Look, there’s a lot of different careers I could have had. Hell, had three different ones, three and a half, as it was. But if I ever manage to decide what I want to do with my life (and yes, that is a winged chariot you hear), astronomy is right up there as a possibility.
Oh, not really a possibility, with my lack of physics and mathematics abilities. I suppose my wishful thinking was always based on Herschel, hell Galileo, staring at the mysterious skies through a telescope and seeing, things never seen before, heavenly messengers.
We are of course, long past the time when amateurs could point a telescope from their backyard and make discoveries in the cosmos. Although, that said, it is from a backyard not a million parsecs from mine that a chap does keep making discoveries, most recently of bits of a comet crashing into Jupiter.
But my old eyes are too old anyway, these days, astronomy a young person’s game, these days. Besides, had my academic careers, working in zoology and archaeology. But it’s all the same thing, really, archaeology being part of zoology, and zoology a subsection of astronomy.
What was the question? Oh, you think I need to defend those suggestions? Well, if I must, it’s your blog.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Carl Sagan of course, in a rather wonderful thought. We don’t need to go out to the stars, they have come to us. And not just to humans, but every living being on the planet, and the very structure of the planet we live on.
The other rather wonderful thought is that we, you and I dear reader, are related to every other human being currently on the planet, and all those who came before. And if that isn’t a wonderful enough thought, we, you and I, are also related to every other living being, animal and plant, on the planet. How good is that eh?
And not just related in the literal, direct genetic sense, but in an ecological one. As the first of the apes that would become human walked across the African savannah they began to adapt to different habitats to their nearest relatives, and to make use of different plants and animals in their diet. Their hunting will have subtly altered species compositions among their prey and plant foods. And eventually, as some groups shifted towards agriculture or pastoralism, their interactions with other species actually affected evolution, in a process we call domestication.
We study early humans in exactly the same way we study their relatives, through palaeontology, studying not only their bony remains, but, where possible, diet and behaviour. As we reach the creation of stone and other tools we call this branch of palaeontology “archaeology”, but it’s all one thing. And palaeontology is of course just one aspect of zoology.
But wait, there’s more. For a long time another branch of zoology (well, biochemistry, but really I’m in an imperial mood) has investigated the origins of life. Plenty of ideas, successful experiments in forming organic molecules in conditions approximating early Earth in terms of water, heat, electrical discharge, low oxygen, clay minerals etc. But all with the deliberately built-in, assumed requirement that organic had to come from an original inorganic chemistry on Earth. [This is, was, a necessary assumption. The nonsense from Hoyle and Wickramasinghe about life forms arriving on Earth from comet tails or whatever was not only mad-brained, but didn't affect the study of the origin of life, merely shifted the location to somewhere else where, obviously, organic must have still been derived from inorganic, and on a surface of some kind].
But the young lads and lasses of modern astronomy have shown in effect (and I never thought I’d find myself writing this phrase) that Fred and Chandra were sort of right. No, no, not in the sense of showers of frogs or beetles or bacteria from outer space, I haven’t lost my wits totally (nor my sarcasm). But what recent years of observation have shown us is that organic molecules of various kinds are common in space. Are produced, as I understand it, from dust clouds and the radiation from evolving and exploding stars. That it isn’t necessary to start from scratch to form life on this planet (and quite possibly also on Mars and moons like Titan and Enceladus), but that various organic molecules will provide a kind of kick start for electrical discharges, water, heat, clay substrates to go to work and develop the kind of self-reproducing complex organic molecules we call “life”. [This also, incidentally, makes it absolutely certain that many other millions of the planets the young astronomers are now also able to observe will also have life].
So, not just star stuff to build bones etc, but the very materials that can, in the right conditions, form life, come from out there. There is no gap between us and all the other life forms on this planet, and none between our organics and those spread throughout this awfully big universe. Another rather wonderful thought.
Oh, and of course no longer any need to distinguish between astronomy, zoology, and archaeology. And no need for me to plan (thank goodness) another end of life career – I always was an astronomer really, it turns out, just one studying the bits of the universe that happened to sit on this planet.
Not now, sadly though, a young astronomer but an old astronomer. Almost as old as the universe, I can feel it in my bones.
*see poem “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams about a third of the way through my “Values” section, click tag above or http://davidhortonsblog.com/values/.