July/August 1995 Table of Contents
Whitlock, Austin Community College
1995 Astronomical Society of the Pacific
is a young science; the word was coined only in 1973. Already it
has become a bridge between the humanities and the physical sciences,
a way that students can cross from one discipline to the other.
the steep climb of technological progress, educational levels are
sinking, threatening to leave society with a technological caste
system of Brahmins and untouchables. The poor, illiterate, and disenfranchised
see the gap widen between them and the technocrats; many feel that
the consequences of science for their communities have been largely
should have no ethnicity, no gender nor age. But saying that doesn't
make it so. We need to work to create a multicultural context for
science, to integrate it into the life of all people. One way is
in ancient astronomy is a powerful means for promoting science in
communities of all ethnicities, because it illustrates the universal
character of science. Archaeoastronomy introduces scientific concepts
to students and stimulates their inquiry into the pursuit of science.
It reveals the connection between science and world views in different
culture. It puts present-day technological differences between societies
into a world historical context. And it helps to provoke thought
regarding a much broader issue: the perceived disconnection between
science and modern life.
the humanities classroom, the role of astronomical observation in
daily life can stimulate interest in science. In the science classroom,
evidence of the equality of cultures and peoples can stimulate interest
in multiculturalism. In this age as in the past, cosmology -- the
common ground of science, philosophy, religion, and myth -- can
create an interdisciplinary synergy.
Science of the Whole
is based on the assumption that science, in some form or other, is
a universal activity. All people seek to discover meaning in human
existence. Their yearning is the drive for an umbrella of illusions
and pseudo-explanations. Culture is the result of any human endeavor
to provide this meaning. Each culture constitutes a perspective from
which individuals interpret the natural and social worlds. Nonetheless,
complete difference between cultures has never been fully achieved;
all cultures are related.
combines this interpretation of culture with the principle of multiperspectivism:
the idea that the truth is most closely approximated when the most
perspectives are presented. Few people normally think of multiculturalism
in the context of science, but there are important areas of overlap
between the two. In science as in multiculturalism, a multitude
of perspectives is a strong force; ultimately all forms of science,
like all cultures, are related.
archaeoastronomy is a new field, it already has tremendous power
as a tool for linking disciplines and cultures together. Colgate
professor Anthony Aveni has defined archaeoastronomy as "the study
of the practice and use of astronomy among the ancient cultures
of the world based upon all forms of evidence, written and unwritten."
Throughout history, human imagination has integrated the lights
in the night sky into a larger view of human existence. The celestial
lights have been recorded, noted or remarked upon in an endless
variety of ways, but the continuum of astronomical observation across
cultures is indisputable.
though archaeoastronomy does not solve particular philosophical
conundrums, it casts light on the methods whereby cultures attempt
to do so. Aveni, one of the field's most philosophical thinkers,
has distinguished two types of archaeoastronomy, "green" and "brown."
So-called green archaeoastronomy, generally European, concerns itself
entirely with astronomical alignments of ancient megaliths, buildings,
and so on. So-called brown archaeoastronomy, practiced in the Americas,
asks why people align structures astronomically. The brown variety
seeks to integrate ancient astronomy into its cultural context,
providing us with ideas about cultural history. An example is Linda
Schele's work interconnecting Maya astronomy to Maya religion and
seeking to understand the purposes to which science is put, rather
than seeking to judge ancient science by 20th-century standards,
a multicultural approach to archaeoastronomy avoids ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism is a fallacy that takes one cultural perspective as
universally valid. For example, even though the Sun- centered cosmology
is a pivot in the history of modern science, most technologically
undeveloped people do not need heliocentrism to explain events in
their daily lives. Perhaps multiculturalism is no more (or less)
than a temporary educational corrective for the ethnocentrism historically
associated with science.
most important lesson of archaeoastronomy" wrote astronomer Michael
Seeds of Franklin and Marshall College, "is that humans don't have
to be technologically sophisticated to admire and study the universe."
The humans that Seeds referred to include our students as well as
I have used it in the classroom, archaeoastronomy puts Western,
as well as Chinese, philosophy into a relativistic, multicultural
context. It has stimulated students' interest in the physical sciences.
I begin my Introduction to Philosophy course with a four-week study
of the Maya Popol Vuh, the earliest historical link
between astronomy and philosophy. Subsequent topics include the
cosmology of Heaven and Earth according to the Chinese philosophers
Confucius and Lao Tzu, the cosmology of the Greek philosopher Plato,
and the connection between Greek and Egyptian cosmology. These topics
give me the opportunity to introduce astronomical ideas such as
the solar ecliptic, solstice and equinox, zodiac, phases of the
Moon, motion of planets, Milky Way, and precession of equinoxes.
Even in the humanities, technical ideas and words don't have to
be avoided in attracting students to science.
can readily identify with the perspectives of ancient astronomies,
since they share the same geocentric image of the universe that
results from earthbound, naked-eye observation. Just as astronomy
developed historically from geocentrism to heliocentrism, our students'
perspectives of the universe can develop. If, by analogy to biology,
ontogeny replicates phylogeny, then we can use the history of cosmology
to teach modern ideas to our students. Instead of just telling them
that the Earth goes around the Sun, we can explain how, and among
whom, this idea arose.
the power of this approach, many educators give short shrift to
pre-Copernican ideas, leaving students with the impression that
modern science sprang sui generis from superior European
intelligence -- and, by analogy, that modern science issues forth
from scientists like magic.
modern forms of science, philosophy, and technology have deep historical
roots. Because ancient astronomy was multicultural, the accumulated
knowledge of astronomy, in the individual and in society at large,
is multicultural. Ancient Egyptian and Greek astronomy are parts
of a continuum of early scientific inquiry into the heavens, not
the apex of a pyramid of ancient astronomies (see box).
