Monday, August 14, 2017

Waiting for the Spiral Galaxy

I have long suspected that in the end we will have more regret over what we did not do in this life than what we actually did. This suspicion was reinforced by a conversation on a plane during a redeye flight to Europe. The stranger seated next to me explains, when a conversation starts, that he is an astronomy professor approaching his 70th birthday. He has no plans to retire, generally likes his work and gets to travel to many international conferences. I ask him if there is something he longs to do in the years ahead. "Oh yes. I'd like to work on spiral galaxies. I've wanted to do that since I heard a great mathematician, C.C.Lin, explain his theory for the nature of spiral galaxies at M.I.T. back in 1968." I love the theme, but I am puzzled. "You heard that theory nearly fifty years ago. What have you been working on since then?"     "Oh, stars. I can tell you that stars are not round and they're ugly."
    "What about spiral galaxies?."
    "Well the problem is that C.C. Lin ran into big-time opposition. Another titan of science objected to the Lin-Shu density wave theory, contending that spiral patterns are caused by outside interference - by a galaxy bumping up against another galaxy, let's say - rather than integral. The fight got really bad. Anyone who publicly aligned with one side would get shot at by the other."
    "But you've had tenure for decades. Surely you can follow any line of research you like and damn the torpedoes."
    He talks about difficulties with funding and getting time on colossal computers required for galactic simulations.
    I am sad for him. Nearly fifty years after a vision of cosmic spirals set his imagination on fire, he's still not ready to stir the embers.
    "I'm risk-averse," he explains.   
    I reflect on this in the darkened cabin. I review what I regret in my own life, and realize that being risk-averse is not high on the list. For this I am grateful.

Image: M74 spiral galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage 

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