Penn State Intercom......June 21, 2001

$1 million grant supports
study of astrostatistics

A three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has provided funding for researchers at Penn State and collaborators at two other universities to further study the emerging, interdisciplinary field of astrostatistics.

"As the nature of observational astronomy has changed, going from single astronomers watching a handful of objects to teams of astronomers locating millions of objects as part of large digital sky surveys at a variety of wavelengths, the necessity for statistical analysis has increased," said Jogesh Babu, professor of statistics and principal investigator for the NSF grant. "An enormous amount of data exists -- so much that even basic statistical measures such as the median and quartiles of a set of data can be difficult to determine."

Research under the grant has been motivated by a recent National Virtual Observatory initiative to link archival datasets and catalogues from many existing astronomical surveys. The effective use of such integrated massive datasets involves more than just access to and extraction of information. Scientific understanding requires sophisticated statistical modeling of the selected data.

Despite the challenges, Babu and his collaborators believe the pairing of astronomy and statistics provides a logical extension for both fields of study. Those collaborators include: Eric Feigelson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and colleagues at California Institute of Technology, home of the virtual observatory, and Carnegie Mellon University, with collaborators in its departments of astronomy, computer science and statistics.

During the past 14 years, Babu and Feigelson have led the effort to develop advanced statistical methods to serve the research needs of observational astronomers. They co-authored a book titled Astrostatistics in 1996 and created and maintain a Web site that provides links to statistical codes and services on the Web. They also have played host to two international conferences at Penn State with a third, titled "Statistical Challenges in Modern Astronomy III," scheduled at the University Park campus this summer. Approximately 120 scientists, some astronomers and some statisticians, are expected to visit campus in late July. The conferences are designed to facilitate a dialogue between astronomers and statisticians regarding important research issues.