Never Throw Anything Away: The Wealth of Science Archives

Our sciences are advancing at a rapid pace. New technologies emerge that help scientists dig deeper into the fundamental particles or peer farther away into our Universe. So I was quite happy when the following news item appeared. It combines two of my passions: history and astronomy, and it shows that there are some things you should never throw out. (Please tell my wife!)

The story, as I found it on the website phys.org, goes like this: in the past, photographs of stars, including spectral analysis of the light they emit, were registered on photographic plates. Researcher Jay Farihi wanted to analyze the spectrum from Van Maanen’s star, a white dwarf in the constellation of Pisces. Instead of doing observations himself, which can take a lot of time and effort and money, he found that they had already been recorded in 1917, when the star was discovered. That data was at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California.

Nowadays, it takes just a couple of clicks to get the digital file, but in this case the glass plate, almost a century old, had to be physically retrieved from the archive. Luckily a catalogue had been made to make the observed objects available; otherwise it would never have been noticed.

When Farihi received the results, he immediately remarked there was a gap in the spectrum. The spectral analysis of visible light shows peaks when related to the composition of the star itself and valleys where material blocks the light, either because it is on the surface of the object or in between. The exact valleys in this case correspond, as the article reports it, to elements like calcium, magnesium and iron. They cannot be part of the star itself as they are heavier than the hydrogen and oxygen in the star and would sink.

1917astronom

The glass plate in question, with the concerned portion zoomed in. Note that we talk about the small line inbetween the bigger ones for calibration. Credit: The Carnegie Institution for Science

So basically, this shows that there is a larger object around the white dwarf. This is important because a white dwarf is a star at the end of it life, and it is expected that some or maybe most of any nearby planetary material would have been shed or gobbled up by the star during its preceding red giant phase.

But more importantly, it shows that archives like those are sitting on a potential wealth of information that could help advance science for a fraction of the cost. The information is there, and provides a longer window of observation (or in this case, a unique observation) that helps our understanding of our Universe. But they’re only available if we keep them preserved and intact, the lesson being: never throw things out, but cherish them.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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3 Responses to Never Throw Anything Away: The Wealth of Science Archives

  1. Bruno,
    Nice item and I strongly agree. I could weep to contemplate examples of wasted information, some historical and some technical.
    A related concept is the way that some callow youngsters refuse to recognise the value of citations of works more than a few years old. There actually were a few attempts in Wikipedia to disqualify older citations. I was one of those who quashed the move, pointing out that the date is NEVER the definitive criterion, but only the content. Commonly the best citation is that in which a major discovery was reported, rehashed material in later publications and textbooks being derivative, incomplete, and inferior in spite of glossier paper and glibber summaries.
    Certainly one can deduce from the date that an old text will not take newer discoveries into account, but even then, the content remains the criterion, not the date.
    Sometimes, when the history of the subject is relevant (such as the history of scurvy or yellow fever) one knows when the major breakthroughs happened, but it remains helpful or even important to see when workers ahead of their time produced speculations that were substantially correct or eerily near the mark.

  2. Gary Foureman says:

    In scientific fields of study that I have been involved with, the older the reference, the more valuable it is. For example in astronomy it would be a deeply felt tragedy to us all to discount and make unavailable B2FH which is now over 60 years old. It is the stuff stars are made on.

  3. Felix Perez G says:

    I would distinguish between the old data and the old studies and theories. Both are valuable, of course, but theories tend to be overrode quickly (due to new data, mainly) while data stay there to be used at least as reference.

    Data can become obsolete to show the reality today, but they play a great role in Science to determine how the things has evolved since them were took.

    For example, old photos of glaciars don’t show how they are today, but tell us how fast they are melting nowadays by comparison with the current photos of the same sites. And that can be very important to climate studies.

    In the example of the article, the astronomical data remain able to provide information that has passed overlooked a century ago and afterwards.

    That’s why I think that data are more valuable to store than old studies over those data. However, the cost of storing and retrive information is lowering day after day so, why do not keep them all?

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