Astronomy in the Noughties

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Today I was reading the Newsnight blog and I came across this post by science reporter Susan Watts. On the subject of astronomy it covered the subject with the passage,

The Hubble Space Telescope looked out to the edge of the Universe and far back in time, and we wondered about intelligent life elsewhere as we found more and more planets around other stars.

in addition to a video interview with Martin Rees. This focuses on the sort of astronomy stories that play well in the media, ie. Hubble and extraterrestial life. Perhaps these are the sort of stories the public want to hear about and while it is always good to put “big questions” science to the fore to help work seem relevant, I wondered how accurately this represents the breadth of astronomical research that has gone on in the last decade. I’m not trying to criticise a very good piece of journalism with only a short time to play with, but I wanted to see what astronomers themselves considered the most important developments of the decade.

The simple way to check this is to look at the most basic way astronomers (and scientists in general) recognise other people’s work, citations. Now this is not perfect, pieces of work get cited more as time goes on so older papers are generally cited more than more recent ones. None the less, here are the most cited papers of the noughties*

It’s clear what citations identify as the most interesting work of the decade, WMAP. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe has looked at the Cosmic Microwave Background (the light left over from the moment when the universe finally became cool enough for atoms to form) for the last 8 years. It’s examined the variations across the sky (anisotropy) of this CMB in order to examine the fingerprints of the universe when it was just 300,000 years old and to study the effects that matter in-between us and the CMB has caused by getting in the way. It’s allowed scientists to see how much dark matter and dark energy there is in the universe and how varied its distribution is.

The rest of the papers in the top 20 include a few using different techniques to answer the same questions WMAP has been looking at and some of the big surveys of the last few years (the SDSS and 2MASS) plus a couple on the black hole mass-velocity dispersion relation. There’s also one on a piece of work I’d forgotten about, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory which determined that neutrinos can change type, this implies that they have mass.

What’s missing from the upper reaches of this list are papers on planets. Perhaps this is because papers on planets often consist of one or two detections or maybe because it’s still a young field compared to more established areas of research.

Of course this only represents the big papers and breakthroughs, not the slow incremental progress (most distant quasar or Gamma Ray Burst/coldest brown dwarf etc.) that represents a lot of science. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts about what astronomers have done with this decade and what the most important developments have been.

*No I’m not wild about referring to this decade as the Noughties either.

Sesame Street in Space

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In honour of Sesame Street’s 40th Anniversary today I thought I’d post some links to videos of space related muppet activities. Finding them has just brightened up what has been a rather cold afternoon (the heating in my office has been broken for a while – I’m huddled up to the computer, wrapped in a scarf at the moment).

Firstly, here’s an important newsflash relating to an imminent bovine lunar mission:

That cow had better be quick though because it looks like the moon’s about to come under attack from something a bit hungrier than the LCROSS impactor:

Finally, this isn’t strictly space-related – it’s more of an Enterprise thing…

Twinkle, twinkle little blazar

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The other day I came across this cool movie from the high-energy gamma-ray satellite Fermi (formally known as GLAST, which is still confusing me). It shows blazars around the galactic north pole varying over the course of a year. A blazar is a type of radio-loud AGN, in which the jet is pointed directly at us (as shown in this previous post), so we see them as very energetic, highly variable things.

The movie repeats from halfway through with well-known (well, well-known to a very small group of people anyway) blazars labelled. Incidentally, I was looking at this at work earlier and couldn’t figure out what the mysterious object is that can be seen moving from top to bottom. After a lot of head scratching (and I have to admit, googling) I realised that I’m an idiot and it’s the Sun. In my defence I normally deal with things a little bit further away!

There’s another version of the movie here (or here) with that and other interesting things, like the positions of constellations, labelled.

Carnival of Space 127

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Ok, it’s a bit late to mention it but this week’s Carnival of Space is up over at Next Big Future this week. Head over there to find out about the launch of NASA’s new rocket and to see a really distant flag amongst other interesting things.