My entire life would have been different if it weren’t for the constellation of Orion. It was the signpost that arose in my life saying, “Astronomy! Over here!” I don’t remember much in the years before I saw Orion (I was about 10 at the time), but from that point on, every birthday and Christmas was marked by the acquisition of yet another book on astronomy or poster with a deep sky object on it. The Night Sky. The Atlas of the Solar System. A Young Astronomer’s Guide to the Something or Other. I was in love. I was obsessed.
I wanted to know it all. How did stars work? What was light, really? What was the cause of all this beauty?
Three decades later, I have The Scientists’ Stories to answer those questions. I can expound at length on the hydrogen burning that causes nuclear fusion and stellar evolution. I have given lectures on the age and scale of the universe. I have run the calculations of the equations that describe light, solved the Schroedinger equation for a particle in a box, and derived the quantum states that describe spin splitting. Subatomic physics. Newtonian mechanics. Cosmology. Optics. When I was nearing the end of my first degree, somebody asked me what I was studying, and I replied glibly (waving my hands to communicate the range of scales from femtometer to billions of light years) “Oh… everything.”
There is something deeply enticing about those mathematical models. There is a sense that you are learning the language of the universe… the language by which the particles communicate with one another across distance. The elegant dance of the heavens is, in this way, predictable, comprehensible, something to be embraced rather than feared. There doesn’t have to be an answer to the “why”, the “how” is enough.
That’s why I studied physics, anyway. Orion… beauty of the universe… elegance of mathematics… naturally.
I’m not a physicist. That is to say that I haven’t worked as a physicist since the mid-90’s. There is one route into that castle, and I stepped off the path just before the drawbridge. Other questions were haunting me.
Yet to this day, I am struck dumb by the beauty of the night sky. I feel so a part of it all, that I can reach out my consciousness and ask the sun how it’s doing. I’ve never stopped being that girl who used to lie on her back with a friend under the night sky and speculate, “Do you think that there are other kids out there, looking back at us?” “How far do you think it is to that star?” And most importantly, “Do you think any of it means anything?”
If you need to spend some time immersed in the deep sky and the glory of the universe, allow me to point you to the spectacular website provided by Jet Propulsion Labs.