Archive for Science

How I wonder what you are

It’s spring, 1992. I’m lying on the grass in front of Norman Hall on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, where I am a junior studying behavior modification. (Yes, I’m old — thanks for pointing that out.)

It is probably around 10 p.m., and I’m not alone. I’m lying next to a girl; we’ll call her Sharyn. She’s a classmate from second-year French, a very attractive classmate, who I’ve finally gotten up the nerve to take out to dinner.

Dinner turns out to be fancy grilled cheese sandwiches at a local health food cafe, as we are idealistic young vegetarians, naturally.

And that’s fantastic, because as the night wears on I’m starting to worry that maybe we don’t have a whole lot in common. But I’m also (still) not very experienced with girls, so I figure I could be wrong.

As we lie in the grass and gaze up at the stars, we simultaneously fix our eyes on a big one that’s giving off a deep, red glow.

She points at it.

Her: Look at that one!

Me: Yeah.

Her: Is that … Mars?

Me: Haha. No, it’s just a red shift.

Her: A what?

Me: A red shift. It’s the Doppler Effect.

Her: Seriously?

Me: Yeah, it’s like … you know how the siren sounds faster when an ambulance is approaching you and then gets slower after it passes by?

Her: I guess so.

Me: Yeah, so the same thing happens with light waves. That star is moving away from us, or we’re moving away from it, quickly enough that we perceive the light waves as being longer than they actually are. So they look red.


Me: If it was moving toward us, it would look blue.


Me: It’s kind of cool, huh?

Her: You’re so …

Me: … yes?

Her: You’re so full of shit. That’s fucking Mars!