Chile – Where the stars shine the brightest !

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The majestic band of the Milky Way as seen from Chile’s Atacama !

“Towards Atacama, near the deserted coast, you see a land without men, where there is not a bird, not a beast, nor a tree, nor any vegetation.”
La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla, 1569

Those words by 16th century Spanish conquerors summed up the stark impression left on their minds by Chile’s most famous landmark – the great Atacama Desert.

Searching for some warm moist air ? Then Atacama is definitely not the place for you to visit. The 1000 kilometre long land, lying to the west of the Andes mountains, is the driest hot desert in the world. In an average year, much of this desert gets less than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) of rain ! That makes it 50 times drier than Death Valley in California.

Very few life forms can survive in such harsh conditions. But the very attributes that make Atacama inhospitable to life also make it ideal for the oldest of all sciences – Astronomy.

Astronomy is an observational science. Our theories will only be as good as the accuracy of our observations and equipments. Ask an astronomer to describe the perfect place to put a telescope, and here’s what he’ll tell you: Make it cold, make it dark, make it dry, and make it remote. In short, the exact description of the Atacama. Atacama’s exceptionally clear skies and dry air are ideal conditions for getting perhaps the best night sky views we can from this planet.

Being in South America, Chile also holds another ace in the pack considering that Astronomers can observe a different part of the sky than all the northern hemisphere observatories notably in Europe and North America.

The astronomy capital of the world

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Artist’s impression of the upcoming ALMA radio observatory

If asked about where the best telescopes in the world are, then one would probably hazard a guess at North America or Europe. But its Chile that rules the roost.

Chile currently supports 42% of world’s telescope infrastructure and is expected to rise to 70% of the world’s telescope by 2018 . Soon enough, Atacama will be the site of the largest international astronomical project in the world – the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) which is a 10 mile diameter giant Radio telescope made up of several smaller telescopes. This amazing telescope could get images of quality 5 times finer than even the Hubble Space Telescope.

To promote future growth, Chilean Universities are offering research based graduate and post-graduate courses in astronomy to attract the top astronomy talent from around the world .

Chile has surplus of telescope time and is looking for talented astronomers to conduct their research thereby benefiting both the country and the astronomer. These astronomers face less competition for telescope time in Chile than in their home countries.This is one of the biggest reasons Chile is and will continue to be the Astronomy capital of the world.

Atacama – the great gift of nature

The Atacama’s geography makes it a place unlike any other on our planet. This vast expanse of barren land has given us the key to unlock the secrets of the universe. We go back as a culture to the study of objects in heaven, like our constellation seeking ancestors did.

What drives us on this journey? Nothing but the feeling of enthusiasm and curiosity that all humans crave for! Lets cherish this beautiful gift that nature has given us in Chile.

Everyone’s a Scientist !

Science is a beautiful thing. More than the labs and the instruments, it is human curiosity and endeavor which fuels it’s growth. It is more than just an abstract analysis of things. It is a sincere effort to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

For ages, Science has typically been a solo activity. The Newtons and the Einsteins may have collaborated and worked together with other scientists for some duration; but most of their groundbreaking work has been a result of their own perseverance and genius.

But now, the very nature of scientific research has changed. The groundbreaking theories of today are not born out of generating theories based on intuition and logic; the driving force in scientific research today is the element which is perhaps driving the whole world – data. Lots and lots of data. Rather make that an astounding amount of data.

One of the most talked about example of this is the recent 2013 “validation” of the ‘God particle’ – Higgs boson by the clever guys at CERN. The amazing $10 billion Large Hadron Collider machine, which was used used to generate the particle collisions for this experiment, generated so much data that it took months for scientists to analyze it and come to any conclusion. And note that this endeavor was undertaken by thousands of scientists from all over the world.

There is just so much data floating around that researchers can’t simply process all of that. But this data is vital and has the potential to answer some of the biggest questions of our universe. Well then, how do we analyze this data ? Rather who will ?

The answer is YOU ! Yes, it is you and every other person who harbors curiosity about nature and the enthusiasm to contribute. The data revolution has taken science from the labs to desktop computers and made it more accessible to the common public than ever before.

Lets take a look at some of the more interesting citizen science initiatives around.

Are we alone ?

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Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence(SETI) is one of the earliest programs designed to find an answer to one of the most haunting questions posed to humankind – Are we alone in this universe ? This University of Berkeley initiative listens to radio signals in hope of searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Radio signals contain a lot of noise and need to be analyzed digitally. Due to the large amount  of data, it would require a supercomputer to perform such a task constantly.

SETI@home is a virtual supercomputer created by connecting several computers through the internet. You can lend some idle computing power from your laptop for radio signal analysis that SETI does just by downloading their free software.

Decode the mysteries of the stars !

The SCOPE project for example allows users to choose from thousands of unknown star spectra available online and use various analytical tools to classify a star by comparing its spectra to a known star’s spectra. This classification gives an idea about how the temperature, luminosity and mass of the star are related.

This information is useful in understanding the life cycle of any star. The sky offers a laboratory to explore and anyone can do it using their laptop or desktop computer and a basic understanding of physics.

Zooniverse !

Zooniverse is one of the best places around to take part in some real cool projects. It covers a vast variety of projects right from trying to understand Whale communication to cyclone data analysis to galaxy formation. All these projects require only some basic training which is provided on the website itself.

Citizen science – The way forward..

These are just some of the many public science initiatives around. Science for citizens is a great way of promoting science to the general public and help create awareness of all the research being done currently.

Ever dreamed about doing some science, but never got the opportunity ? Now is the time. It is only by standing together that we can hope to unravel nature’s infinite mysteries !

Links to the above initiatives:
http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/
http://scope.pari.edu/
https://www.zooniverse.org/