Monday, December 17, 2007

Reflecting on StarStuff

It's now been more than a year since I started this blog. I've had a great time with it, and I hope that I've been able to entertain and inform a few people along the way. A few months after I started, I began tracking visits using Google Analytics to help me get some sense of my audience -- and I discovered that I didn't have much of an audience. Even so, I decided to continue posting for at least a year.

I'm glad I did. If I hadn't continued, I would have missed the one remarkable event in the first year of this blog. On August 22, newspapers around the world carried an announcement by Google that the latest version of its popular "Earth" application also included the Sky -- turning any computer into a virtual telescope. One of my early posts to this blog speculated that such a feature might be coming soon, and during the final week of August that post attracted hundreds of users who were looking for the new software. In fact, about half of the visitors to this blog over the last 9 months came during those few days. Most didn't stay long. They were looking for something else.

Aside from that week in August, Google Analytics tells me that during a typical week about 15 unique visitors view this blog. Roughly 80 percent are new visitors, meaning that only 3 visitors per week are coming back for another look -- and the average time spent browsing the site is less than a minute, suggesting that most visitors aren't even reading a post. At this point, I have to ask myself whether I can justify the time I spend on this blog, even if it isn't much time.

Six months ago, I disabled the comments feature since I was essentially the only one making any comments (sometimes following up on the topics raised in the original post). Today, I'm turning the comments back on -- and I'm asking for your feedback: Should I continue posting to After the new year, based on the comments you leave or email, I'll either continue for another year or hang up my blogging hat. In either case, it's been a great experience, and the archive is here for everyone to enjoy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Telescope Philanthropy

In the early history of astronomy, pioneers like Tycho Brahe depended on the generosity of kings to fund their science. Since the mid-20th century, this role has largely been supplanted by the government, through agencies like the National Science Foundation and NASA. Recently, with the federal budget slumping under the weight of excessive military expenditures and declining tax revenues, government funding for science has stagnated. But at the same time, a new class of philanthropists has emerged to help fill the gap.

Last week, Intel founder Gordon Moore announced that his foundation would donate $200 million to help build an enormous telescope with a mirror thirty meters (100 feet) in diameter. Imaginatively called the "Thirty Meter Telescope" (TMT), the California-led project is one of several competing efforts to build the next generation of large telescopes for astronomy research -- including the "Giant Magellan Telescope" (GMT) and an even larger European project called the "OverWhelmingly Large" (OWL) telescope, with a 100-meter mirror. All of these projects seek to produce the sharpest images ever obtained from a ground-based observatory (10 times sharper than images from the Hubble Space Telescope), offering new insights into the history and fate of the universe.

Moore's grant to the TMT project is just one example of a growing trend toward private funding for astronomy research. Last January, Google announced a partnership with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which plans to image the entire sky every three nights beginning in 2013, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is funding the latest efforts by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Several global telescope networks have also received private funding, including the Whole Earth Telescope (from the DuPont Foundation), the Stellar Oscillations Network Group (from Danish beer giant, the Carlsberg Foundation) -- as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, which was recently endowed by a retired silicon valley technology guru.

While most funding for science continues to come from government sources, it is encouraging to see the entrepreneurial spirit blossom among astronomers -- and to see it rewarded with the patronage of new donors who hold a special place in their hearts for the stars.