Category Archives: “I am a scientist because…”

prompt from Michelle, Feb. 2011

The Teacher, the Law, and the Freshman

by Shane L. Larson

My mother has a theory — whatever your great passion is in the first grade, that is in all likelihood the best indicator of what you should do with your life. It’s what will make you the happiest.   For most of my years up through about fourth grade I wanted to be a scientist.  That changed to astronaut after the launch of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981.

The astronaut thing stuck for a long time, until I started college.  Growing up during the space shuttle era, I knew that to be an astronaut did not mean you had to be a pilot, because you could be a mission specialist — someone who did science on orbit.  At some point in the years leading up to college I had decided the thing that would maximize my chances of flying as a mission specialist was to be an engineer.  So the fall I went to college, my education did not start in science at all — it started in mechanical engineering.

Being an engineer was okay; we learned computer programming (in FORTRAN, unfortunately), we got to build balsa wood bridges and then crush them under a two ton load tester, and we got to peek under the hood of all kinds of devices and see how the world works when we’re not looking. I have a strong independent streak, and generally regard my destiny as my own to control. This caused a great deal of strife as a  young engineering student because I didn’t feel compelled to follow the list of courses that had been outlined for me. Unbeknownst to me, a battle was brewing over this fact.  I became suddenly aware of this near the end of my first winter quarter when the dean of engineering called me into his office.  My memory of the conversation is something like this:

  • DEAN: You are off track. You’re not taking the courses you are supposed to.
  • ME: So?
  • DEAN: You’re taking a random physics course. You can’t do that.
  • ME: Why? I want to take astronomy; I think it will be useful.
  • DEAN: The recommended courses are what is going to be useful.
  • ME: Well I’m going to take astronomy. I’ll get to those courses eventually.

In the end, I got to stay in the astronomy class, because spring quarter wasn’t too far away.  The dean did, however, make me sign a contract that said I would adhere to the recommended engineering schedule during all future quarters.

The late Dr. David Griffiths (Oregon State University, Department of Physics).

The astronomy course in question was Introductory Astronomy: Stars and Galaxies, taught by the late Dr. David Griffiths of Oregon State University (not to be confused with the other Dr. David Griffiths, at Reed College, of textbook fame).  Dr. Griffiths was one of the formative figures in my scientific youth, and is responsible for setting me on the path I am on today.  Three days after starting his astronomy course, I changed my major to physics (*).  While I gained some deep satisfaction from delivering my change of major paperwork to the College of Engineering, and even more satisfaction from tearing up the silly contract I had signed the quarter before, you must be wondering what it was that sparked such a drastic alteration in my destiny?  It was Dr. Griffiths.  And Johannes Kepler.

On the first day of astronomy class, I sat squirming in my seat, breathless with anticipation of learning about quasars, dark matter, and black holes. Dr. Griffiths strode into class, his salt-and-pepper curly black hair slightly wild and unkempt in a way that is typical for many scientists.  On that first day, he launched into a story about Johannes Kepler and the laws of planetary motion, which apply to all orbits not just to planets. This was a story I was familiar with from many long hours spent watching Cosmos (Ep. 3, “The Harmony of the Worlds”).  This wasn’t what I was exactly waiting for, but it was astronomy and so I enjoyed myself.

The story focused on Kepler’s Third Law, which tells us that the length of time a planet takes to complete an orbit is related to how big that orbit is.  This is called Kepler’s “Harmonic Law” and is usually stated as: “The square of a planet’s period (the time it takes to complete one orbit) is proportional to the cube (third power) of its semi-major axis (the radius of the orbit if it is circular).”  Mathematically, it is written as

P2 ~ a3

Kepler had deduced this result by studying careful observations of the positions of the planets made by his contemporary, Tycho Brahe.  This made perfect sense to me.  It was the way I had always been taught that science worked: you make observations, then deduce the Laws of Nature from those observations.

At this point in the story, Dr. Griffiths did something that changed my destiny forever.  He turned to us, and looking through glasses that had slipped to the end of his nose, said, “We could have figured that out even if we didn’t have any observations.”

I sat up in my chair a little straighter at this point. What?

