Monday, April 7, 2014

Astronomy videos: A Formula

Tadpole's been fascinated by space and planetariums ever since we got her the Magic School Bus: Lost In Space book.  Last week we took her into the city to visit the Adler Planetarium and her first big screen video.  Major treat!

After watching this video and bits of Cosmos, I've discovered the formula for an astronomy popular science video:

  1. Start with people huddled around a small fire, and the notion that we've been telling stories about stars since this ancient prehistory.
  2. Talk about how in the Middle Ages we didn't understand how stars work, but now we do because we're in the Age of Science.
  3. Reference Native American myths about constellations.  Take the myths literally.  Show the Greek/Roman constellation names for extra insult.
Essentially, these videos and the early parts of Cosmos that I've watched seem to be taking potshots at Evangelical Christians who treat the Bible as literal truth & question scientists, via the proxy of Native American myths.  

It's insulting.  Insulting to the "primitive societies" whose stories are appropriated as stand-ins for ignorance.  Insulting to the various non-western traditions that were studying astronomy at the times when these narratives claim Medieval Europe (and by extension everyone) was not doing science.  (Check out the Islamic Sciences section on Lost Islamic History, or follow them on Twitter!).  It legitimizes a relatively small group, while also making sure that they will never accept your message.  (Well, I used to think that my religion was literally true and scientists who question it should be rejected, but then I watched a 20 minute video that told me I was thinking wrong & so I changed my mind!)

Most importantly, these videos miss a huge chance to capture the hearts and minds of the kids who are presumably the target audience.  We have built giant particle accelerators that smash things together to reveal the secrets of the universe!  We've got telescopes so big they can let us look back in time towards the big bang!  We got rid of a planet because we found so much extra stuff out there! We put telescopes up in space to get an even better view! (Aside - I remember my dad taking me to see some of the first pictures that came back from the Hubble Space Telescope.  I didn't entirely understand what was going on, but the memory is one of my earliest and strongest childhood memories).  There are people living in space.  They run! They wash their hair! They squeeze water out of washcloths, play guitar, and use giant robots to grab spaceships.  We can watch videos of all of these things in the comfort of our own home! (Aside - for definitions of the future that don't include flying cars, the future has very much arrived)

All of which is to say:

Dear writers and producers of astronomy videos,

My daughter is three, and she's pretty captivated by space.  She knows who Commander Hadfield is.  I'd love to encourage this.  I'll come visit overpriced planetariums to sit and watch a video with her and hopefully build a memory like my own memory of seeing pictures from the Hubble Telescope.  Please give me that video.  The one that reveals the secrets of the universe, black holes, pulsars, colliding galaxies, tours of our own solar system, and other wonders I cannot even imagine.  Don't sit us in front of a fire and tell her to understand "science" instead of "myth".  There's a scientific story out there every bit as wonderful as anything any other religion can offer. Give us that one.  Please?

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