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Joao Medeiros: January 2009 Archives

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Herschel space telescope (Courtesy: ESA)

By João Medeiros

According to Jonathan Gardner, from NASA, we are going through an unparalleled renaissance of astronomy, maybe only comparable with Galileo´s pioneering efforts. In fact, most astronomy talks today seem to start with the words “We now know…”

Speaking at the IYA opening in Paris he noted that over the past decades, we’ve discovered inflation, the universe´s flat geometry and that 95% of the mass of the universe is actually not on the periodic table.

Part of the reason for this renaissance has been the dream team of space telescopes, Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer. As this generation of the telescopes is reaching the end of its days, a new one is getting ready to launch. The space telescope Herschel will be launched in April, Hubble telescope is going to be granted a new lease of life with another serving mission May this year, and 2013 will see the launch of the James Webb telescope.

There´s also Planck, Herschel´s sister mission (like the fact that it´s a she, to balance that aforementioned gender inequality in science), planned to launch this year.
Hubble´s revamping is going to be take place in May. They are going to replace Hubble´s batteries, implant new gyroscopes, repair some of the instruments and put two new pieces of tech on the satellite: the cosmic origins spectrograph (which is going to measure the cosmic web of gas between the galaxies) and the WFC3 (wide field camera, that will look for high redshift supernovae).

The new generation of space telescopes is going to prioritize the study of star formation, exoplanets (undoubtedly THE topic of astro at the moment) and the end of the dark ages, when the first galaxies formed and ionized the interstellar medium. All in the spirit of Carl Sagan´s philosophy “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

By João Medeiros

Bob Wilson, discoverer of the cosmic microwave background (with Arnos Penzias), Nobel laureate, is one of the big celebs here at the IYA opening. Students chase him like paparazzi. Good to know there is such a thing as science fanclubs.

I managed to scare away the students and get ten minutes with Wilson. I had to thank him for having given me a PhD topic, after all. We spoke about scientific method and the importance of science journalism.

A curious thing about the discovery of the CMB is that Wilson only truly realized the importance of his discovery when he read about it on the NY times. Being a typical postgraduate at the time (he was 29), back in 1965, he woke up at lunchtime the day after his discovery was published, and it was his father, visiting from Texas, that brought the newspaper with the news. “I didn´t really have a clue of the importance of what we had done until then, thanks to that journalist,” he said.

Wilson didn´t actually take cosmology seriously, given all the speculation back then (nothing much changed then). In fact, he was actually more philosophically inclined to believe in the steady state theory rather than a dynamic universe, partly because Hoyle had been his cosmology lecturer.

According to Wilson, his discovery made cosmology the big industry that it is today, something that we would never had imagined would happen in the slightest.

Given the serendipity of Wilson´s discovery, he says that it hadn´t been for him and Penzias, then certainly someone else would have discovered the CMB sooner or later (in fact, at the time of Wilson and Penzia´s discovery, David Wilkinson was building an antenna to specifically detect the cosmic radiation). Wilson believes in Robert Merton´s theory of multiples, that discoveries are the product of individuals, but of the times.

The NY Times episode shows that Wilson thinks science journalism plays a fundamental role to science. He still reads the New York Times and various science magazines, to keep up to date on what is going on in science. He says he much prefers it to scientific papers, which take a lot a time and effort.

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Catherine Cesarsky (Courtesy: ESO)

By João Medeiros

It´s the year of deflation, the year of Obama, and the International Year of Astronomy. It started here in Paris, the City of Lights, by the Eiffel Tower, at the UNESCO HQ. The Opening Ceremony attracted more than 100 countries represented by astronomers, industrialists, diplomats, artists, a Kepler impersonator and the odd journo. We are celebrating 400 years since Galileo, the father of modern science, turned the telescope up and saw something amazing.

Catherine Cesarsky, president of the International Astronomical Union, said the vision for the International Year of Astronomy is going to be geared outwards, towards the public.
“After years of preparation, the time has come to launch this year, during which the citizens of the world will rediscover their place in the Universe, and hear of the wondrous discoveries in the making. “

Indeed, the lofty goal of the IYA 2009 is not to launch a super science program but to return astronomy to the public through a series of initiatives that will include the Dark Skies Awareness)and a reclassification of archaeoastronomy sites as UNESCO´s world heritage sites.

Speaking to Physics World, Catherine Cesarsky, expressed how much she wishes that astronomy reaches the public again, as an entry point to science and to a scientific world view, so necessary today. She said that, from her own experience, the younger generations, 10 to 14 years olds, are usually enthralled by astronomy popular lectures. However, from then on, adolescence kicks in and it becomes harder to excite the audiences — it´s difficult for a teenager to appreciate the mysteries of the universe when its hormones are playing no rules football. But it doesn´t matter much, Cesarsky believes, since the most important part of science communication is to plant the seed for the excitement for the wonders of science when they are really young.

Cesarsky also worries about the gender asymmetry in the physical sciences and about the “leaky pipeline effect”: you get a fair proportion of women at undergraduate level that somehow are all but gone in academia. The discrimination, fortunately, is not as palpable as it was back in the days when Cesarsky did her studies in Buenos Aires. Obviously a bright student, she was once complimented by her head of department in the following nuanced manner “It´s funny, I always thought physics wasn´t for women”.

The conference opened with a series of talks on Mayan and Islamic astronomy. I´ve always been fascinated by the role played by ancient astronomy in society, bridging primordial religious experience to a fundamental relevance to agriculture and economy. According to Martin Rees, also present in the ceremony, “astronomy is, if not the first, the second oldest science, after medicine”.

Throughout history, astronomy inexorably lost relevance to society. However, it still relates with the big and the meta-questions. To Cesarsky, that´s where the relevance of astronomy lies. “We have one sky, and that´s what should truly unite people. Astronomy, like other sciences, but astronomy in particular, is a peaceful, soul-searching activity that encourages a truly global culture”.

Of course, 2009, is also the year of Darwin. In the words of Martin Rees, “Both astronomy and Darwinism provide a beautiful narrative for humanity, that starts right from the beginning until the intelligent species that we are today”