In Defense of Astronomers

Tycho Brahe has been in the news lately.  The New York Times has published two articles on the long dead astronomer last month.  The first is your typical archeologists-want-to-find-out-if-the-rumors-are-true story of the exhumation of his body from a cemetery in Prague.  It includes entertaining references to the “Kafka-esqe bureaucracy” of Prague (get it, huh? get it?), Brahe’s importance to modern Danes (an excuse to use the restroom), 400 year old gossip (did he father a Danish king?), and just enough of his scientific work for the lay person to understand (he discovered a “supernova”).  I like to think of these archeologists as a really dorky Perez Hiltons trying to get the really old scoop.  If Brahe were an actor, they wouldn’t really care what movies he had been in, they want to know who he slept with and the gruesome details of his death.  I would absolutely read that edition of Us.

Tycho Brahe - will his mustash solve his murder?


In the second article, John Tierney loses every aspect of scientific street cred he has ever claimed.  I don’t care if he has or had a science blog for one of the more reputable news publications – this article is just embarrassing for him.  Or it should be.  In “Murder! Intrigue! Astronomers?”, Tierney re-imagines the Tycho Brahe story as a Hollywood blockbuster.  By all accounts, Brahe had an entertaining life – but remember, he also lived in the time when Royal Astronomers were also Royal Astrologers.  His scientific contributions were numerous, but that does not interest most people.  I do not dispute any of these facts.  What I do dispute is the idea that astronomers are definitionally boring people.


Tycho's Supernova - What have you discovered today? (



Having been to the American Astronomical Society’s bi-annual meeting, I can honestly say that, as a group, we can be quite entertaining.  Most of us have been nerds for so long that being called “uncool” is almost the norm.  But where does the science journalist get off calling the scientists uncool?  What would science journalism be without the Hubble telescope showing us the pillars of creation? Stephen Hawking giving us A Brief History of Time? Einstein being Einstein?  No one would ever suggest that Einstein was a boring person.  Yes, people will make the distinction that Einstein was a “physicist” and we’re discussing “astronomers”, but as an astrophysicist, I can honestly say the two are irrevocably intertwined.


The Pillars of Creation (


Even beyond our modern astronomers and astrophysicists, we have to look at this in the context of the time.  Astronomers of the time were part of the court.  Nostradamus died when Brahe was 20, Isaac Newton was born 45 years after Brahe’s untimely death.  These two men still capture our imagination.


Einstein, Newton, Hawking, hell, I’ll even throw in Neil deGrasse Tyson (the Nova guy who demoted Pluto – he’s quite a character, I promise) – are these guys boring?  No.  Is what they do/did boring?  Incomprehensible, maybe, but not at all boring.  If people didn’t want to watch movies about astronomers, then why would they have made Contact?



~ by Genevieve on December 6, 2010.

One Response to “In Defense of Astronomers”



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