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Out of this World


Out of this World
University of Maine Professor of Physics and Astronomy Neil Comins tackles the ‘what if' questions that bring the wonders of the cosmos down to Earth

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Heavenly Errors
In his latest book, Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe, University of Maine Professor of Physics and Astronomy Neil Comins explores the difference between reality and perception: the differences between how nature really works and our beliefs about how it works.
 

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University of Maine Professor of Physics and Astronomy Neil Comins thinks about the world a little differently from most of us.

He began his career studying Einstein's general relativity and doing calculations on black holes and neutron stars. He also helped to design and build instruments to detect gravity waves, or ripples in the fabric of spacetime.

Since coming to UMaine in 1978, Comins has worked with other scientists and students to produce computer-generated simulations of galaxy evolution. The goal is to understand the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy.

But what if the Milky Way hadn't maintained its spiral shape all this time?

"We wouldn't be here," Comins says. "Our solar system was created in our spiral galaxy 4.6 billion years ago. The sun is a second-generation star, which means it and the planets were created from material that had been transformed to their present chemical composition inside another star earlier in the history of the galaxy.

"Stars like the sun form primarily in spiral arms, where there is enough gravity to pull the gas together. If the galaxy had not maintained its spiral structure, it's unlikely that the remnants of first-generation stars would have been able to condense into a second generation," he says. "The heavy elements necessary for life would have never come together to form a life-supporting planet."

It's those "what if" questions by Comins that have brought the wonders of the cosmos down to Earth. Comins is a pioneer in astronomy education, in and out of the classroom. In the past decade, the widely published author has helped students and the public to discover their universe.

For Comins, the importance of basic scientific research and sharing general knowledge through teaching and public outreach are not light-years apart.

"Science gives answers that are often inconsistent with common sense," he says. "The way science works is different than the way most things in our lives operate."


Thinking Like a Scientist
Comins contends that one of the best ways to understand the universe is to abandon common sense. That's how he greets his readers in the introduction to his book, Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe, published last August.

Comins has identified more than 1,700 common misconceptions about astronomy. Many show just how common sense betrays us in our attempt to understand nature.

But it's science — the use of logic and observation to arrive at the facts — that helps to overcome misconceptions.

Among the misconceptions: the seasons change due to Earth's varying distance from the sun; Mercury is the hottest planet because it is closest to the sun; spacecraft must dodge boulders when travelling through an asteroid belt; once the ozone layer is gone, it is gone forever.

Comins clears up many misconceptions in Heavenly Errors, explaining why the commonly held beliefs are wrong and presenting the correct scientific explanations.

For instance, the change of seasons actually results from the tilt of the Earth's rotation axis. Mercury's slow rotation and thin atmosphere cause its night side to become among the coldest surfaces in the solar system. The average distance between asteroids in an asteroid belt is 3 million miles. Once enough harmful compounds are out of the atmosphere, the sun's energy will rebuild the ozone layer.

He has also established a Web site where links offer correct explanations for the misconceptions he doesn't address in his book.

Comins compiled the list of misconceptions with the help of students in his introductory college astronomy classes in the past decade. Students earned extra credit if they prepared lists of the incorrect beliefs they had before taking the course.

But correcting misconceptions is much more difficult than simply presenting accurate information and expecting students to believe it, Comins says. If students don't learn how to "think like a scientist," they will soon "forget what they have learned."

"The more we have a scientific understanding of nature, the more we are able to make informed decisions in all aspects of our lives," Comins says.


Cosmos in the Classroom
Students come into Comins' introductory astronomy course with a set of beliefs that is often inconsistent with scientific observations. That motivated him to try to figure out how to help students deconstruct their deep-seated incorrect beliefs, and to make them comfortable enough to accept changes in their world views.

"Our natural defenses, our egos, tell us that our beliefs are correct, and finding ways to help overcome those natural defenses became the big challenge. Living with a scientific state of mind makes it easier for me to accept that my own beliefs are not always right," says Comins.

"In fact, I'm comfortable standing before 250 students — who expect their professors to give them correct information — and telling them that 20 percent of everything I will teach them is wrong. I go on to explain that by the end of the semester, new research is likely to have overturned some of what we now believe to be true."

In his classes, Comins shows, rather than tells, students that their beliefs aren't always correct. For example, he starts the semester with a demonstration of how a beach ball can hover in midair. This is entirely unexpected, but easy to understand once the science is explained.

In addition, at the end of each lecture he asks the students to write down the answer to a question for which most people have misconceptions. This activity creates a set of behavioral dynamics, including realizing that they are not alone with their incorrect ideas. It enables them to consider alternative ideas to what they hold to be true.


What If?
Thinking scientifically, Comins says, gives people the power to formulate new ideas that can be evaluated on their own merits. It was what enabled Comins to develop the series of popular "What If?" articles he wrote for Astronomy magazine in the early 1990s, as well as his 1993 book, What If the Moon Didn't Exist? Voyages to Worlds the Earth Might Have Been, which has been through seven printings, and has been translated into Hungarian and Japanese.

"(It) all started when one day (University of Maine Professor of Physics) Dave Batuski came into my office and said, ‘We astronomers are looking at the world the same way too much.' I said, ‘Let's look at the world differently.'

"My then 5-year-old son James was in the phase of asking ‘what if' questions. Adults don't consciously think ‘what if' questions because we have internalized the process of asking them."

That's when Comins decided to ask: What if the moon didn't exist?

"The implications are staggering, including smaller tides, high winds, days that are just eight hours long, and the unlikelihood that sentient life would exist here," he says.

In 1995, Comins became the author of the introductory college astronomy textbook Discovering the Universe (previously co-authored with William Kaufmann III). By applying his experience in teaching, addressing misconceptions and asking "what if" questions, Comins transformed the volume into one of the best-selling astronomy texts of the 1990s — a position it still holds.

"Many things we do, both as a society and as individuals, require us to make decisions based on our belief systems. This applies to energy policy, stem cell research, education and other social issues," Comins says. "In each of these realms, the more logically correct and scientifically valid information we have, the more likely we are to make decisions that help society."

by Gladys Ganiel
April-May, 2002

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