Monday, November 8, 2010


Although I read a lot more about evolution, I also read a bit about astronomy - two huge topics that I only get time to skim. The first popular science book I ever read was A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson about seven years ago and it stoked my interest in astronomy (nay, in science in general) by giving interesting pieces of information that I had not thought about earlier. For example, although I had an idea of the distances of the planets in the solar system, text books show them equidistant from each other. This gives a misleading picture which had stayed with me. The reality is very different. As Bryson writes:
... this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same piece of paper. Neptune in reality isn't just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it's way beyond Jupiter - five times further from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 per cent as much sunlight as Jupiter.

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn't possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn't come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometers distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway).
I knew something about the solar system but that I was quite ignorant about the things beyond it. I knew the universe is big but didn't have an idea about how BIG it really is. The numbers were mind boggling. Bill Bryson again:
Carl Sagan calculated the number of probable planets in the universe at as many as ten billion trillion - a number vastly beyond imagining. But what is equally beyond imagining is the amount of space through which they are lightly scattered. 'If we were randomly inserted into the universe,'. Sagan wrote, 'the chances that you would be on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion.'
I started reading some blogs on astronomy and loved reading about galaxies, scales in the universe and other cool stuff. Undoubtedly, it helps that I don't have to put out the rubbish. When things get too complicated for my synapses, I can always feast on some great eye candy that illustrate Carl Sagan's words: "We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."

Being a bit better informed about astronomy and evolution also enabled me to be more discerning about science reports. I learned that whenever terms like 'paradigm shift' and 'scientists have to go back to the drawing board' are used, it is usually an exaggeration.

As an example of the kind of things that interest me these days, here is a discussion with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has the knack of talking about abstruse topics in a way that makes me want to hear more.


  1. Very interesting. I just booked the Bill Bryson book (audio version) at the local library. There is a long line for the book, though!

    If not already familiar, look up Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. Science fiction, but gives the reader a lot to think about "life, the universe and everything".

  2. I'm completely at sea on both your subjects-evolution and astronomy..A good RC passage for me,though...LOL!