Category Archives: Armchair Astrophysics

Scientific declarations at 29 months

“That’s a googoo years from now. That’s a long time.” (Attempting to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

That’s Brian Greene. That’s my brudder (brother) beyond the elegant universe.”

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I’m the human that was born…

“I’m the human that was boooooorn…” he says, spinning around, looking up towards the ceiling with his hand dangling over his face.

“I’m the human that was boooooorn…” he trips and falls, face-first into the carpet, then pulls himself up, sobbing.

I use mommy snuggles and kisses to coax him back into a happy state.

“Are you the human that was born?” I ask him.

“I’m the human that was born in the puzzle,” he says.

“What did you say?”

“I’m the human that was born in the puzzle.”

He smiles at me and nods, as though he’s certain I will understand exactly what that means.

Update 9/11/07: Last night he added one more (surprising) detail to this mantra: “I am the human that was born in the puzzle of modern physics.” No joke.

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Oh My Stars! Or, an ordinary woman tries to comprehend the size of the universe

I know an awful lot more about space today than I did a year ago. I suspected I had something to do with my son’s intense interest in the cosmos because I did watch an awful lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns on the DVR during the first three or four months of his life, when the better part of our days were spent nursing and napping. But I couldn’t have named the Galilean moons of Jupiter. Or told you the names of any galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

These days, if I don’t clue in to words like quasar and understand that there are far more elaborate whirlpools than the ones that we see when the bathtub drains, I miss out on a lot of things that Declan is thinking about.

I grew up with the original Star Trek. Reruns, mind you. I remember exploring strange new worlds and civilizations on my back patio in New Jersey with my mom, brother and some friends. A small curtain was our transporter, and I was always Uhuru because she was the only female character. (I had high hopes for Lieutenant Tracy, but she was offered up for slaughter as quickly as she appeared on the show.)

Somewhere between my new cosmic awareness and a few Voyager and Deep Space Nine reruns in the past year, it finally dawned on me that I have been watching in relative ignorance. I either nodded off in 6th grade science or I just haven’t paid enough attention to space news over the years. At minimum, I glazed over during technical dialogue in Star Trek too often. I was never really conscious of the fact that the whole thing takes place in our Milky Way galaxy alone, and most of it in just one quadrant of our galaxy. Of course, that is not a small area. Our sun is, after all, one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. If we actually do make it to a significant number of other solar systems within those 25 billion-ish stars by the 23rd or 24th centuries, we will have made some kick-ass technological leaps.

Somehow, in my childhood brain, I never really differentiated between “galaxy” and “universe” and that stuck with me through adulthood. I never contemplated the massive stretches of void between this galaxy and another. I never really thought about other galaxies, because Earth alone has generally been plenty big enough for me to try and fathom. But beyond the 100 billion neighborhood stars in our neighborhood, the Hubble telescope tells us that there are at least 100 billion other galaxies. And presumably, many of those galaxies have their own 100 billion stars, at least.

Now they have found a HUGE hole in the universe that is nearly one billion light-years across. This means, I am told, that it’s about the size of 10,000 of our Milky Way galaxies laid end-to-end. These figures are so mind-boggling to me, the theory that we are all really just Sims begin to make sense.

I find something comforting in these new, daily reminders and revelations that I’m smaller, and more insignificant than I ever imagined. For a few moments, it can turn ordinary concerns – like the 20 percent increase in my health care premium that I just got word of in the mail on Saturday – to stardust.

Life soundtrack: The Ventures, Gold, “Telstar”
The Ventures - Gold - Telstar

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Dark & Elegant Matters

(Note: this video is longer, and of a higher quality, so it may take some time to load.)

We found this huge book on the Cosmos at Borders a few weeks ago. High atop a display of discount outer space books, Declan asked me to get the “Bero Galaxy book.” For those of you who, like me (before I had a space-obsessed child), would have no idea what that might mean – it’s a book with a picture of the Sombrero Galaxy on its cover. Filled with huge images taken by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, as well as various other spacecrafts, he was excited to see things he loves, like the Galilean moons of Jupiter, in such detail.

