Launch Pad, Day One: Jim Verley on The Seasons, the Moon, and the Misconceived

Mike Brotherton points out that he’s put together an online astronomy resource list for writers. “If you want to get the same kinds of things I would get, when I’m doing research, they’re online, you just have to know how to find and access them.” He also points out that many of the slides he uses in his lectures are available as powerpoints on his site. He’s also posted a summary of last year’s launchpad, along with some youtube videos of lectures from the class.

Next, Jim Verley is giving a lecture on Seasons and Lunar Phases, Public Misconceptions

Jim believes that science and art spring from the same well of creativity. He would like artists to work as educators, doing things like volunteering at local school districts.

People can learn scientific material in unexpected situations, such as in the Sunday cartoons, where he recently saw an excellent explanation about the way the moon is seen by humans. For instance, the rising moon seems to viewers to be larger than the moon overhead, but in fact it isn’t; the size of the moon if you measure it as it’s rising is the same as it is when it’s overhead.

There’s a book about it: Targeting Students’ Science Misconceptions, Physical Science Concepts Using the Conceptual Change Model, by Joseph Stepans, Ph. D.

Another popular misconception: that planes fly because more dense air goes under the airplane wing, and lighter air goes over the airplane wing, causing lift. In fact, this is a true effect, but its ramifications are so small that it’s insignificant to flight. The really important effect is the Coanda effect.

When we were more dependent on non-industrial economic means, we had more knowledge of the seasons and the moon. Now that many (western) people are abstracted from these things, people don’t know.

He finds that if he asks people why summer is hotter (from an astronomical perspective), about 60-70 of them are incorrect. He’s heard teachers get these concepts wrong. And unfortunately, once people hear something like that from an authority, the misconception becomes embedded, and it’s difficult for them to dislodge the belief. Even when the belief is challenged and refuted, people may forget the refutation, and fall back on the mistaken belief.

So that’s part of the reason why artists need to provide good science, so that they do not provide an authority to misconceptions.

A video from the Annenberg corporation: Private Universe (does not appear to be available for free online). The video begins with interviews of recent college graduates, asking them basic astronomy questions. The question they’re asking is: what causes the seasons? “As the earth travels its orbit, sometimes it gets closer to the sun, and that causes it to get hot and be summer,” say 21 of the students, faculty and alumni randomly selected to answer the question. Only 2 people gave a different answer.

Next, they went to 9th graders who had little training in astronomy and asked them the same question. They gave the same, incorrect answer. (Another question was “what causes the moon to look different at different points?” One student answered, “Clouds.” Others answered that it was the earth’s shadow, which the video says is another popular misconception.)

It’s interesting how persistent the belief is that the earth’s orbit is noticeably elliptical–or even, according to one high school student, curlicued–given that I’m not sure where this cultural image came from. All of this reminds me of the recent series of posts on Tetrapod Zoology about how some dinosaurs are drawn incorrectly in the same way over time, often because of one inspirational image that makes an error that enters the way artists (and audiences) think of the animal, which is then replicated in each new image even though it has no relationship to the evidence.

Ah, the video is addressing this. The misconception about the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun was caused by textbook illustrations.

Interestingly, a ninth grade student who was able to correct her misconceptions about shadows causing the phases of the moon, needed to be able to handle and physically manipulate a model moon and a model earth–a great illustration of how some students need hands-on learning.

She held other misconceptions that could not be shaken, even with individual instruction.

The teacher, “You think the kids’ minds are like voids, but they’re not. They have initial ideas, and you have to address them before you can replace them.”

Back to Jim: “You’ve got to be so accurate and so precise and use your best literary skills to explain your stories. We don’t want to propagate misconceptions because kids will hold onto them forever.” He holds up a college textbook illustration showing a highly exaggerated ellipse instead of an accurate almost-circular orbit. “You have to dissuade people of their misconceptions before you can ever get the real information in their heads.”

Showing students the scale of the universe, he says, is tricky because people don’t hold the numbers in their heads. But when you can really get it into them, with hands-on stuff, people get more of a sense of things. Sometimes that’s frightening–he tells the story of a student who, on understanding the magnitude of the universe, began to cry.

Another video: A professor from the TED working on four questions that the general population finds very difficult to answer.

1) A little seed weighs less to nothing. A tree weighs a lot. Where does a tree make “the stuff” that makes up this chair? Where doe sit come from?

2) Can you light a flashlight with a battery, a bulb, and one piece of wire? If so, can you draw a diagram of how?

3) Why is it hotter in summer than in winter?

4) Scribble a diagram of the solar system, showing the planets’ orbit.

Children get their ideas, not from teachers as teachers think, but from “common sense” and from interactions with peers, parents, etc. For some things–like understanding gravity and magnetism–children do better before they go to school than afterward.

Now, says Jim, Mike’s going to teach you some great astronomy, and that may be what drew you here. But I think there’s another piece, about what education is, and how valuable you are. In all the time I taught, I reached fewer than 1,000 students, probably. But one story, novel, non-fiction book, article, you can reach thousands or even millions. I hope in the back of your mind, you remember your value as educators.

We then watched another video from the TED site about creativity, which I didn’t like enough to link. I mean, basically, he says creativity is important (yes, that’s nice), and its speckled with a sexist joke or two. My wife doesn’t speak to me much, he says, thank God. And if a man speaks his mind in a forest and there’s no woman around to hear, is he still wrong? Beats me, dude. But you’re on stage, and you’re being a jerk.

“The only way,” he says, “is to embrace our creativity and embrace our children as the future.” Unless they’re girl children, I guess. Cuz girl children should shut up, lest we annoy our husbands.

I don’t want to emphasize a down note, because this was still a cool lecture, especially the stuff about misconceptions.

6 comments on “Launch Pad, Day One: Jim Verley on The Seasons, the Moon, and the Misconceived

  1. Wait? The Earth’s orbit isn’t elliptical? I thought that was Kepler’s First Law of Planetary Motion?

  2. Rachel Swirsky says:

    Well, a circle is a kind of ellipse, isn’t it?

    But anyway, yes, the earth’s orbit is *slightly* elliptical. But it’s close to circular.


    Not this:

  3. Atsiko says:

    And now you’ve taught us how these misconceptions form. The orbit is indeed only a slight ellipse, but it still is one. Also, the sun is off-center; calling the orbit of earth a “circle” mistakenly implies that the sun is at the center, when it’s really not.

  4. Dylan Fox says:

    And now I know the seasons of the Earth are caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

    There’s too much knowledge in the world and my head’s too small…

  5. Ã…ka says:

    It’s called “lies for children” or something like that, I think. The planetary orbits _are_ elliptic (don’t let them tell you otherwise!), but I think the real misconception is caused by the fact that people sometimes are introduced to this idea _before_ they are told about the axial tilt and the seasons. Also it’s probably enhanced by the fact that the “artists conception” of the solar system often shows it at an angle to the ecliptic, making the orbits look elliptic the same way that the top of a (circular) cup looks elliptic from the side.

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