Astrophysics, the Impossible Science

Last week, Nobel Laureate Martinus Veltman gave a talk at the Simons Center. After the talk, a number of people asked him questions about several things he didn’t know much about, including supersymmetry and dark matter. After deflecting a few such questions, he proceeded to go on a brief rant against astrophysics, professing suspicion of the field’s inability to do experiments and making fun of an astrophysicist colleague’s imprecise data. The rant was a rather memorable feat of curmudgeonliness, and apparently typical Veltman behavior. It left several of my astrophysicist friends fuming. For my part, it inspired me to write a positive piece on astrophysics, highlighting something I don’t think is brought up enough.

The thing about astrophysics, see, is that astrophysics is impossible.

Imagine, if you will, an astrophysical object. As an example, picture a black hole swallowing a star.

Are you picturing it?

Now think about where you’re looking from. Chances are, you’re at some point up above the black hole, watching the star swirl around, seeing something like this:

Where are you in this situation? On a spaceship? Looking through a camera on some probe?

Astrophysicists don’t have spaceships that can go visit black holes. Even the longest-ranging probes have barely left the solar system. If an astrophysicist wants to study a black hole swallowing a star, they can’t just look at a view like that. Instead, they look at something like this:

The image on the right is an artist’s idea of what a black hole looks like. The three on the left? They’re what the astrophysicist actually sees. And even that is cleaned up a bit, the raw output can be even more opaque.

A black hole swallowing a star? Just a few blobs of light, pixels on screen. You can measure brightness and dimness, filter by color from gamma rays to radio waves, and watch how things change with time. You don’t even get a whole lot of pixels for distant objects. You can’t do experiments, either, you just have to wait for something interesting to happen and try to learn from the results.

It’s like staring at the static on a TV screen, day after day, looking for patterns, until you map out worlds and chart out new laws of physics and infer a space orders of magnitude larger than anything anyone’s ever experienced.

And naively, that’s just completely and utterly impossible.

And yet…and yet…and yet…it works!

Crazy people staring at a screen can’t successfully make predictions about what another part of the screen will look like. They can’t compare results and hone their findings. They can’t demonstrate principles (like General Relativity) that change technology here on Earth. Astrophysics builds on itself, discovery by discovery, in a way that can only be explained by accepting that it really does work (a theme that I’ve had occasion to harp on before).

Physics began with astrophysics. Trying to explain the motion of dots in a telescope and objects on the ground with the same rules led to everything we now know about the world. Astrophysics is hard, arguably impossible…but impossible or not, there are people who spend their lives successfully making it work.

1 thought on “Astrophysics, the Impossible Science

  1. sheabrowne

    As an astrophysicist (who also cares a lot about theory and experimental particle physics), I appreciate the defense! I must admit that, as an undergraduate getting into astronomy, I was turned off by the order of magnitude uncertainties in a lot of astrophysical quantities. I think that, in this era of precession cosmology and new technologies, things are beginning to change. Nice post!



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