Why the `Diamond Jubilee Debate' Was Important

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) were discovered in 1969 and in 1995 there is still no consensus in the astronomical community of their cause or distance. At the 1995 `Diamond Jubilee Debate' Donald Lamb argued that the GRB sources were in the galactic halo while Bodhan Pacynski argued that they were at cosmological distances. No matter where GRBs turn out to be, they clearly involve some of the most powerful explosions ever uncovered in any setting. Understanding the distances to GRBs should prove important as delimiters of our Galaxy or our Universe. Understanding the physics of GRBs should prove important for understanding the physics of the world around us. The GRB mystery will likely be solved when new and better data about GRBs is scrutinized, possibly in the next few years.

Another reason this `Diamond Jubilee Debate' is important is the same reason the `Great Debate' in 1920 was important. This reason is captured nicely in the book Shu, F., 1982, The Physical Universe, An Introduction to Astronomy, (University Science Books, Mill Valley, California) p. 286, is equally true for the Lamb - Paczynski debate of 1995: "The Shapley-Curtis debate makes interesting reading even today. It is important, not only as a historical document, but also as a glimpse into the reasoning processes of eminent scientists engaged in a great controversy for which the evidence on both sides is fragmentary and partly faulty. This debate illustrates forcefully how tricky it is to pick one's way through the treacherous ground that characterizes research at the frontiers of science."

The 1995 `Diamond Jubilee Debate' is more than just a commemoration. Through this debate we can hope to develop a deeper appreciation of how complicated some scientific issues are and how difficult it is to be both first and right in science. It is frequently productive to make an an intelligent scientific guess based on reasonable information, even if it might turn out wrong later. Such a guess might lead to testable predictions that might lead to increased understanding. It is perhaps a shame that some perceive a scientific reputation to be tarnished by a very good guess that turned out to be wrong. Perhaps this debate is also a celebration of the courage it takes to make such a guess.

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