Things That are Common Sense To Astronomers but not to Normal People

If you’re heavily into astronomy, then you at least have a grasp on the listed things below. Even people who at least have an interest and want to learn basic astronomy still find themselves stumped by concepts that knowledgeable astronomers can easily present.

The following are subjects, concepts, and general facts that are common sense to people like me, but yet I constantly have to keep reiterating to “normal” people who don’t use this knowledge in their everyday lives.


The Phases Of The Moon And What Causes Them

The phases of the moon are taught in elementary school, yet I can’t tell you how many adults I have met that have forgotten this knowledge. I’ve met people who can’t name a single phase besides full, nor remember what causes the phases. One night, after explaining how to tell whether the phase was waxing or waning, an unimpressed patron asked me, “so what is the practical use behind knowing all that stuff?”

Even when I do explain that the phases are caused by the position of our Moon in its orbit around Earth relative to the Sun, it still stumps people who simply can’t understand why they appear the way they do.

The Observing of Planets

“Are there any planets visible?”
“Can you show me a planet?”

I get asked that every time I’m operating a public telescope. It’s understandable because aside from the moon at night, people remember hearing about planets way more so than any star or deep sky object. If any of the “good planets” are up, there is a high chance a telescope is on it.

“But I came here last year around the same time and {planet} was visible, why isn’t it there tonight?!”
“But I came here to see {planet}! Why aren’t you showing it?!”

Even though people get excited when they learn that a bright star I point to is a planet, they forget that the planets shift their positions much more than the stars do over time, and are not always in the same location!

It’s not the most annoying thing to reiterate, but the mood can be brought down after seeing sad faces from visitors who came at the wrong time to see their planet of interest.

Eclipses

Both Solar and Lunar Eclipses easily generate a lot of public interest due to their ease of viewing. As such, casual viewers who otherwise never show an interest in the heavens come out in droves wherever an eclipse happens.

However, for people like me, that means constantly having to correct which eclipse is an eclipse of what and what causes their appearance. While solar eclipses seem to be easier for people to understand, lunar eclipses will always see me constantly having to explain what is causing the moon to darken, why it appears red, and why these only happen during a full moon – thus that orange looking crescent caused by haze and smoke over the horizon is NOT a blood moon!

At the end of the day, if it generates an interest that results in people going further into astronomy, then I should be happy I got to explain and present the eclipse to them.

The Freaking North Star!

Every night without fail, I will always have to correct people who assume “oh the North Star is the brightest star,” or they will see a bright star like Sirius, or a bright planet and ask me if that’s the North Star, and because they don’t know their cardinal directions, they don’t even know they’re not looking north!

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If you’re an elementary school teacher and you’re teaching children this, please stop!

Yes, it is something that I do like to explain to people so they understand why the north star gets its name, the fact that people still learn that myth long before it finally gets explained by someone qualified means that myth needs to die!

What the Zodiac is… Astronomically Speaking.

I have met plenty of genuine astrologers who still understand what the zodiac is, and even account for the shift in dates due to earth’s precession.

But in my experience, most who bring up their zodiac signs have no idea what the zodiac actually is. Once I explain to them the ecliptic, and how their dates actually work, I still pick and choose my times when to pull the trigger on how their star signs are not actually their star signs anymore. The information is not necessarily my hill to die on, and even if I present that information, I honestly don’t care what zodiac constellation people still identify themselves as. To me they’re just proving that zodiac signs are pointless and silly.

The Motions of Celestial Objects Due to Earth’s Rotation

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Everything in the sky is always moving at 15 degrees per hour, or 0.004 degrees per second – something you don’t initially notice unless you’re zoomed in very well through a telescope that isn’t compensating for it. Over time, you do notice objects have moved, and many of them may have already set.

This is especially true when people will initially see a waxing crescent moon, Venus or Jupiter visible in the west after sunset, walk by my telescope and see that my sign read any of those three, only for them to come back some time later, notice I was now on something different and ask me, “Weren’t you viewing something else earlier? where’d {that object} go?!”

I have visibly watched a millennial open his eyes in shock when he watched the crescent moon set and disappear behind the Hollywood hills. He said, “oh my god, I didn’t know the moon moves,” and his friend replied, “are you serious? I’m so ashamed of you right now!”

At the same time, there are many who do know of this, and even ask me if my telescope is moving; but then still ask me where did {x} go… some people just don’t equate the two situations I guess.

What Star Clusters, Nebulae, and Galaxies Actually Are

For star clusters, often times it’s a language barrier thing, as many translated languages from their native tongue into English don’t use “cluster” but still use “group” or “many” in descriptions. Even then, I’ve encountered proficient English speakers who still don’t know what “cluster” means, nor understand what a star cluster is; hence I’ve encountered a few patrons who scoff and dismiss what they’re looking at as “just a bunch of stars.”

Nebulae and Galaxies are different. I have found that many do not know what “nebula” means, and have only heard the name because of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once I explain that the word “nebula” means “cloud” then it’s easier to explain what the Orion Nebula actually is, or what the Ring Nebula and Crab Nebula are – a stellar nursery, the glowing remains of a star like our Sun, and a supernova remnant.

With galaxies, they look like faint nebula-like smudges with little structure when using your eyes to observe through a telescope. Because they’re so disappointing to show through telescopes even at dark locations, they require a lot of hype to help people grasp that they’re seeing light from billions of stars at light years away. Still, I’ve met plenty who have forgotten what galaxies actually are, and the sheer scale of the estimated number of them is hard to grasp.

The Seasonal Shift in Stars and Constellations

A lot of people on any given night will ask me where Orion or the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), or whatever their zodiac constellation is. For northern hemisphere observers, Orion is an autumn/winter constellation, while Ursa Major is more prominent in the spring/summer months. They don’t know that the constellations actually change gradually, and after a few months you’ll see a different set of stars above your location.

It’s the same reason why I have to explain why Jupiter or Saturn won’t be viewed through our telescopes in 2020 until August at the earliest – they’re in front of Summer constellations! 

For me on the other hand, I always get excited every seasonal shift because that means there’s new constellations to check out and different deep sky objects to take pictures of. I love showcasing the Winter Hexagon, the navigational use of Ursa Major in the Spring, the center of our galaxy plus the Summer Triangle, and finally the family of constellations associated with the Greek story of Perseus in the autumn months.

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