Friday, February 7, 2014


WHEN HUMANS FIRST CLIMBED DOWN FROM THE TREES and stood on their hind legs, they immediately regretted it. Probably. I believe that the habit of looking at the stars was because they were really looking back up at the trees they'd crawled down from and wished they could go back, but upon looking up at those trees, early humans noticed the stars for the first time. Yes, that sounds very factual to me, that's what happened.

Fast forward an age or two, and staring at the stars is still something you did if you were out at night. City lights of any type weren't really a thing for most of world history, and even in a large city in late as the Victorian era you'd still be able to see stars galore when you stepped outside.

And in a way, everyone was an expert. But advances in optics and film and the discovery that there is, seriously, a lot of stuff to look at aside from the few thousand objects visible (if you're viewing from a pretty dark spot) from earth with the naked eye made astronomy into something that you had to have a bit of expertise to pursue. At least if you wanted to push the frontiers.

And as such, the term Astronomer describes a whole subset of specialities, as a cosmologist (they don't do hair, you're thinking of something else) about planetary science and you may get a pretty baffled look. You may as well be asking an ear, nose, and throat doctor to diagnose your chronic foot pain.

They may know something about it, but it's a bit outside of their area of expertise.

Well, I was once considering what I'd need to do in order to be an astronomer. Considering if my love of space, of the stars, of all things not of this earth, would be a viable career path for me.

Which is when I first heard this joke: You know what a master's degree in astronomy will get you?

Answer: The right to serve coffee to real astronomers.

Queue sounds of laughter.

So, I decided it was a lot of work, and I'm notorious from having an easily distracted sort of personality. I might get obsessed with playing the oboe and spend a year doing only that with each free moment.

The path of least resistance made a lot of sense to me. So I quit school (this is just the first time I'd quit school, believe me, I've done it way more than just the one time) and took a job driving a truck for a paper recycling company.

Where am I going with this? I kind of forgot.

Oh yes, so, I'm not an astronomer.* But aside from writing, it's still one of my favorite things. Period. At times, I wonder what I'd be doing if I'd followed that dream I once had and pursued a career in astronomy. Then I see something like this:

That is, in case you're confused, a picture of an impact crater on mars. It's not really blue, btw, it's been enhanced so the ejecta from the impact is more easily viewable. But regardless, it's a new crater. That's a 30 meter wide hole in the planet. Wow.

Did we see this impact? No, that we missed. But we did notice the crater it left. Um, maybe a few years after it was over. You know, it could have been as long ago as 2010 that it happened.

Which leads me to the question, how did we notice it? I mean, Mars is way smaller than earth, but it sill has as much land as North America. And given the lack of a meaningful atmosphere or plate tectonics, craters don't tend to go anywhere once they show up. So there is a lot of them. How did we find this new one. It's like a finding a needle in a haystack, so to speak.

Or finding a new pepperoni on a pizza the size of Rhode Island.**

I mean, did we count them all, and then someone noticed the count was wrong? Well, turns out, some fine folks at the Univ of Colorado counted them. Yep, a man named Stuart Robbins said, in his own words, "I basically drew crater rim circles for four years."

My god. that's insane. Someone has been counting the craters on Mars. It was joke, people.

And then it dawned on me, that's totally what I'd be doing if I'd ever become an astronomer. I just know it. I'd be counting stress fractures on Europa or something. I'd be leaving work on Friday and saying, "See you Bob, I'm up to 14,244 so far. Hope to find a few more on Monday."

Funny thing, Robbins and his team came up with 635,000 craters more than 1km in size. I couldn't even use his damned map to find this new crater, it's too small!

So, by that point, I'd decided to stop my investigation on how the crater was discovered. As I'm sure it wasn't that interesting, or rather, my passing interest in the question led me to another thing, and then I didn't care enough about the original question to continue looking into it. But I came away a little bit in awe of the men and women who waste spend years of their lives counting things.

As for me, I'm glad I decided to do dream of being a writer instead of an astronomer. Imagine my disappointment in learning I spent a decade of higher learning only to being reduced to counting things.

*The title of an astronomer, when I was a kid, was astronomer, not Astrophysicist. Now they're all Astrophysicists, I think it's a marketing ploy myself (*sigh* of course it isn't) No matter what they say. I guess there is something implied by each of those terms that makes one think an astronomer only looks at things, while the astrophysicist actually understands how those things work. But I hate trying to spell astrophysicist, it's really hard for me. 

