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Introduction to the Universe as I know it

Re-posted from My Head is in the Stars by ASP Astronomy Educator Vivian White.

Original posting date: October 2, 2014

I may have just hit the monks like the stars in Nightfall*. Imagine you know absolutely nothing about the science of astronomy. Never seen a TV show that showed the Earth as a sphere or learned in grade school how the Moon orbits around the Earth. Now imagine living in an often cloudy place where you are mostly inside studying philosophy so never really much looked up. Not to mention, science is a foreign way of questioning the world, so there’s no basic familiarity with concepts like evidence or making predictions as we know them in the west.

You can imagine that an overview of what science knows of the entire universe would be a lot to digest on day one.

class is always better outside

Overall, I’d say it went well. The points I usually make that get big “wow!”s mostly fell flat. The monks and nuns had no preconceived notions to disabuse. But the Sun-centered Solar System – now that was a big “ah-ha!” I felt a bit like Copernicus with a friendlier crowd. They had way more questions than I had time to answer and these showed a good understanding of at least parts of it. I stayed after classes with the tireless interpreter Nima to answer more. (“Nima ” means “Sun” so I use him a lot in my models.) Here we are exploring distances with monk-minutes as we worked up to light years.

measuring monk-minutes with stopwatches

I’m going to have to adjust some of my presentation tomorrow to first explain where we reside on Earth, that is on the surface. This confusion is common among children learning about space for the first time. I overlooked that one in my assumptions about the monks’ previous knowledge. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. (I hope it goes without saying that I am not calling them child-like. They are some of the most advanced thinkers I’ve ever encountered. They’ve just never seen this information before.)

One of the first activities we did was draw what we thought we would encounter if we put rockets under our mats and could go straight up, out of the roof of our building. Wind and emptiness figured in heavily from their Tibetan cosmology. Here is a representation of the cosmology the monks learn. I studied some of it but many of the concepts are foreign to me. I understand the monks’ confusion about my cosmology. Theirs makes my view of outer space seem almost quaint.

Okay, also this description of the monks is a gross generalization. A few of them have prior knowledge of the science and included planets and even a galaxy in their drawings. But all of them are excited to learn about astronomy and are approaching it with minds wide open. I have never talked with a group of such eager learners. They have simply never been exposed to the ideas before, just as I knew nothing of Mount Meru.

Now for some precious sleep before the monkeys barrel past my window at 6am like a canon blast. Nothing like that and a cold shower to really get your day started on the right foot.

* Didn’t get the Nightfall reference? Read it for free. It’s super short and arguably the best sci-fi ever written. Is nightfelled a verb? It should be. Synonyms: kyboshed and flabbergasted.

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