Are We Trading Away the Education of Future Astronomers?

"Just as I did some 25 years ago, my graduate student is right now using one of the NOAO telescopes, learning how to do observational astronomy... Closing down one of these observatories in the next few years would likely lead to long term problems with producing adequately prepared astronomers in the future, and they are as necessary to achieving the goals of our decadal reports as any multi-billion dollar facility." -Adam Stanford, UC Davis

Every week, I come to you so excited to tell you all about some amazing physics or astronomy story, whether it's something new that's just been uncovered or something older that's just as fresh and amazing when you finally understand it. The Universe is a remarkable place, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to both understand its story as well as I do and to be able to bring as much of it to you as I possibly can.

Image credit: R. Carrasco et al., Gemini Observatory / AURA. Click any image for hi-res.

But not every great discovery that gets made uses the largest, most recent, most expensive equipment, and the people who make those discoveries didn't always have the skills, talent, experience and know-how necessary to make it all happen.

Right now, there are a number of ground-based astronomy projects currently underway that are doing some truly amazing things. The image above, of the distant cluster Abell 3827, was taken by the ground-based Gemini Observatory, where it was discovered that this galactic giant has the mass of 30 trillion Suns, making it the largest galaxy in our local Universe (i.e., within 1.5 billion light-years).

Image credit: Gemini Observatory / AURA.

The twin Gemini Observatories -- one in Hawaii, above, and the other in Chile -- are two of the largest, most advanced astronomical facilities in the world. Getting observing time on Gemini, as you can well imagine, is extraordinarily competitive, as there's competition not just among extragalactic astronomers, but among those who study stars and nebulae within our own galaxy. With the Gemini telescope and its adaptive optics technology, incredible detail of young stars within a spectacular nebula -- like the Orion Nebula -- can be imaged like never before.

Image credit: M. Robberto / STScI and NOAO / AURA / NSF / Gemini Observatory.

And even closer to us, planetary astronomers can take full advantage of a telescope like Gemini in order to spectacularly image objects in our own Solar System. I bet you've never seen a timelapse photo of Pluto that shows its moon, Charon, orbiting it! But Gemini's got you covered there, too, as it was one of the earliest things it did, all the way back in 1999.

Image credit: Gemini Observatory / AURA.

Of course, Gemini is just one example of a cutting-edge, completed facility doing amazing research and taking amazing pictures. The field of observational astronomy has arguably done more to shed light (both visible and invisible) on the mysteries of the Universe than any other science!

And there are new things that we're learning all the time. For example, while the Hubble Space Telescope (in blue light, below) shows us where stars and visible light are, it cannot show us where the dense, cold gas is that will form the next generation of stars! But -- in the yellows and reds below -- it's there.

Image credit: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO); NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

That's thanks to ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Consisting of 66 radio telescopes up to 39½ feet in diameter (no, really!), ALMA will -- when completed at the end of 2012 -- be able to provide resolutions up to ten times better than the VLA and up to five times better than even the Hubble Space Telescope!

Image credit: ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO) / L. Calçada.

But it isn't complete yet; the above is an artist's rendition! (That why the resolution isn't yet as good as Hubble's; only 12 of the 66 telescopes were operational at the time the composite image of the antennae galaxies was created!) Compared to ALMA's costs in 2011, it will take an additional $12 million to keep the project on schedule.

At the same time, we want to continue to look to the future, and that means getting ready to build the LSST, a wide-field, fast-imaging and high-resolution survey. And finally, we've got older, smaller facilities with large numbers of smaller telescopes: the perfect places for younger astronomers (undergraduates and graduate students) to train, apprentice, and learn how to observe! Those of you with an interest in astronomy may have even heard of some of them, like Kitt Peak.

Image credit: Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Facilities like Kitt Peak are invaluable for the education they provide. Telescope time is too scarce and competitive at the absolute top-of-the-line observatories to accept everyone's proposals. Thankfully, not only does some very good and highly impactful research go on at smaller observatories, but it's where all the top observers go to learn the tricks of their trade. Remember what the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for this year? Observational astronomy. And two of the telescopes on Kitt Peak played a prominent role in that research. The telescopes may only be up to 4 meters in diameter, but they can still produce some amazing things.

Image credit: Adam Block / NOAO / AURA / NSF, as is the image below.

From spectacularly bright objects like galaxies and galaxy groups/clusters, above, all the way down to incredibly faint nebulae, like IC 5067, below, just taken recently.

