February 20th, 2019

planet

astrophysics on audio

I switched away from podcasts on my commute to work and now listen to audiobooks on CD. I get them from the library. I drive a 2014 ford and the bluetooth sync doesn't work very well, I have to go through a series of buttons EVERY TIME I get in my car. I'm pretty bitter about it, because when I travel I get rental cars, sync up once and then for the rest of my trip every time I get in the car my phone syncs and my podcasts start where they left off. so obviously I know how to sync a phone to a car system. my car just sucks at it.

I've gotten pretty fast at the menu navigation to sync every time, but it's still a Thing To Do every time I get in the car and if I'm not driving very far it's barely worth it.

CDs may be 1990s technology but they remember their place and start right up when I start my car.

They're also a good way for me to read through science books that I had trouble focusing on in book form.

I've now listened to...

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Glass Universe was tedious, I hate to say it, made me glad I did not become an astronomer. It's about women in the late 1800s/early 1900s employed by the Harvard Observatory to take photos of stars and evaluate their spectral properties. Really interesting stories and discoveries, but you get a sense that they were all like "Well there's a billion stars in the universe. Let's check them out. 1. 2. 3. [flash forward 12 years] 5,678. 5,679. 5,680."

The last chapter of the book finally ADMITTED IT, it's not that these women were being given repetitive grunt work. Astronomy was, and in many cases still is, repetitive grunt work. It is not terribly exciting. The sky is big. The work is long.

So on to modern science... Carlo Rovelli, Neil deGrasse Tyson... the sky is big. The explanations are shorter! We now know that the spiral shapes are galaxies - something that was quite a debate at the turn of the century. We've learned a lot. But the sky is still big, and there's a feeling that we're slogging through it.

Both of their books can't help but throw you into the excessive size of the universe, and that's where I have to find a new topic, because it's just depressing. The milky way is barely a blip in the universe. earth isn't even a blip in the milky way. We humans aren't even a blip on the earth! We've been around maybe 200,000 years, the earth is 4.5 billion years old... that is 0.004%. And we are not exactly lining ourselves up to make it a ton more years like the alligators, we're trying very hard to blow ourselves up rather than leave behind anything lasting or discoverable.

NDT says they size of the universe makes him feel just great. it's a comfort, he explains, kind of like when your toddler breaks a toy and you're there with your adult knowledge to say "kid, there are lots more toys, in the long run your problem really does not matter at all, once you see the grand scheme of things." we are all toddlers, and knowing about the universe is the best way to make the little earthly drama we have go away.

I'm not quite with him yet. I get to work after this reminder that nothing matters, and try to help people and think small in my very practical world. I'm glad I didn't pick a career where I'd have to reconcile with the whole of the universe every day. I need to move on to the next section at my library.