Archive for virtual reality

A Star is Porn

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 16, 2010 by telescoper

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.