With all the observatories that the United States has a hand in worldwide, from staffing to operation and maintenance, as well as all the facilities currently being built and/or upgraded, I'd be curious to know how much you think the U.S. government spends on ground-based astronomy annually? (Not counting the space-based portion that NASA handles.)

I'm asking you, in other words, what you think the National Science Foundation's budget is for all of Astronomy Research and Related Activities. You've seen some of what astronomy is doing, where it's going and what it's producing. How much do you think we're spending to accomplish all this?

In order to keep going with the Gemini-like facilities we have and to complete the ALMA-scale projects that we've already committed to, as well as to keep up with inflation, astronomy needed a 2% increase in 2011 (over 2010), and then roughly constant levels (actually a 1% decrease would have been okay) from 2011 to 2012.

What were the total numbers? For those of you curious, take a look:

These numbers come directly from the NSF's Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, specifically from the presentation of James Ulvestad. Despite only having a paltry budget of ~$250 million (or about equal to the least valuable team in the NBA), we've been able to accomplish so much! And despite an unbelievable record of accomplishment, there's currently no funding for the LSST, and NOAO and Kitt Peak in particular face the prospect of having to close. You can read the 2012 budget for yourself and see if anything looks too "extravagant" in there. If we're serious about our rhetoric about being the "greatest nation in the world" and a leader in science, what are we doing spending less than 6 billion dollars on Research and Related Activities for the entire National Science Foundation, with not even a bargain-basement NBA team's worth of cash for astronomy?

Image credit: Pete Marenfeld / NOAO, and yes, Buckminsterfullerenes have been discovered in planetary nebulae. Who's supposed to be doing the follow-up spectroscopy? Who else: NOAO.

If you're not outraged, read what actual astronomy professionals are saying. They've done so much with so little, and now, even as they do more than ever before, that's being taken away.

Think you can do something about it? Either grab the reins and become head of the NSF's astronomy division or let your Senators and Congresspersons know that the House and Senate both have it wrong; investing that little extra in science now -- and it is so little -- will make all the difference for generations to come. I don't expect you to get me anything for the holidays, but if you're going to get me anything, get me this.

Write. Advocate. Make a difference. At the very least, sign my stupid petition. It's a gift not just to me, but to the entire country, and the entire world. And it's worth $1 from every US citizen to make it happen.


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Ethan, I would put this post in your top 10 for 2011 and leave cold fusion out.

Yes, your cold fusion write up got a lot of comments while this one hasn't gotten any so far.
But this post is much more important.

Bloggers, follow these links and contact your representatives now!!
Congressmaen here:
Senators here:

Thank you Ethan for your great help in educating us and keeping us informed.
All the best to you and your family.

Write now!! Yes right now!
If you think the budget battle is over. In Washington, it's never over!!

So for Ethan write a letter NOW!!! (follow @1 above to find links to email your Senator and Congressman.

Feel free to copy my letter to my Congresswoman and Senator whole or mix it up with your own ideas.

My letter is:

"I hope I'm not too late!!

Please support the long term health of our economy by vigorously support science today!!

The National Science foundations $6.25 Billion requested budget is pretty slim. It's a bargain! And the $249 million for non space based astronomy is a bargain.

I am not a professional astronomer nor even a professional scientist; but I know it is a big mistake to shut down observatories like Kitt Peak National Observatories.

Not only do such observatories and smaller ones make significant contribution to science every year; they are part of the core infrastructure educating the young scientist of tomorrow.

And even if you think astronomy is not a practical science (I disagree); just remember that many young scientists started with trips to observatories and museums. Stars and dinosaur bones are the stuff that scientific dreams are built upon. Even those of us who never become professional scientists; sharpened our analytic teeth upon such dreamy stuff as stars, galaxies and dinosaur bones.

Don't believe everything that the anti-scientific folks tell you. Science is one of societies true golden gooses; that pays great dividends again and again. The U.S. economy like every economy is built upon innovation; and the innovation spin-off of astronomy is seldom counted but it is quite tangible. (lense science, instrument design, mathematical techiques, technigues of global collaboration and coordination of multiple telescopes, and so on.)

A science category would be a good thing to have; but then it would probably be a target of all the anti-science nuts.

Here's the deal guys.
$250 Million spent by the US government on astronomy annually is like investing in one blockbuster science fiction movie per year.

But $250 million invested in astronomy annually supports science and scientists. I personally have no doubt that the US (or any country) science budget would benefit if it was doubled.

Even at such an increase, there would be little waste; the need is so great. And there would be a multiplier effect that would ripple through not only the science community but the country and global economic and ecologic environments.

