Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2018

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors



First Advisor

David Brain

Second Advisor

Ann-Marie Madigan

Third Advisor

Dominic Bailey


Astronomy is advancing quickly, with resources being allocated to the cutting edge of our understanding of the universe while the more basic understanding and confirmation aspects of astronomy research are still underway. Research in both areas is conducted according to two differing philosophies of knowledge: empiricism, which holds observation and direct experiment as the most reliable source of information, and rationalism, which holds conclusions reached through pure reasoning from first principles above all others. This investigation seeks to explore how the empiricist and rationalist approaches each serve the pursuit and advancement of astronomy as a science. Using a thorough analysis of the existing literature on empiricism and rationalism in astronomy, as well as data from interviews of several practicing expert astronomers in and around the University of Colorado Boulder who take empiricist and rationalist approaches to astronomy research, this investigation finds that astronomy as a productive, growing field of research achieves its greatest successes when empiricists and rationalists can work in close proximity. Increased communication and collaboration between researchers of the two approaches, as well as a stronger understanding of the applications and implications of empiricist and rationalist thought, can help to maximize these advantages.