In Search of the True Universe: The Tools, Shaping and Cost of Cosmological Thought

Martin Harwit
Professor Emeritus of Astronomy, Cornell University. Director, National Air and Space Museum (1987-1995)

Videography by Nerine & Robert Clemenzi, Edited by Nerine Clemenzi
Copyright © Philosophical Society of Washington.  All rights reserved.


As astronomers we tend to think of our work as driven by observations and theories we consider particularly significant. That our advances have depended on societal or economic factors, if recognized at all, is often considered a regrettable distraction from a logical path forward. Actually the opposite is true: As a small field, astronomy has always depended on importing and adapting theoretical and observational tools honed elsewhere. As World War II was ending, the United States embarked on a national program of post-war research that seamlessly coordinated basic research in the sciences with efforts to strengthen national security and the economy. As part of this thrust, astronomy became driven by radio, infrared, X-ray, and gamma-ray discoveries, utilizing tools forged for the nation’s defense efforts. Similarly coordinated national research programs also began to shape research in other nations. I will describe these arrangements before turning to three questions:

  1. Can such national research programs for astronomy survive into the 21st century, when most defense agencies are loath to release classified information on sophisticated detection systems to the international consortia sharing the high costs of modern space missions?
  2. Has our vision of the Cosmos, today, been selectively shaped by the tools made available to astronomy by unrelated academic efforts or defense and industrial priorities? We need only to think of how our concepts of the Universe have changed since the times when ground-based observations at visible wavelengths were the sole means for probing the Universe.
  3. What will it cost, economically, socially, as well as intellectually to obtain a true understanding of the Universe, independent of the selection of tools provided to us by scientists from other fields or by military and industrial ventures?

About the Author:

Martin Harwit

Martin Harwit was born in Czechoslovakia, grew up in Turkey, came to the United States after World War II, and served in the US Army for two years, before obtaining a PhD in physics from MIT in 1960. Two years later he joined the astronomy faculty at Cornell, and taught there for 25 years, while also conducting research in infrared astronomy from space, a new field at the time. From 1987 to 1995, Harwit served as Director of the National Air and Space Museum where, among other interests, he took part in developing three IMAX films, "Blue Planet," "Destiny in Space," and "Cosmic Voyage," the last of which was nominated for an Academy of Motion Pictures award. Since leaving the Smithsonian, Harwit has worked on two major infrared astronomical space missions jointly conducted by NASA and the European Space Agency. His most recently published work is the book, "In Search of the True Universe - The Tools, Shaping, and Cost of Cosmological Thought." Some of the book's major themes form the core of tonight's talk. Harwit has been honored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society in Germany; he has been awarded the Bruce gold medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; and the International Astronomical Union has named a small asteroid circling our Sun after him.

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