This year’s Astronomical Data Analysis Software & Systems conference (ADASS XXV) is being held in Sydney, Australia, hosted by CAASTRO. Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt delivered a keynote address about the impact of software and data access on astronomy.
Fifty years ago, many major discoveries were made by astronomers working in “hero mode” and cited Baade, Zwicky, Wilson and Penzias and others. We live in different times now, where large surveys whose data are made accessible to all astronomers and are enabling broad exploration of the sky that has hitherto not been possible. He cited the case of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which has produced 5,600 papers that report major discoveries in many areas of astrophysics: brown dwarfs, cosmology, Galaxy structure… SDSS has increased by x100o the amount of multi-color data accessible to astronomers, and the nature of 10(9) objects have been investigated. Even though the original pipeline was developed in “hero mode,” access to these unique data produced an invested research community that has developed new and powerful tools.
Whither next? Connecting new and unique data sets is what will allow new discoveries, and Brian quoted LIGO and Fermi data as just one example. He emphasized the importance of standards in enabling these connections, and cited astronomy as a leader across all sciences in investing in and adopting such standards. Nevertheless, he also cited the need for vigilance and discipline, and described the messy case of handing optical distortions (which are radial) in WCS (which expresses image footprints in a rectangular format).
Despite our successes, we are under-investing as a community in S/W and data systems. We do need compelling S/W platforms that have a real use, and Brian emphasized the value of Open Platforms: the supernova search that led to the Nobel Prize did, in fact, exploit open software to produce its processing pipeline.
Brian is about to become the vice-chancellor of the ANU, and one of his major goals is to translate the successes of astronomy to disciplines.