Harvard's Observatory Going Digital


The New York Times has a lovely article on an effort to digitize the Harvard Observatory's collection. Since the nineteenth century, photographic plates of the night sky have been stored on Observatory Hill on the Harvard campus, representing the history of a discipline prior to the digital era. The collection weighs 165 tons (they're glass negatives) and accounts for 25 percent of the world's astronomical photographic plates.

But the problem is, it's all offline. There is no digital version of the images, so young astronomers aren't using the data -- they're relying on newer digital photos, which are easier to work with. But the curators of the collection have a plan:

For the last few months, Ms. Doane and a few colleagues, along with volunteers from the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, have been setting the stage for a mammoth attempt to bring the entire collection into the digital age. The result, if money can be found, will be more than just an archive. Digitized with a custom-crafted scanner already in operation, the searchable online atlas will ultimately show any spot in the heavens as it appeared from the late 19th century to the mid-1980s — an astronomical Wayback Machine.

(Considerable props are due for the Wayback Machine reference.)

Read the New York Times article, and if you have five or six million bucks burning a hole in your pocket, donate!