Looking back into the archives of scientific papers published in the past few decades, the majority have one, or at most four, authors. Most projects were conducted by a single individual (or a man and multiple uncredited women, but that’s a whole different topic than what I’d like to discuss here): one person started with a question or a single strange observation, and then they began studying it.
But, science (especially astronomy) is becoming more collaborative. An increasing number of papers have more than 20 authors listed; many are authored by giant collaborations, like papers from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which boast over 5,000 authors. If it seems like your name might get lost among the multitude of others, you’re not alone. But, diminished name recognition is offset by the many benefits of such large-scale collaboration.
Collaboration is like putting together a puzzle: without all of the pieces, it’s impossible to see the full picture. In astronomy, we need to understand the inside of stars to understand how they evolve. This influences how we understand the ages of galaxies, which in turn informs our understanding of the global structure of our universe. Astronomers with vastly different specialties need to communicate with each other to get the full picture (this is true outside of astronomy as well).
Technology also pushes us to work collaboratively. Physics used to be conducted with simple weights in a lab; but now, large colliders like the LHC are needed to study the tiniest particles. Similarly, astronomers used to be able to conduct experiments with a simple telescope on the roof of a house or in a nearby field. But, as we push to study fainter and fainter objects, we need bigger telescopes at more strategic locations (click here to read more about why location is important to astronomy). Nowadays, astronomers are better off sharing the same instruments than having their own, which allows for more powerful telescopes to be used and for us to attain the same high standard of data across the field.
Like many fields, astronomy is transitioning into “big data” science. Two of the largest collaborations, LIGO and LSST, span the entire globe.
LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a project designed to detect gravitational waves and observe collisions of black holes. In order to do this, astronomers need detectors around the world. It’s only because of the linked detectors that we have the precision to measure small distortions and pinpoint where they came from in the sky. Additionally, the follow-up network uses telescopes in all different wavelengths to get the most data possible for as long as possible, despite the earth rotating and the point of interest moving out of view.
Another way to collaborate is to share available data. Unlike other scientists, astronomers all share the same lab: the night sky. A new telescope – the LSST (the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) – will survey the whole sky in different wavelengths on a cadence. It is designed with multiple scientific goals in mind, and it is optimized so that with one set of data, a lot of disparate research can be accomplished. Since everyone is working from the same data set, it’s easier to directly compare different facets of study on the same object. This is especially good for studies of transient phenomena, like supernovae.
Clearly, collaboration is incredibly beneficial for astronomy; we need the spatial coverage, and we can share the newest telescopes. But, working with others also benefits individual scientists and leads to the inclusion of diverse viewpoints. Our knowledge is becoming increasingly specialized, with each scientist being an expert in one niche field. More people means more areas of knowledge are brought to bear on a particular issue or question. There’s also better division of work: the theorist can run simulations the best way possible, and the observationalist can process the cleanest data possible. Plus, with a greater number of people, there’s a greater chance of cultural and gender diversity, which itself brings more varied and unique ways of approaching a particular problem.
Above all, collaboration gives each scientist the opportunity to learn from others!
Not all of us can be part of a global collaboration; so, how can you collaborate, if only on campus? Start by talking to people outside your research group: wander down the hall during lunchtime and ask someone what they are working on, or strike up a conversation at a department-wide event. Mingle outside your department: CEWiT hosts networking meetings, GPSG organizes social events, and even Science Fest gives you a chance to walk into another department and talk to researchers who work there. You can also browse the ScIU blog: you can read an interesting post here and reach out to the author with questions in the comments, or even come write with us and meet the other bloggers! It might not form a 20-year collaboration, but at the very least, you will learn something neat about a different area of science.
What’s something you’ve learned from a collaborator, scientific or otherwise? Let us know in the comments!