Liberal Arts Blog — Using the Night Sky to Teach Math — Super Syzygy and the Xmas Tree
Liberal Arts Blog — Monday is the Joy of Math, Statistics, Shapes, and Numbers Day
Today’s topic — Using the Night Sky to Teach Math — Super Syzygy and the Xmas Tree
Three nights ago, I was walking back home in the dark after my daily two hour walk and noticed a brightly lit Xmas tree with bulbs of blue, red, white, and green. Behind the tree were towering white pines silhouetted against a dark blue sky. High in the sky were three planets blazing in syzygy (ie. alignment). To my upper right was Jupiter, lower down and to the West was Saturn, and further down and further to the West was dazzling Venus, several times brighter than Jupiter which was several times brighter than Saturn. It was a stunning sight. I called all my neighbors to get them to go out with their young children and enjoy the mind-blowing spectacle. What does this have to do with math? Well, indulge me for a moment. A drum roll please. A little suspense never hurt anyone, right? Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A FEW STEPS MAKES — EXACTLY HOW MANY?
1. The neighbors did come out with their kids. It was wonderful.
2. It was the next day that I did the counting.
3. What I observed was that after a certain number of steps to the west, the relative position of the stars and the tree changed dramatically.
NB: How much and why? Is there a life lesson here? what is it?
WHAT STAR IS DIRECTLY ABOVE THE APEX OF THE XMAS TREE?
1. Well, initially, it was Venus. But then x steps to the west and it was Saturn.
2. And after y more steps it was Saturn.
3. And after z steps it was Jupiter.
NB And after q steps, the stars seemed so far away from the tree that it made no sense at all to think about the relationship between them.
LIFE LESSONS OF SYZYGY AND THE XMAS TREE
1. if you don’t immediately record the results of your experiment, the details (which often matter) will be lost forever. Takeaway: always keep a journal. Make notes as quantitative as possible.
2. Quantitative experiments are fun and rewarding and can be very simple and tailored to any age.
3. In political discussions, angles of vision are determined by position. Appreciating the relationship between position and vision is critical to understanding and to having a civil conversation.
NB: This last comment is a not-well-disguised pitch for your taking the Thinking Citizen Before Test (TCBT) and considering taking remedial action afterwards. (See link below.)
FOOTNOTE — Go outside on the next clear night this week!
1. Savor yourself the miracle of syzygy. With the crescent moon in the picture tonight and tomorrow this is Super Syzygy!
2. While you are at it, if it is early evening, look eastward and marvel at a horizontally oriented Orion.
3. And look north to see a vertically oriented Casseiopeia.
NB: And look super high up and slightly to the West and see what I call the Great Tetrahedron — do you see what I see? The Great Tetrahedron is my name for what I see. I am actually not sure of the names of the stars that compose it. A challenge for the experts out there to identify them for me.
Last four years of posts organized thematically:
Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to math, statistics, or numbers in general. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to math.
This is your chance to make someone else’s day. And to consolidate in your memory something you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.