Lyric (cosmicwonder) wrote in astronomy101,

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Post World War II Astronomy

Hi Everyone,

I'm applying to graduate programs in the history of science and would appreciate some advice. I'm interested in studying post World War II astronomy, especially to see its interaction with American culture - as can be seen in the space age architecture and science fiction.

In addition to my research proposal, I also need to signify why studying this time period and astronomy is so important. Just from my recent knowledge of astronomy, I'm working on a theory that astronomy differs from other sciences in that we don't have direct contact with the objects being studied and thus, much is theoretical. Because we apply knowledge gained from observations on and from Earth, the universe is really shaped by our thoughts, it is quite possible that it isn't the universe that actually exists.

I'm looking for instances in astronomy after World War II where astronomers assummed something about an object or concept which was refuted by a later discovery. Do you have any examples?

If you can't think of anything, I would appreciate advice on why you think post World War II astronomy is important to study.

Thank you!

Cross-posted to astronomy.
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1) Discovery by Voyager missions of rings around ALL the gas giants, not just Jupiter. [1970s-1980s]

2) Redefinition of Pluto as a dwarf planet after the discovery of multiple Kuiper Belt Objects. (Asteroid / dwarf planet Ceres had a similar story, but much earlier.) [2006 I think]

3) The expansion of the universe not only isn't slowing down, it's actually speeding up; the Universe will end not in the Big Crunch or even Heat Death, but in the Big Rip. [~1998]

4) Neptune's Great Blue Spot was discovered by the Voyagers and assumed to be similar in duration to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, but Hubble now says it's no longer there. [1989, 1994]

There's probably a lot more subtle things that were corrected by missions to the Moon and various planets. The big thing that makes post WW2 astronomy history important is our increasing level of technology - missions to planets, better Earth-based telescopes, and the possibility of space-based telescopes. I definitely think the Hubble has significantly impacted society - I joke all the time that even if Hubble never took another picture astronomers have to keep pushing to repair it, because when it comes down the public will never fund another astronomy mission again. The Spitzer Space Telescope is in the process of making as many dramatic findings than Hubble, but I don't know a single layperson who's ever heard of it.

As an astronomer myself, I don't feel that astronomy lacks "direct contact" more than many other fields. Paleontology - we'll *never* be able to see what color dinosaurs were, or watch them hunting. Sure we have bones, but we can't see how they evolved. We rely heavily on indirect evidence there. Nuclear/sub-atomic physics - electron microscopes allow us to see atoms, but we cannot see electrons, let along quarks or pi mesons or neutrinos.

I would instead categorize astronomy as an "observational" science rather than an "experimental" one, that is, we observe what happens naturally rather than being able to manipulate the physical situation. This frequently happens in the life sciences as well, in aspects of fields such as epidemiology (you can't infect a population with a disease), behavioral biology (you want to study the animals in the field), ecology (including weather and climate), and even the social sciences - sociology, psychology, and anthropology (you cannot change an entire culture, and we can't ethically perform certain experiments upon people).

I'd be curious to see what you do in the end with this. :)
Thank you so much for your help! I'll let you know of the results.