| Methods in backyard stargazing

I used to spend evenings sitting in an Adirondack chair on the back porch of my house in Summerfield, North Carolina, where – before developers caught onto the acres of easily-clearable trees – the light pollution wasn’t too bad. At night, the sky was an impossibly black ocean afloat with silver pinpricks, like hundreds of diamonds on black velvet, or an overturned pasta strainer with light that poured through the holes in the dark, dark metal.

Leaning back and staring straight up, I felt as if I could fall straight off my quiet little patch of Planet Earth and into the cosmos. No spaceship, no escape velocity required.

The Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, Pleiades the Seven Sisters, and Venus, which, like all planets, does not twinkle, and shooting stars, which will always appear, if you wait and stare upward long enough – a little composite picture of the past, a collage of what existed in different nooks of the universe 640 years ago, 440 years ago, three minutes ago, and .00000002 seconds ago.

Though our little planet pales in size to the shimmering hydrogen and helium gaseous bodies, it felt so safe on those chilly summer nights. Beyond five miles of atmosphere, beyond the future years of rocket science, of faster and cheaper innovation – and, perhaps, a bend or two in the laws of physics as we know them – who knew a world so empty and foreign and vast existed. And to think that we are the exception. Even if there are so many colonies of life alien to our own, there is still surely more space than stuff, more planets empty than those slowly being trashed by cells, able to grow and replicate in an orderly fashion.

Spending the daytime curled up inside with an illustrated copy of Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, problem sets about rocket ships, and episodes of the Scientific American podcast on black holes and the Drake Equation, each seemed like a new adventure and made returning outside after sunset all the more interesting. Why does Saturn have rings? How is a star born? How does one find out what stars are made of? How can we know what was going on in the universe in the very moments after its birth?
But those years of amateur stargazing gave way to nights of too much webwork, of cramming for midterms.

As I sit in my weekly hour-and-a-half Experimental Methods 1 lecture – a required course for all physics majors, honours, and atmospheric science students – my brain begins to freeze over. Zero credit on homework assignments if you use the improper number of significant figures in your calculations or you neglect to staple your paper in the upper left hand corner. No extra words in your answers – this is physics class, not story time. Conclusions in the lab write-up must be between two and four sentences, all acceptable experimental values between zero and two standard deviations of the mean. No, we’re not covering systematic error in this course because that requires something other than a sheet of prescribed formulae.

Ernest Rutherford is quoted on a lecture slide: “If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” And then, we launch into the first lecture of what might very well be an entire semester of standard deviations and weighted average calculations. Homework is assigned twice a week, and consists mostly of coaxing MATLAB – ”matrix laboratory” software – code into an acceptable syntax. Marks off if the points on your graphs aren’t circles. Ten per cent gone if you forget to number your pages.

Vulgar derivatives of “suck up to the teacher for a good grade” begin to circulate among the students as we crunch data and crumple up another piece of half-used graph paper.

Somewhere between N = infinity, reviewing rounding numbers, Gaussian curves, and the 200-person rush to pick up our assignments at the end of class, I can’t help but wonder: is this what we came here for?

Shannon Palus’s column will be appearing every other week. Until then, you can write to her at plusorminussigma@mcgilldaily.com.