Monday, September 17, 2012

C is for... Classical Astronomy

What is classical astronomy? More than a few people have asked me that when I've said that's what we're studying for science this year.  According to our textbook, Signs and Seasons, classical astronomy is... "the visual observation of the motions of the celestial bodies - the simple act of studying the cycles of the Sun, Moon and stars with our unaided eyes... a study of the celestial creation, not only for its usefulness, but also for its own natural beauty."

We're only a few weeks into our study, but here's a little of what we have done so far.

We begin with the Biblical foundation.  Genesis 1:14 tells us why the Sun, Moon, and stars were created:
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven, to divide the day from the night: and let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.

Our first project is the backyard compass.  We started with a stake pounded into an the ground in an open area of our yard.  The boys marked the end of the shadow of this stake with tent pegs during the middle of the day for several days and then measured to find the shortest distance.  This was our 'cardinal line' which should run north to south.

With our cardinal line established, we measured out 10 feet north and south from the center, and then east and west from the center, and placed paving stones at each end, and one in the center to replace the stake.  We had to check our work over the next few days to make sure we had everything lined up as well as possible.

These pictures were taken before the final adjustment - you can see that the east-west stones are not quite aligned with the center.  One more thing we need to do is to label the stones, although that's more for aesthetics than anything!  They also need to be set a little lower into the grass to make it easier to mow the lawn.

We will be using this compass throughout the year to make observations of the sun, moon, stars and planets.  We are fortunate enough to live in the country, where our view of the night sky isn't compromised by streetlights and other artificial lighting.  However, there just was not a completely ideal place for us to put this compass so we could have unobstructed views of the horizons! Our yard slopes down a little towards the south and east, and there is a rise of land on the other side of the creek.  And a line of tall trees between our property and our neighbor's.  So we found out on our first day of observing the sunrise that although the sunrise time was at 6:38am... we didn't actually see the sun break 'our' horizon until about 20 minutes later!  And we have practically no view of the western horizon from our backyard so we have been observing sunsets from the front.

just before dawn

Most of what we've been learning in this first chapter involves observing shadows (which help us navigate and estimate directions), and getting familiar with how our days and hours are marked by the sun.  We are observing sunrises, sunsets, twilight, and cardinal directions; and we are familiarizing ourselves with terms such as gnomon, meridian, and terminator (which I always say in my best Schwarzenegger voice! LOL).  We've learned how the ancient Egyptians aligned the pyramids and the sphinx astronomically - did you know that the sphinx faces east to watch the rising sun? - and that Washington, D.C. was laid out to align with the compass points.  So are many other cities and towns in  North America, because the new lands were surveyed from the sun, moon, and stars. 

These things seem simple, but it's fascinating study because in our modern world of electric lights and digital timekeeping, we're quite far removed from relying on the signs in the sky to keep track of times and seasons.  We are looking forward to learning about the moon and the stars as we continue, especially learning to identify the stars and planets and constellations that we can see without a telescope.  We have a telescope, but the awesome thing about classical astronomy is that it's all about what you can see just standing in your backyard.

Please visit Ben and Me: C is for Coconut Oil to join in and to see what thoughts this week's letter has prompted for other bloggers.

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Chris Tilley (@hhtales) said...

I am going to have to try this. First I need to mow the lawn or we won't find the shadow or the pegs. Also from the shadow I can tell you farther south than we are. I may have to wait until spring as it is getting cold at night up here.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I have Signs and Seasons on my curriculum list for middle school! Love all of the photos and your big backyard! We struggle with sight-lines too. But we still try to get outside and just look!

Unknown said...

That is so fascinating. I haven't heard of this but my kids would love it. Off to check it out!

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