A New Era of Exploration: First Light for the Next Millennium
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
American Astronomical Society
January 9, 1999
Good morning. I'm particularly relishing these chances to meet with
physical scientists around the country.
Astronomy, of course, holds a special place in the firmament of all
science and engineering. Both wonder and practicality thread the history
of the discipline since ancient times.
On that first strand-your ability to make our spirits soar-I resort
to the poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote, "Every day you play with the light
of the universe."
As for practicality, astronomy has not only inspired but enabled our
civilization. Agriculture, navigation, the exploration of our planet:
all advanced in tandem with exploration of the heavens.
Royal observatories like that at Greenwich remind us of astronomy's
centrality to the success of empires.
Today, astronomers are scoring spectacular successes at another level
of magnitude. We hear that astronomy's "Golden Age" has dawned.
The past year or so witnessed new revelations about the nature and distance
of gamma ray bursts, some of the most energetic objects in the universe.
A few months ago, cover stories in Newsweek and elsewhere heralded
the discovery of new planets being born around other stars. Earlier this
week, a press briefing here focused on extrasolar planets.
Science Magazine has named another astronomical discovery the
top research advance of the year: That's the news that our universe is
expanding at an accelerating rate.
A reporter for U.S. News and World Report, Greg Easterbrook,
captured the significance when he wrote, "...if the firmament will expand
for an enormous amount of time, or even for an eternity, then our universe
glistens with morning dew."
We're also celebrating milestones in facilities for ground-based astronomy.
Just before Christmas, Gemini North in Hawaii achieved "engineering first
light" at the focal point of the primary mirror, on schedule and on budget.
The Gemini project stands out as a model of international collaboration,
with scientists and engineers from seven nations working together.
We're looking forward to the first exciting infrared images from the
northern telescope later this Month!
In the meantime, we're pleased that the design and development phase
of the Millimeter Array is moving along well.
Both Gemini and the progress on the MMA are spearheading the promise
of a new era for ground-based astronomy.
This is all part of what we might call a new age of exploration in science.
I have been thinking a great deal about how these voyages will take us
to the unexplored territories, the unmet needs-if you will-of science
These are almost uncharted domains that hold great promise but receive
more rhetoric than research.
To map these new lands, we must plot our headings. The astronomy community
has led the sciences in its ability to prioritize its needs.
As you are poised to begin a new decadal study, we need your help to
define the challenges ahead for this new millennium.
I know we all agree that it is critical to nurture what we have already
built-such as the basic disciplines, the individual investigator, and
Two areas ripe for new exploration are information technology and science
and math education.
We've all seen how astronomy has already contributed much to both. It
can contribute even more as we move ahead.
Let me elaborate on why we need to invest in information technology.
Some of you may be acquainted with the recent report by the President's
Information Technology Advisory Committee-PITAC for short.
It notes that federal investment in this field has reaped a "spectacular
Yet PITAC called federal support for long-term research on information
technology "dangerously inadequate."
The committee recommended that NSF serve as lead agency to coordinate
federal support for computing research.
We're strongly committed to playing this leadership role.
We have a solid record in key areas of information technology research,
from software to the human/computer interface, from scalable infrastructure
to the framework for high-end computing.
Our agenda will be a much broader spectrum of fundamental research across
computing, information systems, learning, and artificial intelligence.
We must make that commitment.
NSF would also support formation of the strongest possible links between
information technology and fundamental research in science and engineering.
That makes sense because of our comprehensive research agenda, our embrace
of all disciplines, and our stress on cross-disciplinary links. This
will be one of the most important ventures NSF can launch in the coming
Astronomers have an essential role in this endeavor. Since the time
of Galileo and the earliest telescopes, technology has advanced hand
in hand with the pursuit of astronomical theory.
Your techniques to mine huge databases, such as those amassed in sky
surveys, furnish valuable tools for other disciplines, including biology,
that increasingly face similar challenges.
Your desire to image the universe at many wavelengths has benefits in
other fields closer to home. Remote detection and imaging technology
apply to remote sensing and medicine, as we've seen with breast cancer
Here, a doctor faces the same problem in a mammogram image: to single
out significant points against a cluttered background.
As a research scientist myself, I know how information technology can
drive the course of research and help us to dissolve disciplinary boundaries.
