Here’s one way of summing up the scientific revolution in two words: data matters.
Surely Galileo deserves credit for imagination and intellectual bravery. But what really sets him apart from the generations of thinkers that preceded him is the telescope. With Galileo, for the first time, there is genuinely new data available. The telescope is not just an aid to the eye, but to the brain. When it’s applied to the heavens, an observer—any observer—can see things that Aristotle never dreamed of, and so come away “smarter” and better informed about the nature of the cosmos that the greatest minds of antiquity. With the scientific revolution comes the realization that thinking deeply doesn't get us very far unless we can also improve the quality and the reach of our data. Seeing better makes us smarter.
With that thought in mind, this was a banner week for beefing up our cosmic IQ.
The successful launch of the Herschel and Planck spacecraft, along with the ongoing renewal of the Hubble Space Telescope, means that astronomers are about to take another big leap forward in the data department, with the expectation of a more nuanced take on the universe to follow, and quite possibly some radical shifts in our thinking.
Herschel is the much-anticipated infrared satellite that will pick up where NASA’s Spitzer Observatory left off. It’s 3.5-meter mirror is the largest ever launched (at least for astronomical purposes – there could be bigger spy satellites up there somewhere). It will probe longer infrared wavelengths than Spitzer, pushing infrared astronomy towards cooler targets within our own galaxy and more ancient epochs in the distant universe.
Planck is the next generation effort to explore the cosmic microwave background—the relic radiation that was released just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, when the universe first cooled enough to form hydrogen gas. Its predecessor, the WMAP satellite, helped transformed our picture of the early universe—a picture that now includes dark matter and dark energy in addition to ordinary matter. Planck will certainly refine this view but it will also take us closer to the underlying question of what produced the Big Bang in the first place.
Along with the Fermi Gamma-Ray Observatory, launched last year, they represent the first truly 21st century space observatories. They are the next step after the Hubble generation of great observatories, which were conceived during the 1970’s and 80’s and launched mainly in the 1990’s.
Meanwhile, the Hubble itself is in the process of being turned into something pretty close to a 21-century observatory also. Nearly 20 years after it’s launch, Hubble in the midst of a complete overhaul that will see (we hope), two key instruments repaired and two new instruments added. The new hardware includes the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. Like Herschel and Planck, this instrument is a sophisticated effort to address one of the most basic questions of existence: where do we come from?
It’s hard to imagine what Galileo would have made of the technology, but he would have understood the motivation behind these spacecraft: They are built to smarten us up.
Ivan Semeniuk is host of The Universe in Mind podcast and a science journalist in residence at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto.