Podcasts, The Universe, And Everything

Recently, John Green announced a now-released podcast, The Universe hosted by himself and Dr. Katie Mack, which attempts to detail the entire history, present, and future of our universe as we currently understand it. While I haven't listened to the podcast beyond the trailer, I am confident it will be quite good. But that isn't really what I wanted to talk about here.

Instead I wanted to talk about how the trailer for that podcast reminded me of my own journey with the topic of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

As a teenager, I spent a fair bit of time in my school library doing one of three things:

  1. Playing games on the library computers on whatever sites were as-of-yet undiscovered (read unblocked) by the IT admin.1
  2. Reading fantasy (see Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Series).
  3. Trying to read whatever I could to answer what I thought was a pretty simple question.

What is Time?

Why I was trying to answer this question is lot to my memory, but if I recall correctly the Doctor Who episode Blink came out around that time with its famous "wibbly wobbly" description of time. And Doctor Who was my jam at the time.

Einstein famously quipped: "time is what clocks measure". Which is delightfully unhelpful to the philosophically inclined.

To answer this question I read whatever I could find on the subject including Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, and others. Most of what I read went over my head as you'd expect for a teenager reading books on Theoretical Physics, but books like ABHoT lead me eventually to Astronomy. Perhaps if I was going to undertand Time, I needed to understand how it began.

Introduction to Stars, Galaxies, & the Universe

I don't remember exactly how, but eventually I stumbled on the medium of Podcasts and specifically a podcast by Professor Richard Pogge at Ohio State University called Astronomy 162. The podcast is effectively just the lectures for that class which Pogge describes as astronomy for non-science majors. In other words, it's an overview without all the math. A perfect find!

I listened to that podcast (and it's predecessor Astronomy 161) over and over again in order to extract the maximum amount of information from them. I can recall sitting in the backyard of my parent's house for hours devouring these episodes. In particular, the episode that fascinated me the most (and which is the subject of the first episode of The Universe) is titled, The First Three Minutes.

I'd recommend that episode today for anyone who is curious about astronomy. The whole series of lectures is very approachable and understandable to anyone, and but The First Three Minutes is what truly gripped me. As many of my friends know, I love things like that.

An Aside

I remember discovering other podcasts by similarly forward-thinking professors and those podcasts both indulged my curiosity and augmented my own college education later on.

The Internet serving to make more college-level content available to the general public has been one of the coolest things to see happen in recent decades. And it was through podcasting that I also discovered the excellent show Writing Excuses which taught me so much about the craft of writing and continues to be a show I go back to when I need help.

Bringing it Back

The release of The Universe by John Green and Dr. Katie Mack has put me in a bit of a reminiscent mood. I'm thrilled to see a new show attempt to capture the next generation of curious minds and I hope those who listen to it find what I did in Professor Pogge's podcast nearly two decades ago. That podcast was ultimately the reason I wanted to study Astrophysics in college—something I later abandoned to study Aerospace Engineering which turned out to be decidedly less interesting to me—and to this day I am still very interested in Astronomy and Physics.

In a way, perhaps I can credit Doctor Who, Professor Pogge, Steven Hawking, and being a 6th period Library Assistant for the path I eventually took and for kindling the ongoing desire for learning that I keep to this today.

I'm not sure, but it's been fun to think about. What I can be sure of is that podcasts are incredible.

1 Including a really cool 3D, Halo-esq, capture the flag game that only seems more impressive the more I think about such a thing running in a web browser on a candy-shell iMac in 2007.

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