Dr. Griffiths continued: “We can mathematically fit any data we want to — that’s what Kepler did. But whatever the fit is, it had better come from the fundamental Laws of Nature. We can derive Kepler’s Third Law from the basic rules of physics.”  Which he did.  With a deft hand, in white chalk, he completely blew my mind in just a few short lines.  That derivation is replicated below (in my own handwriting — this moment in my formative history is far too important to ever be reduced to mere typeset equations).  While it would be easy to include this just for the aficionados (and any engineers who think they may want to be physicists…), you should look closely at this.  This is the beauty of the Laws of Nature.  What makes the planets go, and why they move the way they do, was once one of the greatest mysteries of science, yet through sheer force of imagination we humans figured out how to explain it concisely enough that it can be written on a napkin and explained as a motivational exercise for students!

Derivation of Kepler’s Third Law from first principles.

This was a revelation to me.  It was the first time that I truly felt I had a glimpse into what the scientific enterprise was all about.  It was the first time that I had ever encountered the awesome power of science, and the first time I had ever been confronted by the sheer scope of what we could accomplish with our naked intellect.  But most importantly, in the span of those few minutes, as the scritch scritch of Dr. Griffiths chalk outlined the foundations of Kepler’s Third Law, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my scientific career, which still guides me today: everything is connected, and knowing as much as possible about everything you possibly can will bear unexpected and beautiful fruit in the end.  Before that class was over, I had decided that if this is what physics was all about, then this was a profession for me.  I walked out that day and started figuring out how to change my major.

The Laws of Nature would exist whether you and I were sitting here talking about them or not.  Atoms would continue to bond together and make stuff, apples would continue to fall out of trees and to the ground, and stars would continue to burn and flood the Cosmos with light.  The fact that the Laws of Nature can be figured out is one of the great gifts of the Cosmos to its inhabitants.  We live in a world filled with predictable patterns.  Rocks that I throw up in the air always fall back to the ground. A cup of coffee on my counter always cools to the ambient temperature of the room.  The constellations rise in the east each night at dark, and slowly march across the sky westward over the course of the night.  These tantalizing patterns are clues that Nature provides us about the underlying order of things, breadcrumbs that lead us to science, the express goal of which is to understand the Laws of Nature that make all the wondrous order of the natural world.

Science is a unique creation of our species, the paramount expression of our ability to see the world around us, and imagine why it is the way it is.  The culmination of our creative ruminations are the Laws of Nature, written in the language of mathematics, another invention of our species. As we practice science today, it is a self-correcting framework.  At any given moment, it captures our imperfect understanding of what we have observed about the Cosmos. When we make new discoveries, we reexamine the Laws of Nature as we understand them, and expand our thinking to correctly explain what we have seen.   Johannes Kepler published his Harmonic Law in 1619.  It was perfectly adequate for explaining observations of the planets in the solar system.  But it was not until 1687 that Newton took that understanding and expanded it using the Universal Law of Gravitation.  I’m sure he didn’t imagine that the consequence of that simple expansion of human consciousness would be to create a scientist out of a university freshman 300 years later.

Dr. Griffiths passed away in early 2005, returned to the embrace of the Cosmos from whence we all came.  It is a great sadness to me that I never made it back to Oregon State to talk to him again after I graduated.  Teaching is an artform which requires immense amounts of patience and practice.  I think back on that day in Dr. Griffiths’ class often, deeply cognizant of the fact that that was the moment the changed my career forever.  Today, I teach my own classes, and I hope that I also occasionally stumble through moments of revelation for my students.  I don’t know what those moments might be, or when they might occur.  I just hope they happen.  But I take my cues from Dr. Griffiths: I always teach the derivation of Kepler’s Third Law, just like it was taught to me.  🙂

——————————————————————

(*) This is how I always tell this story, because that is the way I remember it in my head. However, having written it down and looking at it critically, it does seem the exact time that passed between events is not relayed accurately here. However, this is my story, and I’m sticking to it. 😉

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Personal Reflections on the Inscrutable Exhortations of the Soul

by Shane L. Larson

I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes.  The adventures of the boy who never lost his imagination, and the gentle practical wisdom of tigers appealed deeply to me.  It still resonates with me today.  I have an enlargement of a single strip framed and hanging over my desk.  Hobbes strolls up to Calvin who is cavorting on the side of a stream and says, “Whatcha doin’?”  “Looking for frogs,” replies Calvin.  “How come?” asks Hobbes, getting down and starting the search himself.  Calvin proclaims, “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.”  “Ah. But of course,” says Hobbes.

