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Cosmic Variance

Eyes on Andromeda

11 Dec 2012, 10:30 UTC
Eyes on Andromeda
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

The practice of astronomy is different than it used to be.
Back in the day, the image was of the lone astronomer, sitting at their telescope, communing with the universe. Over time, we got more use to the idea that maybe groups of astronomers might come together to work on a common project. But still, there were fairly tight connections between astronomers and their data.
Over the last decade and a half, something fundamental has changed. Data has gotten big. So big, that it’s impossible for any one person to make sense of it. More importantly, data of these sizes make it impossible to “notice” anything. The line of research that probably got me tenured was based on “noticing” something interesting in several dozen galaxies. But how do you “notice” something in hundreds of terabytes of data?
The standard answer these days is (naturally) computers. Computer science is great at problems like this, and many astronomers are working on the interface of CS these days. But that said, there are some problems that software is simply lousy at. So what do you do when your scientific interests run smack into a problem that you can’t code your way out of?

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