BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES AMONG ASTRONOMY, PHYSICS, AND CHEMISTRY: The Moseley Centenary
Scientists, like other human beings, are territorial creatures, about our
parking spaces, our seat in the colloquiu, room, our specific topics of
research ("Who's been working on MY nebula and left it covered with dust?!"),
and even whole disciplines.
I have been looking into a number of times and places when chemistry, physics,
and astronomy trespassed on each others' territories and even attempted to
grab parts of them, and will try to tell you about some of these. The time-
trigger is the 100th anniversary of the Bohr atom (which perhaps you heard
about in high school) and a couple of crucial papers by Henry Moseley (which
you probably didn't). He showed clearly that atomic number is much more
fundamental than atomic weight, sorted out a number of problems with the
periodic table, and then went off to be killed at Gallipoli in 1915. With
Bohr and Moseley, physics captured a good deal of ground that should (so
said my Father!) have been part of chemistry.
Specific astronomical cases include non-cosmological redshifts (we were
wrong; physicists were right), the solar neutrino problem (astronomy was
right, both physics and chemistry wrong), and coronium and nebulium (pretty
much everybody was wrong).
In general those who welcomed the invaders (for instance astronomers who
took up spectroscopy) have come out better than the resisters (who said
that the composition of the stars and planets is of no proper astronomical
interest), though of course history is written by the winners. And speaking
of history, 2013 is chock full of interesting anniversaries, a few of
which I will mention.
Virginia Trimble is a native Californian and graduate of Hollywood High
School, UCLA, and Caltech. She has received honorary degrees from the
University of Cambridge (1969 MA) and the University of Valencia, Spain
(2010, dottora h.c.). Trimble is currently professor of physics and
astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, though for almost 30
years, she bounced back and forth at a frequency of 31.7 nHz between here
and the University of Maryland, where her late husband, Joseph Weber, was
In the 45 years since her PhD, she has held governance positions in the
American Astronomical Society, the International Astronomical Union, the
American Physical Society, and 5 or 6 others, generally reaching her level
of incompetence somewhere around vice president.
A list of more than 700 publications spans her current interests in
structure and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the universe, and of the
communities of scientists who study them, plus some dabbling in
Egyptology, Jewish law, and Sherlockiana.
"What's Up?" in this month will be presented by Jim Benet