Skip to main content

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!


Popular posts from this blog

#FacesofPhotonics: Inspired

Guest blogger: Emily Power is a Winter Quarter graduate in communications from Western Washington University, and most recently social media intern for SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. She is blogging on responses to the SPIE #FacesofPhotonics campaign, to share the stories of SPIE students around the globe.
It is a commonly known fact: students are the future. Around the world, students with ideas, opinions, and innovative minds are preparing for their opportunities to conceptualize and create the next advances for the ever-changing world in which we live.
In the field of optics and photonics, students are making a difference even now, sharing their work and building their networks through conferences such as SPIE Photonics West, coming up next month in San Francisco.
The SPIE campaign #FacesofPhotonics was developed as a showcase across social media to connect students from SPIE Student Chapters around the world, highlighting similarities, celebrating differ…

Grilling robot takes over backyard barbecue

Photonics has already made profound contributions to such areas as medicine, energy, and communications to make our everyday lives more efficient. (Hence the name of this blog.) People in all walks of life benefit from the incorporation of photonics technologies. We look forward to future advancements when the technology may help find a cure for cancer, monitor and prevent climate change, and pave the way to other advancements we can’t even visualize yet.
But here’s a photonics-based invention -- already demonstrated – that breaks ground in a new area: the backyard barbecue. Talk about hot fun in the summertime!
The BratWurst Bot made its appearance at the Stallwächter-Party of the Baden-Württemberg State Representation in Berlin. It’s made of off-the-shelf robotic components such as the lightweight Universal Robots arm UR-10, a standard parallel gripper (Schunk PG-70) and standard grill tongs. A tablet-based chef’s face interacted with party guests.
Two RGB cameras and a segmentatio…

UPDATE! Gravitational waves ... detected!

Update, 11 February: A hundred years after Einstein predicted them, gravitational waves from a cataclysmic event a billion years ago have been observed.
For the first time, scientists have observed gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime arriving at Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window to the cosmos.
The discovery was announced on 11 February at a press conference in Washington, DC, hosted by the National Science Foundation, the primary funder of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).
The gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.
The event took place on 14 September 2015 at 5:51 a.m. EDT (09:51 UTC) by both of…