How To Teach Astronomy

I taught undergraduate astronomy in the late ’70s. ‘Twas fun. Thought it was great, and thought the students learned something.
But over the years, I’ve decided that there were a couple of things that I’d do differently, if I had the chance to do it again.

For instance, I don’t think that I would try to get them to understand cosmology before giving them some sort of historical sense of how we’ve come to understand our place in the universe. I’d tell them that we’re circling a fairly standard star somewhere in the suburbs of a fairly ordinary galaxy, and any other arrangement would probably be bad for our health. Our home, the planet we live on, is pretty small compared to the space between planets, and the star that heats us, the sun, is very small compared to the distance between stars. But the galaxy is very large compared with the distance between the Milky Way and Andromeda (our nearest substantial neighbor-galaxy), and we’re going to collide. We’re part of a cluster of galaxies that’s middling size, compared to the distance between clusters.

What I would start with now (“Boys, this is a football…”) is the question “Which way is east?”

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