Steven J. Dick’s Discovery and Classification in Astronomy

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Steven J. Dick’s Discovery and Classification in Astronomy

Post by mikemarotta »

(There seems to be no good place to put book reviews.)
Discovery and Classification in Astronomy: Controversy and Consensus by Steven J. Dick (Cambridge University Press, 2013), is a taxonomic history. Dick alludes to parallels in the development of biology and chemistry which he offers as more mature paradigms. The periodic table of elements allowed predictions. Astronomy has nothing like it. Biology still has controversies but it has millions of species to consider. Astronomy has fewer than 100, 82 by his count. In most cases, each discovery was a thing-in-itself until improved understanding (usually through controversy) revealed others of its kind.

The main narrative of 340 pages delivers a chronology by types from planets to quasars and then reviews the works and publications to reveal the patterns (Part IV) and the drivers of discovery (Part V). Part VI closes with The Meaning of Discovery.

This is more conceptual than a history of astronomy and astrophysics, and it is more concrete than a philosophy of science.

Having presented the facts, Dick then organizes them into a Three Kingdoms model: Planets, Stars, and Galaxies. It fits on two landscape pages as Appendix 1. Appendix 2 “Astronomical Discoveries and Their Extended Structure” is a detailed tabulation of 82 objects, from Novae through Proto-Galactic Clouds, identifying the discoverer and citing the pre-discoveries.

Pre-discovery of the Sun, Moon, and stars begins with our hominid ancestors. Uranus and Neptune had pre-discovery phases because they were spotted and recorded as stars before they were identified as planets. Uranus was recorded (as a star) by British Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed six times in 1690. Galileo recorded Neptune (as a star) on December 28, 1612, and January 27, 1613. When William Herschel identified it as a planet, there was some controversy between 1781 and 1783 but the matter was soon settled. Pluto, on the other hand, stands as a counter-example. It had no pre-discovery phase. When discovered, it was accepted as a planet. Only later did controversy change its classification and a new consensus evolve. The catalyst for that change was understanding, and the process was an evolution.

The stars were even less tractable and nebulae all the more difficult to isolate into classes. At first astronomers expected that better telescopes would resolve all nebulae into fields of stars. That did happen with some. Others were found to be huge volumes of gas or dust that absorb or reflect or emit radiation. Still others eventually were identified as types of galaxies, again, with some controversies that are not yet entirely settled.
Michael E. Marotta
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