Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Is Too Much Physics Bad For Astronomy?

I didn't even realize that this is such an issue. It seems that the "invasion" of physics, especially coming from high-energy/particle physics, doesn't sit well with many astronomers (link open for a limited time only), especially those who still view the field of astronomy in the more "traditional" sense. This is reported in the May 10, 2007 issue of Nature:

That, in a nutshell, is the call-to-arms issued by Simon White, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. In a declaration appearing in this month's Reports on Progress in Physics, and already nailed to the door of the popular arXiv preprint server (, White warns his astronomer colleagues that "by uncritically adopting the values of an alien system, astronomers risk undermining the foundations of their own current success." His treatise has been causing a stir in astronomy departments and stoking animated debate on various blogs.

This sounds serious.

White argues that astronomers are straying from the true beauty of the field — the study of unusual objects in the sky — into the realm of mere measurement. Particle physicists, a glamorous and well financed bunch, are inveigling astronomers into quantifying fundamental constants to satisfy the equations of cosmology and high-energy physics. White is particularly damning of plans for a mission to study dark energy, a mysterious force that seems to be pushing the Universe apart. Such a project, he says, could suck hundreds of millions of dollars from astronomy in order to measure a single ratio.

The contrary opinion, to me, sounds a lot more convincing:

There's no physicist cabal working against astronomers, adds Roger Blandford, who directs the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, California. "I don't see particle physics as some sort of dark force out there pursuing dark projects on dark subjects," he says.

No one denies that fundamental physicists have become increasingly involved in astronomy in recent years. The growing entanglement is in part due to the convergence of the two disciplines' theorists on various questions; another factor may be the difficulty that physicists have had in moving beyond their 'standard model' using the traditional tools of their trade — accelerators.

But what convinced me was this particular paragraph, and I don't think that this has been sufficiently addressed:

Ultimately, Mountain says, White's anxiety is more nostalgia for the good-old days of astronomy than concern for its future. "There's a kind of romantic sense that a lone person with a telescope or a piece of paper should still be able to make breakthroughs in the field." But that's not the way it works in the modern era, he warns. "The contribution of the individual is being lost because some of these problems are getting extraordinarily hard to tackle. The only question is: are we actually losing great science? Or are we just losing the sense that science is as much fun as it once was?"

Couldn't there be the old and the new was coexisting? Besides, why can't new ways of doing things be better? Things ARE getting a lot more complicated and complex. Small accelerators of old become obsolete, and there are many other old ways of doing things that are no longer efficient. I don't see how Astronomy can't redefine how they do things, and such an endeavor is not necessarily a bad thing.


1 comment:

Kent said...

I think that astronomy in smaller countries, such as New Zealand, the "romantic sense that a lone person with a telescope or a piece of paper should still be able to make breakthroughs in the field" still exists.

I visited Mt John Observatory in Tekapo, NZ back in 2003. Typically there are only 2-3 researchers working at any one time out there, amateur and professional astronomers working side-by-side. In 2004-2005, from microlensing observations (in collaboration with the MOA group), they were able to find the farthest extrasolar planet at the time. They have had a few upgrades to the facilities since, but the work environment is still that of a lone astronomer starring up at the sky.

Kent (aka booom0r).