The beauty in science
"I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Milky Way. On a warm late August night in 2009, my wife and I stretched out on a campground table at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah to see the cloudy stretch of our home galaxy arc across the night sky. I had never been in a place dark enough to see the stellar display. I lived in central New Jersey my entire life, where light pollution blocked out all but the very brightest stars. But here, far from the suburban sprawl I was accustomed to, I could giddily gaze at a simple circumstance of the universe we live in and wonder about all that starlight.
I had come to the national park for the fossils. Dinosaur fanatic that I am, I couldn’t step foot in Utah without taking a direct route to one of the most glorious Jurassic bonebeds of all time, where a chaotic jumble of giant bones conjures up visions of life and death 150 million years ago. The quarry wall was closed for repairs, and so I happily settled to see a Brigham Young University excavation of a geologically-younger long-necked herbivore that would later be named Abydosaurus.
Such magnificent, long-lost creatures kept stomping through my imagination as I stared at the Milky Way. I’ve never been drawn into astronomy or physics, but I recalled that even light takes time to travel. There was no way to be sure, but maybe some of the ancient lights I was looking at originally left their incomprehensibly distant stars when Abydosaurus and the monument’s other dinosaurs still walked the Earth. Seeing the illuminated points scattered over the park’s gorgeously-exposed geologic formations – the rocks little more than inky outlines in the dark – I felt like a time traveler standing between Earth and sky. There are few moments in my life when I have been as overtaken by sheer wonder and joy at the universe we live in.
Yet, despite how enraptured I felt by Deep Time, the horror novelist Stephen King thinks that I was missing out on the true wonder of existence. That’s because I’m an atheist, and, on NPR’s Fresh Air, King delivered this condescending quote about those who don’t see divinity in nature:
If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design.
I really don’t care about Stephen King’s views on the existence or non-existence of deities. That’s very, very far down on my list of issues worth worrying about. But King’s quote represents a snobbish and pervasive belief that those who see no evidence of gods are somehow impoverished in their lives. Creationists have been peddling this arrogant argument for quite some time – that without a god, the universe is purposeless and we are trapped in a nihilistic march towards oblivion.
I don’t feel that lack of hope or fascination. I’m not crippled by the sense of emptiness King and others presume I must feel.
We live in an indifferent universe. There is no destiny or plan, and Nature was not created for our benefit. Yet we’re still here. Our lineage goes back billions of years to the last common ancestor of all life on Earth, giving us traits in common with ever single living organism, and our ancestors have been fortunate enough to persist through the five worst global catastrophes of all time. At so many points in the past – whether minor in scale or as devastating as an asteroid striking the planet – history could have turned out quite differently, creating circumstances that would have prevented our evolution. We’ll never know all those alternatives. All we know is what has actually transpired.
To repeat a line from my book Written in Stone, we are creatures of time and chance. How wonderful is that? Out of all the innumerable possibilities in the history of life on Earth, a string of circumstances billions of years long transpired in such a way as to allow the origin of our species (and also accounts for the loss of all our human relatives along the way). And this unintended state of nature makes a humble bee pollinating a flower, a sunrise, the division of a cell, the jagged outline of a mountain in twilight, the petrified record of the dinosaurs, and everything else in existence all the more spectacular. (Paleontology and natural history are what I love most; we all admire different aspects of nature.) None of that was ordained to exist, and yet evolution and other ongoing natural processes have nonetheless generated phenomena which are not only beautiful, but comprehensible to us.
There is no need for the supernatural to invoke or appreciate wonder. And rather than reducing nature to equations and graphs, I truly believe that science – our ability to actually understand why bees pollinate flowers, why mountains rise, and how remnants of ancient life became locked in stone – makes the world all the more exquisite by not only giving us clues, but new questions to ask.
The closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection are some of the most reprinted words in all of science. So much so that they’ve become a little worn and cliche when plopped down into seemingly every book about evolution in existence. But no matter how many times you’ve read the lines, take a breath and really read Darwin’s conclusion over again:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Even as the specter of death hung over his “entangled bank”, Darwin was still in exuberant awe over such a simple natural process that could account for so much of what we find beautiful about life. Understanding the origin of such diverse and disparate organisms only makes our world feel more magnificent. I dare Stephen King to write a more beautiful tribute to nature.”
Russian cosmonaut doing maintenance on the International Space Station yesterday
Michel @quark1972 created this incredible image which shows the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to scale with Los Angeles.
The comet in question is the one Europe recently reached with their Rosetta spacecraft.
