Deeper Understanding

There’s a terrible joke about 3 professors stranded on an island.  They come across a can of food, but they don’t have a can opener.  They argue about how to open it.  The Chemist says they can start a fire and increase the internal temperature of the can until it bursts open.  He offers up some equations to prove his theory.  The Physicist says they can drop it from a certain height and the energy from the fall will open the can on impact with a sufficiently hard surface. He offers up some equations to prove his theory. The Economist says, “Assume a can opener…”

Okay, I told you it was terrible joke, but it’s just the sort of terrible joke I love.

Anyway, have you ever listened to a scientist talk and noticed how they breeze past certain facts and build on them in some complicated equation or technical description, and quickly arrive at a solution? I spend a lot of time listening to physicists, astrophysicist in particular, speaking on different podcasts and such.  Often in question-and-answer segments they will string together a series of “facts” such as the mass of the sun, the distance to a star, the temperature of a star, etc, and tie it all together in a neat answer to the listener’s question.

When I hear those shows I find myself asking, “yeah, but how did you get the mass of the sun?”

Well, it turns out it’s pretty simple.  I actually understand now how that works.  I mean, I can do the math.  You take Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Newton’s laws of motion, mix in a little bit of Trigonometry, and you pretty quickly come up with a number.

I understand it doesn’t seem terribly useful to know how to calculate the mass of the sun, but believe me, it’s incredibly empowering.  If all you need to figure out the mass of something 150 million kilometers away is a pencil, what can’t you figure out, given enough effort?

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