The Sun of all fears

The Sun of all fears

The Sun of all fears

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 17 2005 2:00 PM

The Sun of all fears

From Turn Left at the Llama's Farm (via Tom's Astro Blog) comes this scary picture...

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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I am not surprised a random contestant on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" might not know what the closest star to the Earth is. I could easily be disheartened to see that 20% of the audience didn't know either. I could even quote statistics * saying that fewer than half the American public knows it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun.

But I want to hedge my bet here. Years ago, when I was in high school, I was on the local quiz bowl team. I got the same question in a practice round. I was a smartass (shock! Horror!) and blurted out "Alpha Centauri!" My friend laughed and said no. Smacking myself on the forehead (probably literally, I was a bit of a drama queen back then) I corrected myself and said, "I mean Proxima Centauri!" --Alpha Cen is actually a triple star system, and the third star is a dinky red dwarf that's actually a trillion or so miles closer to the Sun than the main pair.

My friend laughed again and said, "Nope." I could have kicked myself. I realized the question asked what was the closest star to the Earth, not the closest star to the Sun. The answer is, of course, the Sun.

So I can almost forgive that befuddled Millionaire contestant, since I screwed this exact question up once upon a time... but I can't quite seem to muster it. The question is written down in front of her, and she had time to study it. I wonder. Does she just not know? Is she simply someone who doesn't care about the world around her? Or is she just an average person, inquisitive and curious, but a victim of our ever-increasingly failing science education system?

So I'll withhold judgment on her. But whichever way this falls, there is one thing that is clear to me: everyone should know the answer to this question. And too many still don't. I don't have an immediate answer to this problem of science illiteracy (it's not just astronomy, of course, that's suffering). I don't think anyone does. But I bet the internets are helping a bit. Having incredible images easily available is a huge boon to public understanding. And I'll keep my little corner of the Universe active posting those images -- and explaining them -- as long as I am able.

* In the "Science and Engineering Indicators 1996" survey run by the National Science Board, 47% of the people surveyed answered correctly when asked, "How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: 1 day, 1 month, or 1 year".