Monday, July 23, 2018

Multi-messenger Astronomy - the science of the future?

We take a break from our Donald Trump sponsored hell to discuss a new approach to a old field in physics.

Astronomy and astrophysics has enjoyed a very niche place in physics. Clearly a great deal of information can be gleaned for astronomical observations but it is very difficult to test theories in astrophysics as these events are extremely rare in the observational record.

The rarity of the events makes it difficult to cull out sources of error (especially systematic errors) which can be fatal to the validation of a theoretical model.

In the field of particle physics a similar problem was encountered, detecting exotic particles (i.e. interactions) was hostage to systematic errors and relying on single instruments to claim successful detection was considered risky. A major shift in particle physics occurred decades ago when people began to use multiple detector arrays situated around the collision vertex in a beam line to measure multiple different fluxes emerging from the collision itself. Only where there appropriate level of cross-correlation was seen in the various detectors - was a track (i.e the trajectory of a particle) declared identified. The exact identity of the track could be assigned a mass and various other quantum number depending on what instruments were lined up proximate to the vertex.

One amazing consequence of this realization in particle physics was the growth of a truly international community of physicists who tackled the problems posed by identify and classifying tracks together as a single group. These international coalitions came to have a home in CERN, BNL, FermiLab etc... Alongside these collaborations came immense data wrangling and computation frameworks that shared the data collected from such measurements and disseminated them widely to physical analysts and theorists in various parts of the world. This was an extremely wonderful world that I was privileged to be a part of for some part of my career.

Today we are seeing the emergency of the same kind of framework in Astronomy.

There were examples of this kind of international cooperation in the past - for example the story of how the Gamma Ray Burst phenomena was explored but over the past decade the unusual nature of such cooperation is going down - this is becoming much more common place.

This is a very good thing!

Not only does this work make it possible to validate physical theories of the universe (especially those of energy scales we cannot produce in a lab on Earth) but it also completely democratizes the process of science itself.

Thanks to the growth of such collaborations in the past decades astronomers all over the world can share the data from their measurements and make it available to ordinary people to review. The distant world of stars is now available to all of us and we can almost reach out and touch the infinite complexity and diversity of the universe with minimal effort.

Should we survive the existential threat that Trump's bottomless stupidity poses to the planet, I think it is likely we will see a century of new physics emerge from these multi-messenger astrophysical measurements!


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