Thursday, September 15, 2005

Astronomy Ethics

Clay Bennett, The Christian Science Monitor

As mentioned in the last post, a huge ethical swarm is swirling around astronomy right now, centered on the recent discovery of large objects (maybe even planets) in the outer reaches of our Solar System. The issue is fairly complex, and I'll let the NY Times article speak for itself.

However, an interesting point is raised on when data should be released. Did the american team "hide" their discovery? Well, yes and no. They knew they had found a new object far out in the solar system, and from its brightness they knew it was quite big. So the find was very interesting, and lots of astronomers would be chomping at the bit to explore it. Understandably, the discoverers wanted to wait before announcing their find so that they could do some of the most obvious follow-up work themselves.

While this sounds selfish, I don't personally feel that it is selfish or unethical. Too many times I have seen press releases on discoveries that a little basic follow-up work found to be completely wrong or completely misinterpreted. Therefore I think it is scientifically responsible to do the first bit of follow-up work yourself, as long as, once you are confident in your find, you make appropriate announcements.

Currently I am working on several research projects with results that other astronomers will (hopefully!) find interesting, but I have not yet announced them. I want to make sure that I haven't made a big mistake first. I want to be correct as well as first. And these galaxies and planets will be around for thousands of years for further study. So am I being selfish or just responsible? I'll leave that up to you.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:47 AM

    I think the ethical import of such questions is vanishingly small as it's difficult to see what consequences exist for anyone. Whether or not astronomers reveal such information scarcely affects anyone (unlike, say, decisions in medicine). For more discussion see the book LEGENDS IN THEIR OWN TIME: A CENTURY OF AMERICAN PHYSICAL SCIENTISTS by Anthony Serafini