What is the point of astronomy? - part III

Astronomy is amazing. Over the past few hundred years we've found out that our planet is one of a host of objects orbiting the Sun, which itself is one of around 100 billion stars in our galaxy which is, in turn, one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. We've managed to look backwards through 13.7 billion years of cosmic history to just 300,000 years after the big bang. We've tested the fundamental laws of physics in some of the most extreme environments that exist. For some people this isn't enough.

Some people like to know that scientific research generates widgets. They like to know that it produces things that you can buy and sell or that have a direct, practical benefit to our everyday lives. I've previously described some of these benefits - which don't include Teflon - and I've got a new one to add. Radio Astronomers working on a new low frequency radio telescope spread over Europe (LOFAR) are also contributing to the fight against fungal diseases in potatoes.

Astronomy has a long history of aiding agriculture. Traditionally this has been through charting the seasons and providing advice on when to plant crops. Now, the humble potato is keeping up with the latest in technology with the help of some astronomers. It turns out that the ICT infrastructure being designed to link thousands of individual radio telescope elements together can also be used to collect micro-climate information about the fields they are sitting in. Each node hooks up to a wireless mesh and the network works out the relative positions of the nodes within the field. With incredibly detailed information about the temperature, pressure, humidity and variation in illumination over the potato fields, the farmers (or more likely, some software) will be able to work out which areas will be most at risk from fungal infection and target those.

This cross-over between science, technology and farming does lead to some interesting paper titles. I never imagined I would ever read a paper titled "Radio Propagation in Potato Fields".

Year of the Potato
I hope Pamela is impressed; I've found a link between 2008 Year Of The Potato and 2009 Year of Astronomy. CREDIT: Stuart

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 16th Jun 2008 (20:29 BST) | Permalink
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