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No. 56: Mar-Apr 1988

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How To Be Unfamous In Astronomy

When Sky and Telescope devotes almost five full pages to a new book, you may be sure that something important has happened. The book is H. Arp's Quasars, Redshifts, and Controversies.

We know that we have perhaps overplayed the shakiness of the redshiftdistance hypothesis and the fizzling of the Big Bang, but our whole cosmological outlook is at stake. Now, rather than review again the scientific pros and cons (you can read Arp's book for that), we will be content here with a few comments about how science has failed to work well in Arp's case.

G. Burbidge, who reviews the book, recalls how the politics of science works in the following quotation:

"...the important factors for a successful career are your sponsors (where and with whom did you get your Ph.D); field of research (popular or unpopular); and diplomatic skills (always speak quietly with great conviction, and, when in doubt, agree with the wisest person present, who by definition must come from one of the the very few [recognized] institutions). Look upon new ideas with great disapproval and never discover a phenomenon for which no explanation exists, and certainly not one for which an explanation within the framework of known physics does not appear to be possible."

Arp played this game for 29 years at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. He compiled the marvelous Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies, and was once rated among the top 20 astronomers. But he kept finding Anomalies -- apparently-associated celestial objects with different redshifts. More and more he began to believe and (perhaps recklessly) assert that some redshifts are not cosmological; that is, a measure of recessional velocity and distance. Soon, his rating dropped from the "upper 20" to "under 200". The final (and disgraceful) blow came about four years ago, when he received an unsigned letter stating that his work was without value and that he could have no more telescope time! Arp now lives in West Germany. (Burbidge, Geoffrey; "Quasars, Redshifts, and Controversies," Sky and Telescope, 75:38, 1988.)

Comment. More political details may be found in Arp's book. Is Arp a martyrin-the-making? You bet he is! Burbidge, an admitted Arp sympathizer, suggests that the "Arp Effect" is only the tip of the iceberg. In closing his review, he invokes the ghost of Alfred Wegener, who had the temerity to suggest that continents could drift.

From Science Frontiers #56, MAR-APR 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss