Education Opinion

Telling Others About the Science of Earth and Sky

Those seeking to learn about Earth and space science can access quality information through these online portals.

By

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” —Shakespeare, Hamlet

Public concerns nowadays often require familiarity with geophysics and astronomy. Many people wonder or worry about climate change, the greenhouse effect, nuclear energy, and energy in general, as well as space research, solar eruptions, magnetic fields inside and outside Earth, and space radiation. How can these people, including students and teachers, find out about such subjects?

Many turn to Wikipedia™. It can be quite useful, but this is an encyclopedia—often going into excessive detail, occasionally misleading (anyone can modify it), and rarely placing subjects in the broader context in which they belong. Just look up some of the subjects listed above! The general public, as well as students learning about Earth and space science, seek guidance, not just descriptions of subjects but also help in understanding them and placing them in an overall pattern.

One place where such subjects are addressed is a large educational overview on the World Wide Web with a focal home page (http://www.phy6.org/readfirst.htm) that leads to three separate collections.

The largest of the three is “From Stargazers to Starships,” a tour of astronomy, the study of motion, the physics associated with the Sun (including its effects on weather and climate), and the science of spaceflight. Also included are a great deal of history, some calculated examples, lesson plans for teachers and homeschoolers, a lengthy timeline, and more. Math is used at the high-school level, stopping short of calculus; a separate short course on the math used here is also provided, as are translations by volunteers into Spanish, French, and Italian.

This project has existed for about 12 years, and from its beginning, users have sent questions related to the topics presented. The Web site includes a selection of more than 400 such answered questions, and as a side benefit, these questions illuminate the way the nonscientific public views space, Earth science, and astronomy.

All content on the site is free, and the “read-first” page tells how to copy everything in compact zip archives. Because content is austerely formatted, loading time and storage requirements (by today’s standards) are rather modest. The language is simple and explicit, and illustrations are sparse; “eye candy” and videos may be pretty to behold, but most of this material relies on concise but explicit written explanations.

Over the centuries, our knowledge of the laws of nature, of Earth, and of the universe has grown large and intricate. No science course can transmit more than a small sample of this knowledge, even at a basic level. That is why history and chronology are important: The order in which ideas and discoveries arrive and grow is also frequently the order in which they are best understood. For an overview, see the list of topics on the home page, http://www.phy6.org/stargaze/Sintro.htm, or look for the concise abstracts listed at http://www.phy6.org/URLsindex.htm, linked from there in red text.

The other two collections, “The Exploration of the Earth’s Magnetosphere” and “The Great Magnet, the Earth,” are nonmathematical and can serve as windows for general users to the areas of research covered by AGU sections on space physics and aeronomy, and on geomagnetism. The second of these was intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary (in 2000) of William Gilbert’s book De Magnete (On the Magnet). Somewhat shorter than “Stargazers” (which keeps growing), these collections also include questions by users, translations, timelines, history, educational material, and more. In addition, they present reviews of the history of these research areas, originally published in Reviews of Geophysics, with many citations.

So go forth and explore—even if you are a veteran scientist, you will discover much that is new to you. If what you see pleases you, be sure to spread the word! A typical audience of 20,000 page accesses per day may sound big, but the potential audience, like the Web itself, is worldwide, and  e-mail messages from users confirm this.

Educational Web sites such as these play an important part in creating public understanding of current science and the problems it addresses. It is therefore essential that scientists familiar with the research, not just public relations workers, help build such bridges to the wide public. The Web sites under the www.phy6.org umbrella are a volunteer project, not funded by NASA or the U.S. National Science Foundation (not for want of trying) but emanating (like this article) from my computer in a home basement. Unfortunately, I have grown noticeably older, and unless partners and understudies step forward to help carry on this project, its future is uncertain. Any AGU member interested and able to help, RSVP!

—David P. Stern (retired), Greenbelt, Md.; E-mail: [email protected]

Citation: Stern, D. P. (2010), Telling others about the science of Earth and sky, Eos Trans. AGU, 91(25), 223–223, doi:10.1029/2010EO250004.

© 2010. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.