Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

That’s Astronomy Too

Seeking any port in a scientific storm

Sometimes people ask me why I write about so many different topics. My answer is always the same. “Because that’s astronomy, too.”

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


A student needing science credits to graduate flips through the catalog. He considers biology for a moment, but that sounds squishy. Chemistry sounds smelly. Geology sounds … well, how much fun could rocks be? He doesn’t even glance at physics.

That leaves astronomy. “Stars? I can do stars. Sign me up!”

The irony is that astronomy is physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and most other kinds of science you can think of. Throw in some history, politics, math, computer science, engineering, and philosophy for good measure. Astronomy is an any-port-in-a-storm science. Astronomers don’t get to put a star in a laboratory where we can poke it and prod it under controlled conditions. We have to work with what nature gives us. Astronomy requires its devotees to be clever and to draw on absolutely everything that we know.

We are not the center of the Universe.

Humankind’s historical conception of the universe was built on two pillars. The first was that Earth is the center of all things. The second was the belief that the heavens are other. From Hindus and Buddhists in the East to the Greeks in the West, our ancestors spoke of the four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. But there was a heavenly fifth element as well, described by Aristotle as unchanging and incorruptible. To this day we call the perfect example “quintessential,” literally “made of the fifth element.”

It is perhaps ironic that grasping the reality of the universe meant standing those traditional beliefs on their heads. We aren’t the center. We are residents of an ordinary planet, orbiting an ordinary star in the disk of an ordinary spiral galaxy. And rather than other, the heavens are the same. The “principle” that terrestrial physics applies throughout the universe is actually a testable scientific theory. It is corroborated every time we observe familiar features in the spectrum of a distant galaxy or use computer models to build a virtual star with properties that match the real thing. The universal applicability of physical law is so ingrained today that we forget what a radical and world-changing idea it was.

That brings us back to that first day of class when, wearing a puckish smile, I would disavow students of the notion that by taking astronomy they had avoided all the hard stuff.

Astronomy is physics, chemistry, geology and much more.

Physics is everywhere in astronomy. From the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter to the theories of space-time that describe the fabric of the universe, they don’t call it astrophysics for nothing! Likewise, interplanetary dust, molecular clouds, and the oxidation that gives Mars its red color are chemistry. Thoughts about extraterrestrial life are guided by what we know of terrestrial biology and evolution.

Astronomy - Surface of Mars

Astronomy is not just telescopes and stargazing; scientists must use geology, physics, and chemistry to understand the data sent back by the many Mars missions.

Comparative planetology is the cornerstone of modern planetary science. Starting with the geology, atmospheric physics, and chemistry of Earth, we look at other worlds and study how they are similar and how they are different. Comparative planetology is a two-way street. What we have learned from our sister worlds, along with the tools developed to explore them, has revolutionized the way we think about our own planet.

You can’t talk meaningfully about astronomy without grappling with historical, social, and philosophical currents like those present at the birth of the Renaissance. We revere Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others because their discoveries about the heavens changed the course of civilization.

Astronomy benefits from technology, but it also has driven innovation from the dawn of time. Imagine the new technologies needed to build Stonehenge! Physics was invented in large part to explain planetary motions. More recently you might know that Riccardo Giacconi won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.” You might not know that X-ray astronomers are responsible for the technologies that form the heart of X-ray machines at airport security checkpoints and the CT scans that remade medicine.

Astronomy is anything but easy to accept.

Astronomy is mind-bendingly cool, but it’s not comfortable. It demands that we change how we think about everything. To claim to know things about the distant universe, we have to carefully consider what knowledge is in the first place. We have to be willing to put even our most cherished notions on the chopping block. And we have to broaden our perspective. When Apollo 8 astronauts took the famous photo of Earth rising above the lunar horizon, it marked the first time human eyes saw our seemingly limitless and inexhaustible world as it truly is: a small, beautiful, fragile oasis adrift in space.

Astronomy is the study of the cosmos. If you run across something that is not part of the cosmos, be sure and let me know!

From time to time someone will ask me why an astronomer would spend so much time thinking about philosophy, history, evolution, climate science, cognition, and on down the list. I always give the same reply.

“Because that’s astronomy, too.”

That’s Astronomy Too ^ Seeking any port in a scientific storm  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

Reality Straight Up!

  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your Consideration
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your Consideration
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughts
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Cassandra Smiling
    Science, politics and a march in the rain

    On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • EPA Rehash
    A suddenly partisan NASA faces its future

    When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

    Read Article

  • The Hermeneutics of Bunk
    Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eye

    Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe
    Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”

    Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Our Need to Know
    We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusion

    The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

    Read Article

  • A Saguaro’s universe
    Building a cactus starts with the Big Bang

    The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Oklahoma Skies
    To all the amateurs out there, thanks!

    Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Fight-or-Flight
    How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threats

    A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

    Read Article

  • In a Shark’s Eye
    Science and the experience of wonder

    Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • The Quandry of Unpredictability
    Chaos, climate and an unpredictable future

    Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Why I March for Science

    On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

    Read Article

  • Waiting for Skynet
    The benefits of being a machine

    For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

Click on thumbnail to select post:

Recent Article Mobile

  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your Consideration
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your Consideration
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughts
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

  • Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

  • For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118