Friday, August 05, 2011

An Albireo Question

“This telescope does help us see.”

Even a small telescope separates
Albireo into its components.

Any apochromatic refractor
and any reflector shows the colors—
the beautiful blazing orange large star
and the equally beautiful blue star
that’s smaller and really robin’s egg blue.

Any good telescope helps us see this.

However, no matter how much we spend,
even if we spend a billion dollars,
no telescope will ever help us know
if these two stars are a real double star,
two stars bound by gravity, orbiting
each other as a two-body system,
or just two stars on the same line-of-sight
when viewed from the perspective of the Earth
so that they just appear near each other.

When little science can do everything
big science can, is big science ‘science’?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

That beautiful picture of Albireo is a little misleading. In terms of color, Albireo really does look like that through a good telescope, two blazing, colorful stars. (That photo is from the Melton Memorial Observatory.) But all stars to the naked eye—even when the naked eye is helped by a telescope—all stars are only point sources of light. They are not perceived as disks. When you photograph a star, however, the bright light washes out a disk on the film or sensor, so stars in photographs often appear as disks, just like planets do. It makes for an impressive photo, but it is not “real.”

It’s an interesting issue anyone involved with astronomical imaging bumps up against all the time. Do you attempt to create an image that approximates “normal” human visual perceptions, or do you create something that attempts to recreate the beauty and majesty that a visual scene inspires?

It’s an interesting issue and I’ve talked about it before (for instance in Saturn and Titan, And The Pleiades and in Astronomy And Impressionism and some other posts) and I’ll probably talk about it again.

But for today’s post I wanted to ask a whole different kind of question.

In many different countries, billions and billions of dollars are spent on various “big science” projects. But it is intriguing to ask if big science is really doing anything worthwhile.

There is the simple observation I raised in today’s post. Some things just can’t be learned by throwing money at them.

And there is an equally fundamental issue. “Truth” is not about big and small. “Important” is not about big and small. Good science is just about good science.

Right now there are three issues of profound importance happening in three different sciences.

In physics scientists are trying to characterize and understand the consequences of nuclear decay rates that are not constant.

In astronomy scientists are trying to understand how volatile material can still be present in the asteroid belt after billions of years.

In paleontology scientists are trying to understand how soft tissues can be present in fossil finds when it is impossible for proteins and such to persist for millions of years.

These are three issues that impact each other because they all can help us understand the concept of so-called deep time, and our place in the cosmos in the most basic way.

But these three issues aren’t really “big science” issues. They don’t require billions of dollars to investigate. They are not politically and socially “impressive” issues to investigate.

But they are almost certainly the most important scientific issues anyone in the current world can devote resources to investigating.

If “big science” distracts from issues like these, is big science really science? Or is big science really politics? Or social engineering? Or some kind of strange combination of the two?

Little observations like today’s post can lead directly to “big philosophy” questions like this.

I’ll be talking more about this stuff in the future.

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