But some people ask “What is astronomy good for?” Well, it’s not just good for nice pictures for textbooks, even though pictures from space are very inspirational. And with high energy astrophysics the science that comes out is hardcore, it doesn’t produce the Hubble-like pictures of pretty nebulae. In gamma-ray astronomy, the pictures aren’t very pretty – they’re not even meaningful unless you know what you’re looking at, so it’s hard to get the public excited about the kind of research high energy physicists do. What we do allows us to come up with a new understanding of how fundamental physics plays out throughout an often very violent Universe.
All space research advances technology development that sooner or later has an effect on everyday life. Technology is the magic that allows astronomers to make discoveries. On Earth, gamma-ray science is really important for imaging in medical applications and security. For example, if you have a big container that comes into a harbor, how do you make sure there’s no dirty bomb hidden inside of it? You can take everything out, and take a look at it – but that’s not feasible, too expensive. An X-ray machine doesn’t work because the X-rays actually don’t make it through some material. But gamma rays are very penetrating. Even though they don’t make it through the Earth’s atmosphere, they do make it through a full inch of steel.