The inscrutable exhortations of the soul are those things that give unreasoned joy to our meager existence, giving our lives depth and dimension.  To those of us lucky enough to have listened to our elementary school teachers who told us we could be anything we wanted, lucky enough to have ignored the naysayers and sidestepped around the cynics and obstructionists, we have found careers that allow us to follow the pathways of our deepest desires.

People often ask me why I’m a physicist, and I almost always reply, “Because it was the easiest science I could do.”  They usually look at me like I’ve grown a second head.  But it is true.  Have you ever sat through a biology class?  There are estimated to plausibly be 100 million different species of life on our planet, and we don’t even know most of them –– millions of insects and bacteria have yet to be discovered, classified and understood.  And on top of that there is cellular structure and genetics and anaerobic glycolysis.  It hurts my head to think about how hard biology is.  What about chemistry?  Chemistry sounds simple because there are only 92 naturally occurring elements.  But everything we know of –– Chiclets, Yugos, platypuses, diamond engagement rings, boogers, Flintstones vitamins, Chicago Cubs fans, and even mysterious looking cafeteria food –– everything is made from those elements.  There are so many uncountable ways to put those 92 elements together that it hurts my head.

Physics, by contrast, is easy.  All of the most basic laws of physics are encompassed by fewer than 20 mathematical equations, simple enough that I can write them all on a bar napkin.  Don’t be fooled by fat physics books.  That bar napkin and that tiny set of physical laws describe everything that we see happening in the world around us, from the scale of the atom to the scales of galaxies.  That range of applicability is mind-boggling, but not as mind-boggling as the fact that we know what they are!  This is the appeal of physics to me; the inscrutable exhortations of my soul have always reflected a deep desire to know things, to find answers to whatever interesting question flits through my brain.

My life is not my career as a physicist, but those deepest desires of my soul are in the driver’s seat.

The inscrutable exhortations of my soul are to feel wonder.  I am an amateur astronomer, and spend many long nights in my backyard, plying the skies with a telescope of my own craftsmanship.  My eyes have soaked up the light that left a distant galaxy 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs still walked the Earth.  Nothing impresses on me the smallness of our world and the vastness of the Cosmos more than this.

The inscrutable exhortations of my soul are to know more.  Have you ever noticed after a long summer of driving how the bugs have caked on your car’s antenna?  Me too –– an antenna is pretty small and narrow, so there must be a lot of bugs.  How many?  I taped a swatch of bug paper to the front of my car to find out, and now I can tell you how many bugs you will encounter driving across the state of Nebraska.

The inscrutable exhortations of my soul are to experience the unfathomable.  One of the sad realities of my life is that I will never be able to dive to the bottom of the Laurentian Abyss, nor travel to the edge of space –– both experiences well beyond the Earthbound expectations of our deep brains that have been bred into our psyches since our ancestors descended from the trees to walk the savannah.  But I have constructed emissaries to make the journeys for me.  I have sent a small robot beneath the waves, and I have on many occasions sent cameras and videocams aloft to capture the bright curved limb of Earth against the blackness of space.  It’s as close as I am likely to get to those realms where I cannot traverse.

None of these outcomes is going to appear in a scientific journal, nor win me a Nobel Prize.  They are simple reflections of my own personal joy in doing them, the way knitting extravagant sweaters is for my grandmother-in-law.  Science is a tool for me to explore the world around me.  It is a pathway to enlightenment, as much as literature and philosophy and music can be.  Can science answer all the inscrutable questions of the Cosmos?  Probably not. I doubt there will ever be a way to explain why I love kale and white bean soup but hate black licorice (contrary to most of the rest of the human race).  I doubt there will ever be a way to explain why I get so much contentment walking to school with my daughter while she prattles on incessantly about the important things to 5 year olds.  I doubt there will ever be a way to explain why Bill Bryson makes me laugh out loud (I’m forbidden from reading his books on airplanes).  But science, and the process of science, can help me nurture a grove of corn from seedlings in June to cobs on my barbeque plate in September.  Science can help me understand why the drops on that leaky faucet are always the same size.  Science can help me use a laser pointer to figure out the spacing of DVD tracks on days when Wikipedia is blacked out.  Science can help me understand how to make a paper airplane fly farther than anyone else’s (winning me the adulations of nerds everywhere).

