Recently I came across a characterization of pre-scientific astronomy listing several things known before the discipline acquired method and mathematics to analyze it. It set me wondering how many people today have even a knowledge of astronomy equivalent to what was known to astronomers in 700 BC. Here's the list with a question or two to test your savvy:

1. Naming of prominent stars and constellations. [In what constellation does Sirius the dog-star reside? How many stars are in the constellation Orion? How do you find Sirius from Orion?]

2. Knowing the difference between a star and a planet. {How many panets are visible to the naked eye and what are their names?]

3. Knowledge that the morning star and the evening star are the same astronomical object. [What is the common name of that object?]

4. Knowing that a fixed star which is not circumpolar always rises and sets at the same points on the horizon. [Is this true for the Sun? The moon? The planets?]

5. Knowing that the first appearance of a star after its period of invisibility occurs at the same time of year and may be used to indicate seasons. [What star signaled the advent of the flooding of the Nile in ancient Egypt.]

This is a well-educated group and most of you probably know some of these facts and the  answers to the questions, but how many people in the street know?

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Yes, there is history also.  But for understanding our place in the universe, knowing constellations and names of stars etc. is irrelevant.  It's superficial knowledge. 

This morning I had my iPad repaired by a young Iraqi. When he told me where he was from, I mentioned that Babylonians were the first systematic astronomers and that the Greeks probably learned their astronomy from Babylonia. Babylonians knew the Pythagorean theorem long before Pythagoras. The young man knew nothing about this and after telling him, I was able to leave him a bit prouder of his origins.

History connects us with other times and other people and gives a sense of belonging to their world as well as our own. I hated history in school, it all seemed useless to me, but now in my older years, it seems important to remember and understand what has gone before. It's all part of the story and when we forget it we are likely to make the mistake of thinking that we discovered everything yesterday and that we are the first intelligent people to inhabit the planet.

There were astronomical sites in Africa too.  The impression I have is that Africa, around the time of the ancient Greeks, was about at a similar level of civilization as the Americas or Northern Europe, and the people who wrote the history we read didn't notice this because of racism. 

Sure history has its own importance, but knowing the names of a lot of constellations and stars isn't history, it's just words. 

Allan, I had a similar experience in 1959-1961 when I lived near Kenai, Alaska. I had a group of Athabascan Indians in my Sunday school class and they were so beaten down they could hardly speak or express themselves. Many of their parents were alcoholics, some had TB and not able to live in the village. Some kids were bounced from home to home. I decided to learn their history and taught them about the great hunters of their past. We sought out old villages and tried to create houses from the raw material of the tundra. We made foods using ancient techniques. We trapped rabbits and made parkas from that wonderful fur. Elders of the village worked with me and we had quite a fine time restoring their heritage to the children. One little girl grew up and became a registered nurse. Her brother became a dairy farmer in Palmer. Growing up with a sense of shame that was internalized could be turned into a sense of self-respect and agency. A treasured two years of my lifetime.   

A very nice story. It especially helps when someone from outside the community tells children something good about their heritage.

On the 16th of this month, in the early afternoon sky, I noticed a bright, silvery, reflective object to the south.  It seemed absolutely stationary but, over time, it did move very slowly from east to west.   

I enjoy occasionally stepping outside at night, finding the visible planets, and trying to conceptualize the solar system and Earth’s current, relative location.

Having just done that a couple of nights before, I knew that Venus had recently emerged  from behind the sun, and was catching up to the earth in its orbit. . . very bright in the evening sky.  (now, being the “evening star”)

What I had seen was Venus, being in the right place, with the earth rotated just right, to maximize, for my location on this planet, its reflection of sunlight, rendering it visible in broad daylight.

Mixed emotions from smug to simple awe.  

And, of course, I was aware that my fellow human beings had, for a very long time, been paying much closer attention to the movement of these “wanderers” than I.  Then, again, I also know that some of the conclusions that they reached to explain their observations, were different than the one now so “obvious” to me.

I recall a news item about a woman who called the police because she thought the planet Venus was following her home from the supermarket. I guess that shows not all astronomical observations are reliable.

I would think it would be more worrisome if the sun were following you around. 

If it's following you, who knows when it's going to pounce?

I enjoy reading old mythology the ancients created to explain what they didn't understand. Once astronomy becomes known, all fear can be put aside, and pure awe replaces it.

When a real fearful situation develops, it is far too easy to just dismiss it, or replace it with an old mythology that explains and comforts. Armagedden is just one example. 

all fear can be put aside

except fear of the space rocks that smash into the earth now and then, causing global catastrophes.  And whatever else may happen.  Black holes are not comfy to have around either.  So what's the nearest black hole, and how do you know there aren't any nearer?
Just because we're here doesn't mean that we are safe or that life ever was safe from outer space.

Allan, fear follows in the steps of ignorance. I wonder if she paid attention in science classes?

In 700 BC people saw a starry sky on a clear night but people living in the centre of modern cities now see very little due to lights and pollution. The man in the street needs to get away to the country to see such beauty.


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