Archive for February 2, 2014

Scott Tremaine on “Astrohype”

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags on February 2, 2014 by telescoper

I recently came across a post by distinguished astrophysicist Scott Tremaine who works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The piece is entitled “Overblown Statements in Press Releases Undermine Science”, something that exercised me so much that I invented the category Astrohype so I could post particularly egregious examples on this blog.

Soctt Tremaine’s piece is on the American Astronomical Society website, but I’m reposting the text here to give it wider circulation as I think it makes some very important points that we’d all do well to heed. And of course in the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I am a theoretical astrophysicist myself, so may be a bit biased…


In a recent column, AAS President David Helfand argued correctly that negative public messages about subfields within our own discipline, or even about other disciplines — “shooting inward at each other” — damage all of us.

Consider, then, the following public messages:

  • from a major research university, a press release titled “Astronomers Discover Planet that Shouldn’t Be There,”
  • from the European Southern Observatory, a press release titled “Turning Planetary Theory Upside Down,”
  • from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a press release containing the quote, “Much of what we thought we understood about the physics of pulsars and neutron stars may be wrong,”
  • from the Space Telescope Science Institute, a press release stating, “New observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope challenge 30 years of scientific theory about quasars,” and
  • from a respected news organization, an interview with a prominent exoplanet researcher containing the quote, “Theory has struck out.”

The point is not whether these messages provide accurate characterizations of the state of theoretical understanding in their respective subject areas (though in most cases they do not). The point is that by belittling and trivializing the efforts of theoretical astrophysicists — who try to understand extremely complex processes in exotic environments, with limited clues from observations — they damage the public perception of the entire astronomy community. As just one example, statements from press releases such as those above are often repeated on creationist websites, where they carry extra weight because they have the imprimatur of NASA or a major observatory or university.

Advances in observational astronomy are spectacular enough to appeal to the public on their own merits, without “shooting inward” at efforts to understand these observations. Astronomers and press officers can provide a more realistic picture of the synergy between observation and theory, and in so doing would improve the public perception of astronomy research in particular and of the scientific enterprise more generally.


Mirror in February

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on February 2, 2014 by telescoper

The day dawns with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed – my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy-
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.

by Thomas Kinsella (b. 1928)