So often science gets the bad rap of removing the mystery and passion from life.  I think nothing could be further from the truth.  Science is an aperture to reveal the wonder and mystery of the world –– it only strengthens the depth of our understanding of the intimate connection we have with the Cosmos.  I love the appearance of rainbows after the rage of a thunderstorm, and am enthralled by the majesty and color –– I take my cell phone and shoot panoramas that I painstakingly try to stitch together into giant mosaics in a vain attempt to capture the beauty that my eye saw.  But I also understand the basic physics of how small droplets of water take a seemingly innocuous parcel of light from the distant Sun and explode it into one of the most dazzling displays in the natural world.  Far from keeping me from appreciating the rainbow, it deepens my sense of amazement that the Universe can create such wonders from such simple laws of Nature.

This is the nature of science –– to illuminate the mystery and wonder of the world around us.  By this definition, I think all of us have science in the driver’s seat of our souls when we are young; I only have to watch my 5-year-old daughter to convince myself of this.  By the time we are old enough to have mortgages and SUVs, other passions have asserted themselves.  But for a lucky few of us, myself included, our spirits have held onto a vision of the world reflected so eloquently in the stories of a boy and his tiger.  Have you ever wondered how wasps survive through a northern Utah winter?  Me too; I think there is a nest outside in my porch light.  I’m off to obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.

The generation that took us to the Moon…

I’m cross-listing this here, from my personal blog, because I think it has some relevance to the discussion of training the “next generation of scientists and engineers”.

The generation that took us to the Moon…

science as “fun”

by Adam Johnston

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked a lot about how I got to where I am in my career, and in particular why I pursued science. I’ve taken advantage of those moments as a way to amass a variety of answers. It’s funny, though, because the question gets asked in lots of different ways. There’s “why are you a scientist?” and “how did you become a scientist?” and “what inspired you to go into science?” These are all different questions, and they all have different answers. I wish I could answer even one of them.

When I was on the radio a couple weeks ago (yes, I enjoy saying that) I was asked about the personal appeal for science. I talked about it being “fun.” Later, I tried to clarify this a bit. You could call it fun, or whimsy, or curiosity, or intrigue — any of these things and many others would do, even though none of them are adequate. It’s as adequate and satisfying as saying “love feels good”. When I said “fun” I didn’t mean it in the playing video games kind of fun. I meant fun like improvising on the piano and hiking a mountain, maybe at the same time. I meant “fun” like the part of me that feels a little more humble and a little more aware than other primates. I meant “fun” in the way you say it when you realize it isn’t adequate, but at the same time you have an awareness of the inadequacy of a word, the inadequacy of your own understanding of something that’s bigger than you, but the desire to get it right, to get it figured out.

In short, I meant “fun” in the sense that it is a part of what makes me human. It’s what inspires me and justifies to me the act of bringing science to children. They should own science like they own their own humanity. On that same radio show, the other discussant talked about science being about “power”. That bothered me at the time, and it still pricks me. Not to be antagonistic, but I think it’s completely the opposite. Yes, I know that he probably meant “power” in an intellectual way. To understand something is to feel a control and awareness of your place within nature. But even that I don’t think I really buy. I understand a little more about the space within me and without me, and I’m humbled. I’m shocked that we have capacity for this stuff, the understandings, and the consciousness of what we’re doing in science. We pick up pebbles, turn them over, one by one. None of the pebbles say anything in particular, but together, the pebbles and us and the rest of it, we make something out of it. That isn’t power; it’s sublimity.

There are plenty of moments, days, and weeks that I wander around wondering if I really am a scientist.  I think I am. Sometimes I joke that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t get a job, although I’m not always sure whether or not I’m joking. There are days I’m fairly certain that I’m a scientist because I couldn’t make it as a rock star.  Or maybe I’m not a rock star because I had the opportunity to be a scientist. That was a gift I didn’t know I’d been given until much later.

