Some years ago, in an advanced Spanish language class, I received an assignment to give a talk about something.
I chose a beautiful spiral galaxy photo taken from an astronomy calendar which I planned to mount at the front of the room, then talk about its great swirling arms, thousands of light-years in length, and the brilliant glow at the center where millions of stars probably surround a giant black-hole. I would tell of its phenomenal age, and distance from us, millions of light-years away.
I researched all the terminology, so I was ready to explain everything in Spanish, and answer what I hoped would be many questions. At least, I thought I was ready.
When the evening arrived, there were 12 people in the room, the teacher, myself and ten other students. These were all people with significant education, all semi-fluent in Spanish. I began talking, but I soon noticed a blank look on most of the faces. Was my Spanish worse than I thought? Then someone asked this question:
“That light at the center, is that the sun?”
Stunned, I needed a moment to recover. Then I explained that this was not the solar system, but a collection of hundreds of millions of stars, each of them a sun, and that these collections are called galaxies. But it didn’t seem to register. All the faces remained blank.
Except for the teacher, a young Mexican man, who proved to have a good knowledge of astronomy. He asked some questions, which saved me.
But of the 12 people in the room, it became more and more apparent that 10 of them didn’t know what a galaxy is.
What dismayed me most – this was evidence that most people now seem to lack interest in anything outside their daily lives. It’s something I’ve seen too often, something I’ve been trying not to see all my life. From the time I first entered school, I’d noticed that most people were only interested in each other.
People who aren’t interested in galaxies, are usually uninterested in ants, beetles, tree species, clouds, rocks, you name it.
In his 2006 book, The Creation, biologist E.O. Wilson confronts this problem:
Education in biology is important not just for the welfare of humanity but for the survival of the rest of life. Every conservationist with whom I have discussed the subject agrees that the general indifference of people to the living world is the failure of introductory education in biology.
So Wilson believes the problem is poor or indifferent teaching. I don’t think that’s all it is.
By the time I was 7 years old I was studying ants, bees, flowers, grass, trees, fish, mammals, reptiles, rocks, soil, weather, etc. No teacher taught me to do that. It wasn’t my parents either. The appetite for it was inside me, and it was stimulated every time I went outside, or I opened a new book.
Most small children have a strong interest in nature. Why do they lose it? That’s the question.
For those who do find galaxies, stars and planets interesting, check out NASA’s site, where you’ll find many beautiful photos (the ‘Galleries’) and the latest extra-terrestrial news: