Navigation Bar
MAIN Cheap Thoughts Cheap Thoughts Index Cheap Thoughts on Science Really Cheap Thoughts Index


Cheap Thoughts on Science




For a long period of time there was much speculation and controversy about where the so-called "missing matter" of the Universe had got to. All over the Galaxy the science departments of all the major universities were acquiring more and elaborate equipment to probe and search the hearts of distant galaxies, and then the very center and the very edges of the whole Universe, but when eventually it was tracked down it turned out in fact to be all the stuff which the equipment had been packed in.
     Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless (1992)


If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking upon Creation, I should have recommended something simpler.
     Alfonso X attributed, on having the Ptolemaic
     system of astronomy explained to him


The Moon and its phases gave man his first calendar. Trying to match that calendar with the seasons helped give him mathematics. The usefulness of the calendar helped give rise to the thought of beneficent gods. And with all that the Moon is beautiful, too.
     Isaac Asimov


Whatever else astronomy may or may not be who can doubt it to be the most beautiful of the sciences?
     Isaac Asimov


What scientists are learning ... is something that many of us have suspected for a long time, namely that the universe is made up almost entirely of dirt. More and more, scientists are suspecting that the Big Bang was in fact the explosion of a small buy very densely packed vacuum cleaner bag.
     Dave Barry, Dave Barry's Homes and Other Black Holes (1988)


Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced.  Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang.  The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)


This is one reason that some experts believe there may have been many other big bangs, perhaps trillions and trillions of them, spread through the mighty span of eternity, and that the reason we exist in this particular one is that this is one we could exist in.  As Edward P. Tryon of Columbia University once put it:  “In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”  To which adds [Alan] Guth:  “Although the creation of a universe might be very unlikely, Tryon emphasized that no one had counted the failed attempts.”
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)


Telescope, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details. Luckily it is unprovided with a bell summoning us to the sacrifice.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


I've never owned a telescope, but it's something I'm thinking of looking into.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


According to astronomers, next week Wednesday will occur twice. They say such a thing happens only once every 60,000 years and although they don't know why it occurs, they're glad they have an extra day to figure it out.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


Every breath you take contains atoms forged in the blistering furnaces deep inside stars. Every flower you pick contains atoms blasted into space by stellar explosions that blazed brighter than a billion suns. Every book you read contains atoms blown across unimaginable gulfs of space and time by the wind between the stars.
     Marcus Chown The Magic Furnace: The
     Search for the Origins of Atoms (2001)


Ten years of radio astronomy have taught humanity more about the creation and organization of the universe than thousands of years of religion and philosophy.
     P. C. W. Davis, from Space and Time in the Modern Universe


We’ve sent out some symbolic broadcasts - scribbled a few simple messages and tossed them out there in leaky electromagnetic bottles.  We’ve attached notes to our four spacecraft (so far) that are leaving the solar system, just in case they wash up somewhere.  And of course, if anyone is really hunting for the likes of us, our presence is not a well-kept secret:  for decades, we have been leaking our sitcoms, talk shows, and ebullient commercials for Jesus, minivans, and beer.  A spherical shell of radio signals is expanding outward from Earth, its diameter increasing at twice the speed of light.  As I write, this sphere forms a ball of news, entertainment, psychobabble, and advertising 166 light-years in diameter.  In the time it took you to read this sentence, it grew by another million miles. The nearest stars are only about four light-years away.
     These indiscretions might have tipped off some of our closest neighbors that something is up on the third stone from the Sun.  Would they conclude from these transmissions that we are intelligent, or merely that some nutcases have stumbled upon primitive radio technology?
     David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets:  The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (2004)


Long before we became creatures living within a planetary biosphere, and just before we became a preplanetary disk of debris circling a young Sun, we were a molecular cloud floating in the arms of the Milky Way.  Then, everything in our entire solar system was smoothly blended, drifting together in this diffuse cloud of gas and dust.  You, me, the Elephant Man, the Dalai Lama, the neighbor’s barking dog, the flower shop down the street, the Great Wall of China, the core of the Earth, the Sun, and the planet Neptune:  we were all one.  Of course we still are, but back then it would have been obvious even without the aid of meditation, psychedelics, or quantum mechanics, as we were all ground up and commingled, all one and the same cloud.
     David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets:  The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (2004)


