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The Question

(Submitted November 12, 1997)

Why do we study pulsars?

The Answer

We study pulsars for the same reason physicists used to study other worthless phenomena, such as why steam expands, or what lightning is made of--because we are curious. We are curious about the properties of nuclear matter that make up the neutron stars of the pulsars. We are curious about the relativistic effects of extreme electromagnetic and gravitational fields moving through space at high speeds. We are curious about everything.

In the past, curiosity has always paid off, e.g., with the steam-engine age and the electronic age. Although pulsars have led to new insights on timekeeping (pulsars are the most accurate clocks known) and the forces that cause earthquakes (by using pulsars to determine how radiotelescopes move, you can map the motions of Earth's crust), and may someday lead to totally unpredictable advances, that is not the reason why people do it.

People study pulsars because it's fun to discover things that nobody has ever known before.

David Palmer
for Ask an Astrophysicist

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