Astronomical Games: May 2014

Seek and Ye Shall Find!

Skill and luck combined to find the last known gas giant

SOME TIME ago, I found myself in need of a technical paper in my office. Now my office, you should know, is best characterized as being continually in a state of well-constrained chaos. Which is to say that most objects in my office have a logical and stable place, but a small fraction exist in a kind of quantum haze in which their exact location cannot be identified (or, I suspect, even defined) until I have actually laid eyes on them. Read the essay…

About Astronomical Games

WHEN I first started writing this column, I had a very short introductory paragraph, in which I more or less apologized in advance for what I expected would be a short run:

Astronomical Games is a monthly (or so) column in which I'll talk about whatever astronomical topic I want, but with at least a modicum of coherence. I don't intend this to go on and on—I'd be happy if it went 12 columns—but at the end, I hope to have a nice little collection of astronomy discussions unlikely to be found quite in this form anywhere else.

Well, I've now written over thirty essays, and I don't think I will be happy if I just stop now. It's simply too much fun. A few of these essays—in particular the ones dealing with the science of astronomy, rather than the practical amateur aspects—have been published in Strange Horizons, which has a weekly article section. Strange Horizons is a science-fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction magazine, and most of its articles deal with the art of writing fiction. I feel a bit proud that a few astronomy science essays have worked their way into the sequence.

These essays originally grew out of my experiences explaining various astronomical concepts to the public, especially at the star parties held on the grounds of the Griffith Park Observatory by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. It bothered me that I was explaining the same things over and over again—not because I dislike repeating myself (I don't, believe me!), but because it was clear, over time, that something in my little talks was getting through to people, and it was a shame that I wasn't putting these down on paper, or on the Web. At the same time, I was rethinking my original astronomy web site, which was initially a collection of tips and facts for beginners. It occurred to me to combine the two things, and the end result is the Astronomical Games series.

There is another reason that I write these essays, other than just to record some useful explanations. I grew up reading collections of Isaac Asimov's science essays in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the debt I owe to him is pretty obvious. What he always impressed upon me was the importance of understanding not only the facts of science, but the method behind it. Most astronomy books will tell you that a star the size of our Sun will balloon up to a red giant in old age. But how do we know that? What was the scientific line of reasoning that led to that conclusion? (Read "One Little Star" to find out.)

But what good is all that? Don't we have enough stuff to remember, without having also to remember how we came to know the stuff we have to remember? The implicit objection, of course, is that we have a limited amount of space in our heads, and we don't want to waste it on non-essential matters. Well, that's simply wrong. My experience is that if you only work on remembering the essential things, then your head is limited to them, but if you open it up to the story behind those things, then your head makes room for that, too. And knowing the story helps, rather than hinders.

Then, also, people are more and more all too willing to fall under the spell of alternative ways to the truth. The hucksters selling this pablum—whether for profit or because they feel a pathetic need to save people from themselves—are no dummies. In order to advance their agenda, it is necessary first to overcome the objections of mainstream science, because if mainstream science is right, then there is no crisis (or whatever impending doom is advertised today). So, if you are an advocate of mainstream science, you can expect to get pounded for detail after excruciating detail of why you think such-and-such a theory holds water. And if you cannot deliver, on the spot, a full defense of your understanding, you will be told that you have two choices: either recant, or be counted amongst the sheep who repeat mindlessly what they have been taught. Of course, they never subject their own understanding to that level of scrutiny.

What is missing is an understanding of the scientific process. Science, to the conspiracy theorists, is a collection of unfounded suppositions, which are typically foisted by the government upon the defenseless public. And all scientists, to the last one, are in on it, so they say. But if you know the history of science, if you comprehend that scientists often proceed slowly, yes, and haltingly, but in the end for their own understanding, then you will see also that the conspiracy theorists are the real conspirators. They are the ones who ask you only to believe what they say, who try to overwhelm and convince with threats and invective, rather than reason.

And if my explanations help you to see that, in any way, then I am infinitely gratified, and it will all have been worth it.

Past Essays

Copyright (c) 1999–2014 Brian Tung