Kinkazzo Burning
~ reflections & disquisitions
It takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow...

Astrophysics, the Universe, and Some Draughtsgodship


a Great Observatory view of the famous Sombrero galaxy using the Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer telescopes


A conference contribution by Dr Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize in Physics

(reposted from


Steven Weinberg

I have been asked to comment on whether the universe shows signs of having been designed. I don't see how it's possible to talk about this without having at least some vague idea of what a designer would be like. Any possible universe could be explained as the work of some sort of designer. Even a universe that is completely chaotic, without any laws or regularities at all, could be supposed to have been designed by an idiot, as Macbeth suggested.


The question that seems to me to be worth answering, and perhaps not impossible to answer, is whether the universe shows signs of having been designed by a deity more or less like those of traditional monotheistic religions --- not necessarily a figure from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but at least some sort of personality, some intelligence, who created the universe and has some special concern with life, in particular with human life. I expect that this is not the idea of a designer held by many here. You may tell me that you are thinking of something much more abstract, some cosmic spirit of order and harmony, as Einstein [check this blog for Albert] did. You are certainly free to think that way, but then I don't know why you use words like “designer” or “God,” except perhaps as a form of protective coloration. It would not surprise me to find that John Polkinghorne and I agree about what are the interesting questions; where we do disagree is in the answers.

It used to be obvious that the world was designed by some sort of intelligence. What else could account for fire and rain and lightning and earthquakes? Above all, the wonderful capabilities of living things seemed to point to a creator who had a special interest in life. Today we understand most of these things in terms of physical forces acting under impersonal laws. We don't yet know the most fundamental laws, and we can't work out all the consequences of the laws we do know. The human mind remains extraordinarily difficult to understand, but so is the weather. We can't predict whether it will rain one month from today, but we do know the rules that govern the rain, even though we can't always calculate their consequences. I see nothing about the human mind any more than about the weather that stands out as beyond the hope of understanding as a consequence of impersonal laws acting over billions of years.


There do not seem to be any exceptions to this natural order, any miracles. I have the impression that these days most theologians are embarrassed by talk of miracles, but the great monotheistic faiths are founded on miracle stories - the burning bush, the empty tomb, an angel dictating the Koran to Mohammed - and some of these faiths teach that miracles continue at the present day. The evidence for all these miracles seems to me to be considerably weaker than the evidence for cold fusion, and I don't believe in cold fusion. Above all, today we understand that even human beings are the result of natural selection acting over millions of years of breedings and eatings.

I'd guess that if we were to see the hand of the designer anywhere, it would be in the fundamental principles, the final laws of nature, the book of rules that govern all natural phenomena. We don't know the final laws yet, but as far as we have been able to see, they are utterly impersonal, and quite without any special role for life. Henri Bergson and Obi-Wan Kenobi are wrong: there is no life force. As Richard Feynman has said, when you look at the universe and understand its laws, “the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

True, when quantum mechanics was new, some physicists thought that it put humans back into the picture, because the principles of quantum mechanics describe what observers would find under various conditions. But, starting with the work of Hugh Everett 40 years ago, there has been a reinterpretation of quantum mechanics as the objective (and deterministic) unfolding of a wave function that describes the observer as well as the system being observed. This work is not completed, so I can't say that we have a satisfactory completely objective formulation of quantum mechanics, but I think we will have.


I have to admit that, even physicists go as far as they can go, when we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world, because we will still be left with the question “why?” Why this theory, rather than some other theory? For example, why is the world described by quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics is the one part of our present physics that is likely to survive in any future theory, but there is nothing logically inevitable about quantum mechanics; I can imagine a universe governed by Newtonian mechanics instead. So there seems to be an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate.

But religious theories of design have the same problem. Either you mean something definite by a God, a designer, or you don't. If you don't, then what are we talking about? If you do mean something definite by “God” or “design,” if for instance you believe in a God who is jealous, or loving, or intelligent, or whimsical, then you still must confront the question “why?” Your faith can leave you with no explanation why the universe is governed by that sort of God, rather than some other sort of God.

In this respect, it seems to me that physics is in a better position to give us a partly satisfying explanation of the world than religion can ever be, because although physicists won't be able to explain why the laws of nature are what they are and not something completely different, at least we may be able to explain why they are not slightly different. For instance, no one has been able to think of a logically consistent alternative to quantum mechanics that is only slightly different. Once you start trying to make small changes in quantum mechanics, you get into theories with negative probabilities or other logical absurdities. When you combine quantum mechanics with relativity its logical fragility increases. You find that unless you arrange the theory in just the right way you get nonsense, like effects preceding causes, or infinite probabilities. Religious theories, on the other hand, seem to be infinitely flexible, with nothing to prevent the invention of deities of any conceivable sort.


