So why do we do science anyway?

September 27, 2010

The title of this particular post is what I am currently pondering, as I sit at a remote observing station in a forlorn basement, hitting a timer to ensure a telescope knows I’m still alive (as if an inanimate object cared) and praying that the star fields I’m observing will finally get to low enough air masses so I can take a two hour nap before I take the rest of the data at dawn.  Normally I have no problem doing crazy things in the name of science, but tonight I’m particularly whiny because I forgot to buy energy drinks and seem to have lost my ability to do arithmetic.

Ever since I made the decision to major in physics, everyone in my life has always asked why.  After all, my parents expected me to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something else of the sort.  Growing up, I had little interest in math, thought computer programming was for video game-obsessed boys, and wasn’t particularly enthused by my first physics class.  I actually wanted to be an engineer, simply because it involved math, which I was semi-decent at, and I could make a very comfortable living doing it.  Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never be filthy rich, and now spend my days around chalkboards arguing with smelly boys and my nights in a basement, controlling a telescope across the bay.

What happened?  Well, I could tell you about my overly-romanticized notion of science, watching far too many PBS specials, or the cool toys I get to play with, but that’s not what changed my mind.  It was actually my sophomore year of college, on the last day of my introductory Electricity and Magnetism course.  It was an 8 AM class, so I was armed with my trustworthy cup of coffee and was fully prepared to frantically scribble down notes of what could possibly be on our imminent final.  Instead, our professor quickly stated that none of what would be an onslaught of equations would be on the exam.  I, like the rest of the class, was slightly annoyed, but figured that since I was already up, I might as well stay and watch my professor frantically scribble down math with no particular end in sight.  After all, it would be a shame to waste a perfectly good cup of coffee.  Well, as I would later discover, our professor happened to be deriving the speed of light from Maxwell’s equations; the very same equations we had spent the better part of a semester studying.  As I followed his steps, I came to an epiphany: this really isn’t very difficult.  While you need a lot of preparation in order to understand the equations (namely a year of calculus and a couple semesters of physics) but what you were learning was simply the grammar of a language; a language spoken by the entire universe.  The speed of light was not some magical number, determined by nerdy guys in lab coats measuring light in vacuums, it was a fundamental constant of nature, with all the components of the universe simultaneously agreeing on a single number (which, incidentally, is confirmed by nerdy guys in lab coats).  Furthermore, this deep realization did not come from some obscenely difficult calculation; it was something that lower division physics students could’ve done, with a bit of prodding.  It was simple, elegant, and beautiful.  After coming to that realization, I came to the conclusion that I had to know more.  If something that fundamental can come out of such simple manipulations, what else is out there, just waiting to be discovered?  I, quite simply, would never be happy doing anything else.

So, that’s my story.  What’s yours?

Incidentally, if you’re curious, this is a quick explanation of Maxwell’s equations and the derivation I’ve been rambling about.

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