Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Questions and answers with Martin Harwit

10 October 2014
In his latest book, the distinguished scientist and former director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum explores the societal forces that have shaped astronomy.

Martin Harwit was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1931 and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, and in New York City. He received his PhD in physics from MIT. Since 1961 Harwit has spent the majority of his career at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he is now a professor emeritus of astronomy. In 1985 he cofounded Cornell’s program in the history and philosophy of science and technology. And from 1987 to 1995, he directed the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Martin Harwit

Martin Harwit

Harwit’s research publications have covered star and galaxy formation, interplanetary dust, IR astronomy techniques, and other topics. He has written several books on the science and history of his field, including the textbook Astrophysical Concepts (4th edition, Springer, 1973) and the epistemology Cosmic Discovery: The Search, Scope and Heritage of Astronomy (Basic Books, 1981).

In Search of the True Universe: The Tools, Shaping, and Cost of Cosmological Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2013) is Harwit’s most recent book. According to astrophysicist Rebecca Oppenheimer, who reviewed it in this month’s issue of Physics Today, the book “delves into what scientists actually do under the constraints of their own hopes and biases, the political climate, funding pressures, and just plain logistics for complex experiments.”

Physics Today recently caught up with Harwit to discuss In Search of the True Universe.

PT: What motivated you to write this book?

Harwit: I am curious about how things work. That’s probably why I became an astrophysicist. Around the mid 1980s it struck me that something was missing in astronomy. As scientists, we place great stock on studying the cosmos with ever more powerful telescopes, instrumentation, and data processing systems [that] we test and calibrate under a wide range of conditions to ensure that the data we obtain are reliable and fully understood.

The process we understand and calibrate least is how we astrophysicists function. On the one hand, we are convinced that we faithfully reveal the true nature of the universe. On the other, the history of our field shows that, time and again, we abruptly change course with consequences that reverberate throughout our field.

Why this happens is fairly clear. We work within a larger governmental and industrial system that often offers us easy ways forward with tools and funding it may provide, often free of charge. This may appear obvious, but the mythos of science as a higher calling makes it difficult for us to admit that the results we publish may be affected by the sources that fund our work.

PT: How is this book different from Cosmic Discovery?

Harwit: When I wrote Cosmic Discovery, I wanted to dispel two mystiques. The first was that advances in astrophysics came about as a result of theoretical insight; the second was that further advances would require the building of ever-larger optical telescopes. The only way I could show that neither was relevant was to document the [often] surprising discoveries brought about by small radio, infrared, x-ray, and gamma-ray telescopes. Neither theory nor large optical telescopes had delivered anything like these novel technologies.

In Search of the True Universe asks a quite different question: “How does our understanding of the Universe advance?” Once we discover the existence of quasars, or pulsars, or gamma-ray bursts, how do we determine the physical processes at work?

The book’s subtitle indicates the trace I follow. Society can only afford limited expenditures on astronomy, which yields few immediate benefits. As a result, our community imports most of its theoretical and observational tools from elsewhere—physics, industry, the military. These tools shape our thinking, but usually were designed to solve practical problems at low cost. They may be inadequate for tackling more esoteric questions involving dark matter or dark energy, neither of which is of obvious interest to industry or the military. We then have to ask, “Where will we find the tools and funding to study these esoteric topics?”

PT: What are the political, economic, and institutional challenges facing the field over the next decade?

Harwit: The primary challenges are to understand that as long as children go hungry or lack shelter and good schools, society will have limited means for advancing astronomy. We astronomers will need to find novel ways of tackling problems unlikely to promise benefits to society.

PT: So what novel approaches would you suggest?

Harwit: Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, shed new light on the sociology and economics of projects that promise little profit as industrial, medical, or agricultural ventures but deal with gains from which society as a whole might benefit. Such projects require the donation of time, labor, or financial support from a collection of individuals, who, taken as a group, might benefit even when no individual among them could make money [from the venture] on his own. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is one example of a project that can be supported by the economics of the commons, sometimes called crowdsourcing. Wikipedia is another; it is supported by articles written or refereed by individuals, often highly skilled experts, free of charge, and by small and large financial contributions from others worldwide.

PT: Do you discuss the nature and extent of international cooperation of the field in your book?

Harwit: I do discuss international cooperation, and the limits imposed by the dependence of US astronomy on military technologies. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations prohibit the sharing of technologies that the military considers essential to national security but has permitted US astronomers to use. Often the need for sharing these tools gets in the way of international collaborations. The problem is currently being addressed, through negotiations on an individual basis. But finding a global balance between national security and open scientific discourse is difficult. A simple formula still eludes us.

PT: The Physics Today book review mentions your use of network theory in a discussion of how areas of research evolve. Can you briefly describe how and why you employed that approach?

Harwit: Most astronomers are experts in just their narrow research area. Almost everything else we accept on faith, something that the mythology of science says we must never do.  Yet, we simply can’t know everything. One aspect of network theory presents this “acceptance on faith” as a cascade that sets in when a critical number of trusted colleagues accept a scientific theory. Network theory also models how agreement on the funding of new projects can be reached in discussions between astronomers and government officials—and how and why negotiations fail if governmental processes are not well understood.

Another aspect of network theory models the gradual dissolution of astrophysics as new subdisciplines emerge, start their own dedicated journals, develop their own dedicated terminologies, and lose touch. Remedies then need to be found. New journals may need to be established to provide renewed links based on mutually acceptable language.

PT: What are you currently reading?

Harwit: Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (50th anniversary edition, Princeton University Press, 2003). By depicting scenes and events from the times of Homer, the Old Testament, Thucydides, Cervantes, and Virginia Woolf, Auerbach illustrates how descriptive language has developed over time. I am intrigued by similar trends in the evolution of scientific language and writing as we struggle to develop new ways of viewing and depicting the universe.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal