Star Search


Who: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Affiliation: Director, Hayden Planetarium
Location: New York, New York


Neil deGrasse Tyson is a starry-eyed visionary. As director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium (which makes Tyson a top astrophysicist in this galaxy), one of his visions is to create a virtual observatory that would enable anyone anywhere to study the skies through the world’s largest telescopes. Think of it as the ultimate star search.

“With a virtual observatory, all people with something to contribute to space study would be able to,” he says. “Such an egalitarian idea will change how cosmic discovery unfolds in this century. It’s a model not just for astrophysics, but for science as a whole.”

It’s a model with roots in the business world — specifically, the peer-to-peer revolution. The theory and practice of distributed networks hatched Napster and launched work-group software startups such as Ray Ozzie’s Groove Networks. A virtual observatory would link any stargazer to the vast array of digital data that gets downloaded from the world’s largest telescopes — from the orbiting Hubble to giants in the Andes or Hawaii. Right now, only large universities and wealthy government-research units can access that data. If you’re a graduate student at a small college or a bedroom astronomist, it is virtually off-limits. An Internet-based observatory would change that.

“I could sit at a computer and, using something like a computer worm, go out seeking exactly the data that I want,” Tyson explains. “I could tell it to observe this particular part of the sky, in this type of wavelength, and in this spectrum — just as if I were using a real telescope.”

The simple principle behind this radical innovation: Connecting lots of minds horizontally is a smarter way to approach the process of discovery than relying on top-down insights from a few big brains. Or, to put it in stargazing terms, the more people that you’ve got looking, the better the chances that you’ll find something important.

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