The Impact of Computers on the Arts, Sciences and Humanities

Abstract : Intimate Science and the End of Theory in Astronomy

Modern astronomy has been transformed by the computer sciences in a number of ways. Large computerized instruments now collect almost all our information about the universe. This data is deposited into large databases called Virtual Observatories. This data, unlike photographic plates in general, is made publically available on line so that researchers, whether professionals or amateurs, can access it. This has led to a re birth of amateur astronomy with significant contributions both by experts and interested publics. An example of this is the Berkeley Open Infrastructure Consortium (BOIC) which allows the public to be involved in research ranging for malaria and climate modeling to analyzing data from planets.

A second impact has been the growth of computer simulations as a major way of developing scientific hypotheses, particularly in complex systems or systems with large numbers of particles. This has been particularly successful in cosmology and modeling the evolution of structure in the universe where we now have a self consistent simulation that models the universe from soon after the big bang to the present. Scientific simulations have acquired an independent status as verifiable hypotheses in astronomy. Some have called this development the End of Theory in the sense that in cosmology there is no compact description of the universe with predictive power (as is the case for instance in quantum mechanics or electricity and magnetism). Instead the hypothesis consists of a computer model, with a large number of built in physics and system descriptions, together with rules for calculation. Predictions of the simulation are then compared with data from large data bases, often in virtual observatories.

The third impact has been the development of scientific visualization techniques for investigating and searching for correlations and patterns in large datasets. Analytic techniques coupled with visualization techniques are credited in leading to new discoveries (an example is the work of artist Donna Cox with the astronomer Colin Norman); there are a number of examples of visualization driven discovery in mathematics, and a field called Visual Mathematics, has evolved. The classical field of Image Science has been re invigorated with new possible connections to the arts.The result of these three development: large open data bases, simulation techniques, and scientific visualization have led to changes in both the content and methodology of modern astronomy.

Certain problems could not be attached without modern computer science, hence the direction of research is modified, and the scientific method itself is changing with scientific simulations acquiring epistemological status.