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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


A New Era of Exploration: First Light for the Next Millennium

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
American Astronomical Society
Austin, Texas

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 and society.

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 cutting-edge facilities.

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 return."

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 years.

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 detection.

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 society.

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.

Thank you.




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