Stars and storytelling

I've been immersed in the new esocial culture the past week, even carried around an iPod for a couple of days. I wandered down to D.C. for the march, then back up to NYC for #edu140.

I saw incredible visionaries seduce their audiences with words, with music, with movement, with touch. I mainlined social media for several days, dizzy with various boxes of multiple colors, floating on a collective stream of human consciousness, and last night I crashed.

It took two words from my son as we got out of the car at 2 AM this morning: Look up!

The milky way streamed over our head, parting around the Northern Cross. Ancient patterns of stars raced through my brain--not just the neocortex, the part we worship, but arcing through the limbus, the edge, the old mammalian brain, the home of desire. The hippocampus, our ancient compass, screamed for recognition, finally allowed to guide me under something I deeply recognized, something beyond human.

The amygdala, our kernel of fear embedded with wonder, ripped my attention away from my neocortex--words dissolved, language did not. The stars spoke to me, as they do to any mammal wending through night's shadows.

We forget, or maybe the human part of us, the folds upon folds of new cortex that allow us to navigate in our human world, forces us to look away. But the neo-cortex is only part of the story, and not the one that will save us.

Astronomy, until very recently, was a story told only of light, but what a story we created. We learned of suns and stars, galaxies upon galaxies, of an expanding universe by creating layers of inferences, stories upon stories, based only on light.

Helium, named for the sun, was discovered on the sun before we found it on Earth, betrayed by its spectral lines.

How many of our children know this? How many adults?

Science is not "knowing" that the sun holds helium--to say this is not to say much, though trivia often passes for science in our culture. Science is grasping the stories of light, of spectral lines, of inferences, and then sharing the stories with others.

If children knew how tenuous our grasp of the universe is, as we try to hold hands with the shadows dancing on the walls of Plato's cave, they'd be a lot less frightened of science teachers, and maybe more frightened by our stars at night.

Fear is underrated.

While the stories of science are based on tenuous grounds, the stories are solid. They work, much as the stories we shared before we had written language, as we gathered under the stars on moonless nights, worked for us then.

The children of my ancestors 50,000 years ago had the evidence above them, they felt the creeping dread of the amygdala tempered by the guidance of the hippocampus. Their stories were based on evidence, the evidence of the stars, not the words of a textbook, the words of an expert.

We have become a nation of magical thinkers. I wish I could say this was despite our science education, but too often it is because of it.

For decades now, we have dropped observation of what's real for immersion of what's not--words and photographs and monitors and videos are not real. No media today can hope to capture the sky that wrapped its way around my nonverbal brain just a few hours ago.

If a child uses a computer before she uses a magnifying glass, her science has been stunted.

I proctor the BHS Sidewalk Astronomers, a school club that lets kids see a tiny piece of the universe, catching photons in light buckets we set up on the pavement outside our school.

I used to apologize for the poor viewing conditions, but most have never seen truly dark skies, and are thankful for every photon they catch with our telescopes.

The telescopes are easy enough to grasp--you can see the big mirror bouncing light to the smaller one, you can see the eyepiece glass focus light as you slide the tube up and down with a simple knob gear.

No magic involved.


Cell phones are magic, iPods are magic, wifi is magic, even televisions are magic to most who use them.

I can at least show children how speakers work, using nothing more than a paper cup, a coil of wire, and a magnet, but do not show them how the amplifier that drives the speaker works. (The last time our class made a speaker, it literally went up in smoke, a great lesson in vibrations, sound, and heat.)

I'm done with magic. I'm done pretending we can survive as a culture pushing magic.
  • Magical thinking is what leads rational adults to believe that plugging an electric car into a socket makes the energy "cleaner." 
  • Magical thinking is what leads a culture to putting more calories into the ground than can be extracted from its harvest.
  • Magical thinking is what leads us to believe that we are beyond the laws of physics, that human western wisdom is beyond our collective wisdom, that our minds can solve any problem our brains manage to create.
I'm going to teach my students the first week of school the difference between the magical and the true. I am going to encourage them to catch me every time I slip into magical thinking. We're going to spend a lot of time delving into why their science teacher, despite himself, keeps slipping into the world of magic.

We will learn what's true together, and if a child should escape our haze of urban light and stumble under a sky burning with stars, she will have enough trust in what's true to trust the stories they tell, and have told, since before we uttered our first word.

I'm done with magic. Magic is limiting. Magic kills thinking, kills hope, kills people.

Perseids woodcut via NASA but from 18th c., so I figure it's OK to use.
Book of Wound Surgery of Jerome of Brunswick (also called Brunschwig) published 1497, via Science Photo Library, but also ancient enough to skip the legal nonsense.

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