Astronomy and “Meta-Astronomy”: An Allegory

My blog is about astronomy and “meta-astronomy.” By the latter I mean the stuff that isn’t strictly astronomy research but is necessary for, or relevant to, its practice. I think both astronomy and meta-astronomy are appropriate topics for journals, talks, conferences, blogs, and research, especially since the line between them is not sharp. Here is an allegory I thought of this morning to illustrate this point.

This story is pure fiction. The allegory is purposeful, but literal similarities to real people, events, and fields of study—while perhaps not entirely coincidental—are not intentional or relevant.

Joe is an exoplanet astronomer at Research Center. Like many exoplanetary astronomers, his PhD thesis was on planetary science, which gave him a firm foundation for studying exoplanets, their composition, internal structure, and their potential habitability.

He goes to an internal departmental lunch talk by Diamond. Diamond is another exoplanet astronomer at Research Center. Like many exoplanetary astronomers, Diamond’s PhD thesis was in stellar astronomy. Her talk is about the complications of deriving exoplanetary properties from observations: starspots, convection models, mixing length assumptions, and photometric errors.

On the way back to his office, Joe and another colleague with a planetary science background, Jack, banter about how it feels to attend these “stars” talks: they agree that they appreciate stellar astronomy is important for their work, and that they should know that stuff better than they do, but they’re glad to get back to their offices so they can focus on their part of the science.

Joe is organizing a conference on exoplanets focusing on exoplanets’ composition, internal structure, and habitability. It’s going to be an important meeting where exciting new results will be presented and discussed for the first time, and he wants the best exoplanet astronomers to attend so it will be maximally successful.

He heads over to Diamond’s office and asks if she will please attend, since she is one of the best exoplanet scientists. She points out that all of the planned sessions titles contain geology jargon, and there don’t seem to be any talks about stars. Perhaps she could recommend some speakers for a panel on that?

Joe explains that the success of the conference will depend on it staying focused on its primary topic, and he doesn’t want to “dilute” the science with “stars stuff.” She points out that “stars stuff” is actually very relevant to exoplanets. Joe hastily agrees, but reemphasizes that he wants *this* conference to stay focused on geophysical aspects of planets. Will she please attend?

Diamond points out that she has limited time and can’t accept every conference invitation. She says it looks like Joe is giving only lip service to the relevance of stellar astronomy to his work, and that his actions indicate he doesn’t really think it’s very important at all. She points out that the “focus” of his conference excludes much of what she spends much of her professional time thinking about. Disappointed, Joe says thanks and goes back to his office.

He is annoyed. He would like to work more closely with Diamond, since they are both exoplanet astronomers in the same department, and they generally get along well, but it seems like she wants to drag stars into every discussion. He wishes she could compartmentalize better.

Diamond is annoyed. Joe professes to want to work with her, but can’t seem to appreciate that stars are integral to her work. She finds many planetary scientists are like that: they seem to imagine that they can divorce planets from the stars they orbit. Of course, that’s true in a purely theoretical, pedantic sense: many planetary interiors are more-or-less insensitive to the most of the precise properties of the star they orbit. But in practice you can’t measure anything about those planets without observing the stars and knowing their properties. She finds Joe’s myopia on this point frustrating.

Back in his office, Joe is glad to be able to get back to work on his geophysics. He looks at his panels: his science organizing committee has done a good job of getting many of the best speakers and presenters, even though many people had to decline.

Diamond looks at the preliminary program of Joe’s conference. All of the panel speakers come from a planetary science background. She finds a single stellar astronomer on the registration list. She thinks about going to Joe’s office to point this out, but she’s had this conversation with him before. He’ll say that he tried to get stellar astronomers to attend—he even tried to get her to attend! But, he’ll say, they all declined, so what does she want him to do?

I hope my astronomer friends will not be like Joe. When a fellow astronomer tells you a subject you find to be “meta” is important to their work and needs to be part of your science, your conference, or your work, accept that, embrace that, and act on that. Don’t nod and then go on treating it as a tangent or a distraction to your work. And when you look at the composition of panels and find homogeneity, don’t let “they all declined” be an excuse. Ask “what is it about my panel that made only certain kinds of scientists end up on it?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *