The instability of astrophysics

At some level, it is surprising that we seem to know so much about the Universe and so little about ourselves. What we learn about the Cosmos is based on telescopes, instrumentation, and data processing systems that we calibrate, test under a wide range of operating conditions, and continually monitor to ensure that the data obtained are reliable and fully understood. The process we understand least and calibrate most poorly is how we --- the astrophysical community --- determine the way the Cosmos functions. We are convinced that in our everyday work we faithfully reveal the true nature of the Universe. But the history of our field shows that, time and again, we abruptly change course, with consequences that reverberate throughout astronomy. These instabilities can have long-lasting consequences in our field, because its various phenomena occur on such vastly differing scales as, for example, comets and supermassive black holes. The many different disciplines studying these varied phenomena are parts of a larger ecological network. Their effective symbiosis is required to advance our understanding of the Cosmos. Can we find ways to manage this unstable system so it best serves its purposes? Astrophysics cannot reject all instabilities, otherwise we would never accept any advances. But many instabilities are based on error, and we should seek to control these as well as possible. Is it possible to exert informed control where needed, or would such efforts discourage new insight and debate? We should at least recognize that stabilizing measures do exist in other walks of life to see whether adopting them might advance our understanding of the Cosmos. I am not aware of our communities ever having studied these possibilities in depth but will try to show the forms they may take. Nations currently spend billions of dollars a year on astronomy, even as many people go hungry. Astronomers thus share a responsibility to spend these funds wisely.

Followed by wine and cheese in Pupin 1402.

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