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A generation of astronomical telescopes, their users, and publications

Abstract

Research astronomers and the telescopes they use each have typical life spans of about 40 years. Most of their journals live a good deal longer, though the second most important one today is only 40 years old. This paper looks at numbers for productivity and impact of specific astronomical facilities, changes in equality of opportunities and achievements in observational astronomy, and some aspects of national contributions. The focus is on optical astronomy, though something is also said about radio telescopes and astronomy from space. In summary, nothing stays "best of class" for very long; the fraction of the community with access to the most valuable facilities has increased with time (more equality of opportunity); but the fraction of citations earned by the few super-star papers has also increased (less equality of achievement); and the USA remains the host of the most-cited journals and the most productive telescopes, though Europe (meaning in this context the member nations of the European Southern Observatory, the European Space Agency, and the supporters of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics) are fast closing the gap, with the UK retaining its own journal and some observing facilities not shared with either the USA or other European countries. Detailed examination of specific facilities indicates that size (of telescope, community, and budget) are all of great importance, but that the most significant "focal plane instrument" is still the astronomer at the virtual eyepiece. The changes have happened against a background of enormous increases in numbers of astronomers, sizes of available facilities (but not total number), numbers of papers (but not of journals), and numbers of citations per paper. A significant subset of the conclusions on turnover of people and facilities accompanying major growth: opportunity versus achievement; Europe versus the USA; and the trade-off between community size and the influence of individual scientists undoubtedly apply in many other fields. © 2009 Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary.

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