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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We are all too far from nature these days and as a society have forgotten much that the ancients knew. Granted not all people in ancient times knew these things—only a very few—but to think that 2500 years after the educated few were aware of basic astronomical facts, the educated many still don't know them is startling.

Ay, there's the rub -- too far from nature with our television and HVAC and horrible light pollution.  The wonderful tools we now have to help us understand the universe are the province of very few.  I miss my place way up above timberline in Colorado where starlight really did cast shadows on a moonless night.  My indigenous American ancestors had different names for constellations, but they were largely animistic as well -- birds, bears, snakes, hunters.. all with a projected presumption of consciousness and agency.  And they, or a sizeable proportion of them, were intimately aware of precessions, eclipses, orderly comets, etc. even spanning generations.

I have no telephone or TV, just a single light bulb for late reading, and this computer with which I make my living.  My Cherokee grandfather taught me to hunt and to see everything as connected, but I've been almost entirely cut off from ancestral astronomical knowledge.  I study the sky myself, and occasionally make up my own names for the stars.


It's amazing to me that Polynesians sailed hundreds of miles in small craft without any of the modern navigational devices we have, just using stars and memory.

It's good to remember that so-called 'primitive' people had much valuable knowledge passed down in oral traditions—navigation by stars, healing with herbs, etc.

What's more amazing to me, Dr. Clark, is how modern man distorts an ancient science used for navigation and turns it all into something where stupid people believe it is "predicting" everything about them. Who they will be, what their personality is, what the future will hold, etc.

Opps! Sorry. I guess that doesn't speak nicely of Nancy Reagan.

The stars were predictive at one time.  They told people where their ships were going. 

It sounds like the ancient "science" of astrology, overgeneralized from that "wisdom of the stars" to the belief that the stars could predict everything.

Overgeneralizing.coming to sweeping conclusions based on not much evidence, is a major source of error.  I see it all the time. 

Yes, this is it! Let me have that newspaper and read my horriblescope. Suzie does love me, and tomorrow I'm gonna win that million dollars. It's in the starz!

Night here in the suburbs of Cleveland aren't horrid as it comes to light pollution.  No, I don't get to see the Milky Way stretched out over my head, but I can still make out the Dipper and Orion, among a few others.  Venus, Mars and Jupiter are pretty easy to spot as well when they're up.

Still, I remember a night sky when an associate and I were driving from Chicago down to Quincy, Illinois, some 40 years ago.  We were well south of the city when I looked up ... and damned near lost track of my jaw for the spectacular beauty in the sky above us.  I haven't seen a sky so littered with stars like that in more years than I want to count ... and I want to again!

Loren, I have seen the Milky Way a few times in my life, and am completely gobsmacked each time. First time was 15-16 yrs. old and camping. Was a boyscout. The scoutmaster gathered a few of us that wanted to go and took us to an open field. All he said was look up. The silence from the group was deafening. It seemed like nobody breathed or moved for hours. I had no words at the time to express myself. Still don't. They seem inadequate. Still are.

There is quite a mythology around how the Milky Way was formed, from some Native American tales of Brother Wolf who stole a sack of cornmeal and spilled some across the heavens as he was making his getaway, to how Hera spurted milk across the cosmos when she was tricked into breast feeding one of Zeus's bastards (what a randy old goat he was) when she realized it and pushed the child away, to the Kalahari desert folk whose mythology goes at first, there were no stars. A lonely girl who wanted to go visit another tribe threw embers into the night sky to light her way and thus created the Milky Way. Many other cultures have a mythos that have grown up around the Milky Way. All these tales are of people, of course, their culture and insight into the world in which they lived at the time. All equally entertaining, beautiful, and significant for them. 

A lot of that like the names of constellations, isn't interesting or useful knowledge.  It would have been useful for ancient navigators, but not now. 

The kinds of things that matter now, are things like:

- The earth goes around the sun rather than vice versa.  You left that one out, but I've heard many people aren't aware of it!

- The moon has a back-side that we never see (why?)

- The sun is about a third-generation star

- Where the heavier elements came from - carbon, oxygen, etc.

- What is a black hole

- The universe is expanding

- What is a light-year and about how many years did it take for light from stars to reach us

- What was the Big Bang?  Is there a Special Spot where the Big Bang happened?

- How does the Sun produce its energy?

Any other basic facts of this kind - facts that orient us in our universe?

I took the list from a lecture of Aaboe in which he used these facts as characteristics of pre-scientific astronomy. I made up the questions to go with them.

Your list would, I think, give valid characteristics of modern scientific astronomy and physics.

Luara, I suppose there is some value to what you say, however, there is more to astronomy than facts, there is history, tradition, folk lore, art, poetry, music, and all have value. Knowing who named the stars and why has a story all its own. Learning the lore of different continental-people yields some understanding of diversity. Neil deGrasse Tyson does an outstanding job of entertaining while informing the uneducated about such things. i.e.:
Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Islamic Golden Age: Naming Rights

or Symphony of Science:
Or Brian Cox
or Brian Greene
or Lawrence Krauss
There are so many that not only know and understand, they speak the poetry of science
How could I forget Carl Sagan or oh! I can't remember his name ... the guy who worked on the atomic bomb...

I have to stop now to go get another session of breast-burn. My last!

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. 


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