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Is Too Much Physics Bad For Astronomy?

Is Too Much Physics Bad For Astronomy?

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 (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 philosophies are going astray from the real beauty of the field – studying extraordinary objects in the sky – just in the measure of measurement. Particulous physics, glamorous and well-funded groups, space scientists and high-energy physics are dragging the basins of quantity to meet the equality of 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.

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