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Star Power, Down to Earth

January 19, 2002

Sometimes even the most arcane sciences can have practical applications. Consider, for example, new research on how matter that is light-years away influences atoms on Earth.

The work of Ken Lanzetta, a State University of New York astronomer, on this mind-bending subject was primarily intended to find the age of stars. By cleverly analyzing data from the Hubble Space Telescope--"teasing out an incredibly subtle result from what is really just little fuzz balls," as one of his colleagues put it--he found evidence suggesting that most stars are about twice as old as previously thought, formed in a giant fireworks explosion 14 billion years ago.

This may seem of interest only to a small cadre of astronomers, but the work stands to benefit more down-to-earth sciences such as computing. Though computers have been getting smaller and faster every year, engineers are approaching the speed limits of conventional chips built from integrated circuits. The most promising way to break that limit is through "nanocomputing," building chips out of individual atoms. That's where Lanzetta's research comes in. By elucidating the behavior of atoms light-years away, astronomers like him are helping engineers better understand the behavior of atoms on Earth.

On the day last week that Lanzetta announced his discovery, the new head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, announced that because the international space station is billions of dollars over budget, the space agency may cut back all sorts of future missions. That could jeopardize funding for a key project needed to confirm Lanzetta's finding: the Next Generation space telescope, a successor to the Hubble telescope.

Given that the U.S. budget deficit has left the nation barely able to attend to such priorities as health care, telescopes may seem like an extravagance. But as Lanzetta's research suggests, sometimes the only way of solving earthly problems is by exploring cosmic questions.

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