A Machine Astronomer Could Help Us Find the Unknowns in the Universe

Space.com | 1/10/2017 | Staff
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This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

What have pulsars, quasars, dark matter and dark energy got in common? Answer: each of them took the discoverer by surprise. While much of science advances carefully and methodically, the majority of truly spectacular discoveries in astronomy are unexpected.

Telescopes - Things - Stuff - Matter

Many of our telescopes are built to discover the known unknowns: the things we know we don't know, such as identifying the stuff that makes up dark matter.

But the real breakthroughs are the unknown unknowns. These are the things we don't even suspect are out there until we accidentally find them.

Example - Discoveries - Space - Telescope - Proposal

For example, of the ten greatest discoveries by the Hubble space telescope, only one featured in the proposal used to justify its construction and launch. That one, measuring the rate of expansion of the universe, is a known unknown.

In other words, we had a question about something that we knew about, and we thought Hubble could answer the question. Most of the other discoveries are unknown unknowns: we didn't know what they were until we stumbled across them.

Discovery - Energy - Discovery - Nobel - Prize

They include the discovery of dark energy, the only Hubble discovery (so far) to win a Nobel prize, in 2011.

Consider pulsars. They were discovered in the 1960s when a bright young PhD student in the UK, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was studying the twinkling of radio waves by electrons in space (a known unknown).

Bits - Bits - Scruff - Chart - Recorder

She noticed odd bits of what she called "bits of scruff" on her chart recorder, and realised they were something much more startling than mere tractor interference, and thereby discovered pulsars — an unknown unknown — for which her supervisor Antony Hewish won the 1974 Nobel prize for physics.

So how did she make that discovery?

Bright - Persistent - Student - Bell - Burnell

Apart from being a bright, persistent, open-minded student, Bell Burnell...
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