The Astrophysics Spectator

Issue 1.1, October 6, 2004

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October 6, 2004

Let me welcome you to the first issue of The Astrophysics Spectator, a web-based journal dedicated to astronomy and astrophysics. I am Jim Brainerd (or, to flash my credential, Dr. J. J. Brainerd), a theoretical astrophysicist who studies gamma-ray bursts and neutron stars. Every week I will post a new collection of pages that discuss recent developments in the field, explore our current understanding of astronomical phenomena, describe the trends in modern research, and comment on the practice of science.

These pages reflect my own understanding of a very broad field, and there will be times when I disagree with the broader community over which theories are most plausible or what data are most trustworthy. I will always make this divergence with the community clear, and I will always discuss the reason for my disagreement with the community. My intent is to show the rough edges of scientific research. At science's frontier, the data are often contradictory and supportive of many different theories. While the community usually has dominant viewpoint of which theory best describes the data, many individuals within the community adopt dissenting viewpoints, and on occasion a dissenting viewpoint turn out to be the correct viewpoint. This turmoil within the community—the disputes, the uncertainties, and the fragmentation—foments scientific advancement.

The seven basic pages for accessing this site are given by the items listed on the header for this page and every page on this site. The Home page, which is this page, acts as the index of a journal, listing every Wednesday the new pages added to this site. To the right is the link to the RSS channel for The Astrophysics Spectator that also lists the updates to the site. Previous issues of the home page are archived under the Previous link at the top of the page.

In the coming months I will develop pages describing current research in astronomy and giving overviews of our understaning of astronomical phenomena. These are aimed at the educated general public. Over time pages of more depth, requiring more effort on the part of the reader, will be added. I also plan to add applets that simulate the various phenomena discussed in these pages. I invite you to return often to these pages, and if you have comments on this work, please feel free to drop me a note.

Jim Brainerd


September 27 A mechanism for water removal from Mars has been verified. The surface of Mars has features that show water once flowed freely on the planet. Now, however, the amount of of water on Mars is small. Observations by an instrument on the ESA Mars Express satellite that is designed to measure the penetration of the solar wind into the Martian atmosphere has found that the solar winds penetrates deeply enough to account for Mars's loss of water. (continue)

More news.


Normally only one commentary is published each week, but leading up to the first issue I developed the habit of writing one commentary per week, and so commentaries currently dominate the web site. Commentaries begin in July and run almost weekly to this issue, so that there are now a total of 10 commentaries covering topics ranging from man's landing on the moon to Dan Rather's inability to break out of his world view (the paradigm shift was hard for him).

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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? (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

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. (continue)

More commentaries.

New Paths

Stars. Stars are the central objects of astronomy and astrophysics. They form the galaxies, they create the elements, and they light the sky. A star is the heart of the Solar System and the source of life on Earth. The Stars path is projected to be a series of articles that describe the basics of stars, from their birth to their slow extinction. With this issue of The Astrophysics Spectator journal, pages describing nuclear fusion within stars are added to this path, including pages that present the details of hydrogen fusion and helium fusion. Two tables are included as part of this discussion: a table of the elemental abundances within the solar system, and a table of the excess energy per nucleon for the light elements. (continue)

Tables. The first issue begins with numerous tables on the planets, the Sun, and basic astronomical terms. These tables are associated with planned subject paths. One table describes the basic measures used in astronomy, discussing units of measure such as the parsec and the sidereal year. The table for the Sun's characteristics gives the Sun's mass, radius, temperature, luminosity, and other defining traits. The table of the camparative characteristics of the planets gives the characteristics of the 4 terrestrial planets and the 4 giant planets in terms of these values for Earth. The planets' characteristics in more conventional units are given in tables for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. A planetary parameters page explains the variables that are used to describe a planet.


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