curiosity across disciplines

Astronomy and FINAL.docx

Dr. Becky Smethurst's[1] book A Brief History of Black Holes, a delightful read and play on previous "A Brief History of" titles endemic to the genre, kicks off the gems as early as the prologue:

Recently, I got wonderfully lost in a sprawling second-hand bookshop and came across a book called Modern Astronomy written in 1901. In the introduction, the author, Herbert Hall Turner, states:

"Before 1875 (the date must not be regarded to precisely), there was a vague feeling that the methods of astronomical work had reached something like a finality: since that time there is scarcely one of them that has not been considerably altered."

What I love about Herbert Hall Turner's book (and the reason I just had to buy it) is that it serves as a reminder of how quickly perspectives can shift in science. There is nothing in the book that I or my colleagues doing astronomy research today would recognise as 'modern', and I can imagine that in 120 years a future astronomer reading this book would probably think the same.

Besides being a standalone insight into astronomy, this reminded me of an altogether-different, terror-inducing void at the center of a different universe:

The passed-around-the-office/uni[2] "FINAL" document.

You know the ones.

They're Lovecraftian-level horrors akin to "Important client-facing documnet with a comically-sans-long name appended with [FINAL], or [Jim's copy], or maybe even the beyond-satire [FINAL FINAL].docx".

Now, Dr. Smethurst, being a proper clever astrophysicst certainly doesn't fall prey to the [FINAL].docx delusion that "we've arrived," that this will is the ultimate version, and that we couldn't possibly find even one more edit to fix in an otherwise-lovely and not-at-all padded, runon string of words assembled hastily together and saved to a cluttered desktop.

No, her point is the exact opposite: there is no done. Science—and with a bit of gratuitous inference, life in general—is always in progress.

To continue to lay the wax on thick, there's a sense of universal poetry[3] at play when stuff as different as black holes thousands of light-years away reminds us of banal foibles us humans exhibit so close to home.

But to return to the practical: remembering this distinction is both freeing and full of wonder.

It's freeing because it reduces our stress with delivering “perfect” things now. We also get to marvel at the unadulterated audacity of the universe to be so damn beautiful.

We should focus on permanent for now solutions, taking comfort in proper version control and iteration, whilst always minding the gap of what we know now, and what we might know later.

  1. Dr. Becky Smethurst, A Brief History of Black Holes. Also, in addition to the book, I highly recommend her youtube channel btdubs. ↩︎

  2. That's how they say it across the pond; I'm not going to tarnish Dr. Smethurt's good work by association, and merely say "college". Also, retrospecting, what a dreadfully-American word. ↩︎

  3. If you're interested in more science and another take on this topic, check out Simon Clark's excellent video, "The hidden link between water and our galaxy". ↩︎