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How Good An Astronomer Do You Need?

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Posted by Richard Ruquist on April 8, 2005 12:08:13 UTC

Dear Spencer,

I do not have a degree in astronomy. So I cannot claim to be an astronomer. My PhD from Harvard is in applied physics, specifically the physics of light. But I have performed research in solar astronomy.

However, even in this case my specialty was the removal of the distortion due to atmospheric turbulence using adaptive optics. Astronomy is more about telescopes and instrument effectiveness than the stars. Although adaptive optics is a very efficient process for point objects like distant stars, under the usual atmospheric conditions; for a continuous object like the sun, the known techniques fail with normal amounts of atmospheric turbulence.

So solar astronomy works with adaptive optics only when adaptive optics are not really needed to get good images, a negative result. Very often analytic evidence that some process does not work is more easily derived than proof that a process will work. Usually such results are not published or even revealed to the sponsor if one desires continued funding. I made the revelation mistake and that was the end of my career in solar astronomy. Unless your reputation in science is very well established, you get black-balled for publishing negative results, especially if they kill a whole area of research.

It's much like whistle blowing. I doubt if a legitimate astronomer would ever reveal that. But that pretty much pervades all of science in the USA. As an aside I might mention that in the former USSR there was no problem publishing negative results. Funding would never be cut as the scientists there had so much political influence. As a result they invested much money in fields like propagation through turbulence that had no payoff. So the cut-throat aspect of USA funding is not necessarily a bad thing provided some one is willing to publish negative results. Good science requires courage.

I suggest that you make your request for an interview on the in the astronomy subforum. There seem to be many good astronomers that contribute to that forum. One might even agree to be interviewed within the context of the forum rather than off-forum by Email. That would be a "real" on-line interview.


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