Friday, May 8, 2009

Oh you're an Astronomer - that's interesting!

One of the things I love about being an Astronomer is that pretty much everyone is interested in what you do - this gives a real opening to educate about science, and frankly it's just fun to have a job everyone thinks is "cool".

One of the things I hate about being an Astronomer is that pretty much everyone is interested in what you do - this has led to some very sticky airplane/taxi ride conversations about why Einstein is wrong, or how my science education has closed my mind to alternative theories etc. etc. Also I'm a bit scared of the effect on hairdressers who I do still want to make me look nice - generally an area I try to stay away from when getting my haircut!

These kinds of conversations have come up a lot recently as I've just got back from a long trip - there's nothing like long airplane/taxi rides to stimulate conversation with strangers. I would say I had two of the first kind, and only one of the second, so that's not bad.

On the first long plane ride my neighbour was clearly dying to ask a question after he got out of me what I do. I managed to be unfriendly enough that he waited until almost the end of the flight (showing great tact on his behalf - I needed to get some work done and enjoy my "alone" time) and then we had a nice conversation about the Big Bang and how Physics can't explain things right back to it yet since we can't yet reconcile quantum mechanics and strong gravity. A risky area, but I think it went well. Also I broke some misconceptions by working on my latest crochet project during the flight - he seemed unreasonably impressed that astrophysics and crochet are not mutually exclusive.

The second conversation did not go so well. Probably didn't help that it happened right at the end of my journey when all I wanted to do was collapse in my hotel room. I had a taxi driver with probably the smallest amount of tact I've ever seen in a person (and that's saying a lot given how much time I spend with astronomers) who really wanted to educate me about how my science training has closed my mind to the fact that Einstein must be wrong about gravity. I don't actually remember much about the conversation - except that it left me wanting to remind myself what Einstein had to say about time dilation in gravitational fields and learn more about experiments on Earth which try to test this. His complaints has something to do with that and involved spouting equations to me at midnight local time while I struggled to stay awake.

Proving that not all taxi drivers are tactless was conversation number three. Also at the end of a long journey - but one in which I slept much more - and was on the way home to little one, already putting me in a much better mood. We had a nice conversation about how the size of the Milky Way makes it unlikely that aliens have actually visited Earth, even if they (in my opinion) are quite likely to exist somewhere. I think I managed to confuse him with my "oreo cookie", western Europe size comparison (if the solar system is an oreo cookie, the Milky Way is the size of western Europe - or North America if you prefer), but he seemed happy with the conversation and complemented me on my clear explanations. That taxi ride ended very amicably - and I learned that in his opinion I could sell electronics, and probably even "cheeky stuff" like extended warrentees (his other job was as a manager in an electronics store), so I'll think about that as an alternative career!

1 comment:

Mrs. CH said...

Telling people you are in astronomy definitely brings out all kinds of conversations, doesn't it? I like it when things go well, but I always dread it going in the opposite direction!