02 September 2020, The Tablet

Pilgrims’ progress

Across the Universe

Pilgrims’ progress


“Machine learning” uses clever computer algorithms to go through the huge amounts of data being produced by modern telescopes and spacecraft automatically, flagging those subtle blips that deserve a closer look. I learned about it this month from a postgraduate at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) annual student-run departmental conference – this year, conducted online.

In 1975, when I was one of the first students in that then-brand-new department, we didn’t have such colloquia. We also didn’t have that kind of data. We measured our knowledge in bytes, not terabytes. Indeed, our training prepared us for the very different problems of how to measure a signal from a faint body when your electronic detector was not a megapixel CCD image chip, but only a phototube collecting a single dot of light.

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