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January 4, 2008 11:29 AM

The big telescope: A quick Q&A with Simonyi

Posted by Brier Dudley

It took a little time to reach Charles Simonyi on Thursday, when word came out that he and Bill Gates were supporting a spectacular new telescope with $30 million in donations. E-mail was apparently a little spotty on the yacht, but he responded last night to a few questions about the LSST project:

Q: What attracted you to LSST versus other astronomy projects?

A:The LSST is simply the most important astronomy project we have today because of its fundamental and enabling nature. It has this unique quality the scientists call "wide-fast-deep". In normal camera terms we would say that it has a wide-angle lens, it can take pictures quickly one after the other, and it can take pictures of very faint objects.

Q: How did the arrangement with you and Bill come about? I have a vision of you two sitting on a beach, looking up at the stars and enjoying a bottle of tokaj ...

A: Nathan Myhrvold started the ball rolling. I've heard about the project first from Bill.

Q: A comment you made in the release stood out for me -- that the system could look for asteroids that could threaten Earth. Does LSST fill some sort of early warning service that governments have failed to provide?

A: The project will depend greatly on public funding so the government will do its part. But, yes, the data provided by the telescope is optimal for timely discovery of asteroids, including those that might threaten Earth. It also worth pointing out that the different uses of the telescope are not competing with each other, but are simply different processings of the regular data flow from the instrument. One university might be looking for asteroids in the terabytes of data; another might map the galaxies from the same data sets.

Q: The public-access aspect of the project is also interesting. What do you imagine the long-term effect will be of having this sort of data available to everyone?

A: It will mean a tremendous expansion of astronomical research. Much research will be done on computers that are affordable by smaller institutions as well. In terms of public understanding of astronomy, I am sure there will be videos on YouTube of the changes in the sky -- for example, the explosions of supernovae or the movements of thousands of Pluto-like objects around the sun.

Q: Do you plan to have any hands-on involvement in developing the system or in its operation?

A: The system is much too complicated for me to make meaningful direct contributions, but I will follow it very closely for the next decade or so.

Q: The thought of people building a machine that can capture and replay the entire night sky is amazing. We're also seeing big advances in deep sea mapping and photography. I wonder how mankind will change after it's able to map, render and manipulate images of these vast, mysterious spaces.

A: While the oceans are also fascinating, they are unlikely to harbor entirely new phenomena. A machine that is the most comparable to LSST in terms of its ability to produce terrabytes of interesting data which can be mined for new discoveries is the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), the giant international atom-smasher that is located near Geneva and which will start working in a couple of years. It is one of the most astounding developments of modern science that astronomy -- the science of the very large -- and particle physics -- the science of the very small -- are two sides of the same coin, so these two machines might give complementary evidence about the nature of the mysterious "black matter" for example.

Q: How are things going with Intentional Software -- are its tools being used for any major scientific projects?

A: No. We are working with CapGemini on financial applications, such as pension administration.

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