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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Okay, let's see how I do here:

1. Sirius is in Canis Major, I think (figures ... "Big Dog," right?).  As for finding it, project from Orion's Belt to the left, and you run right into it - brightest star in the night sky and roughly 10 light-years away.

2. Visible planets:

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn

3. The morning & evening stars are both one planet - Venus

4. The sun clearly doesn't rise in the "same place," at least as defined as a locus on the horizon, due to the 23.5 degree tilt in Earth's axis, relative to the plane of the ecliptic, combined with our orbit about the sun.

5. This one I'm not sure I have a clue about, though it relates to #4 ... like I always associate Orion with winter.  It's generally not as visible in the summer, again, due to Earth's tilt.


Very good indeed! You deserve a gold star.

I became more aware of ignorance on these things when I was driving with a lady friend who noticed that the moon was rising directly in front of us. I asked her what general direction she thought we were travelling and she confessed she had not the slightest idea. Nor did she have any idea why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. (She had been a nun and missed out on a lot of things including the Beatles.)

There is a story that the mathematician Gauss was amused by a sentence in a novel by

Sir Walter Scott that had the moon rising in the Northwest and went about correcting all the copies he could find. Could be apocryphal.

Well ... when I wasn't being an engineer in college, I took a course in Descriptive Astronomy toward the end of my time at Case.  Cake course, easy A ... and I NEEDED an easy A back then!

I'm sure you know that Case-Western Reserve was the site of the famous 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment—probably before your time— but some of the others here might not.

Indeed, I do know it ... just as I know that our mutual bud, Lawrence Krauss, once taught there.

Fact is, I hate the place.  It's a sterile, soulless place that I survived more than graduated from.  I'll concede that CWRU has its points, but that concession does not come without qualification from me.  Knowledge can be TOO objective, especially when dealing with the young and inexperienced.

I learned that the hard way, 40 years ago.

I had similar feelings about M.I.T. when I graduated in 1957 and I have never really been fond of the place although there were many good professors and I learned a lot. Technical schools are a grind and I don't know what can be done about it. In later years I have become disenchanted with higher education in general. It seems to have gotten worse over the years.

For me, higher education spelled F.R.E.E.D.O.M! I experienced a far wider world than my parochial upbringing. I met people, new ideas, new experiences that helped break the hard nut of patriarchy and domination. I blossomed. I stayed for only one and one-years, leaving to marry and got caught in the old parochialisms again. Forced to leave, I returned to college and my second chance to break the hard nut. I can't get enough of learning. Thanks!

P.S. It was Sirius that signaled the annual flooding of the Nile.

I don't think these things are taught in school at all. What a shame they are not better known.

Mindy, Isn't it fun to explore with others and find new interests! We are so fortunate to have interesting people with whom to participate. 

Thanks for the test

Let me think,

1.Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the winter sky. I don't remember which constellation. Orion has three stars for the belt, two for his shoulders and two for his hips, and a constellation for his sword, a bright red star for his raised arm; so, eight + a blur. I don't know how to find Sirius from Orion, but they are both winter stars. 

2. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, ?,?,?. There are eight planets with Pluto demoted to an ice chunk. 

3. The Morning Star is a planet but I can't remember which one. 

4. I have no idea about the fixed star. Sun does not rise and set in the same place, nor does the moon, nor do the planets. I don't think. 

5. I know some summer stars and winter stars, but have no clue about Egypt's flooding in relations to stars. 

Yikes! I am going to have get out my books and charts and learn these things. Thanks for peaking my interest.




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