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Blog

Do you consider astronomy to be a distinct academic discipline from physics?

By James Dacey

In his editorial article in the May edition of Physics World, Matin Durrani writes about the various “trump cards” that astronomy has over some of the more esoteric areas of physics. He refers to the stunning pictures, the strong amateur involvement via citizen-science projects and the fact that getting your head around the basics of the subject is usually fairly painless.

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The theme was inspired by the upcoming transit of Venus, a spectacular astronomical event on 5–6 June that will see our sister planet cross the face of the Sun as viewed from the Earth. Given that this transit will not occur again until 2117, excitement ahead of the event is building among scientists and the media alike. And this highlights another of astronomy’s trump cards: the predictability of such events allows the community to publicize and plan for the occasions long before they occur. The same could not be said, for instance, about the discovery of the next quasiparticle or the formulation of the latest incarnation of string theory.

Most would agree that astronomy does have some unique selling points. Some, however, might push this distinction even further and argue that astronomy is a separate discipline from physics altogether. The argument is that physics is a science concerned with the pursuit of general theories, applicable across the entire universe, that can be tested against empirical observations. Astronomy could be considered to be less fundamental in this respect, being a largely observational discipline.

But what do you think? Let us know via this week’s Facebook poll

Do you consider astronomy to be a distinct academic discipline from physics?
Yes
No

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. And feel free to post a comment to explain your choice or offer a different comparison between physics and astronomy.

In last week’s poll we acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the UK in space by asking the you who you thought was most likely to reach the next significant milestone in manned space exploration. The majority of voters believe that the future of manned space travel will play out in a different way to how it all began in the 1960s as a two-horse race between the US and the USSR. Some 46% of voters believe that “an emerging space nation such as China or India” will reach the next significant milestone. Another 20% believe that it will be an international collaboration. 16% think it will be a private company, 12% believe it will be the US and just 6% believe it will be Russia.

In addition to votes, the poll also attracted some interesting comments on our Facebook page. Owen Marshall, for instance, believes that the space race never stopped – it has just attracted some speedy new contenders. “While I think that an emerging nation will hit the next significant milestone in space exploration, I also believe that such an event will be a wake-up call to other nations such as the US and Russia, and that they will follow closely,” he wrote.

Thank you for all your participation and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

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