Data Processing, Data Management, and Data Archiving in Twentieth-Century Astronomy

Data Processing, Data Management, and Data Archiving in Twentieth-Century Astronomy

W. Patrick McCray

Starting in the 1960s, astronomers’ view of the sky shifted from an analog perspective in which data was recorded using photographic plates and analog strip charts to one wholly mediated by digital technologies. In this same time period that astronomers began to express anxiety about being overwhelmed by their data. Within a few decades, astronomers routinely spoke with both trepidation and excitement about onrushing “floods” and “deluges” of data such that one might dare refer to research before the mid-1980s as “antediluvian astronomy.” Where once astronomers complained that they did not have enough data, they started to worry about it drowning them. This transition presaged today’s debates about Big Data and the archiving of massive data sets in astronomy and other sciences which researchers mine.

This project explored several episodes in this broader historical process. From the sharing and circulation of analog photographic plates to the creation of shared digital data formats to the creation of massive and publicly accessible data bases, observational astronomy, has been a bellwether for many critical changes in scientific practice. In these and other cases, astronomers’ desire to share analog and then digital information speaks to broader changes in researchers’ moral economy as common data formats, standards, and other data tools challenged traditional norms and practices.

The work had three general goals. First, it used representative historical examples to illustrate how the astronomy community migrated from an analog world to a digital one. Second, it examined how the successful digitization of astronomy demanded agreed-upon standards as well as new hardware. Although not consciously identified as such, the digitization of astronomy is therefore a transnational technological history possessing implications that extend beyond one scientific discipline. Finally, it explored the effect computers, digital instrumentation, and data archives have had on the practice of post-World War Two scientific research. This project situated data processing, data management, and data archiving as a new or at least different form of research that complements theory-based research, experimentation, and simulation as a viable mode of knowledge production.