(by Eileen Dombrowski) How do scientists know so much (and so little) about galaxies far, far away? As we fly at high levels of general overview, surveying and comparing the methodologies of the areas of knowledge, we need stories to bring our discussions to life — stories of people on the ground actively engaged in the process of building knowledge and news releases of research breakthroughs or shifts of interpretation. For a news release that illustrates general points about technology and methodology but may also bring a moment of amazement and wonder, I recommend the latest image of the faraway Andromeda galaxy.
In the American Astronomical Society’s press release January 5, 2015, the “photographic cartography” is described as “a new benchmark for precision studies of large spiral galaxies”: “Never before have astronomers been able to see individual stars over a major portion of an external spiral galaxy. Most of the stars in the universe live inside such majestic star cities, and this is the first data that reveal populations of stars in context to their home galaxy.”
This composite from the Hubble space telescope is just one more contribution to an ongoing exploration, but it’s one that could work effectively in class: it’s short (and the one on the Hubble site is shorter), it’s visual, it’s (arguably) beautiful, and it’s possibly thought-provoking for perspective and scale. It also illustrates not just the shared knowledge of astronomers, but the unprecedented access we have in our internet age to knowledge shared also, as far as we can grasp it, with people like us. Myself, I’d certainly add a video of the Andromeda galaxy to a menu of class moments that demonstrate and celebrate knowledge in the process of creation and sharing.