And he stunned me a bit by identifying not only the things I knew he knew, but by saying things like “oh, these are the train wrecks,” when I turned to the page that showed distant galaxies colliding with one another. He can also identify many planets and moons in our solar system by their surfaces – the volcanoes on Mars, the pock-marks of Mercury – and the long arms and glowing cores of several different galaxies. His father and I are confounded by this on pretty much a daily basis, and grateful to be learning that we are even tinier specks in the universe than we ever thought possible.

“That is a really good space book,” he told me confidently after we spent 10 minutes on the floor of the bookstore, flipping through and talking about the pictures.

His favorite thing to watch lately has been the Nova special The Elegant Universe, about string theory. I have watched this with him at least two or three times now and much flies over my head. Declan likes me to watch it with him and explains some of the basics to me: “It’s everything, mommy. It’s everything.”

A few days ago, a young pregnant woman flirted with Declan in the grocery line. He peered around the shopping cart at her, sweet and shy. She waved at him and said “Hi there! How old are you?”

This is a question people ask him all the time, but he doesn’t seem all that interested in answering or even knowing the answer.

I leaned over to him and said, “can you tell her how old you are? Do you know you are two? Can you say ‘I’m two?'”

He looked right at her and said “It’s an elegant universe.”

She looked at me curiously and I interpreted. “He said ‘it’s an elegant universe.'”

She looked pleased and surprised as she touched her belly.

“He has a lot of answers about the big things,” I offered. “Details like his age – not so much.”

“Who needs to know they’re two when they know that?” she said, then she leaned down and looked right at him. “I hope you keep thinking about the big things and the elegant universe for a long, long time. I hope you don’t forget them when you get older.”

Life soundtrack: The Elegants, Little Star: Best of The Elegants, “Little Star”
The Elegants - Little Star:  The Best Of The Elegants - Little Star (LP Version)

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The search for E.T.

I had no idea that Columbus was home to an influential scientist in the search for intelligent life. (The comments tied to this story are a scream.) Too bad that this man is leaving, he might have found an acolyte in Declan.

I’ve run SETI at Home on my computers for years. You should too!

Life soundtrack: David Bowie, Hunky Dory, “Life on Mars”
David Bowie - Hunky Dory - Life On Mars?

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Name change

I’m finally happy with the name of my blog!

Here are some of the tiny mantras that currently rule my world:

“Galaxies fade away, all stars merge.”

“Just the right speed! Just the right angle!”

“Mommy! Daddy! Baby! Arrow!”

“Saturn has rings.”

“Jupiter’s going ’round the spot’s going round Jupiter’s going round the spot, Jupiter.”

The last one is a pretty apt description of Jupiter’s atmosphere, as I understand it. It also reminds me of my favorite Lewis Carroll quote: “Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

Happy Comfest.

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Andy Wormhole

One of the great joys of the DVR is the fact that I can catch up on all of the old episodes of Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that I missed when I had a social life. (I managed to pull off watching all of The Next Generation episodes I hadn’t seen before during those first few months of napping and nursing.)

As a result Declan has two requests that he makes daily: “space show watch?” and “wormhole watch?” These are usually code for “lie down and snuggle with me after I jump up and down while looking at images of space.”

But it’s more than a TV/snuggling fixation. His vocabulary expands daily: rocketship, Earth, meteor, planet. Space toys, outside of Twilight Turtle aren’t very easy to find at his developmental level. I stapled cosmic felt onto a board for the playroom last week, threw velcro backing on some glow in the dark stars and made a few planets and spaceships for him to stick on there. I think he would prefer that the whole room was covered in felt so he could stick these things wherever he wished, but at least it’s getting a little use.

When I went to a craft store to get some things for this project the other day, I also spotted a small reproduction of Andy Warhol’s painting, “Space ship” on sale for $2.50. I snagged it and handed it to Declan as soon as I walked in the door. “Space ship!” his father trumpeted.

“Oooooh! Space ship,” Declan repeated.

“It’s Andy Warhol,” I told them.

“Andy Wormhole!” said Declan, wandering into the living room, holding it in his hands. “Space ship wormhole!”

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