Mythology and Mathematics through Stargazing

Transit of Mercury Inspires Community-Based Learning

Transit of Mercury 2006

The transit of Mercury is an astronomical phenomenon in which Mercury comes between Earth and the Sun, and can be seen as a tiny black dot moving across the sun. This event was predicted by Johannes Kepler before it was observed visually. That observation was recorded in 1631. Today, we generally hear about astronomical events before they happen, often camping outside at night to see rare occurrences in the sky. How do astronomers predict events like the transit of Mercury with such accuracy? In short, advanced mathematics. Astronomers draw from concepts of Physics, and use Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus to make measurements of distances between objects in the sky, and predictions of when they will appear in various ways from Earth.

You don’t need to know anything about mathematics to appreciate the beauty of the sky, however. For centuries, the night sky remained largely a mystery to humans, and many myths emerged to explain the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Lunar and solar deities emerged in cultures across the world.

Whether you want to learn more about the mathematics of astronomy, write your own mythological explanations, or simply enjoy the beauty of the sky, you can attend various astronomy-themed events at the Springfield Museums this month. On Monday, May 9 from 10am-1pm, museum visitors can witness the first transit of Mercury since 2006. Check the Museums’ Facebook page to make sure the event is happening, as it is weather dependent. On Saturday, May 14 from 12-4pm, visitors can engage in safe sunspot viewing, and see a collection of meteorites. There will be hands-on activities for all ages, information about how craters are formed on the moon, and a space sensory bin for kids.

May 9th and 14th events are free with museum admission. Planetarium shows are $3 for adults, $2 for children ages 3-17, and free for members. 413-263-6800, ext. 318. 21 Edwards Street, Springfield, MA.

Want to learn how to view on your own? Lucie Green describes what will happen when Mercury transits the face of the Sun, and how to observe it safely.

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Using Math to Map Constellations Deepens Sense of Place in the Universe

Using Math to Map Constellations Deepens Sense of Place in the Universe

Combining science, math, and even human history and culture, studies of stars and constellations is a community-based resource that’s accessible to everyone and a great nature-based way to integrate learning. Families can track changes in the night sky using basic math skills, and can deepen their sense of place within the universe by doing so.

In the first stanza  of John Lennon’s wonderful song, Imagine, he sings “above us only sky.” While it is certainly true that above us is sky, it may not be fair to say that it is “only” sky. Looking at what’s above us is an accessible way to spark sky-based learning that connects to the development of skills in math, science, and even history and culture! In examining the night sky specifically, families can gain a greater sense of place within the universe, and a deeper experience-based understanding of the movement of the earth in relation to the expansiveness of outer space.

So if it’s not only sky above us, what is all of it? For young observers of the night sky, the obvious focal point of studying the sky is stars – the brightly glowing burning balls that seem to be an absolutely impossible distance from earth. Learning to identify constellations can help budding astronomers begin to learn how to get their bearings while looking at the night sky, and integrating studies of constellations with mapmaking guided by the coordinate plane can create opportunities to engage in meaningful hands-on learning filled with lots of careful work and critical thought. Read the rest of this entry »

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