Now, it doesn't settle the matter for me to say that we cannot see the hand of a designer in what we know about the fundamental principles of science. It might be that, although these principles do not refer explicitly to life, much less human life, they are nevertheless craftily designed to bring it about.

Some physicists have argued that certain constants of nature have values that seem to have been mysteriously fine-tuned to just the values that allow for the possibility of life, in a way that could only be explained by the intervention of a designer with some special concern for life. I am not impressed with these supposed instances of fine-tuning. For instance, one of the most frequently quoted examples of fine-tuning has to do with the energy of a certain excited state of the carbon nucleus. The build-up in stars of elements necessary for life, like carbon and oxygen, depends on the carbon nucleus having an excited state at an energy within a narrow range, where in fact just such a state is found. The reason that it has to have this energy is to provide a way for carbon nuclei be formed in stars in collisions of helium nuclei with unstable beryllium nuclei, which is a necessary step in the build-up of all elements heavier than helium. But recent calculations show that, as has been long expected, without any fine tuning of the constants of nature one would in any case expect the carbon nucleus to have a state like an unstable molecule, consisting of a helium nucleus and a beryllium nucleus, which would naturally have an energy close to the values necessary for the synthesis of carbon and heavier elements.

There is one constant whose value does seem remarkably well adjusted in our favor. It is the energy density of empty space, also known as the cosmological constant. It could have any value, but from first principles one would guess that this constant should be very large - much too large to allow matter to clump together in the early universe, which is the first step in forming galaxies and stars and planets and people. It's too early to tell if this is a real problem, or if there is some fundamental principle that explains why the cosmological constant must be this small.

But even if there is no such principle, recent developments in cosmology [see below] offer the possibility of an explanation why the measured values of the cosmological constant and other physical constants are favorable for the appearance of intelligent life. Sidney Coleman has shown how quantum mechanical effects can lead to a picture of the wave function of the universe in which the wave function is the sum of many different terms, each term corresponding to a big (or little) bang in which what we call the constants of nature take all possible values. Also, as you have heard here from Alan Guth, in the `chaotic inflation' theories of Andre Linde and others our big bang is supposed to be just one episode in a much larger universe in which big bangs go off all the time, each with different values of the fundamental constants.

In any such picture, in which the universe contains many parts with different values for what we call the constants of nature, there would be no difficulty in understanding why these constants take values favorable to intelligent life. There would be a vast number of big bangs in which the constants of nature take values unfavorable for life, and much fewer where life is possible. You don't have to invoke a benevolent designer to explain why we are in one of the parts of the universe where life is possible. In all the other parts of the universe there is no one to raise the question.

To conclude that the constants of nature have been fine-tuned by a benevolent designer is like saying “Isn't it wonderful that God put us here on earth, where there's water and air and the surface gravity and temperature are so comfortable, rather than some horrid place, like Mercury or Pluto.” Where else in the solar system but on earth could we have evolved?

Reasoning like this is called “anthropic.” Sometimes it just amounts to an assertion that the laws of nature are what they are so that we can exist, without further explanation. This seems to me to be little more than mystical mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, if there really is a large number of worlds in which some constant takes different values, then the anthropic explanation of why in our world it takes values favorable for life is just common sense, like explaining why we live on the earth rather than Mercury or Pluto. The actual value of the cosmological constant, recently measured by observations of the motion of distant supernovas, is about what you would expect from this sort of argument; it is just about small enough to prevent it from interfering with the formation of galaxies and so on. But we don't yet know enough about physics to tell whether there are different parts of the universe in which what are usually called the constants of physics really do take different values. This is not a hopeless question; we will be able to answer it when we know more about the quantum theory of gravitation than we do now.


It would be evidence for a benevolent designer if life were better than could be expected on other grounds, including anthropic grounds. A certain capacity for joy would naturally evolve through natural selection, as an incentive to animals who need to eat and breed in order to pass on their genes. It may not be likely that evolution would produce animals who are fortunate enough to have the leisure and the ability to do science and think abstractly, but our sample of what is produced by evolution is very biased, by the fact that it is only in these fortunate cases that there is anyone thinking about cosmic design. Astronomers call this a selection effect. (Astronomers like Sandra Faber have to worry continually about selection effects of one sort or another.) The universe is very large, and it should be no surprise that, among the enormous number of planets that support only unintelligent life and the still vaster number that cannot support life at all, there is some tiny fraction on which there are living beings who are capable of thinking about the universe, as we are doing here. The real question is, whether life is better than would be expected from what we know about natural selection, taking into account the bias introduced by the fact that we are thinking about the problem.

This is a question that everyone will have to answer for themselves. Being a physicist is no help with questions like this, so I have to speak from my own experience. My life has been remarkably happy, probably in the upper 99.99 percentile of human happiness, but even I have seen a mother die painfully of cancer, a father's personality destroyed by Alzheimer's disease, and scores of second and third cousins murdered in the Holocaust. Signs of a benevolent designer are pretty well hidden.

