Heavenly Errors

Misconceptions A bout the Real Nature of the U niverse

Neil F. Comins

Columbia University Press New York

Figure Sources

1.1—Yerkes Observatory

1.1b, 1.3, 1.7, 1.8, 2.2, 3.2—Discovering the Universe, Neil F. Comins and William J. Kaufmann, III, © 2000 Neil F. Comins; reprinted by permission, W. H. Freeman & Co. 1.6—Yerkes Observatory photograph; diagram from Discovering the Universe, Neil F. Comins and William J. Kaufmann, III

1.2— Universe, William J. Kaufmann, III and Roger A. Freedman, © 1999; reprinted by permission, W. H. Freeman & Co.

1.4—Adapted from Astronomy Today, Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan, © 1996 Prentice Hall

2.1—Prof. Joel Mintzes, private communication

3.3—William C. Keel, University of Alabama, Lowell Observatory 3.5, 6.3—NASA

5.1—Adapted from Foundations of Astronomy, Michael A. Seeds, © 1999 Wadsworth


Some images in the original version of this book are not available for inclusion in the eBook.

Columbia University Press Publishers Since 1893 New York Chichester, West Sussex

Copyright © 2001 Neil F. Comins All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Comins, Neil F., 1951-Heavenly errors : misconceptions about the real nature of the universe / Neil F. Comins. p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-231-11644-6 (acid-free paper) 1. Astronomy. 2. Errors, Popular. I. Title.

520—dc2i 00-050853

Casebound editions of Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent and durable acid-free paper.

Printed in the United States of America

Designed by Audrey Smith c 10 987654321


520—dc2i 00-050853


Dedicated to my students, past, present, and future.


Preface ix

Introduction 1

1. Fun in the Sun: Some Misconceptions Close to Home 9

2. Blame It on Someone Else: External Origins of Incorrect Beliefs 49

3. Creating Your Own Private Cosmos: Internal and Mixed Origins of Incorrect Beliefs 83

4. Survival in a Misperceived World: How Well Did Our Ancestors Do Without Understanding Nature? 121

5. Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Misconceptions Are Hard to Replace 145

6. The Sage on the Stage or the Guide by Your Side: A Peek Behind the Effort to Help You Unlearn Misconceptions 169

7. Let the Buyer Beware:

How to Avoid Future Misconceptions 195

8. Conflicts and Dangers:

The Problems That Misconceptions Create 215

Epilogue: False Personal Cosmologies 229

Selected Bibliography 233 Index 237


Few things in nature conform to our expectations: objects with different weights fall at the same speed; time slows down the faster you move; the bulk of a tree's matter comes straight out of the air. Scientific understanding reveals that space, time, matter, and energy are by and large inconsistent with our common sense. How can this be?

Our brains evolved to help us survive, not to comprehend the cosmos. But as a by-product of that evolution, we have minds that want, or rather, need to understand how the natural world operates. While this desire has existed far back into prehistory, only in the past few centuries have we developed the mental discipline of using science to bridge the gap between what appears to be happening and what really is happening.

Over the past decade I have been exploring the differences between appearance and reality in nature, especially in my own field of astronomy. For example, in the brief glimpses I have of it, I see the Sun as yellow. If I didn't know better, I would conclude that it is giving off just yellow light or, perhaps, mostly yellow light. Neither of these conclusions is correct. It is giving off mostly turquoise light. There are literally thousands of commonly held beliefs about nature that are wrong for a variety of reasons. I have written this book to explore some of these differences between reality and perception.

It is important to know that the differences between how nature really works and our beliefs about how it works is an active, volatile field of study, carried out today by thousands of educators, psychologists, and others around the world. Every aspect of it is under intensive scrutiny: identifying the common incorrect beliefs we hold, identifying their origins, finding ways to replace them with correct knowledge, developing techniques for avoiding them in the future. The work has resulted in thousands of publications and diverse ideas put forward on each of these topics, many at odds with each other. I do not intend to present a complete survey of all this impressive work. Rather, I have tried to highlight the points that I believe are most illuminating and helpful to anyone interested in better understanding the differences between scientific reality and perception.

I am greatly indebted to the more than eight thousand students to whom I have had the privilege of teaching introductory astronomy. They and my own two children provided me with the initial insights into how different our beliefs—in the realm of science, at least—are from reality. Professor Joel Mintzes deserves special acknowledgment for his willingness to let me use concept maps he created that contain incorrect beliefs. It is rare in any field for an expert to acknowledge such beliefs, much less share them with others, even if constructively. I also want to thank my colleagues at various institutions around the world who have provided me with considerable insight into various aspects of this realm of learning. Thanks also to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Alex Filippenko, Jeanne E. Bishop, and Joseph Nuth, who reviewed and made suggestions to improve the proposal and early drafts of this book, and to my friends at W. H. Freeman, Publishers, who kindly let me reproduce for this book figures from my textbook, Discovering the Universe, 5th edition, by Neil F. Comins and William J. Kaufmann III, and from Universe, 5th edition, by William J. Kaufmann III and Roger Freedman. Special thanks to my wife, Suzanne, and children, James and Joshua, for providing feedback about this book and for putting up with me hard at work on it, and also to Holly Hodder, Publisher for Science at Columbia University Press, for her support of my writing over many years.

heavenly errors

Abandon common sense, all ye who enter here!

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