It has been said that in the world of science, we live in an Age of Unification, and Astronomy & Natural History Connections: From Darwin to Einstein does just that – it unifies natural history and astronomy in an entertaining, inspiring manner. It is based on an outreach-based teaching approach that comfortably, yet thoroughly connects the reader to the Universe, and thereby to both sciences. This is not “astronomy for the dummy or the idiot or those in a hurry”; it’s for the vast majority of the general public that call themselves interested as well as curious to learn much more about the world around and above us.
Those are strong words, but what’s behind them, backing them up, supporting them? Quite a bit, actually. Astronomy is a physical science, and calculus is part of the curriculum and communication. Many pictures show Einstein and other notables at the blackboard, writing equations; it looks impressive but can appear distant and somewhat intimidating. And for astronomers and astronomy buffs, the natural sciences can appear a bit soft in some ways, although evolution and classification can also be intimidating topics. Bottom line – you’re not going to find astronomers writing about natural history (aside from looking for life in the Universe), nor evolutionary biologists writing about astronomy. It’s out of their comfort zones and not part of who they are. Further, astronomers that drift into popular science tend to pick trendy themes – Dark Matter/ Dark Energy, Black Holes, the Big Bang, Astrobiology, etc.; they don’t try to teach the basics of the science. There’s a gap - one that needs to be filled, and this book does it. And it does it without dumbing-down; there are complete discussions on relativity, quantum mechanics, stellar chemistry, speciation, and natural selection.
Let’s take this one step further. People are taken by the world of nature; more and more of them watch Discovery Channel and take off on major excursions to see wildlife. They love certain aspects of Astronomy as well – Solar Eclipses, Meteor Showers, Missions to Mars, searching for Life elsewhere, etc. But, as stated above, we can easily be intimidated by Astronomy; we’re not entirely comfortable with it. Why? Aside from the calculus and chalk boards, there’s not a solid connection to it as there is to whales, penguins, polar bears, etc. The lack of connection is largely a spatial one; we don’t know how and where we fit in. How does one connect to what’s up there? That’s what this book does; it connects the reader to the night sky and the night sky to the rest of nature. Here’s how.
When you have a guest, you make them feel comfortable. The reader is a guest, and as an author, I am providing a tour. You make introductions to the night sky, and begin with a few easy questions. For example, what time does the full Moon rise? We’ve all seen it occur many times, and the answer should be obvious, yet it isn’t. If I asked why the Moon is full, some would answer because the Sun is directly opposite, lighting it. Right, so where is the Sun? It’s setting, isn’t it? So a Full Moon rises at sunset. That’s the correct answer. Kind of opens your mind just a little bit, and it’s intended to. It goes on from there.
Here’s another one. Everyone knows that Polaris is the North Star, and most know how to find it. So, how high is the North Star above the horizon? This should also be obvious, but few can answer it. The height above the horizon for the North Star, Polaris, is equal to the latitude that you’re observing from. Is that important? It is if you’re an explorer; you find the North Star, and now you know your latitude. Nowadays, many of us do not have the spatial connection to figure that one out. People once did, when the Cosmos/ Night Sky was part of their world. And they can have it again; this book helps to bring it into reach.
It works for natural history as well. For example, what is the difference (and there is one) between a seal and sea lion. Think about it. “If it walks, it’s a sea lion; if it moves by bouncing along like a blubber slug, it’s a seal.” I often show a picture of a trained seal at the circus, balancing a ball on its snout and then show a video of it walking; yes, the trained seal is a sea lion. You’ve probably learned something, and hopefully I’ve engaged you at the same time.
We’ll conclude with the scale of the Universe, a real important one, because that’s the real connection – us to the vast “everything up there that seems to go on forever.” We all know the Universe is huge, but how huge is huge? Standard teaching methods start with “It takes a million Earths to fill the Sun,” but it’s really difficult to imagine a million Earths. A second is a relatively short period of time, but can you envision a nanosecond, which is a billionth of a second? That’s a tough one. I guess the idea is to be staggered by the number, but it takes more than that to be awed and humbled by the scale as it relates to us. Here’s my approach. You’ve probably seen the International Space Station. It’s travelling at approximately 17,000 miles per hour and orbiting the Earth every hour and a half. The astronauts must be bored with the view; they’ve been up there several months. I’ll bet they’ve heard the news that we just found a possible Exoplanet on Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth (aside from the Sun of course). It’s about 4.4 light years from us, which sounds pretty close, but a light year is about 6 trillion miles! So, not so close. Anyway, this potential Exoplanet is in the habitable zone of the Star, what astronomers also call the Goldilocks Zone – you know, not too near, not too far, not too hot, not too cold – just right! So the astronauts have a little talk and decide maybe it would be fun to visit Proxima Centauri. After all, it is Friday and they do have a good happy hour there. Sounds like a good idea. So how long do you think it would take the ISS to get to Proxima Centauri, assuming good weather conditions and no traffic? Everyone is astounded to hear the answer is over 150,000 years! To the nearest Star. Out of the hundreds of billions of Stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. And there are hundreds of billions of Galaxies in the Universe. It’s that vast. People do envision the astronauts in a real spacecraft, the International Space Station. They also envision a Flight Plan to the nearest Star. But they don’t envision it will take anywhere near that long to get there. It’s a real point of connection.
These examples demonstrate my preference to teach in a unique, relaxed manner, so thanks for taking the time to read through them. My method was not developed in a university lecture hall; it is a skill acquired from over 30 years of natural history lectures at sea, from the Galápagos Islands to Antarctica. I had the honor and good fortune to do that for thirty years before I retired. Now, I teach astronomy on an outreach basis for the University of Arizona, which has one of the best Astronomy departments in the nation. And natural history is included in my presentations. The goal in both situations was and is to get people to feel more comfortable about what they already know and lower the wall of resistance to science that they’ve built through the years. Once the wall is lowered, people want more. And there is a lot more to give and share. There were certain parts of my lectures that resonated with the audience, that obviously raised their understanding and enthusiasm, and Astronomy & Natural History Connections: From Darwin to Einstein is an orderly presentation of the best of those moments. The reader is asked to bring their interest and curiosity; the book will provide the information and inspiration – both will be within easy reach.