September/October 2004 Table of Contents
of J. White
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.
led to what may be the most embarrassingly famous wrong predictions
in the history of science.
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.
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
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.
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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