15/04/2021 – Nora Boyd: How does laboratory astrophysics teach us astrophysics?


Philosopher of science Ian Hacking (1989) provocatively claimed that astrophysics is not a natural science at all. The experimental method is the heart of the scientific method, he reasoned, and no one can manipulate or intervene on astrophysical systems. In contrast, I have argued that physically intervening on a research target is not necessary to generate empirical evidence. Instead, what matters is that it derives from a causal chain with one end anchored in that target. While my view applies to much observational astrophysics, the story is a bit more subtle when it comes to terrestrial laboratory astrophysical experiments. In this talk, I explain how applying my view in a case study of National Ignition Facility research on the effect of high energy flux conditions on the structure of the Rayleigh-Taylor instability in young supernova remnants lead me to uncover a new challenge: how can experimenters reason from the laboratory to the stars, when the very conditions of their experiment undercut the arguments for physical similarity they would have liked to invoke?

Biographical information:

Dr. Boyd earned a B.Sc. in Physics/Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Waterloo, Ontario and a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.  She works primarily on empiricism in philosophy of science and on associated topics such as the nature of scientific evidence and the relationships between theories and data.  In addition, Dr. Boyd has active research interests in the philosophy of physics, especially astrophysics and cosmology.  Between degrees, Dr. Boyd worked as Research Engineer/Scientist at the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Washington on projects ranging from neutrino mass research to the search for dark matter particles.  At the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Boyd taught courses on philosophy of science, the history and philosophy of environmental sciences and environmentalism, the philosophy of psychiatry, and biomedical ethics.


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