Where science and tech meet creativity.

Let me start by saying, this is Phil’s area of expertise. That said, there are certain things that as an astronomer I face over and over and over and over and … well, you get the picture. And some of them I just don’t understand.

There are the jokes, of course – Oh, you’re an astronomer? Can you tell me my horoscope? or Oh, you’re a cosmologoist? I’ve always wanted someone to tell me my colours.

There are the “Let me ask you a question that you won’t want to answer” personal questions – Are you a Christian? or Do you believe in aliens?

And then there are the questions that leave me wanting to run away from the person – When the Mayan calendar ends will there be a doomsday in 2012? No, really – I want to prepare! or With your intelligence, why don’t you build a transporter beam? If you don’t, you’re not living up to your potential!

These are all actual things I’ve heard (and that last was followed by a full-fledged “I’m disappointed in you” lecture of the style most often associated with getting a C in Spanish or something similar). While generally frustrating or freaky, these experiences don’t compare to the day-to-day misconceptions that I encounter when talking to normal folks about astronomy. The most common 3 are: The seasons are caused by the Earth getting closer and farther from the Sun, the full moon occurs when the moon is between the Earth and the Sun, and the Sun’s path is always exactly the same through the sky (rises straight east, passes straight overhead, and sets due west). The problem I run into in combating these misconceptions is I have no idea where they come from, and I can’t remember learning the real reasons for seasons and phases of the moon myself, so I don’t know what it’s like to not understand these things. This actually makes it harder for me to teach these things.

It is easiest to teach things that I, as a student, struggled to learn. For instance, basic circuits are easy for me. Electronics was by far the class that made me the most miserable as an undergrad. My personal philosophy on electronics is that circuits work by magic, and when you see smoke, that is the magic escaping. I can solve circuit diagrams when forced, and solve basic problems when forced, but it is one of the three topics I dread teaching the most (the other two are fluids and room temperature thermodynamics). Because I hate circuits, I teach them very well. Because I painfully remember what it was like to learn circuits, I can help my students avoid common mistakes (translation – all the mistakes I made).

I can’t imagine not noticing that the sun is low in the sky in the winter and high in the sky in the summer. The fact that the Sun’s path changes is just one of those observables, like winter being colder, that is just part of my life. Not everyone looks up though, and not everyone notices the world around them, and I struggle with this.

The reality is, in the Northern winter the sun rises south of east and sets south of west, and never gets all that far above the southern horizon. The steep angle of the light is part of what makes it cold. Think of the Sun as a giant flashlight beam, where the beam far larger than the size of the Earth. If the Sun is straight over head, it is like a flashlight beam aimed straight at a piece of paper, where it makes nice bright circle that gets warm to the touch. If it is low on the horizon, it is like that beam is angled steeply at the paper, with its light cooly spreading out over are large, dimly lit area. Winter’s cold is nothing more then the light hitting us at a bad angle.

But I guess I can understand where the idea of closer=summer comes from. Stand too close to a camping cook fire and you might cook yourself! We learn from a young age that close = hot. But don’t we also learn from a young age that planets orbit the Sun on near circles? (And in fact, ask someone to draw the solar system and they will always draw planets on circular orbits). I just don’t understand how the same person can have planets on circular orbits and have the Earth radically closer to the Sun in Summer (and Australia somehow experiencing winter). The sad reality is, these people just don’t think through the if A, then not B consequences of their contradictory ideas.

Now, I’m sure I’m guilty of doing the same on other topics. This is why I have to remember, when faced with an astronomy illiterate human, that there are vast areas of knowledge where I’m clueless too (art history, for instance. I know I should know something about it, but…) As an instructor, I have to get people to think through their contradictions, and challenge them to think about what they think is true and see if their understanding is built on well-aligned stones or unstable gravel waiting to collapse. Teaching people to question what they “know” is good and true is the first step in getting them ready to learn what is observable and understood based on experiment.

It is a hard walk though. Teaching the seasons is stupidly difficult for no obvious reason. I have colleagues who feel it is so important to make sure that people fully understand the moon and seasons that they spend 1/3 a semester on just the seasons and celestial motions.  (I spend 3 classes normally.) This is where things get hard for me philosophically. Is it better to beat down every student misconception (No, really, the universe won’t end when the Mayan Calendar runs out of dates. The calendar just restarts), or is it better for me to give them a taste of everything the universe has to offer and hope that they will become curious and choose to explore and learn more on their own after the class is over? My personal goal is to get them to understand enough astronomy that they can read and understand this blog and other astronomy content sources (newspapers, magazines, etc). Most astronomy news has nothing to do with the seasons or lunar phases, thus, I accept that a certain number of my students are going to “understand” the seasons just long enough to pass their first astronomy exam, and then they’re going to move on and go back to their misconceptions.

I only wish I fully understood where the misconceptions come from, and how to prevent them from ever settling in to stay.

I wish I remembered how I learned the reasons for the seasons and the facts the dictate the phase of the moon.