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How Brain Scans Can Help Astronomers Understand Stars


A false color image of Cassiopeia A using observations from both the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, and Chandra X-ray Observatory. Credit: {link url=""}NASA/JPL-Caltech{/link}

They may come from completely different fields of study, but brain scans and supernovae have more in common than you would think.

In a new TED talk, Michelle Borkin explains how software developed for use in a hospital was able to help astronomers study the structure of supernovae.

An astronomer colleague of Borkin's at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had eight years worth of data from the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. She wanted to use the data to understand the remnant's structure so she could work out how the star exploded. But there was a problem: she had no good way to look at the data. Luckily, Borkin did, and suggested that the astronomer try using 3D slicer software, originally developed in a hospital in Boston for looking at brain scans. It worked beautifully.

It is not just data analysis in these two fields that uses the same tools. The way data is collected from brain scans and radio telescopes is similar too. Even images in the fields of medicine and astronomy are alike: a confocal microscopy image of a human cornea looks much like a radio telescope image of star forming region NGC1333, despite the difference in scale.

This collaboration between astronomy and medicine is not the only example of an interdisciplinary connection in science – a lot of interesting science is now happening at the interface between two or more fields of study. Scientists working in all areas are looking outside their own lab in search of new ideas and methods, and more could benefit from joining them.

Video credit: TED

More about the Astronomical Medicine Project.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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