Essential Science – Part 1

June 1, 2007 — Leave a comment

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Why is my subject of research worthy of study?

This is a question I am going to try and answer in the next week. The science of star formation is something which involves money, time and great effort. Is that expenditure by the taxpayer, the telescope operators and even the scientists and themselves worthwhile?

I want to ask myself this for two very good reasons. The first is that if I cannot justify to myself why star formation is a worthy pursuit then why am I doing my PhD? Secondly, there is a competition and I can win £1000. So lets get cracking.

To begin with I need to clear about what I mean by star formation. Wikipedia’s description is found below and is what i would generally agree with. I assume by its presence on Wikipedia that this statement is generally accepted as it has remained unedited for some time.

As a branch of astrophysics, star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds as precursors to the star formation process and the study of early type stars and planet formation as its immediate products. Star formation theory, as well as accounting for the formation of a single star, must also account for the statistics of binary stars and the initial mass function.

Initially I thought about tackling this by comparing my area of research to other disciplines, such as a few questionable fields in sociology or the study of mating habits of unknown beetles. Alas this approach won’t hold water ultimately since the act of placing star formation on some fictional scale of importance still doesn’t answer the direct challenge of proving its value to the world.

The next logical place to argue from is the statement that star formation theory benefits the word at large. This seems more promising. If we understand where stars (and thereby planets) come from then we understand where our own Sun and the Earth have come from. Everybody (mostly) accepts that the planet didn’t just pop into existence for our benefit. The process by which the solar system, including the building blocks of life, came about 5 billion years ago is knowledge that would be fundamental to our understanding of our place in the world.

Even I have to say that what I have just said sounds a bit dreamy. The astronomers I have met are not in general on a soulful quest to understand their place in the cosmos. not the ones I have so far encountered. But when I think about it, I guess I am. My interest in astronomy started with back garden stargazing, which I enjoyed because it let me think about my place in world I didn’t understand. Understanding the distances to Mizar and Alcor and the radius of the Sun and the sheer number of galaxies in the sky let me in on a really good secret: we are very very small. Its a secret i still think most people haven’t been let in on.

I have always been a bit of a thinker. By that I don’t mean that I have always been academic, but rather that I like to think about life, the universe and things like that. I ponder God and more recently the lack of it over cups of tea and this doesn’t seem to be regular. So if I am unusual in this respect then surely this cannot be the reason that star formation is worthy of any of society’s time and energy. To simply please someone’s personal quest to understand his place in reality is no reason to spend millions of pounds.
Could it be that my own interest in star formation and the motives for it are not unusual? I have encountered a great deal of bravado in the astronomical community, which I did not expect. Perhaps many of the people I meet are socially unwilling to proffer any personal reasons for their interest in astronomy. It does seem uncharacteristic of those i have met so far to get emotional about their research. In fact scientific dispassion is almost encouraged. If it were the case that there were thousands of people who wanted to know for their own reasons, would that constitute worthiness? Maybe.

As I write, I come to the conclusion that ‘worth’ is based in my view on some kind of odd equation. Could it be that personal reward multiplied by persons rewarded is the value of something to society? If a thousand people want to know and will be pleased by knowing something that makes it worthwhile. If one person will live if we know something and die if we don’t then that too is worthy, hopefully more so. However this argument is so subjective it cannot possibly be the reason for studying star formation.

An argument from the basis of unknown benefits could be invoked for space studies in general. You could say that understanding star formation may not seem beneficial right now, but who knows what it may reap in the future! again this seems a very weak argument in the face of things such as cancer research or education and health institutions.

Anyway, i am no master of words so i will stop there for a while and come back with Part 2 at a later date. However I would very much like to hear from anyone with an opinion on this subject. If you study astronomy or another field which doesn’t seem obviously or directly like it helps humanity then how do you justify your work? This doesn’t just apply to the sciences. If you reviewed films for a living then are you really bettering the world? If you were the editor of Heat magazine, could you justify that as worthwhile?

Please feel free to comment. Why do any of us do anything? More specifically though why is astronomy beneficial to the world, and star formation in particular? Questions, questions, questions…

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