Looking Afar to See Ourselves

Assimilating and accommodating new ideas and ways to do things is not always an easy task. Sometimes we find ourselves too close to old and comfortable ideas, unable to find a perspective from which to evaluate the potential for the new. For learners of all ages, it is a challenge to help them shift their perspective to see how the new can fit with their existing worldview. The problem is not so much what is presented, as with how. Sometimes finding the new perspective requires a trip beyond the confines of the planet we think we know so well.

Two areas of science in particular are not well understood for the general public at large, as well as many teachers and their students: evolution and climate change. All too often, both topics are presented pedantically through a series of lectures, exercises depending on rote memorization, and perhaps a few activities with pre-determined outcomes, which do little to help students build a conceptual framework for either to fit into their basic understanding of how nature operates. This can only add to the difficulties many have accepting either or both evolution and climate science. Other areas of science do not seem to share the same disdain many people have for these particular ideas.

Part of the problem has to do with time. Time in that an understanding of both evolution and climate change require an acceptance, and ability to think about change over a time scale far greater than what people experience in their daily lives, let alone over the span of a lifetime. For the most part, we lead existential lives, moment to moment, with little thought beyond our current experience. The idea of deep time so prevalent in much of astronomy, and certainly in geology and evolutionary science, does not resonate with the average person.

In general, people are fascinated with the idea of aliens, the discovery of planets orbiting distant stars, and the exploration of planets within our own solar system. The idea life might exist on those planets piques the intrigue people feel when hearing about them. Particularly the kind of life that could look back at our system of planets and wonder the same thing. In thinking about the potential for life on these other worlds, again, people seem to have a tendency to think of that life existing in the here and now. It is equally possible these planets once had life, which went extinct, or it may more closely resemble stromatolites from early in Earth’s history with intelligence perhaps in the planet’s future. Within our own solar system Mars, while in the habitable zone, does not have life though it may have in the distant past. Venus is on the edge of the habitable zone, though a runaway greenhouse effect made for an inhospitably hot atmosphere. Neither planet currently possesses an atmosphere capable of supporting life as we know it.

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Image: NASA/JPL

There is a cognitive dissonance in not accepting evolution and climate science while at the same time getting excited about the potential for life on distant worlds. Both evolution and climate science are key areas of research for an astrobiologist in the quest to understand the dynamic nature of planets and their ability to support life. People find it easy to think about these phenomena when they take place elsewhere in the universe, but when we turn around and look at our own planet, we can’t apply the science to our own situation. There is an opportunity for educators to take advantage of this relationship, engaging the imagination of students while they learn about the factors that make life possible on other worlds. It may prove easier to think about the history of these distant objects than it is about our home planet. Can we apply the lessons learned on distant worlds to foster a better understanding of our own situation?

For a learner asked to learn and apply new skills and ideas, it frequently comes down to going beyond what they are familiar with, looking at a completely different situation, examining it in fine detail, then building a generalizable model to their own situation. Sometimes one is just too close to the object under scrutiny to look at it with the objectivity needed for understanding and acceptance.

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the spring 2017 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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One Response to Looking Afar to See Ourselves

  1. This is a good analysis of the disconnect between people’s fascination with distant planets and our own. Yes, educators can make the difference to build those connections with our home planet.

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