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Digital Revolution's Impact on Astronomy Research

Juraj Tóth, via Wikimedia Commons
Photographic plate of the all sky fish-eye photographic camera during the Leonid meteor shower in 1998 at Modra observatory.

From how we drive our cars to how we watch TV and read the newspaper, the digital revolution has affected much in our lives. The changes have been especially profound for scientific research.

Jean Creighton, director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at UW-Milwaukee, talks with Lake Effect's Bonnie North the impact this has had on astronomy research.

Creighton says at one time being astronomer was the most dangerous white collar job. "There was a time people would wander around on rickety staircases in dark rooms carrying various (glass) plates," she says. "So, people fell off ladders, people had accidents."

When people used glass plates to take beautiful pictures of the sky, they had to work in dark rooms to develop the images. "These gorgeous plates were used to photograph the entire sky...in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s," Creighton says. 

Then astronomers realized they could do better with digital instruments - pictures were digitized, computers were used to analyze the data.

"Now everyone has, what would have been considered, a research grade (camera) on their phone," Creighton says. "Isn't that amazing?"

What wasn't even dreamed of in the 1950s, today you can automate a computer to take a picture of the whole sky in a few days and analyze that data in a few hours, she says. 

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Dr. Jean Creighton has always been inspired by how the cosmos works. She was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Athens, Greece where her mother claims she showed a great interest in how stars form from the age of five.