How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them. A very fit consideration, and matter of Reflection, for those Kings and Princes who sacrifice the Lives of so many People, only to flatter their Ambition in being Masters of some pitiful corner of this small Spot.
     Christiaan Huygens, c. 1690


Damn the Solar System. Bad light; planets too distant; pestered with comets; feeble contrivance; could make a better myself.
     Francis [Lord] Jeffery


Now read on . . .
     When does it start?
     There are very few starts. Oh, some things seem to be beginnings. The curtain goes up, the first pawn moves, the first shot is fired [Probably at the first pawn.] — but that's not the start. The play, the game, the war is just a little window on a ribbon of events that may extend back thousands of years. The point is, there's always something before. It's always a case of Now Read On.
     Much human ingenuity has gone into finding the ultimate Before.
     The current state of knowledge can be summarized thus:
     In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.
     Other theories about the ultimate start involve gods creating the universe out of the ribs, entrails, and testicles of their father. [Gods like a joke as much as anyone else.] There are quite a lot of these. They are interesting, not for what they tell you about cosmology, but for what they say about people. Hey, kids, which part do you think they made your town out of?
     Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (1992)


The dark night was the first book of poetry and the constellations were the poems.
     Chet Raymo, An Intimate Look at the Night Sky


In the streets of a modern city the night sky is invisible; in rural districts, we move in cars with bright headlights. We have blotted out the heavens, and only a few scientists remain aware of stars and planets, meteorites and comets.
     Bertrand Russell


At the very moment that humans discovered the scale of the universe and found that their most unconstrained fancies were in fact dwarfed by the true dimensions of even the Milky Way Galaxy, they took steps that ensured that their descendants would be unable to see the stars at all. ... Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky, a cosmic isolationism that ended only with the dawn of space exploration.
     Carl Sagan, Contact (1985)


The nice thing about astronomy is that "up" is perfectly arbitrary.
     Carl Sagan, "Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?"
     (Lecture, Austin, October 11, 1993)


"What a beautiful sunset," we say, or "I'm up before sunrise." No matter what the scientists allege, in everyday speech we often ignore their findings. We don't talk about the Earth turning, but about the Sun rising and setting. Try formulating it in Copernican language. Would you say, "Billy, be home by the time the Earth has rotated enough so as to occult the Sun below the local horizon?" Billy would be long gone before you're finished. We haven't been able even to find a graceful locution that accurately conveys the heliocentric insight. We at the center and everything else circling us is built into our languages; we teach it to our children. We are unreconstructed geocentrists hiding behind a Copernican veneer. [One of the few quasi-Copernican expressions in English is "The Universe doesn't revolve around you" — an astronomical truth intended to bring fledgling narcissists down to Earth.]
     Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision
     of the Human Future in Space (1994)


All humans are brothers. We came from the same supernova.
     Allan Sandage


The stars ain't so close together as they look to be.
     Mark Twain, "Extract from Captain
     Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" (1907)


An occultation of Venus is not half so difficult as an eclipse of the Sun, but because it comes seldom the world thinks it's a grand thing.
     Mark Twain, More Maxims of Mark (Merle Johnson, ed., 1927)


Light-year. This is without doubt the most stupendous and impressive phrase that exists in any language.
     Mark Twain, Bernard DeVoto (ed.), Mark Twain in Eruption (1940)


The most famous telescope in modern times is, of course, the Hubble, known to the public primarily through the beautiful, full-color, high-resolution images it has produced of objects in the universe. The problem here is that after viewing such exhibits, you wax poetic about the beauty of the universe yet are no closer than before to understanding how it all works. ... While much good science has come from the Hubble telescope (including the most reliable measure to date for the expansion rate of the universe), you would never know from media accounts that the foundation of our cosmic knowledge continues to flow primarily from the analysis of spectra and not from looking at pretty pictures.
     Neil de Grasse Tyson, "Over the Rainbow"
     (Natural History, September 2001, p. 30)



"The Galaxy Song"

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see,
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the Galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Our galaxy itself, contains a hundred billion stars,
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side,
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point,
We go round every two hundred million years.
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding Universe.

The Universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whiz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember when you're feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space
Cause there's bugger-all down here on earth.

     Eric Idle, "Galaxy Song," Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)