Some time in my mid-twenties I developed a crazy obsession with astronomy. I mean I went nuts over it.
Professor Brian Cox definitely had a lot to do with it. I can’t fully recall, but I think it was when Wonders of the Solar System first appeared on BBC. I saw it advertised and thought ‘now that sounds interesting; I must give it a watch’. After five minutes I was hooked.
The reason I can’t properly recall whether it was Wonders that got me hooked on astronomy is because I was either into it a bit beforehand, saw it advertised and was keen to watch or Wonders itself awoke my obsession with the subject.
Regardless, my affinity for the moons, planets and stars awoke within me and I’ve never looked back. Granted, my enthusiasm isn’t quite what it once was as other things have taken precedence; such as fatherhood and a fervent desire to make it as a writer.
The passion never goes away though and I still love getting onto the subject when it comes up. For a while it became a virtual obsession. So much so that I couldn’t just leave it at stargazing. I had to delve deeper. I always have to delve deeper when I get into something. Knowing something on the surface is very rarely enough for me. So in I plunged.
Astrophysics and particle physics were ventured into. I bought books on the subjects and gamely read them cover to cover. At this juncture I began to realise that I was perhaps out of my depth. While some of it made sense in a roundabout way, a lot of it really didn’t. I like to kid myself and try to pretend it was maybe too profound for me to get to grips with, but I know it’s really because I lack the intelligence. A lot of algebraic equations contained within and I was always useless at algebra.
What I did glean from my love affair with astronomy and its intimately linked scientific brothers and sisters was enough to change the way I saw and indeed still see the world. I see time in a completely different way. A million years seems like such a long time to any person because we can only ever think relative to our own needs, wants and ambitions when in actual fact a million years is the cosmic blink of an eye. Really; it’s a very short length of time.
I’ve had a lot of questions asked of me regarding astronomy and there are some that I love answering. So here’s a list of a few of them.
- What is the sun? – There’s a common belief amongst the laymen that the sun is in effect a great big ball of fire. Why wouldn’t you think that? It’s bright and really hot. But scratch the surface of fire and how it works and you’ll soon realise how implausible the fire theory is. Fire needs fuel and oxygen to survive. First of all, what feeds the flame of the sun for it to have burned for 4.5 billion years? Secondly, and most pertinently, space is a vacuum so where is the fire getting its oxygen from? The sun is not a wildly burning fire. It’s basically a nuclear reactor of biblically large proportions (although by no means the largest; not by a long a way). Deep inside the sun, hydrogen is being converted to helium under immense pressure at a rate so staggering that the numbers wouldn’t make sense. This creates the energy, heat and light we survive on. There’s a lot more to it than that, but in a nutshell that’s what the sun is and what it does.
- Is there life elsewhere apart from earth? – This is a question with no definite answer; only a hypothesised one. My opinion is that the universe is too big and the stars and planets too numerous for there not to be life elsewhere. We also have to look at it from the perspective that we only know life as it exists on earth. We have no idea that these are necessarily the only conditions life needs to thrive. But if we stick with the earth model for now then we may not need to look into distant space to one day discover life elsewhere. Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, are ice worlds with vast underwater oceans. It’s a widely held belief that life on earth began in oceans around hydrothermal vents. If tidal stretching is creating enough heat on the moons then these vents could exist on the ocean floors of them. Imagine that; potential life virtually on our doorstep.
- How fast is the speed of light? – This is a number I’ve committed to memory. The speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 metres per second, or 670,616,629.4mph. To put that into perspective, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport is currently the fastest production car in the world with a top speed of 119.742 metres per second (267.86mph). The fastest man made object was the solar probe, Helios 2, setting the record in 1976 at 70,220 metres per seconds (157,100mph). As you can see, light is a wee bit faster. It’s the fastest moving thing in the known universe. It takes light an average of 500 seconds or 8 minutes and 20 seconds to cover the 93,000,000 miles separating the surface of the sun and the earth.
- What is the brightest/biggest star/object in the sky? – The sun, to be facetious, is the brightest object in the sky and from our perspective about the same size as the moon; the second brightest. But to be un-facetious, the brightest object in the night sky after the moon is Venus. It can be seen either in the early evening or early morning depending on earth and Venus’ respective position at the time and is strikingly beautiful. Jupiter and Mars can also shine (or rather reflect light) very brightly and are extremely prominent. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius aka the Dog Star and sits in the constellation Canis Major. The largest object in the night sky is both difficult and easy to answer. It’s easy to answer because the largest object you can see with the naked eye is the galaxy Andromeda, but as it’s effectively a collection of objects I’m not sure it counts. UY Scuti in the constellation Scutum COULD be the largest star in the sky at 1,708 times the size of the sun. If placed in the middle of the Solar System its photosphere would stretch out beyond the orbit of Jupiter, but scientists aren’t sure if that’s how big it actually is.
- Do you think we’ll ever populate other planets? – The short answer to this question is yes; I think it’s inevitable if we don’t wipe ourselves out beforehand. The more elaborate answer is that we as humans are on a path of using up every natural resource that earth has to offer such is our insatiable greed as a species. These resources are not everlasting nor easily replenished. Our options are to find alternative methods of garnering power (such methods are being practiced as we know) or to leave the planet and see what else is out there. Asteroid mining is a well-documented plan. But let’s imagine our actions render earth uninhabitable; something that I think is entirely feasible. We’ll have no choice but to see what else is available regardless of how much it costs and this is why I believe the space programmes continue regardless of widespread hunger and poverty. We will put a man on Mars one day.
I’ve been asked many more questions beyond, but these are certainly the ones I’ve had to answer more than most. There are people out there who could answer each question much more thoroughly, but I always like to take my marker from the aforementioned Professor Cox; a simple to understand explanation that doesn’t condescend.
I could literally talk about astronomy from the moment I wake until I fall asleep. It’s a fascinating subject and I can’t understand anybody who doesn’t have even a passive interest in it.
It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do. I’ll always be able to look up at the night sky and smile regardless of what’s going on in my life because I’m a part, no matter how infinitesimal, of this amazingly diverse and wondrous universe.
Are you a fan of astronomy? Do you have anything you desperately want to know about the cosmos? Is there anything you might want to correct me on? Post a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I possibly can.