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Institute of Advanced Study

The Growth of Astrophysical Understanding


The post-war years 1945-1970 saw the discovery of a large number of astrophysical phenomena, few of which had been predicted by theory. They were revealed through the introduction into astronomy of new instrumentation, much of which had been inherited from the military or made available by the communications industry. These new phenomena required alteration of, or assimilation into, a by-then-antiquated astronomical landscape. Although the long-term planning documents issued at ten year intervals in the United States, in a process that came to be known as the Decadal Review, emphasized the promise of further discoveries, the main thrust of astrophysics became an attempt to understand better the phenomena that had already been discovered. How these changes came about, and how they related to the plans advocated by the Decadal Reviews, is the subject of this article, which itself is an outline of a book I am writing. The growth of understanding is discussed in terms of limits on the evolution of the astronomical community and astrophysical thought, and in terms of the social networks that may explain the functioning of the community, its style of work, and the criteria for acceptance or rejection of new explanations. The thrust of the work is to assemble an analysis that could provide guidance useful in the construction of future long-term communal plans.

Insights Paper