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Heavenly Errors

Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe

Neil F. Comins
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Heavenly Errors
    Book Description:

    One of the great paradoxes of modern times is that the more scientists understand the natural world, the more we discover that our everyday beliefs about it are wrong. Astronomy, in particular, is one of the most misunderstood scientific disciplines.

    With the participation of thousands of undergraduate students, Neil F. Comins has identified and classified, by origin and topic, over 1,700 commonly held misconceptions. Heavenly Errors provides access to all of them and explores many, including:

    • Black holes suck in everything around them.

    • The Sun shines by burning gas.

    • Comets have tails trailing behind them.

    • The Moon alone causes tides.

    • Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, is the hottest planet.

    In the course of correcting these errors, he explains that some occur through the prevalence of pseudosciences such as astrology and UFO-logy and some enter the public conscience through the "bad astronomy" of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other science-fiction movies.. Perhaps most important, Professor Comins presents the reader with the methods for identifying and replacing incorrect ideas -- tools with which to probe erroneous notions so that we can begin to question for ourselves... and to think more like scientists.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50252-8
    Subjects: Astronomy, Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The Mayall Four-Meter Telescope, one of the premier optical telescopes in the world, dominates the landscape at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, southwest of Tucson, Arizona. This telescope towers eighteen stories above the mountain peak and on every clear night the dome slides open, technicians aim the telescope, and astronomers gather new information about the cosmos. To avoid getting the telescope wet in unexpected rain, astronomers must periodically check for clouds. In the1980s, this was always done by walking around a catwalk on the outside of the dome. I performed this ritual many times, and invariably, at three in the...

  5. 1 Fun in the Sun: Some Misconceptions Close to Home
    (pp. 9-48)

    We are exposed to more information about the solar system (the Sun and everything that orbits it, namely the planets, moons, asteroids, meteoroids, and comets) than about more distant space objects. Most of us observe solar system objects like the Moon, shooting stars, comets, and planets in the night sky, and astronomical observatories and spacecraft provide tantalizing news snippets about these and other phenomena in our cosmic neighborhood. This torrent of information carries many opportunities to develop misconceptions about astronomy. In fact, over two thirds of astronomical misconceptions pertain to objects in our solar system, with the rest centered around...

  6. 2 Blame It on Someone Else: External Origins of Incorrect Beliefs
    (pp. 49-82)

    We begin learning about the natural world as children, initially developing expectations about what will happen based on our experiences. An early understanding of the laws of physics develops from our constant struggle against the force of gravity. By the time children are one year old, they have firsthand experience with gravity’s effects as they learn to walk. A more abstract example is that infants apparently believe that when someone disappears from view, the person no longerexistis.¹ Experiences helps them replace that belief with one of “object permanence.”

    of course, children have a relatively limited range of direct experiences with...

  7. 3 Creating Your Own Private Cosmos: Internal and Mixed Origins of Incorrect Beliefs
    (pp. 83-120)

    I have just dropped a hammer and a pigeon feather simultaneously and from the same height. You won’t be at all surprised to learn that the hammer reached the ground first. This result squares with our expectations about motion through the air. In the summer of 1971, Apollo 15 flew to the Moon. Standing on the Moon’s virtually airless surface, astronaut David R. Scott simultaneously, and from the same height, dropped a hammer from his right hand and a falcon feather from his left. They both landed at the same time. This result flies in the face of normal understanding...

  8. 4 Survival in a Misperceived World: How Well Did Our Ancestors Do Without Understanding Nature?
    (pp. 121-144)

    I find it especially remarkable how seemingly bizarre and counterintuitive the laws of nature are compared to even the wildest flights of human fancy. Reading or watching science fiction, one often gets the impression of great creativity on the part of the writers: “How do they think of those things?” For the most part, science fiction writers are able to extrapolate from existing technologies and scientific discoveries very effectively. By the time of Jules Verne, for example, submarines, rockets, telegraphs, and trains were already around as bases for his science fiction concepts. He used them to explore the implications of...

  9. 5 Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Misconceptions Are Hard to Replace
    (pp. 145-168)

    Probably the most emotionally laden object in astronomy is the Moon, and the most emotional issue related to the Moon is whether it affects our behavior when it is full. The vast majority of people believe that strange things are especially prevalent at the full moon. There have been literally hundreds of studies about the Moon’s effects on assaults, kidnappings, domestic violence, shooting incidents, stabbings, homicides, accidents, depression, anxiety, suicides, prison violence, psychiatric patient admissions, 911 calls, emergency-room visits, natural disasters, human-made disasters (like train wrecks), alcoholism, casino activity, illegal drug use, and drug overdoses. A few of the studies...

  10. 6 The Sage on the Stage or the Guide by Your Side: A Peek Behind the Effort to Help You Unlearn Misconceptions
    (pp. 169-194)

    In the late 1970s I began teaching college astronomy. There I was, in front of 250 students for the first time, and I had never received a minute’s instruction on how to teach. Back in those days, young college faculty was expected to have picked up the basics of teaching from the instructors they had had over the years. Of course, their professors had also learned to teach without any formal instruction in education, so it was mostly a case of the blind leading the blind.

    As I can testify, the intuitive feeling a new and untrained teacher has about...

  11. 7 Let the Buyer Beware: How to Avoid Future Misconceptions
    (pp. 195-214)

    We are bombarded with information every day, some of it clearly valid, some of it clearly false, much of it suspect. Just as there are “knock offs” (cheaper, lower-quality copies of high-quality products) in the marketplace, you can’t take much of what you hear or see these days at face value. When we accept inaccurate information as correct, it frequently leads us to develop erroneous beliefs, which in turn can cause us to draw invalid or incorrect conclusions and to make bad decisions. Most advertising falls into this gray area. Consider a kind of claim you often hear in advertising:...

  12. 8 Conflicts and Dangers: The Problems That Misconceptions Create
    (pp. 215-228)

    A huge number of people are choosing to accept beliefs that are inconsistent with those put forward by science, or that presently lack scientific support. Among these beliefs are the presence of aliens from other worlds on Earth, the possibility of travel backward in time,¹ astrology, angels, ghosts, demons, creationism, telepathy, extrasensory perception (ESP), magic, channeling and other methods of communicating with the dead, and homeopathic medicine, to name a few. Accepting any of these alternative realities requires the believer to accept incorrect or unproven beliefs about the natural world.

    “But what if I choose to live with my comfortable,...

  13. Epilogue: False Personal Cosmologies
    (pp. 229-232)

    By the time most of us are in our teens, we have cobbled together a set of beliefs about how and why the universe began, how the Earth formed, why we are here as individuals, and other “big-ticket” issues. I call this a personal cosmology. Most personal cosmologies are different from the general cosmology under development by astrophysicists and other scientists. Personal cosmologies are shaped by each person’s unique experiences growing up and, often, by religious training. For example, many people believe that the Earth formed as a direct result of the Big Bang explosion that created the universe, rather...

  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 233-236)
  15. Index
    (pp. 237-250)