Scientific Pilgrimages

One of the perks of being a scientist is that you end up travelling a hell of a lot, generally to places with universities and other sites of scientific interest (but not necessarily anything else of interest, as is sometimes the case…) This provides ample opportunity to do a bit of science sightseeing.

100" Hooker telescope, Mount Wilson Observatory

Over the past couple of months I’ve been in Pasadena, which is ripe for this sort of thing. I’ve been splitting my time between Caltech (the place of Feynman and Gell-Mann) and JPL (the place of rockets and twitchy security procedure); I can see Mount Wilson from my apartment; and there’s even the Cheesecake Factory, the (alleged) site of much of the action in the Big Bang Theory. A couple of highlights have been seeing the Hooker telescope — the very place where modern observational cosmology was founded — and visiting the Carnegie Observatories, or “Santa Barbara Street” as it was known back in the day when Hubble, and then Sandage, were knocking around. It’s even nice to just walk the same streets as Feynman.

Some of these visits feel like pilgrimages. Of the substantial number of places I’ve been able to visit over the past few years, a handful have inspired a genuine sense of awe, as if I were standing on hallowed ground. I think this comes from a feeling of being connected to the events and people that so significantly shaped our understanding of the Universe; to feel a small part of the momentous things I’ve been reading about in textbooks and popular articles for so long.  Standing on the spot where someone first split the atom, or first understood that the Universe had a beginning, separated from them by only a few decades — well, that’s as close as I can ever get.

I like the idea of being a part of a scientific tradition. Science is one of the more noble projects of humanity, and I feel pretty honoured to be able to participate in it — the same great adventure that occupied the Einsteins and Newtons of this world. Earning a place in said tradition isn’t easy, but at least I’m making some progress: my Erdos number is 5!

About Phil Bull

I'm a theoretical cosmologist, currently working as a NASA NPP fellow at JPL/Caltech in Pasadena, CA. My research focuses on the effects of inhomogeneities on the evolution of the Universe and how we measure it. I'm also keen on stochastic processes, scientific computing, the philosophy of science, and open source stuff. View all posts by Phil Bull

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