“Why do you do it?”
Almost daily I come across people who all ask me the same question. The “it” here is usually astronomy; sometimes it is my research specifically, and sometimes it is the broad notion of science in general. Ask 100 scientists and you will more than likely get 101 different answers, but I like to think that the core point behind most of our reasons is that we love the notion of discovery. There is something intrinsically wondrous about science that gives you this energy, this drive to keep pushing forwards. It fills you with excitement and a buzzing motivation to always race towards the next hill, peek around the next corner, and poke and prod and fiddle! I am the first to admit, however, that this source of energy is not infallible, and sometimes you do start to ask those same questions yourself. Why do I do this? This is inevitable, and the laws of thermodynamics would have to agree; between the friction of administrative red tape and the finite energy in a closed system, you cannot continue to move forwards unless there is some external force.
Fortunately for me, every year I get this extra push from the Annual Science Meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia (or the ASA ASM, hell, let us just call it the ASA; there are lots of acronyms here on in, you are warned!) Put simply, the ASA is an annual event where Astronomers and Astrophysicists from all over Australia get together and discuss their research, local and international trends, and the nature of the space sciences in general. It is a chance to forget about all the politics of science and get excited about it again! It is also a chance to escape and do something different for a change, like go exploring the nearby forest, get lost, scramble down a makeshift path covered in mud (while wearing your nice white conference shirt), and discovering this:
Every scientist who presents at these conferences is showing of their own personal research to the world at large, and this is no small thing for them. Your research is like your child, you nurture it, you invest countless hours into it; sleepless nights, blood, sweat, and tears! So it goes to follow that when you are presenting this research, this precious things of yours, you are going to do so with the same level of emotion, passion, and drive that you have invested into it so far. This is immediately obvious to people who are attending the conference, and you can tell straight away when someone is no longer excited about their work. Fortunately, the number of people who love their work seems to outweigh those who have become jaded beyond repair. The question I ended up asking myself this recent ASA meeting, how do we convey this sense of awe and wonder and energy that we get from these conferences to the general public? How can we get everyday people involved and excited about the work that we are doing, but without everyone needing to understand every detail and minutia surrounding what is being presented.
Exoplanet scientists truly are the MacGyvers of astrophysics, give them a paperclip and they find the mass of “51 Pegasus” #ASA2012
— Tim Young (@DungeonMaster) July 1, 2012
Sometimes the answer is social media (and once again, I apologise to my friends and family who so graciously put up with the occasional flurry of “tweeting” that bombards their social media feeds whenever something exciting is happening in the world of science), sometimes it is just taking a moment to talk about our work to the person behind us in the line at the coffee shop. We have so many tools in our everyday life to communicate, and as a species we are the most interconnected than we have ever been before. This is an age where my mother knows what a #hashtag is, and my grandparents have sent me Google+ Hangout requests from their laptop in the livingroom in Western Australia to my phone in a parking structure in Sydney over 4000km away!
Every year that I attend the ASA I am reminded just how amazing the work we are doing really is, and every year I get a chance to rekindle that fire inside me that so desperately wants all of you to get a chance to be as excited as I am. For all those days in between inspirational conferences I have refilled my enthusiasm reserves by working at one of (if not the) best planetariums in the world, by volunteering for the Scientists in Schools program, and by starting up an independent project called Guerrilla Astronomy. If I can show just one person each day how awesome science can be, then I have spent that day well. I like to think that excitement is infectious, and this is one epidemic that I would be more than happy to spark and spread to all corners of the world.
“Why do I do what I do?”
“Because I want you to be as excited and ecstatic as I am!”