Scientific Laughter is Allowed

Being a scientist can be very funny. At times.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a fancy conference room, one of those with spot lights, big screens with important-looking figures on it, flags here and there, and even retractable desks that half of the audience finds only on the last day of the event. And what am I doing here? Watching lectures given by really smart people. The subjects are all relevant in a way or another, at least to the people here. It’s all part of the Anual Meeting of the Brazilian Astronomical Society (also known as SAB — an acronym in Portuguese, of course), which is the fancy way that people who really like to think and talk about things that are really (and I mean really) far away, only observable using huge cones of plastic, metal and glass filled with super-advanced computer things, and that somehow convinced other people to pay them to do that for a living, call themselves. I should know, after all I’m part of this select group of slightly eccentric scientists: the astronomers. Astronomers can be seen as people really enthusiastic about all things related to space, including space itself. And I don’t mean space as the plane of existence that all things that exist occupy (although that kind of counts as well), but space as in all things outside Earth. It includes pieces of rock, pieces of ice, pieces of rock and ice in various proportions, really hot stuff that is sort of on fire but no quite (we call that plasma, and the things made of that, starts), blobs of dust and gas so mind boggling huge that the Sun is a mere dot in comparison, stuff so heavy that even light falls on it (we call those black holes)… The list goes. Name it, and I bet there is someone in this room that would give an arm to study it. It’s really exhilarating seeing so much inspiration and curiosity in a single place. All of these scientists are connected by a single thing: the will to better understand the Universe. Quite inspiring if you ask me.

But where is the funny part? After all, the title says “laughter”, so there must be something to laugh about, and so far there has been a few fancy words and some bad jokes that are far from making anyone laugh. Ok, I’ll admit: it’s not funny, as in “laughing out loud”, or as in many iterations of the letter “k”. It is funny as in a Monty Python sketch, or as Douglas Adams novel (although not as clever); it’s the irony that really brings the laughs. And the ironic part is: I have almost no idea of what all these people are talking about. That is hilarious. And also profoundly amazing.

Ok, to be completely honest, I have a broad idea of what is being said. I follow the general concept the lecturers are trying to explain, but as soon as the charts, numbers and big mathematical equations appear, I am lost. You could replace all the graphs, numbers and equations with random symbols, or say things completely different, and I would believe the same. And why? It has to do with my background as a scientist. I’m a geologist, which means I devote most of my time to study rocks. Yes, these clumps of minerals you find everywhere, from bathroom sinks to the sides of the road to the top of the highest mountains on Earth and back to the floor of any shopping mall you’ve ever visited. Don’t get me wrong, Geology is an amazing science, that allows one to see Earth (and any other thing made of rocks) in a unique way; you learn to read the rock’s histories, and to understand how the environments we see today were created and evolved overtime. Seas dry out, close and become mountains, only to be broken down by the rain and wind and to be carried away by rivers until they become so small that you can’t even see them anymore. For a geologist, a rock is a book that tells part of the history of the world, not to say the Universe. It is a beautiful science, that forever changes one’s perspective regarding nature. However, it is absolutely useless if you are trying to understand why a start becomes a black hole and not just a cold clump of gas floating in space. What brings me back to the start: I, a geologist, am here watching lectures on star formation, evolution and that sort of thing, also known as physics, amongst physicists, and not understanding a thing (or mostly anything). So why am I doing this? I’m not even paying attention, after all I’m writing this. Shouldn’t I be somewhere else talking about rocks? Or mountains? Sure, the Earth is in space, so all Earth rocks are, technically, “space rocks” and can be seen as part of Astronomy, but that is a stretch, right?

The answer to the questions above is the same as to why I’m not understanding much of the lectures: I’m a geologist. I learned to see rocks as these complex puzzles, with all kinds of interesting information hidden; it’s a unique point of view that only geologists know how to reach. And what is a planet, or asteroid, or space clump of solids if not a big rock (broadly speaking, of course)? Ok, some are mostly made of ice, or metal, but they still count as rocks. Special types of rocks, but rocks nonetheless. That means that any geologist, and by extension me, has a unique perspective regarding all solid objects in the Universe, quite different from the perspective of other scientists such as physicists or astronomers in general (including everyone in this meeting). Geologists can bring their different way of seeing planets and alike and turn discussions to new and unexpected directions. In other words, they can help to do different types of research, giving a more practical aspect to it. I, for instance, work with clumps of ice and rock called TNOs (acronym for transneptunian objects) found at the edge of the Solar System, trying to understand what their shape can tell about their evolution and formation. And I may be the only one here that can do that. I can use what I know to do something new and exciting, and maybe discover some pretty interesting things about the Universe. The most amazing thing is: I’m not the only one in this situation. The vast majority of scientists here, to not say all of them, have unique backgrounds, which allows them to do new and unique research, and push science in unexpected directions. That is the most wonderful thing about science: the differences between the people making it is what gives it strength. We tend to separate knowledge in boxes in order to better understand it, and that is fine when you are learning; separate things in smaller portions and see one at a time makes learning way easier than trying to see everything at once. But knowledge is one thing, a huge mass of ideas of all kinds, interconnected in all sort of fascinating ways; only when we focus on strengthening some of those connections is that it grows stronger.

Science is, has always been, and always will be, a collaborative effort. Generations of researchers built upon previous discoveries and ideas, continually pushing the boundaries of what is known, of what is known to be unknown, and what we think we may know one day, forward. Every area, and every subject inside of each area, is a part of human knowledge; our biggest achievement, our most precious treasure, and our most efficient and versatile tool. It allows us to overcome all adversities. Eventually. We may lose things; we live in dark and difficult times, our future seems uncertain. No one knows what awaits ahead, or how many things we’ll lose if mankind keeps its current path. As time passes, cities may vanish, countries may disappear, even continents may eventually break apart if enough time is given. However, our knowledge, and, most importantly, our capacity to built it, even from scratch if necessary, is indestructible. As long as we believe in it. So why not mix things a bit and have some fun along the way? After all, if a Geologist can talk about space and make at least a bit of sense, anything is possible.

Written at The XLIII Anual Meeting of the Brazilian Astronomical Society (USP, 2019).

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Makes things up and eventually writes them. Likes to talk about rocks in space.

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Hely Branco

Hely Branco

Makes things up and eventually writes them. Likes to talk about rocks in space.

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