The Astrophysics Spectator

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Commentaries for 2004

Fame in Astrophysics (December 15, 2004).
The desire of fame drives many astrophysicists in their research. But fame in astrophysics is now an illusion, and today's astrophysicist works in anonymity.
The Astrophysics Generalist (December 8, 2004).
The study of astrophysics can be justified if we remain generalists in our study. As generalists we develop an understanding of how our universe became inhabitable, and we learn how our complex universe is composed from a few basic principles. But does being a generalist imply anything about the conduct of research?
A Great Books Education (November 24, 2004).
A great books education introduces the student to the foundational ideas of Western civilization. Despite the specialization and culture of progress within the scientific community, we scientists can deepen our understanding of scientific research by studying the great books of science.
Invoking New Physics (November 17, 2004).
Sometimes we see in astronomy processes that only happen outside of the laboratory. But the complexity of astronomical phenomena also creates effects from known physics that cannot be modeled with current computer programs, and there is always the chance that a systematic error or a poorly understood bias will mislead us. So when does an astronomical observation justify the invocation of a new physical theory?
Pythagoras (November 10, 2004).
Numerology is the central fire of the Pythagorean universe, and mathematics is the Sun of modern science. The ancient mysticism of our forefathers is now alien to us, despite its role in the development of modern science.
Transcendence (November 3, 2004).
We are driven to achieve high purposes, whether they are to win the World Series or to understand the nature of the universe. These transcendent goals are concoctions of our mind.
My First Crackpot (October 27, 2004).
As we grow up, we gradually realize that people we though knew everything are actually limited in their knowledge. But that realization pales compared to the realization that a man famous for his foresight about the future is spinning bizarre tales of historical conspiracy.
Einstein's Greatest Blunder (October 20, 2004).
Albert Einstein regarded the introduction into General Relativity of the cosmological constant, a term that describes the gravity produced by the vacuum, as his greatest blunder. The blunder was not in allowing the constant into the theory, but in the motivation behind its introduction: a misconception about how the universe is structured. Now the cosmological constant is being reintroduced to explain recent results concerning how the universe is expanding. Is the cosmological research community making the same blunder?
The Nature of the Unknown (October 13, 2004).
Many projects in modern astrophysics is so expensive that only governments can fund them. NASA's great observatories cost between half and two billion dollars to build and launch. Gravitational wave facilities run over a hundred million dollars to build and tens of millions of dollars every year to operate. At these prices, the temptation to overpromise is strong. If Columbus were writing a proposal today for his voyage west to the Far East, would he list seeing sea monsters as one of his goals?
Opening the Closed Community (October 6, 2004).
The opportunities to conduct scientific research and to publish scientific results are strongly controlled by government and the scientific community. Two recent events, the prominence of bloggers in proving the fraudulence of documents used by CBS in a report, and the achievement of suborbital flight by a space plane developed by Dick Rutan's group of engineers, foreshadow technological changes that should make science a more open enterprise.
College Out of Reach (September 29, 2004).
College tuition at the private research universities is becoming unaffordable because supply has not risen as fast as demand. Of the causes for this, one cause is not a shortage of Ph.D.s in the basic sciences.
Space Travel in Sci-Fi (September 22, 2004).
Science fiction films can be wonderful diversions, and they can tell us about the hopes and fears of their contemporary society societies. But for learning about science, look elsewhere, for even when a film gets a scientific principle right, it is not quite right. Take as an example space travel.
World Views (September 15, 2004).
Dan Rather and CBS news recently showed a side of human nature that appears regularly in the scientific community—the interpretation of results in terms of our world view, and the difficulty of changing our world view in the face of falsifying evidence.
Scientific Shock and Awe (September 8, 2004).
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal about information storage on the event horizons of black holes is an example of the physicist as magician rather than as teacher.
Cicero and Modern Science (September 1, 2004).
Cicero had the right idea about scientific uncertainty, and the wrong idea about what a wise man should believe.
Decline of the Technical (August 18, 2004).
Popular scientific writing at one time treated the reader as a participant in the scientific enterprise. Is there still a market for writing that makes demands on its readers?
Observational Ambiguity (August 11, 2004).
The frontiers of science is defined by ambiguous, contradictory, and bad data. How does one create a theory when the data cannot be trusted. Gamma-ray bursts showed that it takes luck.
The Nature of Theory (August 4, 2004).
Our knowledge comes from observations. Theorist that forget this point risk clinging to false ideas long after they have been invalidated.
The Amateur and the Professional (July 28, 2004).
The recent discovery of a nebula by an amateur astronomer shows that the amateur still plays an important role in modern astronomy.
Manned and Unmanned Space Flight (July 21, 2004).
On the 35th anniversary of man first walking on the Moon, one asks, is man space flight justified? Man in space no longer sparks our imagination; instead, unmanned spacecraft flying to Mars and Saturn carry us on our adventures in space.
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