I have never taken an astronomy course, and I’ll admit that I don’t know a whole lot about Astronomy. I couldn’t tell you the order of all the planets, and you could probably catch me on days where I couldn’t even name all the planets. I probably have as many misconceptions about the scale of the solar system, our galaxy, and the universe as our students do. I don’t think in light-years or parsecs. I don’t think in red-shift. I’ve looked at some astronomy concept inventories, and, while I’m sure I’d do better than students who haven’t taken an astronomy course recently, I would by no means score high. Up until recently, I could have only given you fairly canned explanations for the seasons and the phases of the moon. I still don’t think I quite understand the dynamics of eclipses as well as I should.
Most of what I do understand about astronomy has come from being somewhere with opportunity and having technology or a ritual at hand.
When I moved to Maine, I lived on the 3rd floor of a eastward facing building. Our Balcony looked over a park and then over the Penobscot, which provided year-round views of the sunrise. I had also recently acquired a digital camera. Over the course of two years, I took pictures of the sunrise at least a few times a week.
I took pictures for two reasons: I was obsessed with my new camera, and I was in a place where beautiful things were in plain sight every morning. I took pictures without much scientific interest in what I was observing. I was more interested in the colors, the fog, whether or not I could catch the sun behind trees or with birds in flight, and capturing that in different ways with my camera.
Over the span of a year, things that I seemingly already knew became interesting. The sun rose at different times at different times of the year, and the sun rose in different locations different times of year. This interest emerged slowly and gradually. And this perplexes me: how is it that things I already know can become spontaneously perplexing? It seems to happen all the time now.
Anyway, at some point, I just sort of began to look over my photos, which conveniently recorded both date and time, and began to coordinate these photos with landmarks on google maps. Here is some of that.
This eventually led me and another postdoc to derive on our office whiteboard an expression that would tell us the amount of daylight hours each day of the year in Maine, and then at any latitude. Later I derived another expression for the movement of the sunrise across the horizon as a function of day. I also became interested in why the coldest month wasn’t in December, and discovered the amount of phase-shift between darkest and coldest depends strongly on geography.
Something also interesting to me is this: how place and technology provided opportunities for me to become interested, and at the same time that place created constraints on the science I did. For example, I couldn’t see sunsets from my window. And since, I was not at my house during the day all that much, this also constrained the kinds of moon rises I would see. These constraints, we might conclude were limiting, but they were also focusing. Places can do that.
Where I live now, see, I have a yard with a fairly unobstructed view spanning from east to west. So now, I am much more interested in the path that the stars and night time moon take across the sky. I check out the location of stars (and maybe the moon) when I get home. I check it again when I take Rudi for a walk. I check it again when I play with Rudi outside. I check it again when I let Rudi out one more time to pee before bedtime. When I wake up to let Rudi out, guess what, I check it again. I didn’t immediately start checking these things, when I moved here. Why? One reason might be that it took a few months for my unconscious noticing to become conscious noticing to become interest. Or maybe, it’s just because it gets darker earlier now, so that my routines with Rudi better coincides with observing the nighttime sky. Maybe it started in the fall, when my wife and I were in the routine of sitting out by the fire pit a few times a week.
Consider this. In terms of the coverage of content you’d want students to learn in a introductory astronomy course, I have learned very little by being in a place and noticing and thinking. And that little bit of learning has taken place over a time much greater than a semester. I guess I’ve really only learned a bit about why the sun rises in different locations, how we can predict the amount of day light at different times of year, and how the stars and moon move across the sky and how that changes each day. We want to cover these things in a week or two in an intro astronomy course, right?
So, I’m curious. Where in our science curricula are there places for interest and learning that grow slowly, gradually, and spontaneously over years? How do we provide places, technologies, and routines that might make it a bit more likely for interests and learning to happen this way–slowly, gradually, and spontaneously over years. I want to understand more about how dog-ownership and 3rd-story windows grow into science? I wonder if my science would have been different if my camera didn’t record time and date, or if I had a north facing balcony? Would I not care about the nighttime sky now if my backyard was full of trees instead of open to sky?