Accomplishments of all cultures in science can be detailed as part
of a course in the history of science. The once-forgotten Maya and
Aztec astronomy is a topic of great interest currently, though we
should remember that India, Babylonia and China also undertook systematic
observation (see figure).
student interested in the history of science, through topics such
as geocentrism or observational astronomy, may well continue into
the study of physical science. As an example of a student in a humanities
classroom crossing an interdisciplinary bridge, consider the following.
One of my students became convinced that an undeciphered Maya hieroglyph
represented a comet. He researched occurrences of comets over Mesoamerica
and was able to prove that, in fact, Haley's comet was seen shortly
after the date inscribed in the text, unfortunately for his hypothesis.
A month later, I read an announcement of the decipherment of the
hieroglyph in question -- as a comet. It was not Halley's, but a
lesser known comet, that the Mayas had seen. My student, stimulated
by his inquiry, pursued a course in archaeoastronomy.
progression from cosmology to early modern science is the great
nexus of connections between the sciences and humanities, for no
other reason than they were in ancient times inseparable. Modern
science has an organic relation to the entire history of humanity;
its roots go to the first human inquiry. All cultures pursue scientific
inquiry in some manner. Science, in turn, can and should marshal
a colossal societal effort to improve the lives of all people.
WHITLOCK is a professor of philosophy at Austin Community
College, Texas. He has written on such diverse philosophers as Malcolm
X, Nietzsche, and Confucius.
Whitlock, Austin Community College
science, as traditionally taught, appeared one day in 350 B.C. when
the Greek natural philosopher Aristotle articulated his cosmology.
Yet modern science did not simply arise spontaneously from superstition.
Aristotle's educator, Plato, recognized the multicultural history
of the science of his day.
to Plato, the first astronomers were Egyptians and Syrians. He explicitly
claimed that Egyptian and Syrian astronomy influenced the astronomy
of Greece and of all other civilizations. He said in his dialogue
The first man to observe these bodies [Venus and Mars] was a non-
Hellene. The first observers were made so by the excellence of their
summer climate, which in Egypt and Syria is so notable; they had
a full view of the stars, we may say, all the year round, as clouds
and rains are perpetually banished from their quarter of the world.
Their observations have been universally diffused, among ourselves
as well as elsewhere, and have stood the test a vast, indeed incalculable,
lapse of years.
the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about
Greek and Egyptian astronomy, which he had learned from the Priests
of Hephaestus at Memphis: "All agreed in saying that the Egyptians
by their study of astronomy discovered the solar year and were the
first to divide it into twelve parts -- and in my opinion their method
of calculation is better than the Greek." The stories of the Babylonian
astronomer Naburiannu (who determined the length of the lunar month),
Eratosthenes (who first postulated heliocentrism), and the Hindu astronomer
Aryabhata (who compiled a manual of astronomy in the sixth century)
belong together in the world history of earliest science.
concept of ethnocentrism has similarly deep roots. Plato said in
his Epinomis: "We may take it that whenever Greeks
borrow anything from non-Greeks, they finally carry it to a higher
perfection." This, despite the fact that Plato's own cosmological
idea of the axis mundi, the "Spindle of Necessity," resembles
that of the Kogi Indians of Colombia, among others (see figures).
The resemblance suggests that modern science, through its Greek
ancestor, has still deeper roots in a little-studied Neolithic cosmology.
by Dan Gohl and Gregory Whitlock, based on a diagram in Science
and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham and Wong Ling,
adding connections to Africa and Mesoamerica.
Plato's cosmology, the spherical Earth was surrounded by a crystalline
sphere of fixed stars, supported by an axis mundi, "the
Spindle of Necessity." The spindle attached to the crystalline
sphere at points A and J. Other celestial objects were attached
to other points by "vital chains": Saturn (A), Jupiter (C), Mars
(D), the Sun (E), Venus (F), Mercury (G), and the Moon (H). The
spindle meets the Earth (point I) at the omphalos stone,
the navel of the world, in Delphi, Greece. Beyond the sphere of
stars exist ideas in an infinite space. Drawing by Gregory Whitlock,
based on the Republic, Timaeus, and Epinomis.
nine levels of Kogi cosmology include the Earth as the central disk,
four underworld disks, and four heavenly disks. This cosmology resembles
Plato's, suggesting a universally disseminated set of symbols based
on earthbound observation. Diagram courtesy of Griffith Observatory,
after G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, as reprinted in Echoes of the
Ancient Skies by Ed C. Krupp. Reproduced with permission.
summer 1995 issue of the ASP's teachers' newsletter The Universe
in the Classroom, "Indiana Jones and the Astronomers of Yore,"
suggests classroom activities for teaching archaeoastronomy. Upcoming
newsletters will discuss African and Aboriginal astronomies. Subscriptions
to the newsletter are available free of charge to educators who
request it on institutional stationery. Write to: Astronomical Society
of the Pacific, Teachers' Newsletter Department, 390 Ashton Avenue,
San Francisco, California 94112-1787. The text of the newsletter
is available on the World Wide Web; click