The most down to earth scientists will look for inspiration everywhere: in the scientific literature, in the everyday problems we face as a species, in nature, in art, even now it seems on giant planetary neighbours. A recent news report in Materials Today suggested that some of the brightest objects in the night sky, besides the Moon, the planets Jupiter and Saturn might offer new clues to solving some terrestrial problems facing materials scientists, condensed matter physicists and chemists.

We see these "wandering stars" following their periodically retrograde paths across the sky because light from the sun is reflected from their surfaces. However, although it seems that there may be pretty much nothing but empty space between us, the light reflected from those gas giants that reaches earthbound observers is very much modulated by the dense atmospheres of the planets themselves. The solar light reflected jovially or in a saturnine manner can with the right mathematical tools tell us much about the nature of those gases planets by comparison with light that reaches us directly from old Sol.

Astronomers have Indian astrophysicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar to think for his two-hundred page derivation of 1950 that allows them to algorithmically determine how light interacts with planetary atmospheres. Now, one might imagine that the immediate applications of such an algorithm would always be cosmic. Indeed, the algorithm might allow astronomers to disentangle details of the atmospheres of exoplanets way beyond our solar system orbiting distant stars. But, a team at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw has a much more fundamental and small-scale application for the mathematical formalism that emerged from Chandrasekhar's work.

Fundamentally, points out physical chemist Aleksander Jablonski, light interacting with a gas is not simply reflected there are myriad elastic and inelastic scattering mechanisms taking place many of which are entirely dependent on the chemical nature of the planet's atmosphere. According to Jablonski, the same phenomena are at play in other situations of interest to those studying materials: the emission of photoelectrons from a substance bathed in X-rays for instance. "Using surface sensitive spectroscopic methods we are able to determine properties of the most external layers of materials, as well as their chemical composition or condition," Jablonski explains. He adds that the knowledge available is important in materials engineering, microelectronics, nanotechnology, catalysis, corrosion and many other fields.

Jablonski has now developed an algorithm based on Chandrasekhar's formalisms, which operates quickly and with higher precision than any other algorithm on accumulated data from materials studies. The research provides a neat bite of evidence proving why fundamental science of the astronomical kind can be relevant to the problems we face here on Earth. To paraphrase Oscar wildly: We're all of us earning our bread and butter, but some of us take inspiration from the stars.

David Bradley blogs at and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".