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.

6 Comments on “Astronomy in the Noughties”

  1. Ken Rice says:

    Interesting, although not quite sure what you were concluding from this. Although this paper wasn’t published in the noughties, Mayor & Queloz (1995) – the discovery paper for 51 Pegasus b – is probably one of the most highly cited exoplanet papers. According to NASA ADS it today has 1132 citations of which about 850 are from papers published since 2000. I suspect that this paper is cited in a significant fraction of all exoplanet papers, and yet it can only get about 1000 citations in a decade. The top paper in your list – a WMAP paper published in 2003 – has 5829 citations. Doesn’t this suggest that we should include some kind of normalisation that takes into account the maximum number of citations that a paper can reasonably get :-).

    • Niall says:

      Hmmm, that would be pretty damn difficult to do. While it would be a measure of how significant a paper is considered within a field, it wouldn’t capture how popular (and perhaps I should use that term rather than significant) that field was.

      I suspect part of what is showing here is the lead-in time for large projects on subjects. WMAP, the supernova projects and the HST Hubble constant study were all planned a long way in advance to answer questions posed by groups of cosmologists sometimes decades before. Observational studies of planets are on the other hand, a relatively young field. I’d bet that in 10 years time a similar list for the next decade will include wrap-up papers from CoRoT, SuperWASP and Kepler.

  2. Ken Rice says:

    I guess one thought I have is what you mean by popular. It’s quite reasonable for there to be fields of different sizes, but if the top papers in the biggest fields always get the most citations (as we might expect) and if we assume that this implies that these must be the most popular fields and therefore give them more and more money, the other fields with never be able to get bigger and more “popular”. In fact, you might expect the smaller fields to get smaller and smaller, because clearly they aren’t popular. To a certain extent it seems reasonable to include some measure of the size of a field when determining the significance of citation numbers, otherwise how do you adjust the relative sizes of fields with time?

    On the other hand, you may be right that it’s simply a timescale thing and that in 10 or 20 years time we will have similarly well cited papers from CoRot, SuperWASP etc. Of course, if the comparison between the Mayor & Queloz paper and the top WMAP paper illustrates that there are 5 – 10 times fewer exoplanet researcher than cosmologists, it’s hard to see how this can happen.

  3. Niall says:

    Ken, I’d hope that grants panels, TACs etc. would be able to look at the scientific merits of proposals and not just go on citations. This is just a first order thing I drew up during Letterman, it’s not really terribly rigourous, more a jumping off point for debate.

    I’d also add that the number of researcher working in planets will also increase with time as more astronomers become interested in the field and more students are drawn to it.

    Thinking about how fields have grown and declined with time I decided to do the same search for a few different time-frames. So here are,

    The most cited papers of the 1900s and the most cited papers of the 1950s. Does this accurately follow fields waxing and waning over time or what was known about the universe and what was observationally possible, perhaps. It does show that many papers used to be written in German.

    Sorry, rambling a bit now.

  4. To the left of centre says:

    I agree. I wasn’t arguing that everything is based on citations, I was just commenting that some normalisation should be attempted. I’m sure you’re right that decisions are not based purely on citations – although there is a suggestion that these kind of metrics will be used more and more in the future. I do think that during a period of funding problems, being aware of this kind of normalisation is probably more important than in periods when funding is more readily available. I do also realise that when I write things, it appear as though I’m taking things much more seriously than I intended :-). Your post just caught my eye at a time when I’ve been giving this some thought and I realise that the debate that has started isn’t quite what you were intending.

    A slightly more serious comment is how do we balance what we as scientists see as popular (as indicated – as you illustrated – by the papers with highest citations) with what the public appears to find interesting. I don’t think it would be appropriate to base everything on what we find interesting (we have too many vested interests), but at the same time we also can’t simply do what the public finds particularly interesting. Some kind of balance – or feedback – is required. The system probably does include some of this already, but it’s worth keeping this in mind.

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