Dear Mum, My Understanding of the Universe is Wrong
I’d like to share an email I wrote to my parents a couple of years ago as I was completing teachers’ college in Australia. (The class I refer to was about how to teach science. To children.) In it, I accuse them of misinforming me about certain cosmological concepts when I was growing up. I feel it captures something about formal vs. informal education; I don’t know—draw your own conclusions. You may even find it pleasantly educational yourself. Anyway, read on, and stay tuned for the epic response I received from my Dad.
I can’t remember Dad’s email address, but I trust you’ll read this to him. I’ve got a bone to pick with you guys. Today in Science we discussed students’ potential ‘alternative conceptions’ about the solar system (i.e. MISconceptions). I was shocked to find I’ve been labouring under some of these misconceptions myself! For example: what causes the phases of the moon? (Let’s just test Dad right now—please ask him to answer that question, and take a minute to consider your own answer.) Now, I fully remember Dad explaining to me, when I was a kid, that the phases of the moon were caused by the earth’s shadow. This, I have just learned at the age of 24, is not the case. We even did a little experiment with styrofoam spheres and a light source: guess what? The earth does not get in the way of the sun’s light at all (except during a lunar eclipse); the phases are just caused by the different positions the moon is in, relative to our point of view, as it orbits the earth. I can only assume that this is brand new information to you guys. YOU’RE WELCOME.
“It has taken us until this very moment to realize that our entire understanding of the universe is wrong.”
The second thing was: what causes seasons? (Please note whatever you both currently think is the explanation before reading on.) I totally remember Dad telling me that seasons happen because the earth’s orbit is elliptical, and winter is cold because that’s the point when the earth is farthest from the sun. I’m not sure how I’ve been sitting here in Australia’s surprisingly cold JULY winter without re-thinking that one. Seasons are caused by the tilt of the earth on its axis. The earth stays tilted at the same angle as it spins, and as it orbits around the sun, meaning that sometimes the upper part of the earth is closer to the sun, and sometimes the lower part is. The elliptical orbit has very little to do with it all.
I realize that dammit Jim, you guys are lawyers, not astrophysicists. But we are all smart people. How the hell did this happen? How did I never do a unit on space in school that set me straight? Admittedly, everyone else in the class today had the same misconceptions I did. But on closer inspection, these ideas never quite made sense. Hey, maybe I’m crazy and these are false memories—in that case I absolve you of any responsibility for my ignorance. Nevertheless, it unnerves me that I’m here with a bunch of university-educated human earthlings, some of whom are already parents, all of whom are studying to be teachers … and it has taken us until this very moment to realize that our entire understanding of the universe is wrong.
Part 2: My Dad Responds
All I’m going to say by way of context is this: my Dad holds two PhDs in law.
Your latest e-mail has sure shook up your ma and me. Is this why we done sent you to that uppity university down-under? So’s some fancy-pants professor can put ideas into your head? So you can unlearn what your own kin done taught you?
Your ma and me, we ain’t never put much stock in books and such. But I feel like that we done the best we could is all I got to say. If them scientist folks at your university has all the answers, then I’d like to see them explain Santa and the reindeers!
“If them scientist folks at your university has all the answers, then I’d like to see them explain Santa and the reindeers!”
Or let them explain how come our luck turned plum bad the instant that black cat of ours (whom I thinks you knows) first crossed our path a few years back.
Or let them just try to explain why, even though you is so cruelly disrespecting us, I somehow feels like you is doin’ us proud at the same time. Maybe your dang genius scientist professors can explain why it is, whenever I thinks about you bein’ in Australia teacher school, walkin’ around all upside down on the bottom of the earth and all, I ain’t in the least way ashamed of how we done raised you. When I thinks about you—and I always does—my old heart just struts, flaps its wings, and then soars like that big old stork what first brung you to us.
Photo courtesy: Doug Noon