What is this all about?

"You don't use science to show that you're right, you use science to become right." -Randall of xkcd

In January of 2008, I began writing this blog, Starts With A Bang, both for myself and for all of you, because we all have something in common.

The Skies of Chile

Image credit: © Stéphane Guisard, "Los Cielos de Chile", via astrosurf.com.

The same planet, the same heavens, the same laws of nature and the same Universe are something that we all have in common. And all of us, no matter how intrinsically smart, talented, or brilliant our instincts are, come into this world knowing absolutely nothing about it.

But that's the beginning. In our own, individual ways, even though each one of us takes a unique path, we all embark upon the same journey.

Play in the dirk

Image credit: iStockphoto/Jennifer Surrena-MacDonald.

It's the journey to understand the world around us. Individually, our passions may differ as to what aspects of the world we find most interesting. We all have our own preferences for what we want to learn most, what skills we want to develop, and what we want to accomplish.

But understanding what this world is, how it works, how we got here, and how we make sense of it all? That is something for all of us.

Atoms to Earth

Image credit: Gary S. Gaulin.

So, how do we figure it out? We look at what we already know (or what we think we know), we look at whatever thing it is that we'd like to know, and we come up with ways to test it. Sometimes that means getting your hands dirty and doing a number of different experiments, sometimes it means gathering a whole bunch of data and observations from previous or natural tests, sometimes it means creating incredibly complex models and simulations, and it often means questioning and challenging your initial assumptions.

Practically all of the time, there are mistakes, difficulties, re-tests, and do-overs that need to happen before we figure it out. The "how" of how this all works involves an incredible amount of hard, careful, and often tedious work.

But then, you get to the payoff.

The payoff is that knowledge, that understanding, that leap forward you take when you've suddenly made better sense of the world than you did before. It's one of the best feelings in the world.  As Carl Sagan once said,

When you make the finding yourself -- even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light -- you'll never forget it.

That's the power of science; that's the passion that I've devoted my professional life to.

Galaxy Cluster Abell 1689

Image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Fruchter and the ERO Team (STScI, ST-ECF).

Not just the understanding of it, mind you. Yes, I'm a theoretical astrophysicist -- a cosmologist, in particular -- with an extensive background in nuclear, particle, computational, gravitational, and astrophysics; there's no mistaking that. But this Universe, and how it works, it isn't a story that's only for me; this story belongs to all of us.

And that's what this blog is about.

A selection of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team.

We are just one species, inhabiting one lonely planet, in orbit around one solitary star, spinning around our one, isolated galaxy, hurtling through space in our vast, possibly infinite Universe, and yet we can understand it. How we got here, what makes it all up, what we know and how we know it: it's all part of what we're after. My goal, each time I write for you, is to take you on a journey into a place where you'll wind up having gained something from spending a little time with me.

How do I try to get us there?

Sean Bagshaw Lunar Eclipse

Image credit: Sean Bagshaw of http://www.outdoorexposurephoto.com/.

I do my best to start out in a place that's comfortable and familiar to you, where you have some experience and understanding already. One small step at a time, we move farther and farther into new, more challenging territory, whether that takes us down to subatomic particles, up to the edge of a black hole, or out into the richest clusters of galaxies in the Universe.

Virgo Cluster of Galaxies

Image credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo of http://deepskycolors.com/.

By the end of each post that I write, I hope I've given you some insight into something new, and helped to increase your awareness and appreciation for the Universe around us and within us. I hope you feel good about the time you've spent here, and that you feel it was time and energy well-spent.

Particle tracks in a bubble chamber

Image credit: CERN Photo.

Well over a thousand articles and 20,000 comments have come and gone, and there always continues to be more and more to understand. From those of you who've been on this journey with me since the very beginning to those of you just hopping on board now and everyone in between, it's my great hope that it's been a great journey for you so far, and that you'll continue to join me on it well into the future.

Bullet Cluster

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing: NASA/STScI, ESO WFI, Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI, Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.

We never stop learning, and we never stop uncovering more things to figure out. The great joy I get out of this comes simply from sharing the small part I know of this story with you.

That's what this blog is all about. For me, it's wonderful, and I hope it both is and continues to be for you, too. Here's to all of us as we continue on our journey.

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I've lost count of how many times I've linked one of your posts, told someone about your blog, written the address on the back of a receipt for someone while sitting at the bar, etc. You do such a great job of conveying the wonder of the universe in language and images that are easy to follow. I love that anytime I hear about some astronomy or cosmology current event (meteor shower, eclipse, etc) I know I can come here and get the scoop on what it's all about. I especially enjoy it when you break down *how* we know what we know, either mechanistically or historically. I've spent a lot of time reading science blogs (and ScienceBlogs, but others, too) over the past few years, and yours is my favorite. Keep up the excellent work!

By Anne Marie (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Ethan this is a must-read blog for this layman. Thank you for making the effort. I learn something new every time e.g. I didn't know until today that cosmology was a branch of astrophysics ~ I assumed the terms were interchangeable.

By Michael Fisher (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Ethan, thanks for your efforts - your blog posts are really very interesting and educational for me, a person who hasn't studied physics since 1984.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

I was never interested in looking up until I started to read your blog.

