Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, November 30, 2004
A reason to join the American Astronomical Society

Finally a good motivation for joining the AAS -- Robert Kirshner's "President's Column" in the monthly newsletter. The newsletter is only available to AAS members, since we wouldn't want all the secret goodies in there leaking out to the unwashed masses. Normally this is no great loss. But since Kirshner has become president, the monthly column has become a highlight.

Here at Preposterous we toil thanklessly for the greater good, so we might just make it a regular feature to excerpt some of Bob's best quotes. Last month the topic was the process by which NASA decides to make the wrong choices (as revisited in Risa's last post). This month it's about the connection between astronomy and physics. Here are the opening few paragraphs:
Everybody has this happen to them -- you're sitting on an airplane, headed for the AAS meeting or an observing run or a windowless room at NASA headquarters when a stranger sits down in the seat next to you. You're revising a manuscript (changing "affect" to "effect" or the other way around), or writing a referee report ("this paper contains too few references to the pioneering work of the anonymous referee"), or browsing through the AJ ("this paper is pretty good, I wonder if I'm a co-author.") The person next to you, picking up on these subtle cues, asks, "What do you do?" Here you must make a quick judgment. Do you want to talk to this person?

If your answer is yes, then you say, "I'm an astronomer" and you can be sure your neighbor will pick up that thread -- possibly asking for a personal horoscope, possibly asking you for insider information on that satellite that landed so firmly in Utah, and possibly asking if the dark energy is really the cosmological constant. In any case, both time and the airplane will fly.

On the other hand, if the idea of talking to this stranger ("outreach" in NSF-speak) is less appealing than having three hours of root canal work, you just say, "I'm a physicist." Somehow, that always produces a social retreat, leaving you in your own cocoon of noise-cancellation to compose letters of recommendation that skirt the inside edge of perjury.
Well, the rest is just as good, but I'd hate to have the notorious AAS lawyers come after me. (I'll have to encourage Bob to start up his own blog, perhaps once this AAS presidency is over.) The point is that there is not a sharp line telling us where astronomy ends and physics takes over, or vice-versa. Some of the most important questions at the heart of each discipline are right there in the heart of the other -- biologically difficult to manage, but metaphorically quite manageable.

Of course such a claim sounds so cliched and feel-good as to almost not be worth mentioning on a cutting-edge blog such as this one. However, it remains true that the categories of "astronomy" and "physics" are quite reified in the worlds of funding agencies and university departments, and this can often be a source of trouble. If I were a gossip, I could tell many stories of visiting places on my job searches and being asked, "Sure, we know you dabble in gravity, and astrophysics, and field theory -- but what are you really?" One of the nice things about the University of Chicago is that the barriers between the fields are remarkably low, but other places aren't so lucky. At Harvard, where Bob Kirshner was the department chair when the Astronomy Department grudgingly awarded me a Ph.D. for work on "Cosmological Consequences of Topological and Geometric Phenomena in Field Theories," there is a fifteen-minute walk through the snow to get from the Physics Department to the Observatory, and it's not a very beaten path. They're making an effort, though, so I wish them luck.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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