2040 MST. Just back from a short evening volunteering under the telescope at the observatory. It has cooled to a temperature that we science people classify as “danged cold” – there was frost inside the dome and the slit drive motor labored in the cold.  A small chattering group queued up in the frigid darkness to peer through the eyepiece at the wonders of the universe. Mars was just at opposition, so it is quite bright and close. A wispy veil of high altitude moisture above prevented resolution of the polar caps or any other surface detail for that matter. Thankfully, the moon was not present to add to the skyglow.

Using the computerized guiding system, I clicked the cursor on M42, the Orion Nebula, and then clicked the telescope icon to move the scope. Instantly, the 18″ Tinsley Cassegrain telescope began to slew to the proper point in space and the dome followed along. How it knows where to place the dome slit is beyond me, but it always works. 

There before our eyes was M42 with the trapezium blazing away in the middle of the milky nebula. Visitors always get a kick out of seeing it. Elsewhere on the celestial dome Uranus was obscured by clouds and Saturn was just below the horizon. Jupiter is currently behind the sun in its orbit and not visble.

I’m not an astronomer, nor do I consider myself even to be an amateur astronomer. I am a chemist trying to grasp the big picture- the whole enchilada across 25 or 30 orders of magnitude. Because people come to hear about astronomy I have to give star talks, not chemistry talks. But I do manage to work in some notions about matter that astronomers tend not to delve into.

Visitors can get a list of the usual factoids about astronomy from the web or in a book. I loathe having to give a brain-dump of encyclopedia facts. But, visitors do need a few details in order to get calibrated as to size and the distance to things in space.  I find that it is useful to spend a few minutes on the topic of asking questions. Especially if the visitors are a group of students.

Insights often depend greatly on the vocabulary with which the question was asked. Science is best at How questions rather than Why questions. It is a common linguistic error for people, kids in particular, to confuse why with how. We can readily explain How Annie dropped the ball. We can follow the thread of causality because the How question resolves to physics. Why she did it is a complex matter involving psychology and motivation. Why questions are more in the domain of the fine arts and theology. 

Someone once said “I can think to the extent I have language”. So often it has been the case that after considerable time in the lab, I am struck with a realization.  If only I had asked the right questions to begin with, I would have designed the best experiments earlier. I was unable to assemble the right questions even though the clues to the problem were before me.

An example of how vocabulary can affect your perception of a problem: Was matter really created or was it formed? I hear these words used inappropriately or interchangeably all of the time. I hold that the two words take careless thinkers down different pathways in the study of the origin of matter. In the contemporary context, the word “created” may infer supernatural intervention. The word “formed” is more generic and mechanical.  For scholars this may not be an issue, but certainly for the non-scientific folk who are also school board members, the difference between notions of created and formed could result in curricular changes.

I like to have visitors consider questions about the stuff the universe is made of. How much stuff is there in the universe? What is the stuff doing? How does the stuff come to be? And, oh yes, just what is the stuff, anyway? Arguably, this is what astronomy has been about all along. A proper evening at the observatory should cause people to leave with more questions than they came in with.