The annual cost $250 million for astronomy and other fundamental science is tiny, in my opinion. Just a random example, the other day on PBS radio I learned research in the U.S. for alzheimers is seriously underfunded at $3 Billion. But the US spends $100 Billion every year on nursing homes for alzheimers and that cost is projected to increase to $500 Billion (yes annually) in 10 to 20 years as baby boomers age.

So here is the problem. Even applied science (e.g. alzheimer research) has a difficult time making its business case for research funds; fundamental science like land based astronomy has an even harder time.

But the catch is this. Long term innovation is based on investment in minds; and smart young people have a hard time following their hearts into the study of dinosaurs or stars when we as a society pay investiment bankers the big bucks and leave fundamental scientists to struggle like starving artists.

I still remember the New York times story of a famous Russian mathematician who emigrated but couldn't make it in our competitive US cutlure. He died homeless on the street.

Godel of course was perhaps even more mentally unstable and incapable of surviving without the help of friends (including Einstein). But every body doesn't need to be a gregarious XXextravert to add significant value to our human society and culture.

Here we are on a science blog, hosted by Ethan and he is doing all that he can to educate and encourage our insatiable curiousity.

So tell me. His contract didn't get renewed at Lewis and Clark; his new business venture might not work out. When (he)any astronomer leaves the science and becomes a mathematical wiz for an investment banking company; which is the better investment for the long term innovation and competitiveness of any country?
A) more mathematically savy investment bankers
B) more nerdy weird scientist astronomers

Personally, I vote for more nerdy weird scientist astronomers. Investing in astronomy (e.g. Ethan)is investing in the future of the human mind. It is investing in technology and analysis, it is investing in cooperation and creativitiy; it is investing in critical thinking and openness; it is investing imagination and wonder; it is investing in the future.

So why am I the only one commenting on this very important post.
Please tell me; what it is you think that I don't get??

Yeah yeah, the budget crunch is putting the hurt on astronomy, it's ridiculous that we can't fund top notch research, I know, it's true. But can we please drop this bullshit about needing to train the next generation of astronomers on 30-40 year old equipment? As a field, we have traditionally over-produced PhDs by a factor of two, and in the post 2008 economy that is rising up to a factor of four. Seriously, we don't need to be training so many young astronomers. Go find someone who actually has to work in the real world and ask them if a 50-75% turnover rate is good or bad.

If your institution can't afford to buy into a telescope consortium, maybe you just shouldn't have a graduate program anymore.

How many biology grad students are training on 40 year old lab equipment? CS grads using 40 year old computers?

@ 4 (rather old adolescent pseudonym)
But thanks for your important and informative comment.

A PhD in Astronomy or Poetry is still quite worthy despite sour job prospects. Let every graduate student be warned of the bad job prospects.

Now let's focus the discussion on funding science.

So @4's point, current telescopes are 30-40 years old telescopes and telescope consortiums are the future. I did not know!

"Consortiums Compete to Build World's Biggest Telescope. A telescope arms race is taking shape around the world... the super-sized telescopes will yield even finer pictures than the Hubble Space Telescope... some astronomers worry that there may not be enough private or government money for all of them, so they find themselves competing for funding, even as they cheer each other on.",2933,328381,00.html

Current land based telescopes "are able to look back only about 1 billion years in time. But the new telescopes will be so powerful that they should be able to gaze back to a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang, which scientists believe happened 13.7 billion years ago." (very nice).

And by the way a land based telescope cost $500 million to $1Bil plus versus the James Webb (as well as the Hubble's) $5 to $10 Billion.

So do we need to see 13.7 billion lightyears away, giant asteroids, exoplanets and more? Yes, yes. Need? Yes, yes need; man does not live by sushi alone.

Of course there is probably some top secret military research using these astronomical technologies in reverse. Yes to peer through the Earth's atmosphere from spy satellites and get unprecedented clear images of whatever.

So write your Senators and Congressman to fund necessary land based astronomy funding.

hehe, yes it is adolescent, but given how sharply I disagree with some of my peers (and my junior status) I felt like enjoying a little anonymity.

I agree that prospective grad students should be given full disclosure on job prospects. But this is a bit of a top-down issue as well. Should the NSF be giving grant money to professors so they can hire more grad students and postdocs, or should that money go to fund permanent positions for the astronomers we already have? This is an issue because when the job prospects become bad, the field has a hard time attracting top talent.