The prevalence of evil and misery has always bothered those who believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God. Sometimes God is excused by pointing to the need for free will. Milton gives God this argument in Paradise Lost:

I formed them free, and free they must remain
Till they enthral themselves: I else must change
Their nature, and revoke the high decree
Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained
Their freedom; they themselves ordained their fall.

It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?

It is not necessary for me to argue here that the evil in the world proves that the universe is not designed, but only that there are no signs of benevolence that might have shown the hand of a designer. But in fact the perception that God cannot be benevolent is very old. Plays by Aeschylus and Euripides make a quite explicit statement that the Gods are selfish and cruel, though they expect better behavior from humans. God in the Old Testament demands of us that we be willing to sacrifice our children's lives at His orders, and the God of traditional Christianity and Islam damns us for eternity if we do not worship him in the right manner. Is this a nice way to behave? I know, I know, we are not supposed to judge God according to human standards, but you see the problem here: if we are not yet convinced of His existence, and are looking for signs of his benevolence, then what other standards can we use?


In an e-mail message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I learned that the aim of this conference is to have a constructive dialog between science and religion. I am all in favor of a dialog between science and religion, but not a constructive dialog. Religion has done some good in the world, but on balance its effects on our lives have been awful. This is much too big a question to be argued here, so I'll just have to state my own opinion: with or without religion, good people would tend to behave well and bad people would do evil things, but the peculiar contribution of religion throughout history has been to allow good people do evil things. One of the great achievements of science has been, not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious - the example of John Polkinghorne shows that this is not impossible - but at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.

Local Universe

Now, let’s consult the Wikipedia for some basic facts on ASTRONOMY/ASTROPHYSICS...


(reposted from Wikipedia - for specific references and links in the text, see original article)

For good fun, see also the...
~Wiki Astronomy Portal

Crab Nebula - NASA shot
A giant Hubble mosaic of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant.

Astronomy is the scientific study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth's atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation). It is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and motion of celestial objects, as well as the formation and development of the universe.

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences. Astronomers of early civilizations performed methodical observations of the night sky, and astronomical artifacts have been found from much earlier periods. However, the invention of the telescope was required before astronomy was able to develop into a modern science. Historically, astronomy has included disciplines as diverse as astrometry, celestial navigation, observational astronomy, the making of calendars, and even astrology, but professional astronomy is nowadays often considered to be identical with ASTROPHYSICS. Since the 20th century, the field of professional astronomy split into observational and theoretical branches. Observational astronomy is focused on acquiring and analyzing data, mainly using basic principles of physics. Theoretical astronomy is oriented towards the development of computer or analytical models to describe astronomical objects and phenomena. The two fields complement each other, with theoretical astronomy seeking to explain the observational results, and observations being used to confirm theoretical results.

Amateur astronomers have contributed to many important astronomical discoveries, and astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs can still play an active role, especially in the discovery and observation of transient phenomena.

Modern astronomy is not to be confused with astrology, the belief system that claims that human affairs are correlated with the positions of celestial objects. Although the two fields share a common origin and a part of their methods (namely, the use of ephemerides), they are distinct.


1. Lexicology
2. History
3. Observational astronomy
4. Theoretical astronomy
5. Subfield of astronomy
6. Interdisciplinary studies
7. Amateur astronomy
8. Major questions in astronomy


The word astronomy literally means "law of the stars" and is derived from the Greek αστρονομία, astronomia, from the words άστρον (astron, "star") and νόμος (nomos, "laws of naming").

Use of terms "astronomy" and "astrophysics"

Generally, either the term "astronomy" or "astrophysics" may be used to refer to this subject. Based on strict dictionary definitions, "astronomy" refers to "the study of objects and matter outside the earth's atmosphere and of their physical and chemical properties"and "astrophysics" refers to the branch of astronomy dealing with "the behavior, physical properties, and dynamic processes of celestial objects and phenomena". In some cases, as in the introduction of the introductory textbook The Physical Universe by Frank Shu, "astronomy" may be used to describe the qualitative study of the subject, whereas "astrophysics" is used to describe the physics-oriented version of the subject. However, since most modern astronomical research deals with subjects related to physics, modern astronomy could actually be called astrophysics. Various departments that research this subject may use "astronomy" and "astrophysics", partly depending on whether the department is historically affiliated with a physics department, and many professional astronomers actually have physics degrees. Even the name of the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics reveals the ambiguity of the use of the term.


In early times, astronomy only comprised the observation and predictions of the motions of objects visible to the naked eye. In some locations, such as Stonehenge, early cultures assembled massive artifacts that likely had some astronomical purpose. In addition to their ceremonial uses, these observatories could be employed to determine the seasons, an important factor in knowing when to plant crops, as well as in understanding the length of the year.

