Monday, July 28, 2008

Sharks and Supernovae and Black Holes

So, this week is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. It's the 20th anniversary of Shark Week, and the ratings will undoubtedly go way up this week. Clearly the public likes something about sharks -- one can hardly imagine that Discovery Channel would get nearly as high of ratings for "Mosquito Week," despite the fact that mosquitoes kill more humans each year than sharks ever have. And you can bet ratings would plummet on "Sloth Week."

When a person learns that I am an astronomer, there are three topics that tend to come up: black holes, supernovae (exploding stars of all kinds, really), and aliens (preferably ray-gun wielding invaders, not microbial mats lazing around an extraterrestrial deep-sea vent). I work on white dwarfs, which register pretty low on the excitement meter. At least it isn't the interstellar medium (the gas between stars, which gets some pretty pictures, but also a lot of rude jokes, and even more yawns when you try to explain the importance of identifying the various carbon chains responsible for PAH emission).

There must be something in our humanity that makes us interested in dangerous things. In paleontology, people like dinosaurs or saber-toothed tigers, not trilobites or Hyracotherium. In geology, people are far more interested in volcanoes than in silt-deposition rates.

But science is very inter-connected. Those boring silt-deposition rates are important to connecting the extinction of T. rex with the asteroid impact that sealed the dinosaurs' fate. And getting to understand those boring PAHs is likely crucial to understanding where any aliens (or humans, for that matter) came from. And protecting endangered shark species may well require understanding some of the smallest creatures in the sea.

I think it is great that so many different sciences, be it astronomy or ichthyology, have fields that can capture the curiosity of the human mind. And I'm cool with the fact that my own research may not be quite so captivating, as long as we all remember that science is interconnected, and today's boring drivel may be a crucial piece of knowledge to unlocking the mysteries of the most exciting areas of science.

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