Specifically, one way astronomy has improved technologically is one of the most basic ways of observing space, telescopes. In the past, telescopes were comprised of single, static mirrors and thus there were limits on their size and resolving power. However, with the improvements in engineering, we are able to create optical telescopes that are 30 times larger than we were able to create 25 to 30 years ago. Alberti Conti states that with our abilities now, when we retrofit the large mirrors with detectors, they are not 30 times better, but rather 3000 times better. In the case of these telescopes, the detectors are silicon chips divided into rows and columns, making “pixels.” Then when a photon hits a pixel, an electron gets knocked loose and stays in the “pixel.” The number of electrons basically equals the amount of light hitting the pixel. Ultimately, these chips make recording the light that passes through much more efficient. This combination of new engineering techniques comprising the use of multiple mirrors as well as the use of detectors is essential to the spark of the golden age because of how much more light gathering power modern day telescopes possess.

In addition to optical telescopes, radio telescopes such as the Australian SK Pathfinder has 200 receivers compared to other telescopes which use fewer receivers such as the Arecibo Observatory which makes the volume of data increase by 100 fold, which in turn leads to the potential of discovery to increase by 100 fold. This massive increase in detection efficiency goes hand in hand with Moore’s Law, a law stating that our ability to process data doubles every two years or so. Along with all this data, this has caused astronomical advances to become more reliant on data mining and statistical methodologies.

So with new massive databases of information, astronomical discovery has become much more feasible for a larger group of people. In the past, if astronomers wanted to study the sky, they would have to reserve time at a large telescope and hope for optimal conditions. However now, with free widespread data, it has become much easier for people to analyze data. In addition to the free data on the internet, organizations such as Galaxy Zoo have been created. These organizations ability in crowdsourcing people with an interest in astronomy and has helped the classification of galaxies at a rate of 70,000 per hour compared to an average single person’s classification rate of 50,000 galaxies per year. Essentially, with the massive amount of free data as well as the increase in publicity and exposure of astronomical data, the field has received many more contributors than compared to the past which has helped with the analysis of the massive amounts of new data.

With the technologies surrounding data gathering getting significantly better, it is easy to see why astronomy is currently in a golden age. With so much new data available for so many more people, it is evident that astronomy has become a field for more than just the lucky who were able to receive new data, but for any person with an interest in the field. In the future, I believe that astronomy will continue its golden age through continued improvements in technology and data gathering, but also with discoveries and advancements in related fields of physics as well. It is hard to judge, but right now we are at the dawn of a massive age of discovery concerning more than just the Universe we can see.
Justin Kim