Before tools such as the telescope were invented early study of the stars had to be conducted from the only vantage points available, namely tall buildings, trees and high ground using the bare eye.

As civilizations developed, most notably Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Maya, Greece, India, and China, astronomical observatories were assembled, and ideas on the nature of the universe began to be explored. Most of early astronomy actually consisted of mapping the positions of the stars and planets, a science now referred to as astrometry. From these observations, early ideas about the motions of the planets were formed, and the nature of the Sun, Moon and the Earth in the universe were explored philosophically. The Earth was believed to be the center of the universe with the Sun, the Moon and the stars rotating around it. This is known as the geocentric model of the universe.

A few notable astronomical discoveries were made prior to the application of the telescope. For example, the obliquity of the ecliptic was estimated as early as 1,000 B.C by the Chinese. The Chaldeans discovered that eclipses recurred in a repeating cycle known as a saros. In the second century B.C., the size and distance of the Moon were estimated by Hipparchus.

During the Middle Ages, observational astronomy was mostly stagnant in medieval Europe, at least until the 13th century. However, observational astronomy flourished in the Persian Empire and other parts of the world. Astronomers during that time introduced many names that are now used for individual stars.

Scientific revolution

During the Renaissance, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. His work was defended, expanded upon, and corrected by Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. Galileo innovated by using telescopes to enhance his observations.

Kepler was the first to devise a system that described correctly the details of the motion of the planets with the Sun at the center. However, Kepler did not succeed in formulating a theory behind the laws he wrote down. It was left to Newton's invention of celestial dynamics and his law of gravitation to finally explain the motions of the planets. Newton also developed the reflecting telescope.

Further discoveries paralleled the improvements in the size and quality of the telescope. More extensive star catalogues were produced by Lacaille. The astronomer William Herschel made a detailed catalog of nebulosity and clusters, and in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus, the first new planet found. The distance to a star was first announced in 1838 when the parallax of 61 Cygni was measured by Friedrich Bessel.

During the nineteenth century, attention to the three body problem by Euler, Clairaut, and D'Alembert led to more accurate predictions about the motions of the Moon and planets. This work was further refined by Lagrange and Laplace, allowing the masses of the planets and moons to be estimated from their perturbations.

Significant advances in astronomy came about with the introduction of new technology, including the spectroscope and photography. Fraunhofer discovered about 600 bands in the spectrum of the Sun in 1814-15, which, in 1859, Kirchhoff ascribed to the presence of different elements. Stars were proven to be similar to the Earth's own Sun, but with a wide range of temperatures, masses, and sizes.

The existence of the Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way, as a separate group of stars, was only proved in the 20th century, along with the existence of "external" galaxies, and soon after, the expansion of the universe, seen in the recession of most galaxies from us. Modern astronomy has also discovered many exotic objects such as quasars, pulsars, blazars, and radio galaxies, and has used these observations to develop physical theories which describe some of these objects in terms of equally exotic objects such as black holes and neutron stars. Physical cosmology made huge advances during the 20th century, with the model of the Big Bang heavily supported by the evidence provided by astronomy and physics, such as the cosmic microwave background radiation, Hubble's law, and cosmological abundances of elements.


In astronomy, information is mainly received from the detection and analysis of light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Observational astronomy may be divided according to the observed region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some parts of the spectrum can be observed from the Earth's surface, while other parts are only observable from either high altitudes or space. Specific information on these subfields is given below.

Radio astronomy

Radio astronomy studies radiation with wavelengths greater than approximately one millimeter. Radio astronomy is different from most other forms of observational astronomy in that the observed radio waves can be treated as waves rather than as discrete photons. Hence, it is relatively easier to measure both the amplitude and phase of radio waves, whereas this is not as easily done at shorter wavelengths.

Although some radio waves are produced by astronomical objects in the form of thermal emission, most of the radio emission that is observed from Earth is seen in the form of synchrotron radiation, which is produced when electrons oscillate around magnetic fields.Additionally, a number of spectral lines produced by interstellar gas, particularly the hydrogen spectral line at 21 cm, are observable at radio wavelengths.

A wide variety of objects are observable at radio wavelengths, including supernovae, interstellar gas, pulsars, and active galactic nuclei.

Infrared astronomy

Infrared astronomy deals with the detection and analysis of infrared radiation (wavelengths longer than red light). Except at wavelengths close to visible light, infrared radiation is heavily absorbed by the atmosphere, and the atmosphere produces significant infrared emission. Consequently, infrared observatories have to be located in high, dry places or in space. Infrared astronomy is particularly useful for observation of galactic regions cloaked by dust, and for studies of molecular gases.

