Last friday, there was an outdoor concert on campus and I went with some of the people I lived with in the dorms last year. I hadn’t heard of either of the bands performing, but that didn’t worry me. I try not to be stingy with my time, and I feel uncomfortable when other people are with theirs. It’s not like I am doing something important with every minute of my waking day anyway. Also, I don’t put a price on anything that concerns my mental well-being. I am not on the edge of going insane; that is not what I mean. I just mean that some things are more important and should not be valued the same way you value unimportant things. It just so happens that at the moment, I can’t think of very many unimportant things to exemplify, or else I would have listed them instead of just saying “unimportant things”. The first unimportant thing I thought of was hardware for a decent laptop, because my laptop is sitting right in front of me. But then I remembered that having a highly-functional laptop is critical to my usual workflow and by extension, my mental wellbeing. The next thing I thought of was ice cream. There is an ice cream shop right down the street from the apartment complex where I live. I personally think that they are overpriced for what they produce, especially since their competitor sells scoops of ice cream for one dollar on the other side of town. If ice cream is essential to your mental health as a laptop is to mine, then perhaps you should not skimp on your ice cream budget. As for me, I think I would be happier to know that my ice cream had only cost me one dollar.
Anyway, I decided that this outdoor concert was something that concerned my mental health and was worth the time, however little I thought my time was worth. The concert was free, after all. I did not like the music the bands played, although that is probably my fault. I like music with great lyrical density, sensual vocals, and tangible instrumentation. The electronic music at the concert was not this. What I mean by tangible instrumentation is that I prefer music where all of the instruments are identifiable, and in some cases, reproducible with nothing more than a trained ear. Some kinds of modern music use computers to distort and mix these identifiable sounds into exciting new tones that have never before been heard. Others try to accentuate and clarify sounds in order to make them more identifiable. I have no problem with the latter, even if entire guitar tracks can today be completely synthesized from recorded samples. So long as the deception is convincing, I am not concerned. To me, this kind of music is the best evidence of humanity we can get on demand today. On the other hand, there is car music, which I listen to exclusively in the car where there are usually other people as well. Car music is what the popular young people radio stations play. It is a good thing that radio stations love playing car music, or else we would need to find another place to get it.
Many people at the concert were not paying attention to the music. They were sitting toward the back underneath the trees where they could talk or smoke, safely hidden from the sight of the one police officer who, that night, had the misfortune of being assigned to our concert. There are few things worse than not being able to sit down at an outside concert where everyone else is sitting down and enjoying the ambiance. Berkeley has a lot of night light so the sky is not very dark, but the concert glade had an excellent unrestricted view of the sky above. I laid down on the grass as well. With my friend’s phone, I identified the summer triangle–Deneb, Altair, and Vega–three bright stars that make a triangle. I am not familiar with celestial names and places. I always thought it was more worthwhile to spend time understanding celestial concepts rather than the names that Englishmen gave to those objects of brightest apparent magnitude as viewed from our planet Earth. The latter is a much cooler thing to know though. I only know of those three stars because they played an interesting part in a TV show I saw almost 6 years ago. I felt an moment of unexplainable sadness about seeing the actuality of those summer stars after learning about them so long ago.
Three of my favorite fields of study are computer science, astronomy, and biology. I always thought this was interesting (the fact, not the subjects) because they deal with everything we use, everything we see, and everything we are respectively. These actual fields may not be so broadly defined, but if you stretch your imagination a little, it sounds almost right. Learning about these fields of study helped to shape my philosophy and world view as I grew up. Astronomy was the earliest influencer of these three. You will find that nearly everyone who enjoys casual astronomy has a detached and laid-back approach to things that might seem very important.
I want to share with you two interesting things about astronomy that I think are more important than they’re given credit for. The first is the solar plane. In diagrams and illustrations, our planets are always drawn with their concentric orbits in a disk, like the ridges on a frisbee. On the other hand, we know that space is three-dimensional. The fact that all of the planets orbit in a roughly disk-shaped region must seem quite unusual1! Most people assume this just had to be the case, which is actually true for a lot of situations, but the reasons aren’t so obvious as it would seem. The second thing is that, while we know a lot of things about our solar system and our interstellar neighbors, we don’t know so much about the space in between. Past the orbit of Pluto lies a rough sphere of interesting random things that deserve some more attention. These include the Kuiper belt, another disk-shaped region past the orbit of Pluto, and the Oort Cloud, which encompasses all objects on which the Sun influences gravitationally. There are countless orbiting rocks, comets, clouds of hydrogen, and other unknown things all in this region. There are also several imaginary boundaries separating our solar system from interstellar space that define the regions where solar wind and interstellar forces are balanced out and things like that2.
In high school biology, I learned that almost all of the visible parts of a person are just made up of layers of keratin. I learned a few other things, but the keratin thing was the most intriguing. In the back of their minds, everyone is somewhat aware that people are just made of their constituent fluids and tissues and that somehow the orchestration of all those parts make interesting functional beings. However, there are some people who just seem so different from regular people that you’d refuse to believe all their visible parts were made up of the same proteins all of our visible parts are. It seems like a fantastic mission. Proving yourself to be more than keratin, that is. Talking to them, it almost makes you forget all the things you know about ancient geology and human anatomy, because all of these sciences seem so unbelievable in their light.
I could recount for you all of the cosmic miracles that made Earth into the fertile life-bearing oasis it is today. Astronomy and biology sort of overlap in that regard. It sounds kind of silly, but after so many years under the oppression of contextualizing science, I just want to forget that any of it was ever true. It gets more and more difficult to separate the irrelevant from the immediate when your brain keeps reminding you of the way things came to be. Of stars and humans, which is the irrelevant? That is hard to say. I enjoy deception oh so much; sometimes I just like to look at the pretty stars and forget about them both.