Astronomy: The Neglected Science

"The student has no way of independently judging the truth or falsehood of what he is told."


Modern science began with the Copernican Revolution in the 16th century. This revolution in astronomy made possible the Scientific Revolution of the next century, which in turn made possible the Industrial Revolution and all the life-promoting technology of the modern world.

Despite its historic role, the science of astronomy is neglected in K-12 education. Many high school graduates today are ignorant of basic facts about the observable movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars—facts that were known millennia ago to Babylonian shepherds.

The contrast between the shepherd and the modern student sheds light on what can improve contemporary education. The shepherd had a vast amount of early, pre-scientific knowledge about the movements of celestial bodies; he knew the observations, but he had no integrating theory. Today’s student, on the other hand, is told the modern theory of the solar system at a very young age, but he knows very little about the observations that led to the theory. The shepherd’s knowledge was primitive, but real; the child’s knowledge appears to be advanced, but it is unreal—i.e., it is memorized and detached from evidence.

Any child in elementary school will tell you that our world is a relatively small planet that spins daily and orbits the sun annually. He believes what his teachers say, but it makes no sense to him. He still views the world as an enormous place where specific things move, but the world itself does not. In effect, the child adopts a “two-world” view—there is the real world of experience, and then there is the strange world described in science classes.

The student has no way of independently judging the truth or falsehood of what he is told. Since he is not given the observational evidence and the chain of reasoning, all of his knowledge amounts to assertions to be accepted on the basis of the teacher’s authority.

If science classes are to convey real understanding, then astronomy is a prerequisite for physics. The essence of Newton’s achievement was to integrate astronomy with terrestrial physics and thereby arrive at the universal laws of motion and gravitation. A student cannot grasp the evidence for these laws without first knowing the progression from early astronomical observations to Kepler’s theory of the solar system.

An astronomy course must start by describing what an observer sees when he looks up at the sky. If taught in the proper sequence and in terms of essentials, students find the subject fascinating and relatively easy to understand—and it raises a series of questions in their minds about why the celestial bodies move as they do. Astronomical theories are then presented as the attempts to answer questions that the students themselves have raised. The theories are possible solutions to intriguing mysteries, and students eventually grasp the brilliance of Newton’s solution.

When the student follows the step-by-step reasoning of great scientists, he emerges with both real understanding of the subject-matter and deep insight into method. In the process of learning the content, he encounters every essential aspect of scientific method: he learns that the scientist must focus on identifying causal relationships, not merely on describing “regularities”; he learns the methods by which scientists discover causal relationships; he learns how the formation of new concepts such as “gravity” lead to crucial discoveries, whereas invalid concepts such as “epicycles” lead to stagnation; and he learns to fully appreciate the power of mathematics as the language for understanding the physical world.

Today, many science students are passive recipients of ideas that seem to come from nowhere. At Falling Apple Science Institute, our goal is to develop students into thinkers who truly understand the laws governing the universe—because they understand the reasoning that led to the laws. In effect, the student discovers the laws himself, and experiences those “Eureka!” moments that make science so exciting.