Astrophysics Through a Student’s Eyes

At some point in our childhoods, most of us idolized astronauts, pasted glow-in-the-dark stars to our ceilings, or delighted in imagining a face on the moon. From birth we see one of our most innate human characteristics, our advanced and broad curiosity; the sort of face-up thinking that does not acknowledge bounds. Like many revered scientists have expressed, it is this childlike imagination bolstered by mature scientific knowledge that makes for the most remarkable research. However, in today’s economic climate, funding for scientific research is difficult to come by and many federal institutes find it difficult to complete projects on lowered funding. With this in mind, many have asked, “what significance does astrophysics play amongst areas focused on solving immediate problems?”.

Focusing on internal issues does not lessen the reality of external problems. The Universe is vast and, as recently discovered, is accelerating in its expansion. Thus, there is an incomprehensible amount of entities within it, Earth being but less than a spec. As many parents have emphasized, being aware of one’s surroundings is vital. Now, such concern may seem to be something found within in a science-fiction novel, but consider the time span of the human civilization’s survival. If mankind were to survive 1000 more years, what variables would we have to include in the equation? Internal conflict, environmental conditions, and effects of objects in space. The latter may refer to our Sun, asteroids, and comets.  For our capabilities to deepen in the case of each of the three variables, time is needed. Cures are rarely found in a day. The solution to renewable energy is still ongoing. Thus, it is logical, that preparing Earth against the effects from space will also take time and should be continuously worked on. Moreover, understanding the behavior of objects in outer space, such as exoplanet research, may provide more options for mankind’s future.

Much of the technology written about in past science fiction is now the technology of the present. Thus, our dependence on orbiting satellites is immense. How could we easily navigate to an unfamiliar address, communicate with others thousands of miles away so conveniently, or access our favorite televisions programs without them? In a society that is so greatly dependent on these capabilities, a disruption in their functioning may result in a negatively dramatic effect. The major source of disruption is the Sun, which carries, in its solar flares, an interplanetary magnetic field. When it reconnects with the Earth’s magnetic field, plasma particles are injected into the Earth’s magnetosphere. These events, depending on the orientation of connection, can result in an auroral display and/or significant magnetic disturbances. Therefore, it is vital to understand how satellites will be affected by these events and make designs to protect them.

In truth, much of the reasoning for funding astrophysics research stems from the innate curiosity and passion for understanding our surrounding Universe. The human mind is not restricted to trivial thoughts. It can expand by looking down far enough to see the very particles that make up matter, or it can look up to see that Earth is just a spec in the entire architecture of the known Universe. It is important to keep and maintain this human desire to expand the bounds of knowledge. It is a defining characteristic of advanced thinking. Take for example, the nuclear reactions that occur within stars. By understanding the inner workings of an object hundreds of light years away, we are able to model and recreate such processes to develop nuclear power plants. Calculus underlies an enormous amount of technology, as it is important to understanding electricity and magnetism. Sir Isaac Newton invented this area of mathematics, when he was asked to provide the reasoning behind Kepler’s Laws for planetary motion, using only the known physical laws of gravity and motion. Indeed, much of what can be learned from objects in outer space can be applied to those on Earth and vice versa.

As students, our learning is partitioned into majors, creating the illusion of compartmentalized, mono-disciplinary fields in science. However, through my time as a developing astrophysicist, I am increasingly convinced that the Universe is indeed one entity, only understandable when the entire system is understood. To claim one field more productive than the other is to view an incomplete picture. The beauty, as in all things, lies in the appreciation of the whole. The elegant Universe is only such because of its ability to balance all areas of science contained within it.

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