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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 of development.
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.
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