Aaron's Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions I most commonly get,
with attempts at brief and flippant answers.
I should eventually get around to more extended information
on these subjects.
If you have more questions,
Any opinions expressed here are not endorsed by the University of California nor by the author.
- What's the point of doing astronomy?
What's the point of art, or sports, or history, or fine dining??
Although not necessary for survival, these activities are part of what makes us human.
There are plenty of people who are entranced by the spectacular images and astounding findings returned by
modern astronomical research, and who deem it worth the expense of a few tax dollars.
From a utilitarian perspective, pure scientific research is in general essential because of the inevitable
profits of increasing our knowledge of the entire world around us --
with astronomy being of course the most valuable since it covers the entire universe outside of our
own tiny planet!
There are many regions of the universe that are suited for remote "experiments" into fundamental physics that
could never be carried out on Earth,
and furthermore the extraterrestrial environment
can directly affect us, through solar flares, asteroid impacts, supernova explosions, etc.
- What's this about "naked galaxies"?
They're galaxies whose missing mass is missing. Huh?
- Can I have a star named after me?
Yes, pay me $50 and I'll name it "Sucker".
Any offers you may have seen that claim you can have this done
You're better off just naming any star whatever you like,
as this will have as much legitimacy as paying for it. The only organisation with recognised
authority for naming celestial objects is the International Astronomical Union -
see their page on the subject.
Actually almost all stars and galaxies are given sparkling catalog names such as "BD +33 26 42".
The only exceptions are asteroids and comets; if you discover a comet, it is named after you,
and if you discover an asteroid, you can name it what you want (if in good taste).
Similarly, the advertisements for buying a plot of land on the Moon are not worth the paper they're
- Are we all going to be wiped out by an asteroid hitting the Earth?
Asteroids big enough to wipe out most life (e.g., the dinosaur-killer) come along only every
100 million years or so. But smaller ones are more common, and one large enough to destroy
a city comes along about every couple of centuries.
We already know of one asteroid,
that has a slight chance of hitting us in the year 2880,
and there are probably others that we don't yet know about.
There are various searches going on to identify any dangerous asteroids,
but at the current rate it will be decades before this work is complete.
In the meantime we're blind and powerless against potential impacts
that could obliterate millions of people.
The problem is that the searches are generally funded from
(puny) astronomical research budgets,
while this is arguably a global issue that should be
handled under the aegis of national defense.
The cost involved is approximately the same as building a luxury cruise ship.
For more info, see the
Horizon's "Averting Armageddon",
or the Near Earth Object centers in the
and the UK.
- Is there (intelligent extraterrestrial) life out there?
Without direct evidence to go on, we can only estimate the probabilities.
From what we know about the Universe (especially with the bounty of
discovered in the last decade), there are probably countless
Earthlike (habitable) worlds out there.
So the remaining crucial issues are:
- How likely is it for life to arise on habitable worlds?
- How likely is it for life to lead to intelligence (and contactable civilizations)?
- How long do contactable civilizations last?
I'm no expert in these issues,
but they seem to be still highly uncertain questions.
The only hard fact we have is that we've had no obvious contact with aliens yet.
If they're really out there, why haven't we heard from them?
So what do you think?
No one is more qualified than anyone else to answer this,
and those who with strong ideas about it are actually taking it on faith.
Also, if they're out there, do we really want to know?
Look at the history of contact between civilizations on our own planet.
When one of them is more technologically or culturally "advanced" than the other,
the weaker culture invariably ends up destroyed or almost entirely losing its
own identity. This happens regardless of motivations.
Statistically speaking, any aliens that we come into contact with are likely to be
unfathomably more advanced than us:
what do we really expect to happen in such a case?
Information about xenobiology can be found at
Astrobiology at NASA,
and about the "Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence" (from its proponents)
at the SETI Institute.
- How do you reconcile your science and faith?
The scientific and Christian worldviews are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, the modern scientific method was arguably birthed by Judeo-Christian concepts:
- The world around us is real, and facts about it may be known.
- Nature is not divine, and thus may be manipulated and experimented on.
- God and his creation are orderly, and thus we can seek to understand the world's workings -- according to linear relations of cause and effect.
