Why most of Astronomy isn't Cosmology

This is mostly just an MLP ("Mindless Link Post"), and it's nearly two weeks late, but there's a post by Julianne over at Cosmic Variance that I think is of crucial importance. People who are outside the field of science very often lose sight of the huge amount of important science that is done, but doesn't produce the "amazingly sexy discovery" news headlines, or, say, the Gruber prize. Also, people working in one field of science often don't appreciate the value of other fields of science when it doesn't obviously overlap theirs... even though, as Julianne points out, all of that other "uninteresting" stuff may well have included things necessary to generate the bits that overlap their field!

In one of my first years at Vanderbilt (back in the days when I used to be a professor), one of the older experimental particle physicists came into my office, wondering why we were talking about supporting all the other boring star-and-planet formation science being done, when I was the only astronomer doing anything "really fundamental." (I was still working in supernova cosmology at the time.) One of these other astronomers was David Weintraub, not then but now the author of a successful popular science book Is Pluto a Planet?— a topic that would be hard to argue has no general interest. David was and is working on things that addressed the formation of our own Solar System, something which was not only one of the current hot and sexy topics in Astronomy, but which is easily of as much "basic human interest" as the origin of our Universe, and more immediate (so to speak) and tangible besides! This particle physicist nodded, indicating surprise, saying that I had a good point that different people might think different things are of the most basic interest.

It's easy to find particle physicists who think that cosmology is the only thing in astronomy even vaguely of interest. (Just as it's easy to find atomic and solid state physicists who think that particle physics is useless musing whose valuable period ended well before the 20th century, and just as it is easy to find astronomers who think that cosmology is all poorly-grounded crap that represents only borderline interesting science, and is mostly a land grab by particle physicists interested in astronomy funding sources.) There really are two things here. First is the fact that there is an awful lot of interesting science out that that people in your field genuinely have no reason to care about. Second, though, and this is something that as an astronomer as frustrated me watching particle physicists come in and think they know how to use telescopes: people outside of your field know a lot of things about how to do their science that you don't know, and you dismiss them at your peril. Julianne says it best:

...if you limit astronomers' ability to go forth and characterize what the universe is actually like, no one will be laying the foundations for the next generation of crazy-physics-you-can-study-in-space. For astrophysics, the Universe is our LHC, and we've got to be free to characterize our widgets, even if they're boring ole brown dwarfs rather than panels of supercooled silicon wafers.


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I know whereof you speak. At a bygone high school reunion I told my physics teacher I was taking an astronomy class in college. He snorted and said, "Why don't you take a real physics class?" He was, in fact, a particle physicist.

It's so odd to see what different people find valuable!

By Melissa G (not verified) on 18 Aug 2007 #permalink

It's so odd to see what different people find valuable!

It's weirder, still, that so many physicists are ready to pour contempt over a compteting, but equally valid, field of research. I've encountered that mentality as well, and maybe with good cause -- I concern myself almost exclusively with the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, which likely isn't properly considered physics.

From the standpoint that what I do isn't physics, particle physics is much less a branch of physics than astronomy -- and that doesn't make much sense. What I'm getting at is this: nerd rivalry is stupid. It makes as much sense as arguing about who the victor would be in a Captain Kirk vs. Harry Potter deathmatch.

Also, Rob, this was a good post. I've felt the same for a long time, and it's good to see that someone else has recognized the distinction. I blame bad popularizations for poisoning the discourse on the subject.