Practical Astronomy
September 29, 2006 3:36 PM   Subscribe

I've heard astronomy has given us great insights about basic physics (and could be seen as a form of basic physics research). What technologies do we have today that can trace their gensis to astronomical findings?
posted by phrontist to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The most obvious example that I can think of is the discovery of Helium. This is a bit of a loaded question, though. I can't think of many examples of a specific "finding" in any field of physics that single-handedly leads to a technology. Usually many scientific principles are used by any one technology, and those principles are often discovered via evidence from many different experiments or observations.
posted by Humanzee at 4:06 PM on September 29, 2006

Response by poster: Usually many scientific principles are used by any one technology, and those principles are often discovered via evidence from many different experiments or observations.

Granted. I guess what I'm asking then is what could not have been discovered without astronomy?
posted by phrontist at 4:37 PM on September 29, 2006

Response by poster: Oh, and the helium example is perfect.
posted by phrontist at 4:37 PM on September 29, 2006

If you relax the question to be "what discoveries" then the list gets a little bigger. Newtonian gravity, the history, age, and origin of the universe (big bang), the origin of the matter in the universe (big bang nucleosynthesis and super-nova nucleosynthesis), and the existence of exotic dark matter all come to mind. One could also argue that astronomy provided the first evidence of an asymmetry between matter and antimatter. And of course, there's all the really obvious stuff, like the existence of galaxies, composition of stars, etc.

If you relax the need for "discovery", then astronomy has played a huge role in testing relativity theory.

If I can stray briefly from directly answering your question, I think that part of why you asked this is that most people have an idea that physics = particle physics. Astronomy almost certainly uses the results of particle physics more than particle physics uses the results of astronomy. However, most physicists are not particle physicists. Physicists studying protein folding don't help out the particle physics community too much either, but they are still physicists. Physics is an umbrella discipline that encorporates scientists with a common background in training and knowledge, more or less regardless of what they're studying. Astronomers (generally) have to understand electricity and magentism, relativity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics among other things ---they're physicists.
posted by Humanzee at 5:07 PM on September 29, 2006

what could not have been discovered without astronomy


Ok, possibly more helpful answer: the speed of light, from which comes all modern communications and GPS technology. However, this is a fuzzy example, as while the speed of light was first successfully measured by astronomy, as humanzee notes, evidence has come from many different experiments or observations.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:18 PM on September 29, 2006

Well, this may be putting the cart before the horse, but the diffraction grating was invented to analyze the spectra of light from stars. It was extremely difficult to make a good grating until Henry Rowland perfected his "ruling engine", which created extremely fine diffraction gratings that permitted sufficient resolution in the spectra to get useful data. That data led to the development of quantum mechanics, which in turn has given us lasers and solid-state electronics (scroll about 80% of the way down this link to "Technology is an intellectual enterprise ...")

So astronomy drove the invention of a device that gave scientists data that inspired quantum mechanics, and the rest is sitting right in front of us inside our computers.
posted by Quietgal at 7:55 PM on September 29, 2006

You ask for basic physics knowledge, and also technologies, that have come from astronomy. From your question it sounds like you might be thinking more of discoveries within the last 30 years or so, but here are some that are prior to that time frame:

- Lots of navigational and time-keeping apparati have been based in one way or another on astronomical observations.
- Astronomical observations have been used for agricultural purposes for thousands of years.
- Newton's theories were developed based on/to make sense of astronomical observations
- There are also all the technologies that have come from the practical problem of how to make better astronomical observations (including stuff from the human spaceflight programs): here's the first link I found with a list of some of the inventions that came from NASA.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:14 PM on September 29, 2006

I heard something really cool the other day about string theory; everyone always says they would need such a gigantic accelerator to prove any of the claims made by string theory. Well it turns out the galaxy is essentially a really large particle accelator, I don't know how much has actually been done with this, but it is certainly an area where astronomy is going to lead to insights about physics.
posted by sophist at 1:52 AM on September 30, 2006

Without astronomy we'd have had a much tougher time figuring out the speed of light, pretty much anything to do with launching things (sattelites, etc) into space, which means that Television, GPS, and cell phones all in some way or another depend on astronomy.
posted by Four Flavors at 11:06 AM on October 2, 2006

Ok, a few months late to the party, but the following just came up in conversation, and reminded me of this question.

The spectragraphic study of the composition of inter-stellar gas clouds revealed some interesting chemistry going on. Unfortunately, the conditions in an interstellar gas cloud are pretty much impossible to simulate on earth - super cold and weightless in a vacuum far greater than our engineering can produce, (which I guess probably goes hand in hand with why the chemistry was interesting). So a couple of university labs devised a system to try to approximate some of the conditions by using argon to make the lack of vacuum less reactive (like the harder vacuum would be) and more easily super-cooled via compression. The complex apparatus that resulted had the interesting ability to seperate ions from bonded gas molecules, for spectroscopic study. This in turn had an unexpected application. Earth atmosphere is almost entirely gas molecules meaning that it is fiendishly difficult to detect trace atoms. The applications for detecting really trace levels atoms are immense - from bomb/drug detection, to pollution, to contactless disease and cancer diagnosis and early detection, food quality, and so on. Earth atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, which acts like the argon, so the technology developed for the study of interstellar clouds can be used (and is being commercialized for) as a greatly improved level of trace detection for applications here on earth.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:56 AM on February 11, 2007

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