Optical astronomy

Historically, optical astronomy, also called visible light astronomy, is the oldest form of astronomy.Optical images were originally drawn by hand. In the late nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, images were made using photographic equipment. Modern images are made using digital detectors, particularly detectors using charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Although visible light itself extends from approximately 4000 Å (400 nm) to 7000 Å (700 nm), the same equipment used at these wavelengths is also used to observe some near-ultraviolet and near-infrared radiation.

Ultraviolet astronomy

Ultraviolet astronomy is generally used to refer to observations at ultraviolet wavelengths between approximately 100 and 3200 Å. Light at these wavelengths is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere, so observations at these wavelengths must be performed from the upper atmosphere or from space. Ultraviolet astronomy is best suited to the study of thermal radiation and spectral emission lines from hot blue stars (O stars and B stars) that are very bright in this wave band. This includes the blue stars in other galaxies, which have been the targets of several ultraviolet surveys. Other objects commonly observed in ultraviolet light include planetary nebulae, supernova remnants, and active galactic nuclei. However, ultraviolet light is easily absorbed by interstellar dust, and measurement of the ultraviolet light from objects need to be corrected for extinction.

X-ray astronomy

X-ray astronomy is the study of astronomical objects at X-ray wavelengths. Typically, objects emit X-ray radiation as synchrotron emission (produced by electrons oscillating around magnetic field lines), thermal emission from thin gases (called bremsstrahlung radiation) that is above 107 (10 million) Kelvin, and thermal emission from thick gases (called blackbody radiation) that are above 107 Kelvin. Since X-rays are absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere, all X-ray observations must be done from high-altitude balloons, rockets, or spacecraft. Notable X-ray sources include X-ray binaries, pulsars, supernova remnants, elliptical galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and active galactic nuclei.

Gamma-ray astronomy

Gamma ray astronomy is the study of astronomical objects at the shortest wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma rays may be observed directly by satellites such as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory or by specialized telescopes called atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes. The Cherenkov telescopes do not actually detect the gamma rays directly but instead detect the flashes of visible light produced when gamma rays are absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere.

Most gamma-ray emitting sources are actually gamma-ray bursts, objects which only produce gamma radiation for a few milliseconds to thousands of seconds before fading away. Only 10% of gamma-ray sources are non-transient sources. These steady gamma-ray emitters include pulsars, neutron stars, and black hole candidates such as active galactic nuclei.

Fields of observational astronomy not based on the electromagnetic spectrum

Other than electromagnetic radiation, few things may be observed from the Earth that originate from great distances.

In neutrino astronomy, astronomers use special underground facilities such as SAGE, GALLEX, and Kamioka II/III for detecting neutrinos. These neutrinos originate primarily from the Sun but also from supernovae.

Cosmic rays consisting of very high energy particles can be observed hitting the Earth's atmosphere. Additionally, some future neutrino detectors will also be sensitive to the neutrinos produced when cosmic rays hit the Earth's atmosphere.

A few gravitational wave observatories have been constructed, but gravitational waves are extremely difficult to detect.

Planetary astronomy has benefited from direct observation in the form of spacecraft and sample return missions. These include fly-by missions with remote sensors; landing vehicles that can perform experiments on the surface materials; impactors that allow remote sensing of buried material, and sample return missions that allow direct, laboratory examination.

Astrometry and celestial mechanics

One of the oldest fields in astronomy, and in all of science, is the measurement of the positions of celestial objects. Historically, accurate knowledge of the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars has been essential in celestial navigation.

Careful measurement of the positions of the planets has led to a solid understanding of gravitational perturbations, and an ability to determine past and future positions of the planets with great accuracy, a field known as celestial mechanics. More recently the tracking of near-Earth objects will allow for predictions of close encounters, and potential collisions, with the Earth.

The measurement of stellar parallax of nearby stars provides a fundamental baseline in the cosmic distance ladder that is used to measure the scale of the universe. Parallax measurements of nearby stars provide an absolute baseline for the properties of more distant stars, because their properties can be compared. Measurements of radial velocity and proper motion show the kinematics of these systems through the Milky Way galaxy. Astrometric results are also used to measure the distribution of dark matter in the galaxy.

During the 1990s, the astrometric technique of measuring the stellar wobble was used to detect large extrasolar planets orbiting nearby stars.


Theoretical astronomers use a wide variety of tools which include analytical models (for example, polytropes to approximate the behaviors of a star) and computational numerical simulations. Each has some advantages. Analytical models of a process are generally better for giving insight into the heart of what is going on. Numerical models can reveal the existence of phenomena and effects that would otherwise not be seen.

Theorists in astronomy endeavor to create theoretical models and figure out the observational consequences of those models. This helps allow observers to look for data that can refute a model or help in choosing between several alternate or conflicting models.

Theorists also try to generate or modify models to take into account new data. In the case of an inconsistency, the general tendency is to try to make minimal modifications to the model to fit the data. In some cases, a large amount of inconsistent data over time may lead to total abandonment of a model.

