I’ve Got a Thing for Astronomy Decor
I have lots of it. My office is full of astronomy books, which are a form of decor that also serve a useful purpose. And, I have a gorgeous set of black-and-white astronomy images taken in the 1960s at the Observatory Tautenberg that I have hanging here and there.
But, I also have some whimsical things, like this constellation lamp I found at Lowes Hardware a few days ago. I also have a Moon in My Room, which Mark gave me as a holiday gift.
I like it when astronomy gets used in products like this because they lend a nice, cheerful, “fun” air to the stars. And, when it comes to science, people sort of need to be “coaxed” into liking it. Our culture has this weird sort of disconnect about science: we use its technology and “ooh” and “aah” at the pretty pictures from Hubble Space Telescope, and even read in wonderment about things like the Human Genome Project or the latest advances in medical science. But, some people also make fun of science, and sometimes even discard it or dismiss it when it challenges long-held politico-religious beliefs or feelings. If you don’t believe me, look at the debates that sizzle around the edges of the global climate change and environmental issues of our day. (But don’t get me started on cre@tion “science.”)
What I don’t like are things purport to be “scientific” but really are not. There are trends in media for example (including advertising and movies) where science, if it gets mentioned at all, is either misquoted, misused, or just plain flat wrong. My friend Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy.com has made a career out of finding these mistakes and debunking silly rumors and pseudo-science.
A couple of examples of misuse of science come to mind. First, a catalog for makeup products that we get in the mail has taken to using the word “scientific” to sell soaps and creams. I read these things quite carefully, mostly because I know that no matter how much you pretty up the language to sell this stuff, it’s still just cream in a bottle. And, in this particular catalog, it’s olive oil in a bottle that sells for about four times the price of the same olive oil you can get in the grocery store. But, stick the words “scientifically formulated” on the sales material and suddenly it’s somehow more than just olive oil. Don’t get me started on the irony of using science to sell stuff to women, a population that (until a few decades ago) was largely excluded from science and still finds itself today fighting glass ceilings in research institutions. (Although, it is getting better…)
My second example comes from the mall. Specifically, a store that caters to selling expensive little baby clothes. This spring they’re selling toddler togs festooned with constellation patterns. Great, I think to myself, they’re getting kids started in astronomy early.
Well…. not so much, it turns out. It’s “astrology time” at the baby store, dressing the little ones up in their birth astrological symbols (which, if you don’t it by know, are keyed to positions of the Sun in the zodiac that aren’t the same as they were when astrology was first “devised” several thousand years ago, rendering the most essential aspects of astrology incorrect from the get-go).
Oh, the clothes ARE darling. But, they’re pushing a pseudo-science, not a science. About the only thing that astronomy has in common with astrology is a skyful of stars. So, for the folks who wanna know more about the difference between the two before you head out to the Mall, go to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and read all about it.