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Recent Commentaries

Scientific Pig-Out (January 30, 2009).
The American Physical Society is pleased with the bit of pork congress is giving the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives.  I explain why I believe their joy is misplaced, and why astronomy and astrophysics may see a long-term decline in funding because of increased government spending.
An Implausible Light Thrust (October 10, 2008).
The Chinese government is investing in a rocket engine called the Emdrive that generates thrust with microwaves.  There appears to be a slight problem, however, with this engine: it violates conservation of momentum.
No Bang from the Big Bang Machine (September 17, 2008).
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, a machine that accelerates protons to very high energies and then bangs them together, began operating on September 10, 2008. Some believe this machine threatens Earth. They need not worry, because the particle collisions created in this machine occur daily when cosmic rays strike Earth's atmosphere. Man can't rival nature's extremes.
Spotting the Minimum (September 3, 2008).
Recently some people have claimed that the Sun is entering a new Maunder Minimum—a decades-long period of no sunspot activity, and that this will cause the Earth's atmosphere to cool.  The sun is certainly quiet in 2008, but this is the normal quiet of a minimum in the 11 year sunspot cycle.  Clearly the tendency to interpret normal variations as fundamental changes is not confined to the global warming alarmists.
The Allure of Manned Space Flight (August 22, 2007).
At one time in the technological vanguard, manned space flight long ago slipped into irrelevance, as the technological forefront passed to computer science and biotechnology. Manned space flight remains frozen in time, but the roar of a rocket rising on a column of fire still has its visceral allure.
What's in a Name? (September 6, 2006).
The recent IAU decision to precisely define the word planet brings the word more in line with how scientists think about objects orbiting the Sun. This evolution of a term in astronomy as our understanding improves is not unusual; terminology is born in phenomenology, but it is refined in the confrontation of theory with observation. The demotion of Pluto to dwarf planet status has more impact outside of the scientific community than within the community.
Astronomy and the Liberal Arts (August 16, 2006).
Not every subject that a scholar finds fascinating is worth studying. Universities can approach the question of what to study from two standpoints: what does a professional need to know to perform his job, and what does a man need to know to live life. Astronomy has no commercial value; its study is justified by helping us answering some of our universal and timeless questions. In short, astronomy is part of a liberal arts education.
Content-Free Academic Freedom (August 2, 2006).
Professor Stanley Fish's idea of academic freedom is that the scholar can study anything that has an “intellectually payoff,” but he cannot proselytize his students to his beliefs. This view of academic freedom cannot work in the sciences, where an undergraduate education consists of nothing but proselytizing students to our basic understanding of science.
Estranged Theory (June 7, 2006).
The theoretical astrophysics community is limited in its ability to describe what we see in our universe, in part because our information on astronomical objects is limit, and in part because the physics underlying astronomical objects is too difficult to solve with pencil and paper or to simulate with a computer. For this reason, the theoretical astrophysics community is somewhat estranged from the observational astronomy community.
Intellectual Inertia (May 24, 2006).
We like to hang onto our old ideas. This is as much true in business as in science. But while the free market provides a force to encourage and reward the successful development of new business ideas and punish the continued pursuit of outdated ideas, pressures within the scientific community tend to reinforce a scientist's natural tendency to cling to old theories that come into conflict with new data. As a consequence, changes within the economy are evolutionary, while changes within the sciences are revolutionary.
The Urge to Explain (February 15, 2006).
Phenomena without explanation is as intolerable as a grain of sand in our shoes. When a phenomena is first seen, theorists flood the journals with theories to explain the phenomena. But astrophysics is almost always too complex to be solved on the basis of a handful of observations. Serious theories for a phenomena come after observers have answered some key questions, first of which is where in the universe are the objects creating the phenomena.
Planet Killers (August 24, 2005).
In 1930 the discovery of Pluto was regarded as a great achievement, for the effort to find Pluto was spurred by theoretical predictions of a ninth planet. But Pluto is embarrassingly small, too small to be the predicted ninth planet. Now we are finding more and more Pluto-sized objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. We should take the hint, remove Pluto from the list of planets in the Solar System, and simply consider it as one of the largest planetoids in the Kuiper Belt.
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