Topics studied by theoretical astronomers include: stellar dynamics and evolution; galaxy formation; large-scale structure of matter in the Universe; origin of cosmic rays; general relativity and physical cosmology, including string cosmology and astroparticle physics. Astrophysical relativity serves as a tool to gauge the properties of large scale structures for which gravitation plays a significant role in physical phenomena investigated and as the basis for black hole (astro)physics and the study of gravitational waves.

Some widely accepted and studied theories and models in astronomy, now included in the Lambda-CDM model are the Big Bang, Cosmic inflation, dark matter, and fundamental theories of physics.

Dark matter and dark energy are the current leading topics in astronomy, as their discovery and controversy originated during the study of the galaxies.


Solar astronomy

The most frequently studied star is the Sun, a typical main-sequence dwarf star of stellar class G2 V, and about 4.6 Gyr in age. The Sun is not considered a variable star, but it does undergo periodic changes in activity known as the sunspot cycle. This is an 11-year fluctuation in sunspot numbers. Sunspots are regions of lower-than- average temperatures that are associated with intense magnetic activity.

The Sun has steadily increased in luminosity over the course of its life, increasing by 40% since it first became a main-sequence star. The Sun has also undergone periodic changes in luminosity that can have a significant impact on the Earth.The Maunder minimum, for example, is believed to have caused the Little Ice Age phenomenon during the Middle Ages.

The visible outer surface of the Sun is called the photosphere. Above this layer is a thin region known as the chromosphere. This is surrounded by a transition region of rapidly increasing temperatures, then by the super-heated corona.

At the center of the Sun is the core region, a volume of sufficient temperature and pressure for nuclear fusion to occur. Above the core is the radiation zone, where the plasma conveys the energy flux by means of radiation. The outer layers form a convection zone where the gas material transports energy primarily through physical displacement of the gas. It is believed that this convection zone creates the magnetic activity that generates sun spots.

A solar wind of plasma particles constantly streams outward from the Sun until it reaches the heliopause. This solar wind interacts with the magnetosphere of the Earth to create the Van Allen radiation belts, as well as the aurora where the lines of the Earth's magnetic field descend into the atmosphere.

Planetary science

This astronomical field examines the assemblage of planets, moons, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids, and other bodies orbiting the Sun, as well as extrasolar planets. The solar system has been relatively well-studied, initially through telescopes and then later by spacecraft. This has provided a good overall understanding of the formation and evolution of this planetary system, although many new discoveries are still being made.

The solar system is subdivided into the inner planets, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets. The inner terrestrial planets consist of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The outer gas giant planets are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Beyond Neptune lie the Kuiper Belt, and finally the Oort Cloud, which may extend as far as a light-year.

The planets were formed by a protoplanetary disk that surrounded the early Sun. Through a process that included gravitational attraction, collision, and accretion, the disk formed clumps of matter that, with time, became protoplanets. The radiation pressure of the solar wind then expelled most of the unaccreted matter, and only those planets with sufficient mass retained their gaseous atmosphere. The planets continued to sweep up, or eject, the remaining matter during a period of intense bombardment, evidenced by the many impact craters on the Moon. During this period, some of the protoplanets may have collided, the leading hypothesis for how the Moon was formed.

Once a planet reaches sufficient mass, the materials with different densities segregate within, during planetary differentiation. This process can form a stony or metallic core, surrounded by a mantle and an outer surface. The core may include solid and liquid regions, and some planetary cores generate their own magnetic field, which can protect their atmospheres from solar wind stripping.

A planet or moon's interior heat is produced from the collisions that created the body, radioactive materials (e.g. uranium, thorium, and 26Al), or tidal heating. Some planets and moons accumulate enough heat to drive geologic processes such as volcanism and tectonics. Those that accumulate or retain an atmosphere can also undergo surface erosion from wind or water. Smaller bodies, without tidal heating, cool more quickly; and their geological activity ceases with the exception of impact cratering.

Sombrero Galaxy: Hubble optical image showing a bulge of starlight partially blocked by a rim of dust
Stellar astronomy

The Ant planetary nebula. Ejecting gas from the dying central star shows symmetrical patterns unlike the chaotic patterns of ordinary explosions.

The study of stars and stellar evolution is fundamental to our understanding of the universe. The astrophysics of stars has been determined through observation and theoretical understanding; and from computer simulations of the interior.

Star formation occurs in dense regions of dust and gas, known as giant molecular clouds. When destabilized, cloud fragments can collapse under the influence of gravity, to form a protostar. A sufficiently dense, and hot, core region will trigger nuclear fusion, thus creating a main-sequence star.

Almost all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were created inside the cores of stars.