Just as there are planets of burning ice, there is a star in the constellation Lyra that is cold enough that you could drink or swim in it (although you’d die from non-burning things if you did so).
Enter WISE 1828+2650, a brown dwarf star that gently sits at a comfortable 80˚ F (25˚ C).
This happened because the star didn’t have enough mass to crush hydrogen atoms together that would start the fusion process (nuclear fusion is what generates the heat stars traditionally emit).
I would love to know your personal thoughts on BICEP2, specifically the more conservative peer-reviewed findings reported in June verses March. I would also like to know your thoughts on the LHC's lack of evidence of supersymmetry. What are your thought son scale symmetry as an alternative? I would like to know what you think of the multiverse and the anthropic principle. I don't mean to bombard you with questions but I have no one to talk to about these things. Thanks.
Unfortunately I’ve not actually read the BICEP2 papers in person but from what I’ve heard though everyone’s on edge about it now.
I do personally hope it turns out to be true. Groundbreaking discoveries are hard to come by. I’m eagerly awaiting news from the ESA’s Planck Space Telescope which, from what it sounds like, may be able to either confirm BICEP2’s claim or annihilate it.
As for supersymmetry… I don’t know. Has there been any evidence for it? It’s sort of just a pretty principle as far as I can tell. (For others, supersymmetry is an idea that all material particles (fermions) and force particles (bosons) are both essentially described by the same math).
I know nothing about scale symmetry but I’ve heard they’re going to investigate the scalar boson at the LHC in the future… is this what you’re talking about?
If you’re into supersymmetry I need to ask, have you heard of Dr. James Gates? Theoretical physicist in Maryland.
Apparently he’s found strings of self-correcting computer code embedded within the mathematics of supersymmetry (or so I assume it was suppersymmetry as that’s his bag).
I’m actually a fan of multiverse “theory”. I think we’re long overdue for a breakthrough in string theory, that poor subject has gone stale in recent years.
You should DEFINITELY listen to Radiolab’s podcast episode The (Multi) Universe(s) (and that actually goes for anyone reading this (it’s not technical, anyone can understand what they’re saying and it’s super creepy/cool)).
The most remarkable things happen when you push the laws of physics to their extremes. Such a place where this happens is space:
Far away in the Gliese star system is a Neptune-sized planet called Gliese 436 b. This world is covered in ice that burns constantly at 822.2˚ Fahrenheit (439˚ C).
The reason why the water doesn’t liquify and then turn into steam is due to the massive gravity of the planet - it exerts so much force on the water that the atoms are bound tightly together as a solid.
So what you're saying is - you kind of just graduated university? Did you study physics specifically or did you fit yourself to a practical approach and chose the path of an engineer?
So I was actually an English major, creative writing focus, for three years. I switched to physics officially about a year ago. Unofficially I’ve been watching Carl Sagan videos on repeat for a few years.
My declared majors are astronomy and physics (double major). I’m open to the possibility of an engineering path in graduate school but I think I’ll have to follow the drive of my passion which is leading me to a PhD direction in astronomy
*also still in school
Mind me asking, how old are you? This much knowledge must come from more than 5 years of studying physics
Well since the answer to your questions are 24 and a year, I’m taking this as a huge compliment.
It may seem like a lot of stuff to take in but people have far more potential than they give themselves credit for. FAR more.
There’s a question that means a lot to me personally that I would do almost anything to have answered. It’s the driving force behind so much in my life and is what I ask myself whenever the math gets hard.
I think many people (all?) have something inside them like that. Something inside them that shows itself as a passionate interest or hobby. I’ve been lucky enough that mine is a part of what I study and will do for work.
It’s easy for me to suggest everyone follow their dreams when mine will translate into some sort of job but I do believe very much that if you find the right outlet, a person’s inner passion can awaken potential that surpasses expectations.
Did you know that in 2006-2007, Earth had a second moon?
Pandora’s Cluster: The blue is dark matter holding the galaxies together
Gravity interacts with light.
This may not sound profound but scientists have learned to do great things with as little as possible.
By looking at the light being stretched by things with lots of gravity (galaxies, stars, etc.), they can watch distant objects passing behind get stretched out.
This technique, called gravitational lensing, is a circumstantial one but cheap and profound.
Recently the combination of our amazing space telescopes and gravitational lensing have found the oldest galaxy ever. It’s called Abell2744 Y1.
Abel2744 Y1 is 13,150,000,000 light years away.
Light from that galaxy has been traveling towards Earth longer than our solar system has existed… more than three times the age of our solar system actually.