The Stars like Dust

I was somewhat bemused by Francis Beckwith’s report that ID advocates consider Forensic Science to not be a part of natural science (perhaps natural science is only that which is presented by David Attenbrough). How could reasonable people not see that Forensic science is part of natural science thought I.

Then I had one of my semiannual encounters with the public understanding of science.

My family and I recently went camping with some friends in the Grampians, a fantastic landscape of sandstone mountains in Southwestern Victoria. As with all Musgrave-O’Donohue trips, this was a complicated process that involved enough camping equipment to find the source of the Nile, much playing of tapes of “Hitchhikers in the Galaxy” (as Middle One(1) calls Douglas Adam’s opus), mathematical puzzles with Oldest One(2) and eye spy (for some reason the answer is always “tree”). As well as climbing mountains, spotlighting kangaroos, feeding parrots, swimming, toasting marshmallows and watching the children run riot (typical camping trip activities), I brought my portable telescope.

This naturally meant that the sky was cloudy for most of the trip. However, one night the clouds lurked around the horizon, and I set up the telescope so the kids could see Jupiter and Saturn. Within minutes, not only did I have the kids from our campsite at the scope, but large numbers of kids from adjacent camps. And their parents.

The kids were amazing. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, they were all in the range of 7-12 years old, and had a good deal of knowledge about the rings of Saturn, the clouds of Jupiter, the nature and size of the Great Red Spot (unfortunately lurking on the other side of Jupiter at the time). They were excited to see these things with their own eyes. One little girl even asked where Sedna was! (Luckily I knew, even if my scope couldn’t show it). I wish there was some way to keep this enthusiasm going in later years, by the time my students reach me in second and third year Uni, their enthusiasm for things scientific has just about vanished.

The adults, in contrast, had abysmal knowledge. They didn’t know Jupiter was bigger than the Earth, where it was in relationship to the Earth and so on. One person asked why you couldn’t see Mars. It had just gone behind a hill, but he thought that you couldn’t see Mars from Earth at anytime. These weren’t stupid people, and they were just as enthusiastic as the kids to see distant worlds through the telescope. However, a world of general knowledge that was presented in their school years, and turns up fairly regularly in the news and news papers (even our local newspaper, barely suitable for wrapping fish and chips in, covers astronomy at monthly intervals), somehow passed them by. It is not as if they were not interested in this sort of stuff, their enthusiasm at the telescope and questions showed that, but evidently they missed out on background knowledge about our solar system (and the stars beyond) that should be understood by everyone. Even the Astrology enthusiast couldn’t locate any of the Zodiacal constellations in the sky.

So if ordinary, reasonably educated and aware people have such appalling knowledge of their own solar system, is it any wonder that some people think that Forensic science isn’t a part of natural science.

Ian’s monthly Astronomy page

(1) From The Witches Children, a story our kids love, the three children in the Story are Oldest One, Middle One and Smallest One, and this got applied to our three. (2) For some reason Oldest Ones puzzles seem to relate to Yugi-Oh card values, but that is for another introspection.