Psychiatry by Adjective?

Posted By Pamela on Nov 21, 2007 | 5 comments

Some areas of astronomy are way more competitive than others. Variable stars, the sub-field of astronomy I’m most comfortable in, is a very friendly group. There is amiable collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers, and I’ve never met a variable star astronomer who isn’t willing to talk, advise, and generally talk shop in a collegial manner. Not all areas of astronomy are like this.

And I have to wonder what a profiler would make of the various subfields of astronomy based on the nick names and adjectives we use. For instance, consider the habit of minor planet astronomers to name things in honor of childhood heros (There is an asteroid named Mrrogers, and another named Annefrank), and holiday favorites (consider the nick named kuiper belt objects “Easterbunny” and “Santa”). In a field of mostly boring names, the planetary scientists have shown constant creativity and a willingness to laugh while they learn.

I’d like to guess that from the outside, the folks working to explore our solar system with telescopes, probes, robots and rovers would be seen as a happy group of creative people with a good sense of humor rooted in pop-culture.

That said, consider the following paper titles from galactic astronomy:
Strangulation in Galaxy Groups (The paper that triggered this blog post).
NGC 4254: An Act of Harassment Uncovered by the Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA Survey
Disruption of dwarf galaxies in semi-analytic models
The death of FRII radio sources and their connection with radio relics

Strangulation, Harassment, Disruption, Death… These are not happy holiday characters.

There is a lot one can learn from the random adjectives self selected by groups of scientists.


  1. Dr Pam,

    I’m a partially trained physicist, completely trained US Marine, and partially trained aerospace studies…uh… -ist. I’ve been following Astronomy Cast and this blog for a while because Astronomy (especially the beginning of the Universe) is wildly interesting to me.

    However, I have a huge learning curve to overcome. For starters, what do you mean by “Variable Stars”?



  2. Hello Chris,

    I’ve been lurking/reading here for a while and I though I’d finally break the ice and post a comment that, hopefully, will help answer your question. I’ve taken the liberty of plagiarizing a littl from the AAVSO web site (, which I’ll highly recommend that you visit for additional help understanding what variable stars are. Their study is rich with history and also a field where amateur astonomers can contribute “real” science.

    Variable stars are stars that change brightness. The brightness changes of these stars can range from a thousandth of a magnitude to as much as twenty magnitudes over periods of a fraction of a second to years, depending on the type of variable star. Over 30,000 variable stars are known and catalogued, and many thousands more are suspected to be variable. There are a number of reasons why variable stars change their brightness. Pulsating variables, for example, swell and shrink due to internal forces. While an eclipsing binary will dim when it is eclipsed by a faint companion; and then brightens when the occulting star moves out of the way. The different causes for light variation in variable stars provides the impetus for classifying the stars into different categories.

    Their study has gone on for many many years and, even as we speak, some are candidates for study by the Hubble and other space telescopes.

    I hope this helps!


  3. Considering the galactic neighbors are depleting the star-forming gases, I would have thought the word starvation would be more applicable in lieu of “strangulation”, though the latter does offer a bit more sizzle for the imagination. Certainly, something like the phrase “passing gas” would never do. 🙂

  4. That’s a really interesting topic. One thing that mildly irritates me is when gas giants are described as ‘failed stars’ or Neptune as a ‘failed gas giant’. It’s not really the anthropomorphism as such, but the assumption that bigger is better – planets aspire to be stars, but never the other way around. An unconscious revelation of values.

  5. Chris: Another neat thing about variable stars is that one particular kind – a Cepheid variable (discovered by another lady astronomer (back in the old days when ladies weren’t supposed to be astronomers), Henrietta Levitt), These have specific brightness curves, so if you see a star with this curve, it’s one of those. Not only that, but the frequency of the curve tells you how bright the star really is. Now you look at the star and measure its brightness as seen from here. Naturally, the further away it is, the dimmer it looks. Now you compare the real brightness with what you see, and you can work out how far away it is.


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