Friday, 6 April 2012

The wrong end of the telescope

Hello, and welcome to my new blog, Science On Toast. If you are reading this post, then you are one of my first visitors. Welcome! For what it's worth, let me offer you a little of my perspective on the world of science, and I hope you check back in the coming weeks when I will start my science blogging in earnest.

Like many young scientists, I was initially wowed into the field by big science - planets, stars and galaxies. I was lucky enough as a kid to have glossy books showing cutaway pictures of the Earth and its hot, dense innards, or diagrams of the Sun dwarfing the other planets in the solar system. I was fascinated by the huge forces and unimaginable distances involved, and of course this fitted seamlessly with the science fiction we grew up with; starships, lasers, phasers and warp drive.

Throughout high school physics we came somewhat back down to Earth as we went through the necessary learning of forces, distances and times that were somewhat more on a human scale. Biology taught us to look down microscopes to find the teeny tiny scale teeming with life, and coughs and colds put us beyond any doubt that the lowly germ could wreak havoc (but could also grant us days in bed playing computer games).

A physics student at university, I was caught out at first by the large leap in effort it required to perform at undergraduate level. At the same time though, I was amazed at the depth and variety of courses available and the diverse range of interests and personalities that were all thriving in this vast institution of learning. In the later years of my undergraduate degree the fine strands of science began to pull together. Especially as I began to read my first papers from scientific journals, a bigger picture began to emerge that was pieced together from all the isolated nuts and bolts, but now in sharp context. With the help of excellent academic tutors (to whom I am ever indebted) the way forward crystallised and a Ph.D. scholarship in polymers beckoned.

The study of these very small wiggly things led me to need some very specialist techniques - the scattering of neutrons and x-rays off materials to build up a picture of the atoms and molecules within. These instruments are large (tens of metres in size) and run inside major facilities, requiring of course a source of neutrons or x-rays. And so here I am: the little boy interested in planets, stars and galaxies is a now a grown man gazing deep down into the world of atoms and molecules!

So did I take a wrong turn? I am I looking down the wrong end of the telescope? No! In such a vast field as science, one can have many interests and take many twists. Of course, we must still make good choices, and that is down to following our interests, keeping our knowledge up to date, and, it would seem, a little bit of luck. To quote a sticker stuck on the office door of an Astrophysicist I met somewhere along the way... we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars!

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