Afternoon Inquisition, 11.14

Happy Friday ya’ll! Today’s Afternoon Inquisition was inspired by Phil Plait’s blog post this week about the first picture of a planet orbiting a star like our own.  Read the post – it’s just another example of Phil’s constant amazement with the natural wonder of the universe.

Today’s question:

What scientific principle, discovery or breakthrough is completely awesome, inspiring and wonderful to you? Why?

P.S. Sorry for the delay – I got messed up by DST again – apparently it’s working now! :)


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I live in awe of the long series of discoveries that lead to know we know about the size of our universe. From stellar parallax, to Cephid variables, to super novae. Each step not only confirms what clever chimps we are, but also how insignificant.

  2. Geez. Talk about a list!

    Complimentary base pairing and the double helical structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1954?

    Chucky D and the Origin of Species etc. etc. etc?

    Mendel and particulate inheritance?

    Morgan and sex linked gene inheritance? THAT was some seriously cool thinking…

    What about Einstein and relativity, or Newton and gravity? Hawking? HELLO?


  3. Giant molecular clouds at temperatures not really very far from absolute zero that contain organic molecules and amino acids. I’m thinking that it’s a bit of evidence that the materials required for life as we know it are fairly common in the universe. If not, each one contains enough alcohol for several trillion drinks to ease my disappointment with.

  4. So many but I’ll go personal.
    Advances in cancer detection and treatment over the past thirty years. Wonderful because that’s why I’m alive.

  5. This is probably trite, but I pick evolution. The concept that things can grow and change over long periods of time: organisms, planets, solar systems, … , the universe. As opposed to, say, blinked into existence by supernatural, and therefore uninteresting, means.

  6. But seriously, evolution.

    Also, all the corresponding science involved with putting the Hubble up into space, if for no other reason than for the Ultra Deep Field image. That is the most mind-blowing thing humanity has ever, or will ever produce.

  7. Flight. It’s only been 100 years since the Wright Flyer and now we’ve got people living in orbit. Granted, they frequently have plumbing difficulties but it’s still very cool.

  8. I’ve been trying recently to get my head around the idea of time travel to the past being possible because the universe rotates. I think that’s pretty awesome… even if I don’t have the math to understand it.

  9. No one seems as impressed by this as me, but it totally blows my mind.

    This guy took a 200lb clay pot, and dried out a bunch of soil. Weighed the soil and put it in the pot. Then he planted a small 5lb willow tree in it.

    When the tree had matured a bit he removed it from the soil and weighed it. The tree weighed 169lbs. The soil had only lost a few ounces.

    So where did the material to make that tree come from? Part of it was water that the plant was given, but most of it came out of the AIR! The carbon dioxide that we exhale was turned in to a solid and built in to a tree! Which we then convert in to wood. Paper, tables, doors, cabinets…all made from the stuff that comes out of out lungs!

    That’s amazing to me.

  10. Lot’s of good ones there. Probably some I would have said had I been quicker off the mark (flight, evolution).

    Here’s my suggestion: grabity

    Because it grabs you and pulls you down.

  11. *By allowing a man with 2 hours of training to take on a property holder who had spent the wealth of his serfs his armor, the flintlock musket made self representation something governments had to give, rather than talk about. The flintlock is not he cause of modern representative government, but the role it played was enormous .

  12. @Elyse: I’m so freaking lucky even when I was an evangelical I was an evolutionary evangelical. I never had a problem reconciling the two and it just didn’t come up in the church I attended.

  13. @Gabrielbrawley: OMG you were an Evangelical in a past life toooo. I always thought of myself as a rational thinking skeptical type of Christian. Finally started to shine the rational light on my religious beliefs. It is a pretty cool (and rainy) place up here in the northwest.

  14. A zillion things, but calculus comes to mind. Especially the concept of the limit of a function as it approaches infinity.

    I remember the time I worked out the equation for the perimeter of a unit polygon as a function of the number of sides, and saw how it approached pi as x -> infinity.

    That is, of course, exactly what you would expect, but still… “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

  15. @James Fox: It doesn’t seem to be unusual for many skeptics to have been formerly quite religious people. I was very into the catholic church until I wised up in my teens. I was an alter boy and then an usher because my parents were “orthodox” catholic. I know there’s no such real term like that, but they STILL don’t eat meat on Friday – that’s ultra “orthodox” catholic. I’ve been thinking that religion drives people with real brains and a bit of wisdom to look for things that actually make sense

  16. @jtradke: Same here, sort of. When I took calc I fell on my face in differentials. It wasn’t until I took a 300 level physics course in stellar astronomy where I could work on something real that it clicked and made sense.

  17. @truthwalker: nice…
    I also think that the cotton gin contributed inevitably to abolitionism.

    Personally, I’d say evolution and emergent principals. For purely selfish reasons. It explains how we got here (how I got here) which is fascinating to me.
    I had an epiphany one day where I realized that a gene pool constitutes a mind.

  18. That’s also why the planets stay in orbit around the Sun and don’t fall into it. Reduce forward velocity and the orbit moves in closer to the Sun. Reduce it enough and they fall into the Sun

  19. @James Fox: Yes, that’s a good one. The coolest thing about getting into any branch of science is that you need to learn something from other branches too. That’s why I’m an astronomy freak. If you look at enough of it, you end up checking out just about every other branch also. “The Interconnectedness of All Things”?

