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Pseudo-Science in Astronomy

The question of pseudo-science often has to be confronted by the astronomy community. At Yerkes there was a set of so-called "paradox" book shelves upstairs in the library annex, where letters and papers were kept that originated from authors with dubious or ill-conceived ideas. As a graduate student working for Struve, it was occasionally my job to respond to such an author, and of course I would route my reply through Struve to avoid any misunderstandings. Among the topics of discussion that I encountered, Einstein's relativity theory was the most common target of criticism, flat-earth and related theories abounded (this was before the advent of the Sputnik), and UFO (unidentified flying object) situations were sometimes described in such ambiguous fashion that they were difficult to visualize much less authenticate.

Similarly, at K.U., Storer or I would receive such manuscripts via the mail, but more frequently we would get phone calls asking about objects seen in the sky, especially optical phenomena such as sun-dogs or haloes (I kept a copy nearby of Minnaert's book Light and Color in the Open Air). Storer kept copies of such sightings, letters, manuscripts, etc., in his filing cabinet; I'm afraid that I was less systematic than he. Occasionally I would see something puzzling, for example, one evening after sunset I strolled out the front door of my home to look at the twilight sky (only the brightest stars were visible) and to my surprise saw what appeared to be an unusually bright star in the approximate position of the pole star. Soon I was surrounded by several neighbors asking me about the object, so I made a quick trip to the observatory where I pointed the six-inch refractor at the object: clearly visible was a high altitude balloon with the words "U.S.ARMY." Another twilight case was quite different: I received a request from an inmate at the state prison in Lansing, KS, for the exact time that twilight ended at a certain location on a certain day several months previously. The prisoner stated that in Kansas if a robbery is carried out during nighttime the penalty for the crime is greater than when carried out during daytime or twilight. He was trying to get his sentence moderated. So I made the necessary calculations and sent the results as requested to his attorney; I don't know how the judge reacted. I also remember that Dr. Storer was called to testify as an "expert witness" in a couple of law suits, but I don't know the details.

Now let us go on to another, and non-legal, case: one afternoon ( I was working away at my desk) Dr. Storer received a visitor who had written a book at least an inch thick recommending that the value of Pi (3.14159265...) be changed to the integer 3, and wanted an evaluation of his concept. Storer accepted the challenge to convince the individual that such a change would not be feasible, and spent some time in the process (I had other things to do! and disappeared somewhere, but the two, plus a student, were still at it when I returned later); perhaps, though, Storer succeeded thereby in suppressing a best seller. And while speaking of best sellers, Brook Sandford in his e-mail to me mentions the visit to K.U. of Immanual.Velikovsky, probably in 1965, who was the author of a best selling book called Worlds in Collision. I only vaguely recall this visit, but I do remember Otto Struve, during a lecture at Yerkes on comets, saying in no uncertain terms that the book wasn't worth reading, and would mislead the nonscientific readers. In recent years there has been a review of it in one of the books, Broca's Brain, by the late Carl Sagan. Brook further reports that although there was a sizeable audience who attended the Velikovsky talk, only Dr. Storer and Dr.Wiseman (physics) responded critically to the presentation. It must have taken a certain amount of bravery to interrupt the speaker, since no formal rebuttal time had been allotted. Brook further makes the point that scientists cannot afford to ignore those who, for whatever purpose, advocate such pseudo-science, and that this lack of response is one of the important factors contributing to the "dumbing down" of education in America. It's a rough road to respond regularly to those who stretch the truth, and most scientists just don't have the time to do a thorough job; if Velikovsky were alive today, I can imagine his publishing an updated version of his book including photos of the Shoemaker-Levy comet's collision with Jupiter and saying "I told you so."

I also remember Dr.J.A.Hynek's visit to K.U. to give a lecture about UFO's. He was an astronomer from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and on occasion worked for the armed forces to investigate sightings. We talked together at some length; I'm convinced that he was always trying to be rigorous yet open minded. But the nature of this subject is such that there is a paucity of data, which in turn spawns controversy, and too often he would encounter emotionalism rather than the desire to acquire truth. Hynek wrote a book about many of the UFO cases he had investigated, but admitted that there were some that he couldn't explain. However such an admission doesn't imply the existence of a reconnaissance team of aliens.

In my own situation as a teacher I've been approached by well meaning parents who tactfully would enquire whether astronomy was being taught `properly' to their children at K.U., the implication being that "creationism" should be given equal weight to "evolution." I would respond that one of the competing theories about the origin of the universe was the so-called "big bang" theory, and what could be more creative than that? However, I was careful to explain that we astronomers at K.U. did not teach religion, nor atheism, that (in my opinion) science could be looked upon as the study of how God arranges and manages things in this universe, and furthermore the Bible and other Holy Books are not texts in science.