Go to Charlotte Observer front page

Learn about the stars, not the paranormal

The preponderance of sightings in North Carolina is more of a comment on our lack of celestial knowledge than our attraction to ET. But this was not always so.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, July 7, 1998


Page 9A

A few Sundays ago the Observer's Travel section took an uneXpected cruise to the paranormal--a listing of sites of supposedly unexplainable phenomena sprinkled about the Carolinas. UFO landings, sightings and 'abductions'. Whatever.

Let me try to eXplain ...

Even George Fawcett, eXpert on UFO phenomena in the state, admits that 78% of reported sightings are explained by natural phenomena. Not bad, when these took someone else than the original observer to interpret them (or they would have never been reported as "unexplained" to begin with--we don't call up George when we sight the Moon, for example). If our camcorder color commentator had been at the other 22%, I would guess that he could have explained them as well, right on site and on sight.

The problem is that the average citizen has little education about what is in the sky. The preponderance of sightings in NC is more of a comment on our lack of celestial knowledge than of our attraction to ET.

This was not always so. Before the turn of the century astronomy was widely taught in US high schools. Then, in 1892, a group of Harvard profs started wringing their hands and grimacing about the low quality of the entering freshmen. Committees were set up, and the conference on sciences, designated "Physics, Astronomy and Chemistry", met. Oddly, it did not have a teacher of astronomy among the so-called "Committee of Ten." One of their first actions was to rename itself "Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy". Then, in item #9 of its report it recommended that "Astronomy not be required for admission to college".

Not surprisingly, astronomy course offerings in schools started a rapid decline from 1890 to 1915, slowing and leveling off in 1930. Today the high school astronomy course is a rarity in America. Bill Tucci, of the NC Department of Public Instruction, says that less than two-thirds of one percent of NC high students were enrolled in a standalone astronomy course in 1996-7. Tripling this for those seniors and juniors in the 330,000 pool who might have already taken astronomy still leaves 98% with little training. Earth Science courses, not yet a requirement, account for tens of thousands more students, but such a course contains little or no astronomy, depending on the instructor. Thus, most students get through with little or no introduction to one half the sphere of existence that surrounds them all their lives! Talk about a provincial education!

The trend continues in college, where typically biology and chemistry departments dwarf the other sciences. Our ASU astronomy courses always fill up early, showing a great deal of unsatisfied curiosity about the stars. But I doubt that many college administrations survey their incoming freshmen to see what the customer wants, and then satisfies that with more offerings and support.

I would guess that most people know their 'birthsign', a meaningless bit of astrological drivel, but few could recognize or name even one non-zodiacal constellation I'll bet they know the names of the co-stars on X-Files. When these people are faced with something unusual (and for most city dwellers drowning in light pollution, the stars themselves are unfamiliar), they stumble at attempts to understand or explain, groping for some offering from Fox Mulder rather than Carl Sagan.

No one has brought back a piece of a UFO yet. A hundred thousand self-trained amateur astronomers see little or nothing unexplainable in spite of millions of hours of stargazing per year. Alien abductions are at best induced memories, and at worst lies and fraud. You can test this with an experiment on your children if you don't believe it. Tell them a story over and over about a fictitious event in their early life. Eventually it will seem as real as their other memories. (Be sure to explain your experiment later!)

And, if you feel some of the 'side effects' that were listed in the Observer article, you'd better see a physician instead of Jerry Springer's agent. You may be seriously ill, and not due to celestial bacteria.

We live in an incredible Universe yet many of us choose to remain ignorant about our surroundings. If you, too, were slighted in highschool, educate yourself. Astronomy is not difficult, and there are many fine books on the subject. Your library and bookstore probably get Sky and Telescope magazine, or the somewhat simpler Astronomy magazine. You can hardly watch PBS or Discovery without learning some astronomy. And, the Observer does regularly carry news articles on astronomy and space science.

If you want an eXtraordinary vacation, don't go looking for the paranormal--you probably won't see anything. Come to the dark mountains or go to the beach, and look up and think about what you see. If you don't understand it, look it up.

The truth is out there.

Return to Caton's columns

All content © 1996 The Charlotte Observer and may not be republished without permission.
Questions, comments:

The Charlotte Observer archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.