A Star is Porn

I started thinking about the analogy between astronomy and pornography after seeing a hilarious blog post by Amanda Bauer  that has a connection with my forthcoming (popular) book, which has the working title Naked Universe. It’s basically a collection of essays about cosmology, trying to look at the subject from unusual and provocative angles. I decided to give you a bit of a flavour of this connection here. It’s intended to be a bit of a joke, but it does make a semi-serious point about the difference between astronomy and other branches of science.

Although it’s one of the oldest fields of scientific enquiry, astronomy possesses a number of features that set it apart from most other branches of science. One of the most important is that it isn’t really an experimental science, but an observational one. Hands-on disciplines, specifically those involving laboratory experiments,  require a dialogue between the scientist and nature. The scientist can control the physical parameters of the system under scrutiny and explore its behaviour under different conditions in order to establish patterns and test theoretical explanations. The scientist chooses the questions to ask, the experiment is run, and nature gives its answer. If more information is needed, another experiment is set up with different parameter choices.

Astronomy is different. Its subject matter, the Universe of stars and galaxies,  is remote and inaccessible.   We only have what is “out there” already. We had no hand in setting it up, and we can’t intervene if it behaves in an unexpected way. We are forced to work only with what has been given to us. Out there in the darkness the Cosmos may be beautiful, but all we can do is look at  pictures of it. We never get to experience it in the flesh. Experimentalists have real intercourse with nature, but astronomers have to be content with being mere voyeurs.

This is not to say that all astronomers are dirty old men in grubby raincoats – although I have to say that I know a few who could be described like that – but  many mainstream scientists do indeed tend to look down on us, at least partly because of the unconventional practices I’ve alluded to. On the other hand,  I suspect they also secretly envy us. From time to time they probably also have a guilty peek at their favourite pictures too.  Every time physicists look at astronomical images, do they feel just a little bit guilty?

You can hardly go on the internet these days without finding a website devoted to pornography astronomy.This is hardly surprising because both astronomy and pornography have led to technological advances that helped fuel the digital revolution. Astronomy gave us the CCD camera, which ushered in the digital camera that has made it much easier for both amateurs and professionals to make their own pornographic astronomical images. On the other hand, the porn industry was largely responsible for the rapid evolution of video-streaming technology. That must be why astronomers spend so much of their time doing video conferences…

Astronomers also led the way in the development of virtual reality. Frustrated by their inability to get  up close and personal with the objects of their desire, they have resorted to the construction of elaborate three-dimensional computer simulations. In these they can interact with and manipulate what goes on until they reach a satisfactory outcome. I’ve never found this kind of thing at all rewarding – the simulations are just not sufficiently realistic –  but large numbers of cosmologists seem to be completely hooked on them.

9 Responses to “A Star is Porn”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Cumming. Robert Cumming said: Grymt sugen att korsa dessa: http://bit.ly/bxZnEf (@foraretaffel om klickjournalistik) och http://wp.me/pko9D-1wQ (@telescoper om astroporr) […]

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I can remember when we were in Nottingham, both Aaron Romanowsky and I were part of different collaborations that tried to get the word “naked” into the titles of astronomical research papers that had been accepted for publication in Science and Nature. Both journals refused to accept the word.

    The distinction between the experimentation of most sciences and the passive observation of astronomy was a point I used to make when I gave a Research Methods lecture module. Time did not allow a deeper exploration of these issues, but it would have been interesting to discuss the small number of instances where experimentation is performed in astronomy. Of course, there is laboratory astrophysics, where the processes that occur in astronomical environments are investigated in laboratories on the Earth, but I am referring here to experimentation outside of Earth-based laboratories. Analysis of meteorites and lunar samples are also important activities in ground-based laboratories.

    There have been experiments involving the release of chemicals by sounding rockets into the ionsophere of the Earth to investigate their ionisation and subsequent interaction with magnetic fields. Space probes sent to Solar System bodies have carried out mechanical and chemical experiments. The Viking landers added chemicals, including water, to samples of Martian dust to investigate the subsequent reactions. Robotic spacecraft on Mars have drilled into rock to investigate the material properties. The Deep Impact probe crashed at high velocity into Comet Temple. I believe microwaves have been sent from a radio telescope on the Earth to switch on maser emission from a comet.

    These are some of the limited number of cases where experimentation has been used in astronomy, all within the Solar System. For everything else in astronomy, we are passive voyeurs.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: How about “Can a naked singularity exist unshielded by an event horizon?”

    There is a disturbing tendency in some areas of science for the running of a computer simulation of a complex system to be referred to as an experiment. Oh, No It Isn’t…


  4. I’ve had a paper published in MNRAS with the word naked in the title

    “Resolved nuclear CO(1-0) emission in APM 08279+5255: gravitational lensing by a naked cusp?”

  5. telescoper Says:

    Anton: Indeed. Certain cosmologists often refer to their simulations as experiments too. I like to remind such people how the OED defines “simulation”:

    The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession

    Cusp: You must be pretty massive if you can make your own gravitational lens although I doubt if it makes much difference whether you’re naked.

  6. Alan Penny Says:

    “astronomy gave us the CCD camera”?

    Oh no it didnt. When Boyle and Smith at Bell Labs invented the CCD in 1969 as part of their research into memory devices, its use as an imager was noted. Boyle and Smith got the Nobel prize last year for the CCD. Astronomy’s use of the CCD starting in the late 70s was only a small part of the industrial push for CCDs.

    This sort of thing ranks in the “NASA invented teflon” kind of urban myth.

  7. telescoper Says:


    Thank you.

    I wasn’t trying to say that astronomers invented the CCD or even the CCD camera, which they clearly didn’t, but that astronomical applications were at least partly responsible for driving the technology forward. I think that’s true. At least it’s what certain eminent observational astronomers have told me…


  8. Bryn Jones Says:

    I tried performing a search for papers with the word naked in their title in the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System. The search found 553 paper (although there will some duplication with the Archive database).

  9. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Which eminent observational astronomers Peter? Mike Disney? I wouldn’t believe him 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: