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The rise of astrostatistics

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Posted November 11, 2014

In late 1801 the orbit of the newly discovered asteroid Ceres carried it behind the sun, and astronomers worried they had lost it forever. A young mathematical prodigy named Carl Friedrich Gauss developed a new statistical technique to find it. Called “least squares regression,” that technique is now a fundamental method of statistical analysis.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists are turning to statisticians to help them analyze an ever-increasing deluge of data. Image: Sandbox Studio, with Kimberly Boustead

Astrophysicists and cosmologists are turning to statisticians to help them analyze an ever-increasing deluge of data. Image: Sandbox Studio, with Kimberly Boustead

For about 200 years after that, however, astronomers and statisticians had little to do with one another. But in the last decade or so, astronomy and statistics have finally begun to formalize a promising relationship. Together they are developing the new discipline of astrostatistics.

Jogesh Babu, a Pennsylvania State professor and the director of the Penn State Center for Astrostatistics, remembers when the new age of astrostatistics dawned for him. Twenty-five years ago, when Babu’s focus was statistical theory, astronomy professor Eric Feigelson asked to meet with him to talk about a problem. At the end of the conversation, Babu says, “we realized we both speak English but we didn’t understand a word the other said.”

To address that disconnect, the statistician and the astrophysicist organized a continuing series of conferences at Penn State. They also wrote a book, Astrostatistics, which effectively christened the new field. But collaborations between astrophysicists and statisticians remained small and scattered, only really starting to pick up in 2006, says Babu.

“The development of statistical techniques useful to advanced astronomical research progressed very slowly, and until recently most all analyses had to be done by hand,” says statistician Joseph Hilbe, a statistics professor at Arizona State University. Before the advent of computers with sufficient capacity to do the work, certain useful calculations could take statisticians weeks to months to complete, he said.

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Source: FNAL, written by Lori Ann White

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