Urania

A blog named for the muse of Astronomy containing musings by an astronomer

How a scientist sees the world…

Posted on June 12, 2010 by Juan

When I first started teaching at Saint Cloud State over a decade ago, I worked with a fellow named Ted Bunn. He is a theorist, which of course means as a observational astronomer that I have to joke about how all he had to do to get a Ph.D. was “invent a particle.” The truth is however that theorists sometimes amaze me. It has taken me a decade a teaching to feel like I really understand undergraduate physics. These guys get there quicker.

Anyway, Ted now keeps a blog which often has what I find to be insightful little posts one what it is like to be a scientist. Today (June 12, 2010) Ted posted a short post about an Abstruse Goose comic about how scientists view the world:

Abstruse Goose 275

Ted then quotes Richard Feynman on something that I think is very true about scientists:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, ‘I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.’ I think he’s kind of nutty …. There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts. (From What Do You Care What Other People Think?)

I’ll admit, I don’t quite see the world as equations as implied by the figure, but I am constantly fascinated by trying to understand “how things work.”  Earlier this week, I was mowing the grass and I started wondering “what are the minimal conditions necessary for a planet to form on which grass could grow?”  I started thinking about the need for the planet to be composed of the right materials, that is rock.  For a planet to be rocky, there needs to be  heavier elements like silicon and iron in the early solar nebula.  The universe started with no silicon or iron, these elements are forged at the centers of high mass starts and then expelled into the interstellar medium when these high-mass stars explode in supernova.  This means grass can only grow in a universe that has been around long enough for a few generations of high-mass stars to have lived there lives so that the fraction of heavier elements is high enough for rocky worlds to form…  This thought process  happened in a span of maybe 15 seconds… and I didn’t even get started on considering all the other factors which actually affect the ability for a rocky world to harbor life.  Scientists really do get to awe at the universe around them in a way other people don’t.

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