The Second Renaissance in Astronomy

If you are young, are you prepared for the next fifty years?

If you are old, have you digested the last fifty years?

The future will be everything you never imagined.  And it gets here far faster than you planned.

When I was a boy the solar system had 9 planets, 31 moons, and an asteroid belt.  This was before the discovery of the cosmic background radiation and Fred Hoyle was still making a good case for the steady state theory against the big bang theory.

Fifty years later the solar system has 8 planets, 5 dwarf planets,  178 moons, an asteroid belt, a Kuiper Belt, and an Oort Cloud.  The Big Bang won.

… and we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets!

The world’s largest telescope from 1949 to 1992 was the 200 inch (5 meters) Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar.  In the 1960s we were told it would be extremely difficult to engineer a larger land based scope, so we’d need a telescope in space to surpass the physical limitations of ground based observatories.  Of course, the world of astronomy was knocked on its ass by the success of the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s.  Most astronomy photos I admired in the 1960s were black and white, which left the impression that the universe was little more than fifty shades of gray.  The Hubble Space Telescope revealed an immense Technicolor reality beyond our skies, liked Dorothy opening the door to Oz.

The futurists of the past were wrong.  For the past twenty years there’s been a building boom in giant Earth based telescopes.  Astronomers are now using 10 meter telescopes like the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the Gran Telescopio Cararias.

Last week  the Thirty Meter Telescope got permission to build at the summit of Mauna Kea, with an estimated completion in 2018.

thirty-meter-telescope

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) has also gotten permission to build a 39 meter telescope in Chile with an estimated completion date of 2022.

E-ELT

Both images are artist’s conceptions.

The list of the largest telescopes now shows 18 telescopes larger than the Hale Telescope that was so mind blowing to me as a kid.  Plus technologies like astronomical interferometry and adaptive optics let astronomers get more bang for the buck per aperture meter than ever imagined by pre-digital age telescope designers.  Essentially, modern engineers have gone way beyond the laws of 1960s physics.

For most Earthlings, astronomy is a science best left to super-geeks, but that will change, just like society changed after Copernicus and Galileo made their orthodox shattering observations.  As the telescopes get larger, the closer they get to detecting life and even intelligent life on far off extrasolar planets.  With more powerful telescopes we’ll be able to image planets directly, and do spectrographic analysis of their atmospheres.  Scientists will be able to detect biomarkers that will prove whether we’re alone in the universe.

Now that’s big!  How will such news change us?  Will it cause a new renaissance?

Probably such discoveries won’t change human life at the rat-race eye view.  We do live in a world where most people still think pre-Enlightenment thoughts.

Ever since Copernicus there have been people writing about life on other worlds.  Even the classical Greeks theorized about other worlds inhabited by intelligent beings.  For over a hundred years now, since H. G. Wells, popular media has entertained us with stories of alien invaders.  So what will happen to the people of Earth when astronomers point to stars and tell us they have planets orbiting them with chemicals in their atmospheres that can’t be made naturally?

Astronomy describes the scope of reality beyond Earth, it’s size and how it works.  Copernicus shook up the world by telling us the Earth moves.  What will it mean when astronomers prove we’re not alone?

Engineers are designing 100 meter telescopes.  What if we built a 100 meter telescope in space, say on the Moon.  That could happen in fifty years.  There is no way to imagine what discoveries it could make.

If you are young, in fifty years you will be writing an essay like this one.  The details will be much different.

References

JWH – 4/20/13

p.s.  Back in 1964 my younger self sided with Fred Hoyle. I thought the steady state theory more elegant philosophically. Hey, I was only 13. But if the multiverse pans out, old Fred and I will be vindicated.  So, what comes around, goes around.

2 thoughts on “The Second Renaissance in Astronomy

  1. I am looking for a sci fi novel where a man on a boat abducted by aliens and is well fed and taken care of by robot-like aliens, but then is sent out into the land and has to fight hunters on this planet.
    He survives because he groups together with others from other planets (for instance, a character shaped like a cat that walks upright like a man.)
    I think it was written in the ’80′s…. Do you have any idea as to what it would be called?

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