The universe is quite beautiful.

Thank you.

This is one of the best beards, er, blogs on the Internet. Thank you for sticking to your guns. Knowledge IS power.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go eat me a catfish. :)

Aye, captain, sail away. We are right with youze.

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Yes Ethan, you are succeeding. Thanks for the journey. Sure, it's about the new things we get to know, but it's also about how we get to know them. But we are also prepared to say we were wrong. Popper taught us to persecute our theories and to rejoice when they are refuted.

By Pete Scamper (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

After 20k comments, have you figured out yet why reading about dark matter makes some people crazy?

By Patrick M. Dennis (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Please keep up the excellent work. I have learned an incredible amount here in the past couple of years, and your powers of explanation are super. As in, Super Powers.

By DANIEL CLEMENTS (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Ethan, your blog is Awesomely Amazing! A fabulous resource. Keep up the great work. You are most appreciated. Hopefully you have a high readership rate.

By DaveTheRave (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

I'll never stop learning so long as you keep writing this brilliant blog!

By Nathan Burns (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Ethan, thank you so much for the immense joy of reading this outstanding blog!

By Darcy Vieira (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

For the year or so I've been reading your blog I've enjoyed every minute of it and continue to learn more each visit. Thank you for your efforts and please keep it up!

By Simon Gough (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Ethan wrote (June 6, 2012):
> We look at what we already know (or what we think we know), we look at whatever thing it is that we’d like to know, and we come up with ways to test it.

For any particular "it" that we’d like to know:

Would we like to know ways to test "it"?,
and can we (as you prescribed) come up with ways to test ways to test "it"?

Or would we have to know (or come up with) ways to test "it" without having to come up with ways to test ways to test "it"?

The chemical structure formula in the picture with the question marks at both ends (Image credit: Gary S. Gaulin) is all about the lactam form of thymine.

What happened to the comment preview ?!?

By Frank Wappler (not verified) on 06 Jun 2012 #permalink

Just want to take the chance to say that the new format has settled itself quite well after the transformation period, and your blog is great (again), covering all topics as that one image shows; from question mark (?) to question mark (?), and putting lots of other question marks (?...?) in between. And thanks for letting me participate I know that I sometimes have the tendency to be a looney but I appreciate you giving me often the benefit of the doubt, it has brought up a lot of interesting feedback from the other readers, that I otherwise would have missed out on. Thanks for wanting to share your passion ... sharing information is how bats increase their (group) intelligence.

"May the Force be with you" (Yoda, in a galaxy far, far away)
"May the force of Words be with YOU" (Tihomir to Ethan, in this one isolated galaxy of ours).
Thank you for this blog and pls keep writing!

P.S. Just being curious: what exactly is the particularity of cosmology within astrophysics? I thought astrophysics to be a part of cosmology and not the other way around?

Hey Ethan,

First, i'd like to thank you for all the time you spend on this blog :)

Talking about understanding the world, i recently read an article about so called "sterile" neutrinos (a new kind of neutrino wich doesn't even react to the weak force), whose estimated mass would be so huge that it's a serious candidate for dark matter.
What do you think about it ?

Thanks for the effort Ethan. I'm with you.


I continue to be dazzled by your ability to construct beautiful, inspiring, meaningful posts. You are truly a great teacher. Promise us you'll never quit, okay?

By Stan Polanski (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

You write such amazing posts, on a subject that I have found 'mind blowing' from a very early age, and as I have only just found your blog,well, I'm hooked . Brilliant!

This was starting to look like a swan song. I'm glad it didn't end up being that.

I refer to this blog as the best science blog all the time in tweets and other posts. I've printed your poster "The Universe in one year" and feel very insignificant but at the same time enlightened to now this. Keep up the great work!

Your description of why you write your blog is the same as why I teach high school earth and space science. Your blog has helped me understand and explain complex ideas to not only my students, but fellow educators and even my parents. Keep writing, please. :)

It is my eternal hope that Starts with a Bang will be as infinite as the Universe it explains. You rock and I am forever grateful.

Keep up the excellent work Ethan. Really appreciate learning new things every day on your blog. Great crowd, great artcles!

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

You are one of the great expositors of science, and have done a wonderful thing.

Ethan - I discovered your site quite by accident a few years ago, and it instantly became a favorite. You never ceased to astonished and amazed me as to what's going on out there. I wrestle with the enourmity of it everyday, it's mostly incomprehensible to me - a layman - but it still gives me an intoxicating thrill like nothing else.

By Max McRae (not verified) on 08 Jun 2012 #permalink

Thanks, Ethan, for your blog. As an older (retired) science freak trying to learn more about Cosmology, your blog has delighted and informed me. Please keep up the good work!!

By John Bischoff (not verified) on 08 Jun 2012 #permalink

Ethan ,
you are a cosmologist, in particular — with an extensive background in nuclear, particle, computational, gravitational, and astrophysics.
I am a finance professional, working for a finance firm for many years,but the passion for science is what links us all together.
It a joy and my high privilege to be one of the many people following your work today.