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!

  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
  • Pine Boxes  Invest now, the numbers are going upPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • COVID-19 Arrives
    The Humanitarian Disaster is Here

    Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

    Read Article

  • Correctly Predicting Failure
    It’s time for scientists to get loud

    Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

    Read Article

  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels
    Spreading COVID one lap at a time

    The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

    Read Article

  • Pine Boxes
    Invest now, the numbers are going up

    You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

    Read Article

  • Scientists Stuck Inside
    Curiosity in the Time of COVID

    Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

    Read Article

  • After COVID’s First Wave
    No getting back to normal

    Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

    Read Article

  • COVID-19
    Cutting through the confusion

    There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

    Read Article

  • Great Deceiverism 101
    Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.

    If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

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

    Read Article

  • One Step at a Time
    The not-so-mysterious origin of life

    Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

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

    Read Article

  • The Mind’s Siren Call
    Being certain is a primrose path

    Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

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

    Read Article

  • Constrained Hallucinations
    How the brain uses science to perceive the world

    The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

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

    Read Article

  • Entropy Redux
    Why our universe isn’t boring

    A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

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

    Read Article

Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
  • Pine Boxes  Invest now, the numbers are going upPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

  • Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

  • Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

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

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

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

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

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

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

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

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    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