The characteristics of the resulting star depend primarily upon its starting mass. The more massive the star, the greater its luminosity, and the more rapidly it expends the hydrogen fuel in its core. Over time, this hydrogen fuel is completely converted into helium, and the star begins to evolve. The fusion of helium requires a higher core temperature, so that the star both expands in size, and increases in core density. The resulting red giant enjoys a brief life span, before the helium fuel is in turn consumed. Very massive stars can also undergo a series of decreasing evolutionary phases, as they fuse increasingly heavier elements.

The final fate of the star depends on its mass, with stars of mass greater than about eight times the Sun becoming core collapse supernovae; while smaller stars form planetary nebulae, and evolve into white dwarfs. The remnant of a supernova is a dense neutron star, or, if the stellar mass was at least three times that of the Sun, a black hole. Close binary stars can follow more complex evolutionary paths, such as mass transfer onto a white dwarf companion that can potentially cause a supernova. Planetary nebulae and supernovae are necessary for the distribution of metals to the interstellar medium; without them, all new stars (and their planetary systems) would be formed from hydrogen and helium alone.

Galactic astronomy

Spiral Arms
Observed structure of the Milky Way's spiral arms

Our solar system orbits within the Milky Way, a barred spiral galaxy that is a prominent member of the Local Group of galaxies. It is a rotating mass of gas, dust, stars and other objects, held together by mutual gravitational attraction. As the Earth is located within the dusty outer arms, there are large portions of the Milky Way that are obscured from view.

In the center of the Milky Way is the core, a bar-shaped bulge with what is believed to be a supermassive black hole at the center. This is surrounded by four primary arms that spiral from the core. This is a region of active star formation that contains many younger, population II stars. The disk is surrounded by a spheroid halo of older, population I stars, as well as relatively dense concentrations of stars known as globular clusters.

Between the stars lies the interstellar medium, a region of sparse matter. In the densest regions, molecular clouds of molecular hydrogen and other elements create star-forming regions. These begin as irregular dark nebulae, which concentrate and collapse (in volumes determined by the Jeans length) to form compact protostars.

As the more massive stars appear, they transform the cloud into an H II region of glowing gas and plasma. The stellar wind and supernova explosions from these stars eventually serve to disperse the cloud, often leaving behind one or more young open clusters of stars. These clusters gradually disperse, and the stars join the population of the Milky Way.

Kinematic studies of matter in the Milky Way and other galaxies have demonstrated that there is more mass than can be accounted for by visible matter. A dark matter halo appears to dominate the mass, although the nature of this dark matter remains undetermined.

Extragalactic astronomy

The study of objects outside of our galaxy is a branch of astronomy concerned with the formation and evolution of Galaxies; their morphology and classification; and the examination of active galaxies, and the groups and clusters of galaxies. The latter is important for the understanding of the large-scale structure of the cosmos.

This image shows several blue, loop-shaped objects that are multiple images of the same galaxy, duplicated by the gravitational lens effect of the cluster of yellow galaxies near the middle of the photograph. The lens is produced by the cluster's gravitational field that bends light to magnify and distort the image of a more distant object.

Most galaxies are organized into distinct shapes that allow for classification schemes. They are commonly divided into spiral, elliptical and Irregular galaxies.

As the name suggests, an elliptical galaxy has the cross-sectional shape of an ellipse. The stars move along random orbits with no preferred direction. These galaxies contain little or no interstellar dust; few star-forming regions; and generally older stars. Elliptical galaxies are more commonly found at the core of galactic clusters, and may be formed through mergers of large galaxies.

A spiral galaxy is organized into a flat, rotating disk, usually with a prominent bulge or bar at the center, and trailing bright arms that spiral outward. The arms are dusty regions of star formation where massive young stars produce a blue tint. Spiral galaxies are typically surrounded by a halo of older stars. Both the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are spiral galaxies.

Irregular galaxies are chaotic in appearance, and are neither spiral nor elliptical. About a quarter of all galaxies are irregular, and the peculiar shapes of such galaxies may be the result of gravitational interaction.

An active galaxy is a formation that is emitting a significant amount of its energy from a source other than stars, dust and gas; and is powered by a compact region at the core, usually thought to be a super-massive black hole that is emitting radiation from in-falling material.

A radio galaxy is an active galaxy that is very luminous in the radio portion of the spectrum, and is emitting immense plumes or lobes of gas. Active galaxies that emit high-energy radiation include Seyfert galaxies, Quasars, and Blazars. Quasars are believed to be the most consistently luminous objects in the known universe.

The large-scale structure of the cosmos is represented by groups and clusters of galaxies. This structure is organized in a hierarchy of groupings, with the largest being the superclusters. The collective matter is formed into filaments and walls, leaving large voids in between.


Cosmology (from the Greek κοσμος "world, universe" and λογος "word, study") could be considered the study of the universe as a whole.