My work on environmental factors associated with cholera epidemics would
be impossible without the power of computing.
My students and I use remote sensing and computer processing to integrate
data from many disciplines: oceanography, epidemiology, ecology, microbiology,
clinical medicine-the list goes on.
We are developing models to predict conditions that are conducive to
cholera epidemics-a possibility that could never be hoped for without
the advances in information processing.
Information technology will help us leap boundaries. One such boundary
is that dividing astronomy and biology.
The search for planets beyond the solar system opens up prospects for
a new branch of biology and new collaborations. The phenomenon of chirality,
or handedness, is another example calling for an interdisciplinary approach.
Findings this past year suggest that circular polarization of light
in space might ultimately account for the "left-handedness" of amino
acids. These results merely hint at what's in store.
A recent article in New Scientist magazine poses another theory-a
controversial one in fact. It proposes that "the sudden introduction
of light into the lives of animals-and the need to adapt to a world in
which creatures could see and be seen-led to the first huge expansion
of biodiversity, the Cambrian explosion."
Light may have played a role in the evolution of life. Today, we focus
on the richness of messages it brings to us from the universe.
Let us consider how we might join the disciplines and search for evidence
among the stars that an explosion of diversity might have occurred elsewhere
in space and time.
This leads to another challenge. We as scientists must do a better job
both at sharing our excitement-and at illuminating the connections between
science and broader societal needs.
We recognize that astronomy's universal appeal can ignite an abiding
scientific curiosity in minds young and old.
Here, AAS has provided exemplary leadership in communicating the dynamism
of astronomy to students and the public.
At this meeting, sessions on outreach and education-even a talk on "4000
Years of Women in Astronomy"-illustrate this.
Astronomers are already contributing enormously to public awareness
of science, to new ways of teaching, to building diversity, to expanding
connections to other disciplines.
The challenge for us all is to build on these foundations. We can nourish
our research enterprise in tandem with fulfilling our obligations to
With this in mind, it is interesting to recall Walt Whitman's reference
to a stuffy lecture by a "learned astronomer."
"When I was shown the charts and diagrams," Whitman wrote, "to add,
divide and measure them...How soon unaccountably I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself...and from time
to time Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."
Frankly, Whitman got it wrong. A public information officer at the National
Radio Astronomy Observatory, Dave Finley, made this clear when he wrote: "A
person deprived of...astronomical knowledge is as culturally handicapped
as one never exposed to history, literature, music, or art."
Whitman was right, however, that we scientists need to speak out with
clarity and vitality. A wonderful example of such communication is the
Arecibo Observatory's visitor center in Puerto Rico.
Here, a public and private partnership, including NSF, has created the
island's premier science museum; and, it's bilingual. What a resource
for 600,000 Puerto Rican schoolchildren. Information technology will
do much to bring the immediacy of science into the classroom.
While the shift to remote observing in astronomy is transforming the
use of telescopes, it also opens up new vistas for students and teachers
to be part of research.
Just a couple of months ago, high school students in Northfield, Massachusetts
discovered a new, icy object in the Kuiper Belt.
They used images accessed by computer from the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American
Observatory in Chile. The Gemini project also has ambitious plans to
link the new observatories, astronomers, and the public through the Internet.
At NSF, we've announced a new opportunity to encourage graduates and
advanced undergraduates in science, math, and engineering to go out to
K-12 classrooms to assist teachers and students.
The pilot program will target teaching and learning at several levels
at once. We hope teachers, students, undergrads and grads will all benefit.
I would like to close by asking for your help, your vision, as we chart
these new lands with such potential for our future.
As Charles Darwin pointed out, flowers evolved in response to the ability
of animals to see. And so it is with our vision of the future. We face
the challenge of sustaining our individual disciplines even as we deepen
our connections among them.
We seek to broaden the synergy of ground and space-based astronomy.
And we must strengthen collaboration among agencies and private institutions.
We have a clear and compelling cartography before us.
We must draw upon the leadership of the astronomical community; nourish
our cross-disciplinary creativity; carry out the national imperative
to invest in information technology; and reach out to students and the
public to expand scientific literacy.
With such vision, we will bring first light to a new millennium of scientific
and societal strength.