When I mentioned consortiums, I was actually thinking of some of the collaborations that run smaller telescopes. For example, the WYIN 3.5m telescope is run by U Wisconson, Yale, Indiana, and NOAO. There are many other telescopes in this size range where universities can buy in for a share of the time available, it doesn't have to be one of these new 30-meter behemoths. If Kitt Peak closes, there will still be plenty of mid-size telescopes out there. The problem is then the poorer schools won't have telescope access anymore (and I don't think that's much of a problem, especially now in the era of large public data sets).

@6 I. P. Freely
Thanks again for your explanation of the funding situation.
I see your point. But I don't think science funding need be a zero sum game. Funding education is modest, funding research is more expensive; and finally all learning is learning (mostly we learn to learn) So yes, we need to fund much more astronomical research.

Now about funding astronomy research, let me summarize my thoughts and questions.

1) Telescope costs at the very highest end have dropped from $10 Billion (i.e. the Hubble space telescope)telescope) to $1 Billion for an equivalent land based telescope (i.e. The Giant Magellan Telescope, The Thirty Meter Telescope, The European Extremely Large Telescope). WHOA!!!!
2) Current land based telescopes can see only 1 billion lightyears; but new ones (e,g, The Giant Magellan Telescope) will see objects 13.7 billion lightyears away. (very nice)

So my questions???
1) Can medium sized new technology telescopes be built and operated at modest price ($10 to $100 mill vs $1 bil) that are capable of seeing 2 to 5 billion light years away? Because such instruments could do a lot of excellent science and employ a lot of excellent scientists.
2) Or, is astronomy doomed to be a superbig science like elementary particle physics where only super instruments (e.g. CERN) can do leading edge science?
3) What very difficult astronomic research (e.g. in the 2 billion lightyear range) might not get telescope time on an instrument capable of 13.7 billion lightyear clarity.

I oversimplify of course; so please educate me. Thanks.

hmmm...let me try to recast your questions a bit and give you my opinion on where things are going. First, the rule of thumb I've always heard is that putting a telescope in space cranks up the price by a factor of 10. Also, those big scopes you mention haven't been built yet, so I don't think anyone actually knows what they will cost.

So for #1--can we still do cool research with modestly priced telescopes? Absolutely. One big way is leveraging the fact that while a telescope might be small, it can have a huge field of view, and astronomers have gotten very clever about building huge arrays of CCD cameras and/or deploying huge numbers of fiber optic wires to feed spectrographs. So while a small telescope can't see things that are very faint, it can observe the entire sky. The Hubble Space Telescope actually has a tiny field of view. If you want to study a galaxy at high resolution, use Hubble. If you want to study 1000 galaxies, use a ground based survey telescope.

2) Are we doomed to doing big science? Yeah, pretty much. I know I just said we can do good things with small telescopes, but there are some observations we need to make that require huge instruments. Constraining when and how the first galaxies formed is a big problem, and we're going to need JWST and/or 30 meter class telescopes to do it. Kepler is going to start discovering earth-like planets soon. We're going to want to follow those discoveries up, and I don't see any way a 4 meter ground based telescope will be able to contribute to that.

3) What cool science could be done on a 30 meter telescope but won't be able to get time? All of it. These huge telescopes are going to cost a huge amount of money, so the number of partner countries is going to be huge, which means each country will only get a few nights in pristine condition every year. Right now Hubble tends to be over-subscribed by a factor of 8-10 (astronomers request 8 hours of time for every one that is actually available). Of course, there are plenty of projects people don't even bother submitting to Hubble since they know the odds of getting time is so slim. The 30 meter telescopes are going to have a large amount of time dedicated to a few key projects (the first galaxies, etc.), and unlike Hubble, will have to close for pesky things like clouds and day time. There's not going to be much time left over for other projects folks propose.

@8 I.P. Freely

Thank you, you've answered my question; but my skepticism is a bit greater than yours. So first let me describe my skepticism. And then let me re-ask my question number #1.

My skepticism. I seldom argue with the data; but I do question interpretation, assumptions and theory. For me to accept the big bang theory of cosmic evolution (and I do); there must be astronomical fossil evidence. (see my discussion on this blog Nov 14, 2011 titled Found: the First atoms in the universe). But in my opinion their is very little fossil evidence. Old low metal stars are found in the milky way; galaxies appear fully functional and developed 12 billion years ago including apparently having super massive black hole centers; etc. the CMB is not a fossil in that it is every where and can not be pinpointed except that it is outside our galaxy. But (the subject of the Nov 14 post) A LOW METAL GAS CLOUD AT 12 BILLION LIGHTYEARS that had been credibly observed is a cosmic fossil; because no such gas cloud has been observed nearby in our local group or anywhere else; thus this is a long sought cosmic fossil.

