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Fingerprints from Rainbows  

Mercury, September/October 2004 Table of Contents

by Ben Bova

Courtesy of J. White

Astronomers are hunters, detectives who track down the elusive workings of nature. Their "suspects" and "witnesses" are the points of light in the sky that we call the stars. How do you interrogate a suspect that is light-years away from you? Even in the most powerful telescopes, all you can see of the stars are mere pinpoints of light. Telescopes allow us to see more stars, to peer deeper into the vast darkness. But each star remains a tiny pinpoint of light—except, of course, for the Sun.

This led to what may be the most embarrassingly famous wrong predictions in the history of science.

August Comte was one of the most influential French philosophers of the first half of the 19th century. He founded the philosophy of positivism, which holds that knowledge depends on information gained by experience, rather than dogma handed down by authority. He coined the term sociology for the study of human societies.

Comte held that there were limits to what we could know, limits set principally by the constraints on how much information we could gather. He thought that the chemical composition of the stars was a prime example of "unobtainable knowledge" because the stars were so distant that we could never get samples of their material to examine. We can never know what the stars are made of, Comte gloomily concluded in 1835:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are…necessarily denied to us… We shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition.

Never is a long time. And although the stars truly are stupendously far off, they send messengers to us: photons of light.

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