Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Inner, Outer, or All?

The Hubble Space Telescope recently discovered an ancient galaxywhose deep red light took 13.2 billion years to reach it. The galaxy — functionally named UDFj-39546284 — is the oldest ever discovered. It was formed just 480 million years after the 13.7 billion year-old universe itself was born, and though it has long since flashed out of existence, the images can teach astronomers a lot about the early universe.

I’m always fascinated by discoveries related to space (planets, stars, galaxies, etc.). I don’t know if it’s because of the enormous size of celestial bodies, the vast distances, or the fact that we can currently only look, but it inspires awe, and gets my imagination going.

But what about you?

What’s your preference, if any? Do you get a rush from the grand scale discoveries in space? Are you more in awe of the tiniest particles? Do you gravitate toward Earth science? Are you impressed most by the mysteries of the ocean? Or are you an “across the board” inspiree?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Anthropology is my thing. Neanderthals specifically. Each and every new iota of information thrills and enthralls me.

  2. Across the board, for me. Though I do seem to have a somewhat higher giggle-n-gape factor for all things evolutionary. (For instance, I was thrilled for weeks over the discovery of tiktaalik.)

    But my truly favorite moments in science are those new discoveries that threaten a theory or two. At no other moment is it nearly as clear that we’re really learnin’ something!

  3. Definitely an across the board inspiree, with a particular liking for the odd and mindboggling. Neutron stars, quarks, the big bang, quantum entanglement, weird animals…

  4. I’m a big fan of our inner workings. The human body is amazing. Sometimes annoying, but mostly amazing. Immunology and virology is my field, so obv.

  5. Space is the top of the list for me, possibly because I’m fascinated with deep time and distances.

    After that, I have no real preference. It all amazes me…

  6. Well, I got a Masters degree in the subject and work as a professional archaeologist, so it’s pretty clear that my main source of interest is the human past, and not even the distant past – I am fascinated by the ways in which humans adapted over the last 12,000 years alone.

    After that, I go for the very big and the very small: space/astronomy fascinates me, as does the information coming out of quantum physics. It’s all deeply fascinating, deeply weird (even the large-scale astronomy that often is treated as “ho-hum by the physicists I know strikes me as fascinatingly weird), and inspiring.

  7. Anything on a grand enough scale to make me feel minuscule. I find it comforting – it really puts your problems in perspective. :-)

  8. @anthroslug: Dude, totally envious. I did my undergrad in anthro (specialising in pacific archaeology). There are moments I regret not following it further (I ended up doing Geography/GIS as my post-grad cos I love mapping stuff even more).

  9. I pretty much groove on all the science I can understand. This unfortunately leaves out about 99%. I really like it when something I thought I understood gets completely flipped over. For example I always thought neutrons are permanent, and they are… inside an atom. Outside an atom they decay to protons with a half-life of 15 minutes. So cool!

    There’s this guy in England I’ve been tracking closely named Brady Haran (easily googlable). He’s doing a bunch of videos in association with the University of Nottingham. First was one video for each element on the periodic table. Now he’s working on 60 Symbols which is more general, but still sciencey good.

  10. I’m an ALL kinda guy.
    Can I say “..back in the day “, ( I’m 57 yrs ) when we were taught that electrons were little buzzing things that whizzed around a nucleus, and that planets slowly whirred around a star, and an artists impression showed our Galaxy spinning around in an ever expanding universe, I was forever imprinted with the thought of ( now stay with me here! ) some force that unites us all, given that we are all made of atoms.
    As an eleven year old in 1964 ( I didn’t know about Newton or Galileo then ) I was unable to process this and the church told me it was …GOD !
    Well, OK, by 1969 the Moon landing and Jimi, Jerry and Abby Hoffman had explained it all to me and Frank Zappa put it all in perspective.
    Now the whole thing is a marvelous mystery again and I love hearing people like ” ..What The Bleep! ” and SGU and try to eff the ineffable. I eff-ing love it.
    I gave up all that trippy shit, but I do still listen to Frank. ” You are what you is “.

  11. Everything, depending on my mood and what I’ve been reading or watching. What I really appreciate are good science communicators and story tellers like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan who can explain advanced scientific theories in a manner that makes them fascinating and engaging for a physics neophyte like me. People fascinate me so I’m often attracted to the social sciences but lately the whole notion of what is in the near future with the development of useful carbon nanotube technology and silicon tower semiconductors is very interesting indeed.

  12. @anthroslug:

    I was just listening to Rationally Speaking the other day and they were discussing this article from The New York Times and since I don’t get access to anthropologists every day I have to ask what you think of the AAA’s decision to remove the word ‘science’ from their long-range plan?

  13. I loved the history of the future.

    Wait. What?

    I love to look back at what people in history thought the future would be like; flying tail-finned cars, spandex sporting clones, mile tall towers, all fascinating to me. What is even cooler is when you come across someone who got something out of left field right. I have no doubt that the future will include a lot about how far off the transhumanists really were.

    I like all science but future tech is fascinating, new discoveries and what ifs are enough to make me giddy.

  14. @magista: Hmmm, the 2nd example there is a 1962 Bell Labs ad from Boy’s Life. One thing they failed to predict was that Bell Labs itself wouldn’t be around in 2000. Lucent still exists, and AT&T (now owned by one of its former subsidiaries) still owns the Bell Labs name, I think. But they don’t do any of the fundamental research that made Bell Labs famous. And they don’t make the classic educational films any more, either.

  15. I’m pretty much all over. I keep wondering what a university department will do with me when I get hired and finish my PhD because my topics of interest are all over the place. One of the best interviews I’ve ever done with was with an ichthyologist discussing his research about fish in South Africa. But yea, name a topic and I can probably find an interest in the field, except business, that just bores me.

  16. I would have to say all. Every part we study, whether the tiniest particles of dust that make up the hugest stars we know of up to the biggest creatures in the tiniest bodies of water on this vast planet, hold secrets. And those secrets , when the clues are aligned properly, reveal one more iota of information geared towards the understanding of who we are and how we came into being. And that journey of discovery is, for myself speaking, the truly greatest gift we can gift ourselves with. For that discovery encompasses not just our prideful selves but pushes us closer to understanding the other creatures that share this planet with us and flings us into the cold outer reaches of our universe trying to understand who and what will come after when we have used up our time on this planet and returned to the primordial dust from which we were built.

  17. @BeardofPants: As it happens, I find myself wishing I had a stronger GIS background, as (at least in the U.S.) that’s a particularly valuable skill for an archaeologist.

    @mrmisconception: To be honest, to most archaeologists the AAA has long since ceased being relevant, in part because of this sort of nonsense. Although it does some publication and promotion of archaeology and physical anthropology, it’s generally perceived by most archaeologists as an “ethnographer’s club” and we only go to meetings when we’re presenting papers or looking for jobs. The Society for American Archaeology is the more important organization for us. My own take on the change is that it’s a bad idea because it provides a bit more of an excuse to those who wish to turn anthropology into politicized storytelling than an accurate account or analysis of life. However, if the measure is approved (last I heard the AAA leadership was backing off a bit) then I suspect it will make the AAA even less relevant as a body of researchers.

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