1522: Astronomy

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Astrobiology is held back by the fact that we're all too nervous to try to balance on the ladder while holding an expensive microscope.
Title text: Astrobiology is held back by the fact that we're all too nervous to try to balance on the ladder while holding an expensive microscope.


For objects at a great distance one can achieve a better view by using a telescope as it is the typical method in Astronomy. Looking through a lens or a microscope in biology and other disciplines does magnify short distant objects. And a magnifying glass works more like a microscope when your eye lense is close to the focus of the magnifying glass, but when looking at distant objects you have to increase the distance between the glass and your eye where the focal length of your magnifying glass must be increased to meters instead of centimeters or less on a close view. But in general a Galilean Telescope works at the same principle as a magnifying glass together with your eye lens, the magnifying glass only has to have a long focal length which is optimized for far distances.

In the comic, the objects being viewed by Megan could be stars, galaxies and the planets of our Solar System. Megan is using a telescope. Beret Guy attempts to view them using a step-ladder to get closer to the stars, and then looking at them through his simple hand-held magnifying glass. This approach could be successful only if the stars were a few meters away, so that the ladder would take him within a few centimeters of the study object. In fact the visible stars are several light years away (typically 18-20 orders of magnitude further away) and getting two meters up on a ladder won't make any perceivable difference.[citation needed] (Unless, of course, you are Beret Guy.)

The title text assumes (for comic effect) that the only thing wrong with Beret Guy's strategy is the instability of the ladder endangering the expensive microscopes used by biologists for Astrobiology. Astrobiology is the study of life (or the possibility thereof) elsewhere in the universe, and here it would be either the planets and moons in our Solar System or exoplanets they needed to look at. This is the second comic related to studying exoplanets in two weeks, the first being 1517: Spectroscopy (see more references there).

Since we cannot go there, they do, of course, not use any microscopes in the direct studies. However, one typical magnifier in biology is the electron microscope, used to study microbiology, and they cost a lot and are very heavy. It is therefore inadvisable to carry one up a ladder, and it could possibly become very expensive if you did try it anyway.


[In front of a starry black sky, Megan looks at the stars through a telescope about twice her size, touching it at the base. She remains in the exact same position through all four panels.]
[Beret Guy enters the panel holding a ladder and a magnifying glass.]
[Beret Guy places the ladder next to Megan and her telescope. The ladder stands like a triangle, is slightly larger than Megan, but smaller than the telescope.]
[Beret guy climbs to the top of the ladder, and looks at the stars through a magnifying glass.]


Usually, however, Beret Guy has strange powers, so it's quite possible that his method would yield similar or even better results than Megan's approach; see for instance 1490: Atoms. Given his naivety, it's also possible he just doesn't realize they should look any different. His naivety of astronomy is demonstrated in 811: Starlight.

The history of astronomy is filled with drastic misunderstanding of distances to celestial bodies, even up to the present day like Randall has covered in 1342: Ancient Stars. Thus, the comic could be in reference to the general overestimation of distances, albeit taken to the opposite extreme.

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For a telescope you can be far away, for a magnifying glass or microscope you need a ladder to be nearer to the stars. Microscopes are for biology, telescopes for astronomy. They have got a similar purpose, but look and are applied differently. Sebastian -- 07:09, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

Seemed like another example of Beret guy contradicting how things work, like how he blows into the power cord and inflated a computer, or how he plugged a cord into a power outlet labeled "COFFEE" and coffee came out. 07:19, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

Yes obviously this approach works for Berret Guy because this is what he does. Explanation lacks this fact. --Kynde (talk) 07:44, 8 May 2015 (UTC)
Soup, wasn't it? But yes, for some reason he can actually use a stepladder to get a closer look (and a better one, thanks t the magnifying glass) on the "curtain of the night", which for him is actually within reach. As if it is just like a stage back-cloth with some form of star-effect (holes and backlight or sewn-in LEDs) as far as he is concerned.
But what I was actually coming here to say was regarding Astrobiology being a portmanteu (as currently in the explanation). I'm not sure I'd call it that. It's really a perfectly normal compound description of a study area, like many others in science, used to clarify what subset of biology it is (e.g. paleobiology being the biology of historic organisms, more or less, coming roughly from the greek for "old life study"). Although it does rather hint at it's "the biology of stars themselves", as opposed to the perhaps more accurate exobiology ("outside life study") when it comes to off-Earth life not in (or being) actual stars; or xenobiology ("strange life study"), although that does tend to include oddments of obscure Earth biology and artificial life as well and really doesn't mean the study of extra-terrestrial organisms... 08:00, 8 May 2015 (UTC)
Astrobiology is a perfectly normal word. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology. 08:49, 8 May 2015 (UTC)
Moreover, the wording (which I deleted) implied that Randall invented the word, or that the word is very new: "the word "astrobiology" is the joining of the prefix astro- and biology and refers to ...". Now it says "Astrobiology is ...". 13:52, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

A minor comment on the incorrect use of the word portmanteau in the explanation so far: it is defined as a word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two different words, wikipedia:portmanteau; however, astro- is a combining form of the the greek word aster meaning star, used to form compound words, such as astro-bio-logy (aster-bios-logos: star-life-word). See 1485 for an example of the correct use of portmanteau. (someone beat me to it while i was editing this ;-)) 08:07, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

