Monday, January 9, 2012

Musing About Cosmology and Evolution

Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday is making quite a bit of news. A few days ago science writer Kitty Ferguson  talked about Hawking and his work and his life on Fresh Air.  I enjoy talks on cosmology and I read popular articles on it. Up to the time I started graduate school in the United States I did not read much science beyond geology. Carl Sagan's Cosmos was my start on widening my reading to other sciences.

After reading a well written article on cosmology I come out feeling I have understood something...but just what..? Generally, I am unable to explain in any detail what I have read to friends or put it down in a coherent written format either. I think I know what Hawking radiation is and what is significant about the Higgs Boson but can't really express my thoughts beyond what I have read.

My experience with the theory of evolution has been somewhat different. I was completely ignorant about evolution well into graduate school. My adviser who doubles up as a sedimentary geologist and paleontologist encouraged me to start reading.  Today I consider myself fairly well informed about the field. The difference from cosmology has been that I am confident enough to express my thoughts on evolution either in conversation or in writing. I find I am able to think about basic principles and apply them to different situations and contexts beyond say what I have read in a popular article or book. I occasionally read the primary literature too.

Is my not so strong math background preventing me from looking at cosmology under the hood? I get the feeling that without working through the equations I am stuck nodding my head at whatever article I happen to read and nothing much beyond that. Many sub fields of evolution are also intensely mathematical. But I found that there are also many principles of evolution I could happily think about without the math. Evolution is all about armchair theorizing for me. I came up with  posts I am proud of on Tasmanian Devils And A Selfish Gene and another on the Red Queen one afternoon dreamily thinking about natural selection.

With Cosmology I don't have the wherewithal to write anything original. I have to get my kicks from Stephen Hawking on Fresh Air.

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