Geoff Marcy’s Heart Will Go On

Here's a strange piece from Reuters (by way of CNN) that seems to be the result of a single phone conversation between the reporter and a lonely/bored Geoff Marcy, the Berkeley astronomer who has dominated the exoplanet search.

"Some of the romance of astronomy is gone," he wimpers as he discusses how digital imagery is scooped from arrays, piled into spectrometers and dumped into Marcy's computer for him to analyze in some lab somewhere (that is, run a program that does analysis). What would Galileo think of this unseemly, mechanical, inhuman process? (All this woe despite, by the way, the recent flood of extrasolar planets--including one that mindbends physics with hot ice.) 

I interviewed Marcy some years ago for a piece I did on dark energy and dark matter. I didn't quote Marcy much. But I thought I might look into my old notes and see if he said anything that might be interesting given his romantic melancholy.

"Many scientists feel a compulsion to interpret their data in a way that's as dramatic, as bombastic as possible. It's a psychological draw, but the jury is often still out in many cases," he told me then.

Although, even as he pooh-poohed sensationalism, he employed it when he started talking about dark energy: "It's outlandish that the universe is accelerating as it is expanding, but it's also been supported by the data. It's unbelievable. It's still unbelievable. It's the most profound scientific mystery of our generation. It's shaking the foundations of physics.

"We're saying that everything we know--galaxies, nebulae--is just the tail. And the dog is dark energy," he went on. "All of this invoking phenomenon--this is starting to bug a lot of people. You can end up with a patchwork that’s so ad hoc, with so many after-the-fact add-ons and addenda and caveats, that you might as well throw the whole thing out."

Outlandish indeed.

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