Commentaries for 2005
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.
Flukes (July 27, 2005).
Many new results found in astronomy turn out to be statistical flukes. This
is not surprising when we consider that scientific discovery has its elements of chance.
Perform enough experiments within the community, and inevitably low-probability
statistical fluctuations will appear and be published in the scientific literature.
This is one reason why we repeat experiments.
The Theory Rush (July 13, 2005).
When the paradigm shifts, the papers fly, for the incentive to publish sketchy
theories rapidly is strong. But to understand how this universe works requires
tremendous work and many resources. Solid theories are a scarce commodity, and
many ideas rapidly sketched in the literature never reach a sophisticated level
The Unethical Advantage (June 22, 2005).
The unethical behavior of scientists made another appearance with the publication of a survey
of misconduct in Nature that finds unethical conduct to be common. This study
brought to mind one of my own brushes with an unethical scientist. Like the authors of
the study, I believe unethical actions short of outright plagiarism and the manufacturing
of data are corrosive to science, but until the costs greatly outweigh the benefits of
unethical behavior, expect it to remain common.
Fantasy and Aesthetic Science (June 8, 2005).
The popular fantasy literature populates the world with fantastic objects. These objects
exists to surprise and delight us with their departure from ordinary life. Science also
populates its hidden regions with equally fantastic objects, but for a much different reason:
to bring an aesthetic unity to science. Often these objects find their way into the fantasy
literature, so that an object born out of a sense of order is used to excite a sense of
wonderment in our universe.
A Ph.D. Deficit? (May 18, 2005)
Authors of a recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal argue that the United State
is producing too few engineers and physicists with Ph.D.s. But the decline in the number
of Americans receiving Ph.D.s in physics and engineering is offset by the number receiving
them in the biological sciences, which are currently the most dynamic branches of science.
Rather than evidence of economic decline, this is evidence that economic resources
are being deployed in the most fruitful areas of technological advancement.
Complex, Not Peculiar (April 27, 2005).
Many claim that the universe is more peculiar than we can imagine,
but it is our theories rather than the universe that are peculiar.
It is the universe's complexity rather than its peculiarity that we
find difficult to comprehend.
Knowledge from Appearance (April 20, 2005).
Our theories of astronomical sources are not limited to the physics
of the source, but include the physics of how radiation from the source reaches Earth
and how that radiation interacts with our instruments. When we test a theory,
we are testing whether the theory gives the correct appearance of an object.
Can we reach a point where a theory correctly gives the appearance of an object
without giving a true description of the object?
Observing with the Great Refractor (April 6, 2005).
The Great Refractor of Harvard College Observatory was the first large telescope
to operate in the United States. After a foolish act on my part, I was able
to observe with this instrument.
Academic Freedom and the University Professor (March 16, 2005).
The rights and obligations of academic freedom should define the obligations of
the university professor. Some tenured professors, however, refuse to live up
to their obligations. The controversy over Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado
is a stark example of this problem. Universities may need to put an end to tenure if they
are to preserve their integrity.
Jobs, Tenure, and Academic Freedom (March 9, 2005).
Tenure is often regarded as a safeguard of academic freedom. I believe
that tenure combined with the persistently tight job market for permanent
academic positions reinforces orthodoxy within the scientific community
and discourages unconventional thinking. I lay out my reasoning in this week's commentary.
Academic Freedom and Government Funding (March 2, 2005).
The threats to academic freedom in the astrophysics community are primarily systemic.
One prime impediment to investigating unusual phenomena is the funding of science
by government. Big science in particular limits the ability of an independently-minded
scientist to investigate unpopular areas of research.
Academic Freedom, Free Speech, and Harlow Shapley (February 23, 2005).
Harlow Shapley was one of the leading astronomers of the early 20th century.
In 1950, he was at the center of astronomy's most infamous episodes, when he and the
astronomy community attempted to suppress the publication of Immanuel Velikovsky's
Worlds in Collision. This episode is a nice illustration of the restrictiveness
of academic freedom as compared to free speech, and it is a warning on how not to engage
the public over bad science.
The Notion of Academic Freedom (February 16, 2005).
Recent controversies over the statements of two university professors and
a college president have provoked a discussion of academic freedom. In the first of
a series, this week's commentary discusses the concept of academic freedom. I make
the point that academic freedom implies a responsibility to question only those topics
that are unsettled within a scientific discipline. This makes academic freedom more
restrictive than freedom of speech.
The Worlds We Visualize (February 9, 2005).
Our ability to understand this universe is tied to our vision. We rely on our vision
to provide analogies when we think of physical phenomena. We place our data onto plots
to use our vision to recognize patterns. We cast our mathematical models of the universe into
easily-visualized concepts. Even our mathematics, despite its abstractness, has
its basis in our vision. This suggests that we understand the universe by recasting
the universe into the concepts of our human vision.
Perception (February 2, 2005).
We have a deep understanding of our universe, but can we truly perceive the universe?
The scales of our universe are outside of human experience.
Titan and Earth (January 26, 2005).
The high-altitude photographs of the Huygens probe of Titan's surface bring to mind
aerial pictures of the high desert of the United States. Despite having a temperature closer
to absolute zero than to Earth's temperate temperatures, Titan is shaped by some of
the processes that shape Earth. Titan is another example of how simple our universe is,
and it is an example of how unusual Earth is.
The Lure of Natural Design (January 19, 2005).
Many scientists assume that there is a natural explanation for the universe we see.
At some point, however, such a belief is an act of faith, because our vision
of the universe will always be limited. We are then left with descriptions
of the universe that have no explanation.
The Lure of Intelligent Design (January 12, 2005).
Intelligent design arguments for the existence of God have existed from ancient times.
While the ancient arguments have fallen with the rise of scientific understanding,
versions of the intelligent design argument still exist.