- The universe is contingent: its form was God's free choice,
and thus its properties cannot be deduced from any "first principles",
but must be discovered empiricially -
in contrast to the ancient Greek philosophical approach.
Many of the founders of modern science were men of Christian faith whose
advances where informed by their theology,
Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton,
Kelvin, Faraday, and Maxwell.
My own field is no anathema to spiritual perspectives,
and I know of over one hundred
Christian professional astronomers.
Some key founders of modern astronomy (Galileo) and modern cosmology (Lemaitre, a Catholic
priest) were explicitly comfortable with both their science and their faith.
The heavens are reknowned for their inspirational beauty and grandeur,
but it is equally marvelous that the world functions according to
patterns intelligible to us.
What's more, it has more recently been realized how necessary
these patterns are for us.
As we've uncovered many of the fundamental laws of physics, constants of nature, and
amounts of matter and energy in the universe, we've discovered that they appear to be
amazingly well balanced for the existence of life such as ours.
This is well known in cosmological circles as the "fine-tuning problem"
(now more widely appreciated after Hawking & Mlodinow's "The Grand Design"),
and in fact there is considerable
research today devoted to it --
often with the thought to explain it away through the existence of infinite parallel universes.
We may one day discover that this is indeed the case,
but in the end the question is the same,
why does the Universe (or Multiverse) exist at all?
Many would agree that the natural world points
to a mystical purpose and order to the cosmos,
and the vast majority of our planet's population perceive
a spiritual or supernatural element to the world,
but what about the more specific claims of Christianity?
These are based on the idea that the God who
has gone to the effort of making a universe suitable for us
also cares enough to be involved with our lives and history --
with his thoughts to us conveyed in the writings of the
and ultimately his contact with us becoming intensely personal
with the sending of Jesus Christ into our world.
Naïve interpretations of Genesis aside,
this story is supported by the historical record and
the experiences of many people today and throughout history.
For resources related to these issues, see
Christians in Science (UK) and the
American Scientific Affiliation (US).
Additional material may be found on
interesting quotes here.
- What is your academic geneology?
- Demetrios Kydones
- Georgios Plethon Gemistos, 1380, 1393
- Basilios Bessarion, Mystras, 1436
- Johannes Argyropoulos, Th.D., Universita di Padova, 1444
- Jacques Lefevre d'Étaples, M.A. Université de Paris / Accademia Romana, 1480
- Melchior Wolmar, M.A. Université de Paris, 1528
- Theodorus Beza, J.D. Université d'Orléans, 1534, 1539
- Antonius Thysius, Th.D. Université de Geneve 1585, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg 1589
- Arnold Senguerdius, Th.D. Universiteit Leiden, 1630
- Wolferd Senguerdius, Ph.D. Athenaeum Ullustre Amsterdam, 1666, Universiteit Leiden, 1667
- Herman Boerhaave, Ph.D. Universiteit Leiden, 1690, M.D. Universiteit Harderwijk, 1693
- Gerard van Swieten, M.D. Universiteit Leiden, 1725
- Anton von Störck, M.D. Universität Wien, 1757
- Joseph Barth, M.D. Universität Wien, 1772
- Georg J. Beer, M.D. Universität Wien, 1786
- William McKenzie, M.D. Universität Wien, 1818
- Thomas W. Jones, Imperial College
- Thomas Huxley
- Micheal Foster
- John Langley
- Walter M. Fletcher, Sc.D. University of Cambridge, 1904
- Archibald V. Hill, Ph.D. Cambridge University, 1909, Nobel Prizewinner 1922
- Ralph H. Fowler, Ph.D. Cambridge University, 1915
- Paul A. M. Dirac, Ph.D. Cambridge University, 1926, Nobel Prizewinner 1933
- Dennis W. Sciama, Ph.D. Cambridge University, 1953
- Sir Martin J. Rees, Ph.D. Cambridge University, 1967
- Roger D. Blandford, Ph.D. Cambridge University, 1974
- Christopher S. Kochanek, Ph.D. California Institute of Technology, 1989
- Aaron J. Romanowsky, Ph.D. Harvard University, 1999
Last updated 11 September 2010.