** I have no idea. I made that up.


  1. Astronomer was probably too close to "astrologer" so they decided to change it. It probably is a really boring job. And most sciences it seems like unless you get a teaching spot your degree is worth as much as a liberal arts degree. Seriously except for a few technical fields what good is college for most people? Reminds me of an episode of "Archer" where an anthropology student is talking about his dissertation and they make fun of him because even if he finished it all he'd end up doing is teaching other anthropology students. The circle continues. I guess in a way then it is like writing where unless you're in that 1% that becomes a huge bestselling author you at best end up teaching other poor saps or struggling on the midlist, which would be like toiling away counting craters on Mars. In "astrophysics" I mean there's Hawking and Tyson and then...everyone else. That make them like the Stephen King or James Patterson or someone like that of the astrophysics world.

    There you go, epic grumpiness for a Friday afternoon.

  2. I used to have this friend who would ask me questions. Very intently. Like his life depended upon the answer. Sometimes, they were even interesting questions. Usually, they were "why" questions and required some explanation. As I answered him, he would inevitably allow his gaze to wander, and I would notice that he was "gone." When I'd say something about it, he'd be all, "Oh, I don't care anymore. But what about..."

    Drove me crazy.

  3. Oh!
    Humans didn't come down from the trees; they never went up there to begin with. We just came out of the water. At some point, apes when to the trees while we stayed on the ground. I think we were looking up to make sure they weren't throwing poo at us.

  4. Whoa. I couldn't imagine doing that. My husband was going to get his degree in astronomy, but he did computer science instead. I don't know if he'd be more happy programming or counting craters, though.

  5. Earth is fortunate to have a moon relative to its size orbiting our world as we orbit the sun. When you look at the pitted surface of the moon it makes me realise how lucky we are. Consider, the strong gravitational pull of Jupiter and the sun with mars and the asteroid belts on the outer rim, all it takes is one stone to disturb our happy little planet. Occasionally we get unpredictable rogue asteroids and as it happens we've got a biggie passing between Earths and the Moons orbits in 5 days! Should be exciting!

  6. Oh shoot 2012 DA14 was a year ago. my night eyes must be playing tricks on me, lol.

  7. That's kinda sad. You go to become an astronomer (or Astrophysicist) and all you end up doing is counting craters on a planet.

  8. I gotta believe they do more than that.

  9. Science....You either live long enough to count them all, or you die trying!

  10. Weird, Rusty: When I was an undergrad, my advisor kept pushing me to take astronomy, each year, until finally in my senior year I did, and loved it, so much that if I'd taken it freshman year I might have abandoned prelaw and gone into astronomy.

    I got into astronomy, though, as a hobby and even had a telescope, but the real fun is not small telescopes in a park at night, so I drifted away from it as a hobby.

    But I still love it.

    By the way: there are still, technically, astronomers. An "astronomer" simply studies positions of the stars, etc. An "astrophysicist" studies that and the physics of the things in the skies. Most astronomers are astrophysicists because they do the latter and they tend to have degrees in physics, not astronomy.

    As for the counting the stars thing? I was surprised to learn that's how they find new stuff: take a picture, then take another the next night and see what's different. In that respect, it's not much different than lots of jobs, I expect: actors spend lots of time learning their lines and rehearsing and standing around on the set. Musicians record songs and practice and have sound check. 90% of my job is talking on the phone and writing letters; I get 2-3 trials per year, tops. The dullness of circling craters on a picture of Mars is probably offset by the thrill of finding a rock that suddenly hopped in front of the rover.

  11. Wow, I want that on my tombstone.

    "Husband. Father. Astronomer. Cataloged over 635,000 Martian craters."

  12. Wow that picture is amazing. I'm glad you got to elaborate Rusty. Par-T.

  13. I'm glad the opportunity to work at the observatory came along, because it's amazing. Looking thru a telescope is nothing like the Hubble photos, but I love it more.

  14. I've always been fascinated by space, the stars, finding constellations. My Best and I would go away on a trip, and instead of watching some movie in the evening, we'd try to set up a comfortable place to star gaze. Then we'd invent our own constellations and then try make the other person see them. I can still easily find the Hair Salon. It was a head with a triangular dryer over it. It's visible in August in CO near the big dipper. (Our trips are always in August. We share a birthday and have convinced our families that we need to go on trips of various lengths to celebrate...working great so far!)
    With my luck though, I'd study all those years, and like you said, count craters. Drive me batty, and then I'd go home and drink too much wine...
    Great bit you wrote here, quite enjoyable.
    I'd also like to know why none of you (most of whom I know in this comment stream...) hounded me until I came here? Why? I mean, I'm not saying you haven't mentioned it, you just didn't SELL IT to me. Are there any salesmen in the house?

    Tina @ Life is Good