Computers support the work of astronomers in two major ways. First, they help acquire, store, and analyze the massive amounts of data that astronomical research generates. Astronomers are currently undertaking a venture called the “virtual observatory,” an international effort at standardizing and allowing access to the data collected by observatories around the world and in space. Without computers, we’d still be trying to use photographic plates and low-resolution analog detectors to figure out the cosmos;instead, we have the Hubble Space Telescope! The second major influence is the advent of “computational astrophysics” over the last several decades, during which time we have refined the ability to simulate the laws of physics on our computers. We can use comptuers to re-create environments we can’t visit and periods of time that are too long for us to experience. Thus, we can use computers to simulate everything from Earth’s magnetic field to galactic collisions, from stellar birth to the bending of light around black holes. Then we can compare those simulations to what we see around us (sifting through the aforementioned massive quantities of data).
I can’t help but note one other way in which computers aid astronomers… Computers allow us to visualize the complex data returned from both telescopes and computer code. So we can employ not just purely numerical tools to study the data, but also begin to explore the information with, as it were, the right side of our brains. My title, you see, is “science visualizer.”
(Below, I link to course notes for a class I co-taught about “Computers, Data Exploration & Science in the 21st Century.”) Ryan Wyatt Rose Center for Earth & Space
New York, New York