On Astronomy

By Stephen P. Maran

By 2032, astronomers will no longer be close to the telescopes they use. In fact, more and more, they will not even use telescopes. Almost all observational astronomers will be "data miners," posing questions to and conducting computer experiments on vast data bases compiled by observations of dedicated telescopes that survey the sky to deep magnitudes and with high spatial resolution and temporal cadence.

Through the tireless efforts of numerous astrophysicists and a few brilliant thinkers, gravity will have been unified with quantum mechanics to yield a self-consistent, new standard model for particles and forces that fits naturally inside the greater context of an advanced concordance cosmology. This will have been achieved through astrophysical observations (including study of gravitational radiation from the early Universe) and with a little help from powerful particle accelerators and other laboratory experiments. Historians of science will remark on how simply Dark Energy and Dark Matter were explained in the second decade of the 21st century, and how simple they were when properly considered. They will wonder why it took so long.

So many extrasolar planetary systems will have been discovered that a counterexample will be available for every published model of planetary formation derived from theory and numerical simulations. Physical and chemical studies of many planetary systems will show that most of the rules we now believe to be applicable to planetary evolution are routinely circumvented by nature. On at least one planet or other host object, life will have been found, and we will be disappointed in it, or perhaps it will be disappointed in us.

As financial support for the work of individual astronomers shrinks while the number of astronomers continues to expand, more and more of them will be telecommuters in the fullest sense of the word. They will conduct their research and their teaching from home offices that resemble home theatres, attending virtual seminars and enjoying holographic representations of scientific sessions, prize lectures, poster papers, vendor booths, and job interviews at meetings of the American Astronomical Society and similar organizations. Very few will attend these meetings in person (even the speakers), and those who do will pay a surcharge.

A small fraction of the astronomers, recalcitrant throwbacks to an earlier age, will continue to work together, in person, in laboratories where new instruments are conceived and developed, providing the lifeblood for the research of thousands of others.

Western Europe will have long ago achieved full parity with the United States in facilities and accomplishments for Astronomy, and the expanding economies of China and other Asian nations will likely have done so as well. Scientific literature written and published in any of several major languages will be instantaneously available in the others, so that the concept of a "journal" published in a particular language will no longer apply.

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