Observations of the large-scale structure of the universe, a branch known as physical cosmology, have provided a deep understanding of the formation and evolution of the cosmos. Fundamental to modern cosmology is the well-accepted theory of the big bang, wherein our universe began at a single point in time, and thereafter expanded over the course of 13.7 Gyr to its present condition. The concept of the big bang can be traced back to the discovery of the microwave background radiation in 1965.

In the course of this expansion, the universe underwent several evolutionary stages. In the very early moments, it is theorized that the universe experienced a very rapid cosmic inflation, which homogenized the starting conditions. Thereafter, nucleosynthesis produced the elemental abundance of the early universe. (See also nucleocosmochronology.)

When the first atoms formed, space became transparent to radiation, releasing the energy viewed today as the microwave background radiation. The expanding universe then underwent a Dark Age due to the lack of stellar energy sources.

A hierarchical structure of matter began to form from minute variations in the mass density. Matter accumulated in the densest regions, forming clouds of gas and the earliest stars. These massive stars triggered the reionization process and are believed to have created many of the heavy elements in the early universe.

Gravitational aggregations clustered into filaments, leaving voids in the gaps. Gradually, organizations of gas and dust merged to form the first primitive galaxies. Over time, these pulled in more matter, and were often organized into groups and clusters of galaxies, then into larger-scale superclusters.

Fundamental to the structure of the universe is the existence of dark matter and dark energy. These are now thought to be the dominant components, forming 96% of the density of the universe. For this reason, much effort is expended in trying to understand the physics of these components.


Astronomy and astrophysics have developed significant interdisciplinary links with other major scientific fields. These include:

--Astrobiology: the study of the advent and evolution of biological systems in the universe.

--Archaeoastronomy: the study of ancient or traditional astronomies in their cultural context, utilizing archaeological and anthropological evidence.

--Astrochemistry: the study of the chemicals found in space, usually in molecular clouds, and their formation, interaction and destruction. It represents an overlap of the disciplines of astronomy and chemistry.

--Cosmochemistry: the study of the chemicals found within the Solar System, including the origins of the elements and variations in the isotope ratios.


Amateur astronomers can build their own equipment, and can hold star parties and gatherings, such as Stellafane.

Collectively, amateur astronomers observe a variety of celestial objects and phenomena sometimes with equipment that they build themselves. Common targets of amateur astronomers include the Moon, planets, stars, comets, meteor showers, and a variety of deep-sky objects such as star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. One branch of amateur astronomy, amateur astrophotography, involves the taking of photos of the night sky. Many amateurs like to specialize in the observation of particular objects, types of objects, or types of events which interest them.

Most amateurs work at visible wavelengths, but a small minority experiment with wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. This includes the use of infrared filters on conventional telescopes, and also the use of radio telescopes. The pioneer of amateur radio astronomy was Karl Jansky who started observing the sky at radio wavelengths in the 1930s. A number of amateur astronomers use either homemade telescopes or use radio telescopes which were originally built for astronomy research but which are now available to amateurs (e.g. the One-Mile Telescope).

Amateur astronomers continue to make scientific contributions to the field of astronomy. Indeed, it is one of the few scientific disciplines where amateurs can still make significant contributions. Amateurs can make occultation measurements that are used to refine the orbits of minor planets. They can also discover comets, and perform regular observations of variable stars. Improvements in digital technology have allowed amateurs to make impressive advances in the field of astrophotography.


Although the scientific discipline of astronomy has made tremendous strides in understanding the nature of the universe and its contents, there remain some important unanswered questions. Answers to these may require the construction of new ground- and space-based instruments, and possibly new developments in theoretical and experimental physics.

--What is the origin of the stellar mass spectrum? That is, why do astronomers observe the same distribution of stellar masses—the initial mass function—apparently regardless of the initial conditions? A deeper understanding of the formation of stars and planets is needed.

--Is there other life in the Universe? Especially, is there other intelligent life? If so, what is the explanation for the Fermi paradox? The existence of life elsewhere has important scientific and philosophical implications.

--What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? These dominate the evolution and fate of the cosmos, yet we are still uncertain about their true natures.

--Why did the universe come to be? Why, for example, are the physical constants so finely tuned that they permit the existence of life? Could they be the result of cosmological natural selection? What caused the cosmic inflation that produced our homogeneous universe?

--What will be the ultimate fate of the universe?

Uhm, want more…?


Dennett's the man

...well, philosophically, check out Daniel Dennett's website and related entries, including the website Edge.

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1 Utterly Enriching Reactions:

  • Should we all have followed the same pathway of life, would the world be the same as now? Perhaps, but as this generated opinion finds, that is no reason to follow the pathway of evolution, the opinion of only one man, which projects occultism overtones.

    David Stacey

    By Blogger ButtonUp, at 10 June 2014 at 02:46:00 BST  

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