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Philosophers don't know what scientists can't do.

Among many scientists, philosophers are regarded with suspicion, or even disdain. It has something to do with the way that some philosophers have mistaken their love of knowledge and their power to analyze it as a path to knowledge itself. Most famously, Immanuel Kant believed that a philosopher (him) could figure out that space must of necessity observe the rules of Euclidean geometry. A few decades thereafter, mathematicians showed that other geometries were possible in principle, and ultimately Einstein figured out that space was, in fact, not Euclidean after all. Anyone who disagrees should not be allowed to use GPS devices, which would be wildly inaccurate if not corrected for the effects of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

An equally egregious philosophical faux pas came in the 19th century from the philosopher Auguste Comte, who boldly declared that he knew for sure that there was something that science could never know. "We shall never be able to study, by any method, their [stars'] chemical composition or their mineralogical structure," he wrote in Cours de Philosophie Positive.

About the time Comte died, though, spectroscopy began to flourish, discerning the chemical composition of the sun and other stars by identifying precise frequencies of light emitted or absorbed by particular atoms.

Such is often the way science works--by finding ways to acquire knowledge that seems at first glance inaccessible. Today a similar example is emerging in the quest to determine the composition of planets that orbit faraway stars. Spacebased telescopes and other endeavors dedicated to that task are in the works. But as freelance science writer Charles Petit describes in this issue (Page 22), clues are already available from the fortuitous chemical signatures found in the white dwarf GD 362.

It seems likely, astronomers studying that star believe, that its atmosphere is polluted by the remains of one of its former planets. Deciphering the identity of the pollutants can therefore reveal what a far-off planet, too distant to study directly, was made of.

And so science seems to be succeeding in studying not only the chemical composition of a star, but also the mineralogical structure of a never-seen planet. By eating its planet, GD 362 colorfully confirms that Comte should have eaten his words.

--Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief

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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Author:Siegfried, Tom
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 18, 2009
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