On the first day of my very first geology class, my instructor told us, “Once you’re finished with this course, you’ll never see the world the same way again.” And he was right.
Now, I can look at mountains and envision the folding process that made them. I can look at beautiful red sandstones and discern the path the wind took as it deposited the sand composing them. I can pick up a landscaping rock and tell you that it is limestone, made from the remains of sea creatures who lived in warm waters. I can point out their fossils in that rock and name their kinds. I know from its rounded edges that it has spent time in a stream. Perhaps, that stream ran beneath glaciers 3 kilometers thick.
I do indeed see the world differently because I took geology classes. And a calculus class. And now an astronomy class. This past week, I learned to mark the moon’s phases, and it has again changed the way I see the world.
I leave work and walk to my car. Headed due east, I mark the hour, knowing the moon rises from that direction. I recall the phase of the moon and calculate its place in the sky at this time of night. “It was a waning gibbous two nights ago,” I tell myself, “so it must mean it will be a third quarter this evening.” And then I know the moon is still below my horizon.
As I do this, I am also reminded of Morgaine in Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. To her, the goddess and the moon were synonymous. As a priestess of Avalon, she wore a crescent shape on her forehead and learned the moon phases as part of her education. I am learning science, but I make connections to books read long ago.
Because our instructor showed us how Stephen Spielberg got the moon phases wrong** in ET, I now find myself critiquing the moon’s presence in all of the popular culture.
As I write this post, I am sitting at home on my bed. I look at my framed Mutt’s comic strip from 21 Nov. 2006. The little girl Doozy is hugging the chained-up Guard Dog. In the upper right corner hangs a waxing crescent moon. I think it through in my head: “Since moon is low in the sky, it need to be shortly after moon rise at 9 a.m. or moon set at 9 p.m. Assuming it is night and Doozy has her parents’ permission to wish Guard Dog a happy Thanksgiving because it’s still fairly early, it could very well be sometime between 6 and 9 p.m. when a waxing crescent would hang low in the western sky.” I conclude that artist Patrick McDonnell has drawn his moon phase correctly.
So lately, I have been thinking that all teachers–from all disciplines, not just science–should make a promise to their students at the beginning of the term: “Once you’re finished with this course, you’ll never see the world the same way again.”
**I have decided that botching the night sky in a movie must really annoy astrophysicists. Neil deGrass Tyson complained about the incorrect star field director James Cameron used in Titanic until Cameron changed the stars in an updated version of the movie.