Stick-in-the-Mud Science

stonehenge winter solstice

Science doesn’t always have to be hi-tech.

Indeed, you can learn things just by driving a stick into the ground.

Any old stick will do, as long as it’s straight.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson explores this and other topics in his book Death by Black Hole. Chapter 5 is called “Stick-in-the-Mud Science.”

In this chapter Tyson goes on to discusses various ancient religious and cultural sites around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Stonehenge in England is only one famous example. These sites doubled as “low-tech astronomy centers” and continue to fascinate many modern people for a variety of reasons.

The astronomical knowledge required to build these sites, he says, “is not fundamentally deeper than what can be discovered with a stick in the ground.” So why are so many people still so astonished by the scientific achievements of these ancient civilizations?

Tyson goes on to speculate as to an answer:

Perhaps these ancient observatories perennially impress modern people because modern people have no idea how the Sun, Moon, or stars move. We are too busy watching evening television to care what’s going on in the sky. To us, a simple rock alignment based on cosmic patterns looks like an Einsteinian feat. But a truly mysterious civilization would be one that made no cultural or architectural reference to the sky at all.

Today is the Winter Solstice. Do yourself a favor and look up at the sky at least once today. Think about all the ancient civilizations for whom this was one of the most important days of the year and about the common humanity that links us all together. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, hammer a stick into the ground and see what else you can learn.

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