  20. @James Fox: Optics, of course! Without it, I wouldn’t be able to discern the gravatars in this page without sticking my nose to the screen and squinting really hard. Not to mention any attempt at reading the actual comments would be a lost cause for me. So optics all the way!

  21. I’m impressed by all the discoveries mentioned thus far. I’d like to ad extremophile bacteria to the list. Life is so tenacious that it can exist happily snuggled up next to volcanic vents, or under a mile of ice in the Antarctic. That’s pretty freakin’ cool, in my book.

    When I first read about them, I immediately imagined a conversation between one of the thermophile ones and the DC superhero The Atom, whose power was the ability to shrink down to any size.

    EXTREMOPHILE BACTERIUM: Hey buddy, nice to meet ya. It’s not every day we get multi-celled organisms around here. Where’re ya from?

    THE ATOM: (Says nothing, because he’s boiled to death pretty much instantly.)

    EB: Buddy?

  22. I’m always mystified by the idea that an orbit is a fall where you never reach the ground.

    It’s known as the Douglas Adams theory of satellite suspension. And yes, Douglas Adams really was right, except that he ignored air resistance, and played fast and loose with the minimum necessary velocity (very high for orbits as close to the ground as those used in his novels).

    Most people who are mystified by the idea (a) think of the Earth as a target that is impossible to miss, and (b) assume lateral velocity (that is, velocity perpendicular to the direction the Earth is in) will decay rapidly.

    (a) is a mistake because of the huge lateral velocities applied to satellites. Low-earth orbits – about 160km to 2000km above the surface of the Earth – require velocities of about 8,000 m/s (roughly 30,000 km/hr) . If you’re going 8,000 m/s in the ‘wrong’ direction, you can miss the Earth even though it’s very big.

    (b) is right only to the extent atmospheric resistance is present. Skylab – and many other satellites placed at the lower limit of low earth orbits slowed down due to air resistance, and did not continue missing earth forever, and eventually broke up in the atmosphere, in some cases with pieces hitting the ground. Some satellites are so high up they face no significant air resistance, and thus will continue orbiting long after their operational lifespans have ended. Some need periodic boosting. Some are placed in orbits precisely calculated to decay sometime after the satellite is no longer useful.

  23. Movable type. The printing press. Without it I wouldn’t have Aristophanes plays, Tennyson (yeah, maybe I’m an idiot, but I really like “Gareth and Lynette”), Mark Twain, “The Milky Way” by Bart and Priscilla Bok, Douglas Adams books, Carl Sagan’s books, and all books in particular.

  24. I would have to say the infinite probability drive. It is the coolest thing I ever heard of. Wait Douglas Adams wrought fiction right damn now I have to find something else. Uum o the subtle knife what could be better than being able to go between alternate universes. Damn it I just remembered Pullman was a fiction writer to. Uh uh ok I have one intelligent design. Wait the discovery institute deal in fiction to. No really I would have to say it would be quantum mechanics it boggles the mind like Brian Green says if you think you understand quantum mechanics you don’t understand quantum mechanics.

  25. When I was a little kid, dinosaurs were giant lizards who lived a long time ago. When I was a teen/young adult, dinosaurs weren’t lizards anymore, but they all went extinct during the K-T event, which was most likely a giant asteroid impact.

    But now? Every time I walk outside, I am surrounded by dinosaurs. On the ground, in the trees, in the air. Smaller than their ancestors, to be sure, but flying, feathered avian therapod dinosaurs nonetheless.

    Modern paleontology and taxonomy have rescued the dinosaurs from extinction.

  26. I am amazed that time and space are so intimately related, and particularly the fact that time is not constant. Along the same lines, light fascinates me. We have a pretty good idea how it behaves, and yet in many ways it still seems like a total mystery to me. The fact that light also seems intimately related to space and time is just crazy.

    Also, the sheer size of the universe. It boggles my mind. It sounds stupid, but sometimes I can’t believe we are actually here. That on a random planet in this vast universe, the conditions were right for life to evolve over billions of years, resulting in… me. Oh yeah, and you too. What are the odds? It just astounds me.

  27. @Gabrielbrawley: Three may be a magic number, but Zero is my hero!

    And don’t forget that our ‘Arabic’ numerals are really Indian numerals. If you want a great introduction to the early history of numerals and mathematics find Terry Jones’ The Story of One. Yes, it IS ‘that guy’ from Monty Python.

  28. The infinite Improbability Drive is cool, but I’m more a fan of the Somebody Else’s Problem Field used to make something invisible. It works even better today than it did when Adams wrote about it.

  29. I don’t know if any of you remember a skit by Mel Brooks and Carl Riner called “The 2000 Year Old Man”. Carl asked Mel this same question. His reply was, “Saran Wrap! It’s fantastic stuff!”

  30. Evolution and quantum physics and relativity are all great, but I have to vote for the science that makes bumblebees fly.

    I’m not talking about the apocryphal story regarding how they shouldn’t be able to, I just like how they bob along lazily with there buzz all going on.

  31. It has to be the Calculus for me. It was the big leap which has made pretty much the whole of science possible. Linking Algebra and Geometry allowing us to get a handle on ‘Change’.

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