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Borg Astronomy September 25, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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One thing that became clear from the talks at .Astronomy is that the days of our traditional model of observational astronomy are numbered, and the Web 2.0 lies at the very heart of the transformation. A shift is occurring in the philosophy of astronomical research.

Last year I read a book called The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman, and I couldn’t help but think back to it during some of the conference talks. Until a decade or so ago, you could consider observatories to be small shops, with shop assistants who knew about what was on their shelves and could advise customers. Instruments were built to the telescopes’ quirks, and were small enough to be built by a single institution. Astronomers who got allocated observing time would travel to the observatory, and because they were involved in the whole observing process, they would come back with enough information to reduce and analyse their data.

Since the end of the last century, however, observatories have begun evolving away from this model as telescopes and instruments have become bigger, better and pricier. The added complexity that has come with the improvements in technology such as the introduction of adaptive optics has also caused there to be more distance between the observer and the telescope. The small shops are still there, but there are also bigger web-based archives from many observatories, where astronomers can “shop” around for more data of their pet galaxy (only it’s free – but that’s the topic formaybe another post!) – search, click, and hey presto it’s on your desktop.

With the next generation of observatories (LSST, SKA, JWST), however, the data volumes produced will be so large that downloading everything onto our own computers just won’t make sense. While CPU and data storage scales with Moore’s law, bandwidth does not – this is known as the “last mile” problem. The Astrophysical Virtual Observatory has been developed as a veritable Wal-Mart of astronomical data, and powerful database search tools can help us locate the data we need in terabytes and terabytes of data. Andy Lawrence showed us a demonstration of the desktop software for AVO and I can really imagine it’s an immensely powerful research tool.

In the same way that Wal-Mart can impose its demands on its suppliers, platforms like AVO impose data standards on observatories. Standardisation is everywhere in our lives and more often than not it’s a Good Thing. But Andy hit the nail on the head when he questioned: “WIll this turn us into the Borg, or just happy shoppers?”. As someone involved in the development of instruments for these new observatories, this evolution, while I accept it’s inevitable, does cause me some concern.

Standardisation of instruments is already a reality, for example at ESO, where international consortia are essentially asked to deliver “plug and play”-type instruments that interface seamlessly with the rest of the telescope. Again, the advantages are clear. But does it also not stifle the drive for innovation? In the way the instruments are built, but also in how the astronomers get their science out of the data. There needs to be a dialogue between the shopkeeper and the client, so that the shopkeeper can provide better products on his shelves and the customer comes back happier.

Another food analogy (hmm maybe I need to get some lunch): surely you can be a better cook if you handpick the vegetables raw and unprocessed rather than in those packets of pre-washed-peeled-cubed-whatever? It takes a bit more work and imagination (ever picked up an artichoke?!), but if you always use the processed stuff then you end up with kids not knowing what celery looks like.

I’m not sure what the answer to all this is, and like with Wal-Mart, it’s probably an inevitable change in the way we’ll do astronomy in the future. Right, now for that lunch!

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