So that's my skepticism. But what I'd like is to find more such LOW METAL GAS CLOUDS. Now if they are all found at 12 billion light years and beyond; that supports current theory. But if they are found at 2 to 5 billion lightyears; then that's a different story. Remember the lowest metal stars have been found in the milky way galaxy not just 10 or 12 billion light years away.

Now back to my question #1. Apparrently current land based telescopes can only see 1 billion light years away. So could a modestly priced land based telescope (of new design) search for gas clouds in the 2 to 5 billion lightyear range? My bias is we just might find one that is low metal and that would be a game changer or we might not and that would be a stake in the cosmos. But regardless of your opinion of my skepticism or this example astronomical search; I've got to believe that their is a lot of new science to be discovered in the 2 to 5 billion light year range. and I've got to believe that modest priced telescope can see detail in that range not just the wide angle shot.

OK, that's my last question here. Thank you again for educating me.

Sorry, I was traveling and didn't keep up with this thread. I agree with you that spotting very low metallicity gas at high redshift would be good confirmation of big bang cosmology. But there's the issue of how would you actually go about observing it? The standard way is to use background galaxies to look through the clouds. But if there are background galaxies, that means that star formation has already started, so we should expect some pollution of metals to have already happened. You're level of skeptisism is getting so high you want evidence that might not even be physically possible to observe.

If you're looking for fossil evidence of the big bang, try looking at the local universe in a broader context. To a large extent, the local universe is just Hydrogen and Helium. Metals only make up a few % of the sun. While astronomers talk about high and low metallicity, we're using a rather silly relative scale. It would be more realistic to talk about really low metallicity things like the sun and crazy super low metallicity objects like the oldest stars in the Galaxy.

@10 I. P. Freeley
Thanks again. Forget my skepticism. My personal biases, like anyone elses, are irrelevant.

The issue, my question, is: Is there excellent astronomy to be done with medium and low priced new technology telescopes. Meaning can adaptive optics that continuously adjusts for atmospheric conditions, along with hexagonal mirror tiles that gave cost efficiencise to large telescopes, etc innovations be mass produced in smaller telescopes so that first rate astronomy can be done at the 2 to 5 billion light year range. Meaning also at what price point $00 K $100 million, would such a new technology telescope really enable a professional astronomy to do excellent research.

Here's another bias that I am coming from. I appreciate and would fund big science (telescopes, supercolliders whatever); but I also would fund the medium and smaller science. I am not a reductionist. Like Philip W. Anderson; I believe that at every level of 20th century science the next level (e.g. nuclear physics, or biology) is in agreement with the higher hierarchy level (e.g. QCD, or chemistry) but at each level (e.g. nuclear physics or biology) laws are found that could not be derived from the higher level. Thus emergence, i.e. that each level is consistent with the higher level; but that each level is unpredictable from the higher level. For example, look at the
None of the 15 phases (and there are probably a dozen more to be discoveres) of water were predicted. Or superconductivity is well understood; but only up to the point of NOT predicting that this or that substance will exhibit superconductivity phase in this or that STP.

So what medium science can be done in astronomy and what tools are needed and affordable? Maybe as Anderson suggests; big science is dead (for a variety of political economic reasons). But small science (including small astronomy); is ready to take off. So with $1 Mil to $100 Mil to build land telescopes; what could be built and what research could be done.

Again my example is irrelevant. As you point out, my amateur mind may be requesting impossible research. But I am easy to please; I just want excellent research to continue. So within the limits of small and medium; what excellent professional astronomy research can be done. You know guerrilla research, opportunist research.

I mean if I had to build the most powerful land based telescope on Earth for $100 million dollars; here's what I would do. I'd build best $50 K telescope that I could that had a superfast motor to wiggle for the atmosphere and that could be linked to 1000 other identical telescopes scattered around the world. this network of telescopes excellent telescopes could be used solo 1 at a time, or networked in 10, 100 or a 1000 as a suitable project was designed. OK, but I'm an amateur; so please tell me what is possible.

And I'm not fool enough to think that I can envision even one real significant observation; but a network of 1000 professional astronomers (like you) who had telescope time solo or could use it collaboratively across a networked telescope.

So throw away my exact question. What tools are possible for the oversupply of excellent astronomers?

I think I've run out of questions. But thanks in advance for your answer. Best regards.