I remember wanting to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer (or a scientist) is. And then I remember a switch that flipped during a physics class taught by Herschel Snodgrass.  (Yes, that really was his name.)  He did the demo where the ball launched, aimed directly up, from a moving cart, and yet it still landed in the cart, jumping over a miniature bridge in the process.  I can’t say for sure that this was the moment exactly that I became a scientist, but it’s one that I refer to.  That demo, maybe more than anything, flipped the switch and cleared up the distinction between being a scientist and an engineer.  The engineer would be building that bridge in the demo and be satisfied with it in its stability and structure.  The scientist gets to wonder things like, “What rule determines the motion of that ball?”  “What is inertia and from where does it come?” and “Holy Jesus!?!”  And we stew in that.  

I still do that demo for most every class I teach, and I tell them about that moment and the switch, and I tell them that, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen and a little bit about why and how it connects to so many other rules, it still gets me, sticks a pin in some sensitive inside part of me that loves, is in love, with that beauty.  Not the beauty of an angel or a rainbow or a unicorn, but the simple up and down of that ball that keeps perfect pace with the cart.  How did the ball know how to do that without the ability to know anything? I still don’t know. I still see that ball, up, over, down, back in the cart… I still wonder. I’m in awe. And that, I suppose, is what I meant when I said it was “fun”.

I am a scientist because . . .

by Michelle B. Larson

I am a scientist because . . .
. . .  I wonder
. . .  I am curious, and stubborn
. . .  I think before I speak or act
. . .  I can do anything I set my mind to
. . .  I question everything, anything, I am told
. . .  I understand why, not just how things work
. . .  I expect logic and civility in discourse
. . .  I can be wrong, and admit it
. . .  I do not give up

Zen and the Art of Cosmic Happenstance

by Shane L. Larson

Zen gardens are a Japanese artform from the Fourteenth Century known as karesansui.  Constructed of white sand, stones, and small amounts of vegetation, the karesansui are an abstract expression of the Buddhist perception of Cosmic beauty in the natural world.  One of the defining elements of this artform is the raking of the sand, leaving waves and ripples on the gardenscape.  Small alterations to the garden, such as placing a single new stone in the sand or changing the location of the stone, has profound effects on the rake pattern and completely changes the appearance of the garden.  In many ways, the Zen garden has captured the essence of the most important perception that humankind has ever had about the Cosmos — everything is connected.

One of the most awesome capabilities of science is the power to accurately imagine the future.  The Laws of Nature, when coupled with a few observations of the world, can illuminate how small changes to the world affect everything.  The complexity of such questions can be enormous, but the ideas and their implications can be simple and profound, like the addition of a single stone to a Zen garden.

Nature has three fundamental constants that govern the way physical systems interact and respond to stimuli.  We can imagine a Universe, different from our own, where the values of these constants are slightly different; the Laws of Nature are the same, but the strength of the interactions change.  Small changes to three small numbers, like the addition of three stones to a Zen garden, can completely change the nature of the Cosmos.  The three constants are known as the Planck constant, the speed of light, and the gravitational constant.  The Planck constant governs the scale of interactions on the most minute scales imaginable, controlling how big packets of energy can be and how atoms are allowed to spin and orient themselves to one another.  The speed of light establishes the fundamental relationship between space and time.  The gravitational constant embodies how strongly bits of matter and energy attract one another, sealing the ultimate fate of the Universe.  Physicists believe that the value of each of these constants was fixed during the Big Bang.  Many observations have been made trying to ascertain whether these constants have changed over time, but to date every experiment has pointed toward one conclusion: the fundamental constants are constant.  But we can imagine what the world would be like if they were not constant, or if they had different values than they have today.

The Planck constant plays a fundamental role in many phenomena associated with the microscopic world of atoms.  What would happen if the Planck constant were 400 times larger than its current value, increasing from 0.000000000000000000000000000000000662 in metric units (6.62 x 10-34) to 0.000000000000000000000000000000265 (2.65 x 10-31) in metric units?  Making such a simple change, transforming one small number into another seemingly small number would spell the end of atoms in the Universe, leaving us with only free electrons and bare atomic nuclei.  The amount of energy it requires to pull an electron away from an atomic nucleus depends on the Planck constant; increasing the value of the Planck constant dramatically reduces the amount of energy required.  Consider the most tightly bound electron in the naturally occurring elements: the 92nd electron of the uranium atom, the last electron left when all the rest of its family have been stripped off of the parent uranium.  In our Universe, this last electron of uranium can only be blasted away with a gamma ray photon, exceedingly energetic and exceedingly rare.  But if the Planck constant were 400 times larger, the same job could be done with an infrared photon, easily generated by the remote control for your television set.  Uranium (and every other atom in the Universe) would be ionized by a diffuse background of infrared light; atoms as we know them would cease to exist.  You’re reading this because the Universe fixed the value of the Planck constant at 6.62 x 10-34, not 2.65 x 10-31, allowing a few atoms created in the early Universe to merge together and form a little blob that we call “your eyeball.”

