Monday, June 16, 2008

Seeing in the Dark

“What’s an astronomer, Daddy?”
Spending much time around a little boy or girl can be pretty exhausting. All those questions! At least this one has a quick answer: “An astronomer is a person who looks at the sky through a telescope.”
“But, Daddy, the visible spectrum is squeezed between 400 and 700 nm. What about the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum?”
Smart kid.
Until well into the twentieth century, astronomers had no way to “see” most of the nonvisible electromagnetic radiation that reached Earth from the universe. Then along came radio astronomy, which got its accidental start in 1931–1932 and was cranking into high gear by the end of the 1950s. Over the past 40 years or so, much of our current knowledge of the universe has come about through radio observations. Radio astronomy is simply the study of the universe at radio wavelengths. Astronomers used to categorize themselves by the wavelength of the observations that they made: radio astronomer versus optical astronomer. Increasingly, though, astronomers define their work more by what they study (pulsars, star formation, galactic evolution) than by what wavelength they use. The reason for this change is that, in recent years, new instruments have opened the electromagnetic spectrum to an unprecedented degree. Astronomers now have the ability to ask questions that can be answered with observations at many different wavelengths.

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