Thank you. --Forrest (talk)09:14, 08 May 2015 (UTC)

You could view the comic as a theatrical production, Megan's telescope as a prop, and Beret guy is just inspecting the backdrop. The ladder is for comic and aesthetic effect (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Aaaaa. Astronomers do not touch telescopes while observing. 09:23, 8 May 2015 (UTC) Cameron

My first association was the Hubble Space Telescope: Even though there are huge telescopes on earth, most (all?) of them are inferior to the relatively small telescope a few km above earth's surface. Beret Guy could have tried to achive the same effect by climbing a ladder. Epaminaidos (talk) 09:58, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

I'm with - I'm not sure that those white dots are stars. My first thought was that they were flecks of dirt or something on the wall or on the inside of a dome. What Megan is doing there with that huge telescope I don't know, but a telescope of that size is not usually used outdoors where stars can be seen down to the horizon. --RenniePet (talk) 10:35, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

That seems to be the reason why the Good Telescopes are always on mountains – nearer to the stars and no ladder needed ;-). --DaB. (talk) 11:32, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

I believe the good telescopes are high so they get less atmospheric disturbances. The height of a mountain will still be insignificant compared to distances measured in light years.--The man they call Jayne108.162.237.183 11:50, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

I actually thought that maybe physics just work differently for him so he was actually standing among the stars (like someone might stand among lightning bugs) and actually examining them. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I don't think the titletext has anything to do with shaking about, I think it's a joke about people being nervious about breaking the microscope. Halfhat (talk) 15:57, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

My take is Beret Guy is using "cartoon physics" or in this case "comic physics". The first few panels we assume the stars are in the distance. Since we are looking at a 2D representation (drawing), we can't be sure. But our past experiences with the night sky and with pictures or situations such as this guides our perception. However, because of Beret Guy's weird take on everything, he perceives the stars as they actually ARE in the comic: just white dots on a black background, kind of like a poor man's planetarium. He wants to get a closer look at some that are higher up on the wall/background so climbs up a ladder and uses his magnifying glass. It's a little like the cartoon where the coyote paints a tunnel on a rock, thinking the roadrunner will run into it. Instead, the roadrunner just goes through the painted tunnel like it was real. 19:34, 8 May 2015 (UTC)Pat

It's also possible that Megan and her telescope are part of a backdrop of some sort - I don't think she moves at all in the comic. -- 21:44, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

She does move; look closely at her hair. One could say she is looking "sidelong" at Beret Guy, which is a gesture that communicates something. Taibhse (talk) 11:28, 9 May 2015 (UTC)

Woah, that's really a lot of discussion over this tiny comic. Nk22 (talk) 19:06, 8 May 2015 (UTC)

I'd love to see a good explanation of the optics at play and the differences between telescopes and magnifying lenses. E.g. from Focal length: In most photography and all telescopy, where the subject is essentially infinitely far away, longer focal length (lower optical power) leads to higher magnification and a narrower angle of view; conversely, shorter focal length or higher optical power is associated with a wider angle of view. On the other hand, in applications such as microscopy in which magnification is achieved by bringing the object close to the lens, a shorter focal length (higher optical power) leads to higher magnification because the subject can be brought closer to the center of projection. And the reference to "resolving distance" seems like a misinterpretation. For a good time, watch Stepwise magnification by 6% per frame into a 39 megapixel image. In the final frame, at about 170x, an image of a bystander is seen reflected in the man's cornea. Nealmcb (talk) 15:11, 9 May 2015 (UTC)

If you (or anyone else) know enough about this, it would be great if you would correct the misinterpretation and maybe add some details. The above could be linked to via wiki. Or it could be a trivia section, if it is too much in the main explanation. I do not know enough about this to make a good explanation. --Kynde (talk) 08:24, 11 May 2015 (UTC)
The focal length doesn't fit to a telescope or microscope in the same way as it does to a single lense like a magnifying glass. The major difference is the difference of the focus. A microscope does focus on an object very close to you, a telescope is set to an infinite focus. And a simple lense just increases your angle of view. I will give a try on this even more complex physics here. --Dgbrt (talk) 20:34, 11 June 2015 (UTC)

Statue in Canberra, Australia of an astronomer with magnifying glass -- Multimotyl (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

You're all forgotten how early astronomy was done. At the turn of the century, photographs were taken through the telescope, developed, and only later analyzed closely - with a magnifying glass - as part of Astrophotography! This allowed for careful tracking and analysis of the many stars that might be visible from just one frame. (It also allowed observation of the same area of the sky at different days, or even at different years, to see which stars were moving relative to others.) For more, look into The Women Who Mapped the Universe Jorgbrown (talk) 20:08, 11 May 2015 (UTC)

It seems like this explanation ought to consider that perhaps they are standing in a room painted black with white stars drawn on the ceiling (or perhaps in the dark projected/simulated like a planetarium) such that Beret Guy's use of the magnifying glass actually does bring him close enough to observe. Although this is unlikely, it seems possible. JohnHawkinson (talk) 00:13, 25 May 2020 (UTC)