Imagine another world where the speed of light was not 300 million (300,000,000) meters per second, but much slower, say 10 meters per second.  What would the world be like?  There would be obvious differences.  If you were out in your backyard playing croquet after sunset, and asked someone to turn on the back porch light so you could see the last wicket, there would be a noticeable delay before the light from the porch reached you.  The delay would be more noticeable for the Sun.  It would take light about 475 years to make the journey from the Sun to the Earth, a voyage that currently takes the warm light of a summer afternoon only 8 minutes to make.  But there would be other important consequences that would be even more profound in our daily lives.  The laws of Nature will not have changed, so special relativity would still be important, only now the size of relativistic effects would grow enormously, altering our day to day interactions with Nature.  One of the most important effects of special relativity is time dilation, the phenomena that moving clocks tick more slowly than stationary clocks. This phenomena is generally only important for sub-atomic particles, as they spend much of their lives cruising around at a significant percentage of the speed of light.  But in our different Universe, where the speed of light is only 10 meters per second, time dilation would be evident on everyday voyages, such as a trip in the family car to visit the grocery store.  What would only seem to be 20 minutes to those of you riding in the car, would seem like 45 minutes to someone standing on the sidewalk as you drive by.  With a slow speed of light, the time we share with each other changes dramatically depending on how fast we travel about in our busy lives.  In this other-Cosmos, when you travel, time slows down for those of you on the journey.  In our world, when you take a long business trip across the country and back, you return home to find your children (more or less) the same age as when you left home because the speed of light was long ago fixed at a value of 300 million meters per second, well beyond the speeds that humans experience every day.

What about the gravitational constant?  It is incredibly tiny, with a value of 0.0000000000667 (6.67 x 10-11) in metric units.  Can changing such a tiny number really change the world so much?  Suppose it were twice as large, 0.000000000133 (1.33 x 10-10) in metric units.  This would increase the strength of gravity by a factor of two.  Each morning, your bathroom scale would read twice what it does now.  Carrying a box up a flight of stairs to your new apartment would be much harder.  But these are mundane matters; the strength of gravity has an important, if obscure, impact toward life on Earth.  About 200 million years after the Big Bang, the first stars began to form.  The progenitor of most stars is a condensing object known as a protostar, a violent storm of collapsing gas that hungrily sweeps up loose bits of material that it compresses, under the force of gravity, until it ignites in an explosion of nuclear fire.  The continuing force of gravity keeps the cores of the star hot and burning throughout their long lives, until all their hydrogen fuel is exhausted and they die in a cataclysmic explosion known as a supernova.  Everything that we know, all the common atoms and substances that you and me and rocks and kangaroos are made of, are created in supernova explosions and cast back out into the Cosmos, where they ultimately form a new generation of stars with their attendant worlds, one of which we call Earth.  All of this, is made by gravity.

If gravity were twice as strong as it was today, the parent stars that made the Sun may have collapsed to black holes, never exploding and creating all the carbon and silicon and oxygen and potassium that makes us up.  If gravity were twice as strong as it was today, the Sun itself may have been a much larger star, having had the power to suck up more gas into its progenitor protostar.  Larger stars burn hotter than the Sun, and would have baked a young Earth to the point where it could never support life as we know it.  Larger stars burn much faster, dying spectacular stellar deaths after only millions of years, not billions like the Sun — if gravity was much stronger, the Earth that we know would have been destroyed by the death of the Sun aeons ago.

I’m a physicist because more than 13 billion years ago, the Universe decided the value of the three fundamental constants should be 6.62 x 10-34, 300 million, and 6.67 x 10-11, allowing the creation of atoms that self-assembled into a blob called “me.”  The three constants of Nature are single stones, placed in the vast rock garden of the Universe, fixing the patterns of Nature that swirl around them.  One small change to their values, and everything that we know may never have existed at all.  What a close call.

February Prompt: “I am a scientist because . . .”