Heliocentric Model of the Solar System
Earth and Space

Ideas about science

Teaching Guidance for 11-14 Supporting Physics Teaching

Exploring ideas about science

This whole topic area of the solar system and beyond offers lots of opportunities for considering various ideas about science:

  • Seeing how scientific ideas can undergo change with time. The classic example here is the total acceptance of the Earth-at-centre models of the solar system for hundreds of years before giving way to the Sun-at-centre view.
  • Appreciating that science values simplicity and elegance in its theories and explanations. An obvious shortcoming of the Ptolemaic system (as compared with the Sun-at-centre view) was that it was so complicated.
  • Recognising that scientists work within a broad social setting and that this can influence the manner and extent to which new scientific ideas are accepted. The opposition to Galileo and his Sun-at-centre ideas by the Church provides a powerful example of the way in which this can work out in practice.
  • Appreciating that the science from ancient times is not necessarily simplistic and crude in its content and approach. For example, Ptolemy's model of the solar system was extremely sophisticated (and complicated) and lasted for so long simply because it generated predictions of the positions of bodies within the solar system with great precision.

A teaching story for Mars, as an example of a resource for ideas about science

Giovanni Schiaparelli was an Italian astronomer who, in 1877, first observed the canals on Mars. The features he observed included straight lines that joined in a complicated pattern. He called these lines canali, which means channels. However, the Italian word was mistranslated into the English word canals.

That, combined with the suspicious straightness of the lines, suggested artificial structures, and this created a furore. Much speculation concerning the possibility of intelligent life on Mars sprang up in the popular press.

This idea was given further substance by the American Percival Lowell's suggestion in 1892 that the reason for the existence of the canals is that they were constructed for the express purpose of fertilising the oases and that their geometric nature must have been due to some form of intelligent life. Not surprisingly, Lowell's theory caused an immediate sensation. It was highly controversial as others claimed that they could not even observe the lines suggested by Lowell and Schiaparelli. Nevertheless, the idea took root in the popular imagination reaching its height with H.G. Wells' epic tale The War of the Worlds.

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