AAVSO: American Association of Variable Star Observers

A Historical Perspective on the Diversity of Explanations for New Classes of Transient and Variable Stars

Volume 49 number 1 (2021)

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Thomas J. Maccarone
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 79409-1051; Thomas.Maccarone@ttu.edu


As new classes of transients and variable stars are discovered, and theoretical models are established to work or not to work for a few members of the class, it is often the case that some researchers will make arguments on the basis of Occam’s razor that all members of the class must be produced by whichever mechanism first successfully explained one of the objects. It is also frequent that this assumption will be made more implicitly. Retrospective analysis shows rather clearly that this argument fails a large fraction of the time, and in many cases, this search for false consistency has led to more fundamental astrophysical errors, a few of which are quite prominent in the history of astronomy. A corollary of this is that on numerous occasions, theoretical models to explain transients have turned out to be models that describe real—but often not yet discovered—phenomena other than the ones to which they have first been applied, albeit with minor errors that caused the model to appear to fit to a known phenomenon it did not describe. A set of examples of such events is presented here (some of which will be quite familiar to most astronomers), along with a discussion of why this phenomenon occurs, and how it may be manifesting itself at the present time. Some discussion will also be made of why and when survey designs have led to immediate separation of various transient mechanisms, generally by being overpowered in some way relative to what is needed to detect a new class of objects.