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Laboratory Astrophysics: An Oxymoron No More

Mercury Autumn 2009 Table of Contents


The cosmos is nature's ultimate physics laboratory.

Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team.

by Bruce Partridge

I was asked to begin by framing the discussion, and I propose to do so by starting with a two-word oxymoron, an oxymoron that for millennia might have seemed blasphemous as well as puzzling. It is this: "laboratory astrophysics." This is the branch of astronomy that attempts to replicate astronomical processes in the laboratory.

To anyone who believes, as most of Galileo's contemporaries did, that the heavens are governed by completely different physical laws from mundane, earthly events, the idea of "laboratory astrophysics" would make no sense. Indeed, given that the mechanics of the heavens were supposedly perfect and divine, it would even smell of blasphemy.

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