I just finished listening to Richard Panek’s The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. It is a gripping recounting of the history of cosmology and the birth of astrophysics, the question of the cosmological constant and dark matter, and a wonderful exploration of how we have come to know what we now we think we know about the birth and death of the universe and, more importantly, how we probably don’t actually know anything.
Gripping, I say.
I have a shelf full of popularized accounts of the cosmos – Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku – and every single time I find a new bit of astrophysics / quantum mechanics / cosmology to fall in love with, I walk away both overwhelmed with gratitude that these people are willing to take the time to explain the wild underpinnings of the universe to such as me. And every time, I tell myself I should quit my day job and go back to school for astrophysics, because I am in the wrong damn line of work.
Panek’s book came into my life at a point in time where I actually do have a fair amount of discretionary time, so this time, I followed up the sigh with a little bit of research into the course requirements for an undergrad degree in physics at a few different institutes. I found what I expected to find: I would need to do serious catch-up with the math.
At some point in my life I stopped thinking of myself as being capable of math, and while I muddled through the required classes with Bs and the occasional A, I didn’t both trying to retain the information, so at this point in my life, I wouldn’t trust myself to do much beyond what’s needed for balancing a checkbook or tweaking a knitting pattern.
The internet being what it is and my belief in my own intelligence not being quite as crippled as it was, I started looking for solutions, and as you might guess from the title, I started playing around with the Khan Academy lessons, which are wonderfully done, in my opinion. A pretest plopped me solidly into 6th grade math…not entirely unexpected, but humbling. Slightly confusing, given that I swear I passed calculus by at least the skin of my teeth, but I suppose I haven’t had reason to use it in nearly a decade.
Not to be daunted, I started going through the practice lessons and mastery modules. I’ve been getting things wrong. Less of it because I don’t remember the theory, I’m please to say, but I’m embarrassed to note that most of my wrong answers are because of (a) a lack of attention to detail in the question/instructions and (b) a tendency to make minor calculation errors that come from, guess what? A lack of attention to detail.
At this rate, I’m probably going to die of old age before I get to the level of math needed to manage even an undergrad degree in physics, but I think I’ll keep at it all the same. If nothing else, it will be an exercise in mindfulness, right?
Oh, and in the meantime, a recent discovery about the cosmic microwave background radiation essentially added the next chapter to “This is what we think we know about the birth of the universe and why,” and PhD Comics did a lovely job explaining the significance. How can you read about this stuff and NOT want to be an astrophysicist when you grow up?