Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lunar (yawn) eclipse

In a few moments the Earth's shadow will start to creep across the full moon. While it gives the science news folks something to squawk about, and they do, I suspect events like this turn more than a few children off to astronomy.

Oh, it makes for a nice rusty moon (blood red's a bit of hyperbole), but it takes a bit of time to develop, and shoving children out the door into the chilly December night to see a moon that still looks like a moon hardly sparks a lifelong love of the skies.

A passing meteor might, though....

Here's a piece of astronomical news I can chew on. The sun sets a few seconds later today than it did yesterday. We have less sunlight today than yesterday, and will until the solstice on the 22nd, but the sunsets are hanging around 4:29 P.M. in these parts, and won't get any earlier.

It's a nice little puzzle for those who think they get the seasons, an amalgam of our elliptical orbit, our artificial noon, and our fixation on a day exactly 24 hours long. They're not, at least not if you use the sun as your guide.

If you spend most of your time indoors however, and have not noticed the lengthening shadows and the sinking noon sun, then dwelling on why the sun sets earlier today than it will tomorrow becomes a mere mental gymnastic, performed to amuse oneself or others like a dog-and-pony show.

The few kids that do notice these things are often the same kids who crash and burn in high school. If a child even notices these things, what adults around her could even begin to answer them?


The sun is never directly overhead here in New Jersey, full moons do not cause aberrant behavior, and the Earth is not farther away from the sun during winters here (it's actually closest in January). That surprises many adults, some who are licensed to teach.

It took me several years of teaching to realize how deeply "science" myths are entrenched in the sulci of our students. What we think is true frames how we perceive the world, literally shaping our reality.
Every minute a child spends under fluorescent lights, every moment she stares at a monitor, every iTune song that threads through her auditory cortex distracts a child from the finite time she has to develop a true relationship with the natural world. 

Science is based on observable phenomena of the natural world. If we want to create more scientists, we need to nourish our children's connection to the rhythms of the natural world. The spectacle of reddish moon once every couple of years makes for good copy, but cannot replace the rhythms of its phases.

Dear public school teachers,
Stop making stuff up,

Lunar eclipse sequence from BBC news. 

The woodcut is from The Book of the Moon website.


Unknown said...

I never understood why a lunar eclipse was cool. I still don't - even knowing what it means. I actually think a blue moon looks cooler.

Now a solar eclipse - that feels like a step toward the Apocalypse.

Kate said...

I just like the word syzygy.

My daughter is about to embark on the reading of Plato's allegory of the cave. How do I know? well, her humanities teacher gave her some pre-reading questions that are quite predictable. One was to create a thesis statement that chose to support or not support the idea that we can trust the information of our senses.
"If we don't trust that the information our senses are giving us is accurate, then how can we keep from going crazy?" my daughter asked me.
I asked her to think about the question,'does the sun look like it moves in the sky?' and 'does anyone believe that the things they see on television are true?'

"So, can we trust our senses?" she asked.

"Trust, but verify."
(She's too young to be aware of Reagan.)
Ten days to the Solstice.