There is more room sideways
Shri Kulkarni



Astronomy has been and is continuing to enjoy a golden phase. The light gathering power of successive generations of both ground- and space-based telescopes has steadily increased and thereby made it possible for astronomers to probe the distant universe and study the faintest objects such as extra-solar planets. I call this progression as the traditional or linear path for progress. However, strong forces that lie beyond academia can have and have had equally big if not larger effect on academia.

Exponential progress in semi-conductor industry has enabled astronomers to build huge detectors and transmit, analyze and archive torrents of data. Improvements in the quality of detectors and methodology (due to funding by space agencies and weapons industry) have sustained this exponential trajectory. The next frontier is defined by the decreasing cost in manufacturing (optics, mechanical structures, motors).

These three developments offer a distinct new path for astronomical investigation (as opposed to the traditional approach). I term this approach as lateral or sideways path to exponential progress. The sideways approach is less capital intensive than the traditional approach and is thus very well suited for this decade where astronomers will have to learn do more with less. I will review the recent successes of this approach with two examples (SDSS, PTF) and speculate on projects over this decade.