The Astrophysics Spectator

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Commentaries for 2006

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a force to encourage and reward the successful development of new business ideas and punish the continued pursuit of outdated ideas, pressures within the scientific community tend to reinforce a scientist's natural tendency to cling to old theories that come into conflict with new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.
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