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17 July 2012

Astronomy: the ‘gateway’ field of optics and photonics

There are many good reasons to help the next generation become interested in science. They are the future, after all; the authors and architects of whatever progress and solutions the human race will attain during their time on the planet. To meet that challenge, they will need the best knowledge and tools available.

Plus … understanding how the world works is not only useful, but fun.

One of the most accessible pathways to an interest in science is astronomy.

Speakers at the recent gathering in Amsterdam of the world’s astronomical telescopes and instrumentation community were very persuasive on that point, starting with the very first talk.

“The tangible mystery of space” has inspired humankind from our earliest times, noted Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in the event’s opening plenary session.

"High-profile astronomy missions inspire kids in elementary school to become the scientists of the future,” she asserted. “This doesn't necessarily mean that they end up working in astronomy. They might work on carbon nanotubes or solar panels, but astronomy can serve as a 'first love' of scientific research and discovery."

Hammel’s talk -- an update on the James Webb Space Telescope -- was one of many reports at the meeting on current and future space missions, and their instrumentation and project management. Other speakers echoed Hammel’s observation that while projects such as the James Webb are important for research, they also contribute to the greater human inspiration to pursue scientific investigation.

Another powerful hook that astronomy offers is the ability and in fact growing trend for citizen scientists to participate with professional researchers in real research, noted another speaker at the conference.

Sarah Kendrew of the Max Planck Institute pointed out that citizen science projects such as Zooniverse enable the processing of the incredible amounts of data now being produced by the multitude of ground- and space-based projects looking into the universe.

They also are responsible for some significant discoveries. Probably the most famous example is Hanny's Voorwerp, an astronomical object of unknown nature discovered by Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel while she was participating as an amateur volunteer in the Galaxy Zoo project in 2007.

Hanny's Voorwerp. Credit: NASA, ESA, W. Keel (Univ. of Alabama), et al., Galaxy Zoo Team.

In astronomy blogs and other web-based platforms, there is no social hierarchy, and people are not identified by age, gender, geographic location, or educational level, Kendrew said. This allows for a huge amount of human brain power to be focused on specific projects, harvesting the collective energy for greater levels of discovery.

Imagine, as Kendrew does, the power to acquire new knowledge and create a better world that could come from applying that collective energy in all fields. What a compelling argument for supporting STEM education in schools as well as your own backyard!

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