What do molecular scientists do for fun? They learn celestial navigation. It sounds like the punch line to a joke, but for Eric Bittner, the ancient art of using a sextant and math equations to chart his position in a sailboat is enjoyable. Plus, he gets to be out on the water instead of in his lab researching organic photovoltaics. But his sailing hobby inspired his upcoming lecture, “Zen and the Art of Celestial Navigation: Navigating the Oceans and the Molecular World.”
Bittner, a Fulbright Scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, and the recipient of the Norton Prize, the Lumina Award and other accolades, is one of the visiting scientists at the Telluride Science Research Center. Bittner will give the TSRC Town Talk at the Telluride Conference Center at 6 p.m. on July 19; the talks are free and give the public a unique chance to hear about some of the groundbreaking research directly from renowned scholars and scientists.
Celestial navigation, explains Bittner, is a little like molecular science. Nowadays, people don’t use celestial navigation very much because of the GPS—it’s a more arcane way of deriving the same information. But it’s also a more hands-on way of understanding how something works. In molecular science, they use a modern spectroscopy to divine very precise measurements about the “journey” of the electrons within a solar cell. But they use mathematical models to help them understand that information, too. It’s one thing to be able to use a GPS or measure with a spectroscopy or ride a motorcycle, but understanding the mechanics of how these things work…. “Well, that’s the Zen part,” laughs Bittner.
While people who attend the TSRC Town Talks may not be able to fully grasp the intricacies of the work that the scientists and scholars do, Bittner and the other lecturers like to use metaphors and ideas to help us understand the concepts and get excited about the science. The Town Talks are a great way to stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the scientific community and to connect with some big ideas. And most people will connect better with the idea of charting a course on a sailboat or navigating the hiking trails of Telluride than they will with the very complex language of molecules. “The science is not quite as mysterious as it sounds,” says Bittner.