April 3, 2005

the 4 sciences

when we were kids we all thought that there were 4 branches of science:

having no concept of what composed the forefront of scientific research we let the toy people and the pbs people fill our heads with this perception. there were geology kits, geodes, rock tumblers, and always a shelf in the toy store with different polished kinds of rocks in the little sciency area. i know that i had a rock collection that i stored in a brown paper which kept tearing for some reason. obviously there were dinosaur toys as well, and big books with pictures of the prehistoric. it was an unquestioned belief that if one was to start digging in the back yard, bones would be unearthed sooner or later. it was simply a matter of interest. and if we ever saw a piece of fantastic art work like this it would be mere moments before we recalled the single most important thing we knew about dinosaurs...

that they died off before humans evolved so they wouldn't have to be the subject of humiliating paintings like this one.

i was, obviously, more a space and atoms type kid. there wasn't a lot of merchandising in the 'atoms' direction but there was always the impression that a people were working on it. in vain i once attempted to build an atom with styrofoam balls and wire. it was much harder than i expected. there was the periodic table and countless diagrams with red protons, blue neutrons and yellow electrons. here's an obligatory stock photo:

incidentally, i cannot ever recall a time when i didn't know what made up atoms, i have no memory of learning it for the first time. i guess that's why i'm a physics major: i am under the misguided impression that it comes naturally. but those documentaries were a bit deceptive, they always sort of made you think that if you became a physicist, your job would be to shrink down in size and look at a single slowly moving atom, color-coded for your convenience against a black background. every day the professor of one my quantum mechanics or particle physics classes doesn't say something like "today we're taking a field trip...to boron!" i grow more and more disappointed.

space was just astronomy with a twist of astronaut missions. but you wouldn't say you were interested in "astronomy," you would say "space." and the most vital fact to know about it? that you can't hear sounds in the vacuum. something you dearly wished wasn't true but couldn't change.

probably the best aspect of these two subjects was the way that they were constantly trying to impress you with the length or volume scales. any book was filled with statements like "if the earth were an ant on the top of the empire state building the sun would be the epcot center ball located 15 miles away." to read these books was to enter an alternate universe where the standard units of measure were football fields, golf balls and skyscrapers.