Date: July 8th, 2012

Title: Encore: Discussing the Issues of Knowledge Through Astronomy

Podcaster: Manoharan Karthigasu

This podcast originally aired on August 1st, 2010

Description: The podcast deals with questions about “knowledge” itself and our position as knowers. Astronomy provides a great opportunity to explore such issues.

Bio: My name is Mano and I am a passionate High School Teacher in an International School in Jakarta. I teach Mathematics and Theory of Knowledge and dabble in Astronomy and Physics in my spare time. I have always been fascinated by the mysteries of the Universe. To me Astronomy presents the big picture of the “concept of knowledge”. Man has always been curious about the Universe and will continue in his search for answers. As a teacher I believe it is an excellent subject in which to engage students in science and ultimately in their pursuit and hunger for knowledge.

Today’s sponsor: “This episode of 365 days of astronomy was sponsored by – Expanding your horizons in astronomy today. The premier on-demand telescope network, at dark sky sites in Spain, New Mexico and Siding Spring, Australia.”


This podcast is dedicated to my lovely wife on her special day. Happy Birthday! Knowing you has been the greatest knowledge that I have acquired.
Understanding Knowledge Issues through Astronomy

Science can be defined very simply: it applies the basic rules of logic to observations of the world. It then uses that logic to infer, to figure out, facts about that world. This sound clean and pretty straightforward. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work out that way. Science is in a constant state of conflict and change. Many questions about the world are still the subject of ongoing debates.

As a teacher I notice, the lack of interest in Science among students steadily growing, the days of wonder and amazement is gradually diminishing. Science is mostly taken for granted and only studied to pass exams. What has happened? How come the more we claim to know about the world the less interest we have in finding out more? At times students come across as though almost everything that we need to know about the universe we live in has been discovered and confirmed. Now we just need to enjoy the new found knowledge and the technologies that it enables. Go the iPhones and Xbox’s!

What we know today came through a great deal of conflict among scientist. In fact there was a time when it was very scientific to believe that the world was flat and that a good way to cure the flu was to drain the blood. How sure are we that what we know today and believe to be true will be the same in a 100 years’ time?

One of the subjects that I teach in high school is called Theory of Knowledge (THoK). The main question in this subject is “How do you know?” The subject encourages students to think critically about the about the subjects they are studying rather than passively accepting what they are taught. Critical thinking involves asking good questions, using language with care and precision, supporting your ideas with evidence, arguing coherently and making sound judgments. We study about the knower, ways of knowing and the different areas of knowledge.

Nowadays new knowledge is being produced daily in an incredible rate. Likewise the media is filled with all kinds of scientific knowledge claims from food producers, beauty products and miracle cures just to name a few. How true are these claims? The challenge for every student today is the ability to sift through all this information and critically evaluate which one is justifiable. One of the knowledge areas that we obviously discuss is Science. I believe astronomy in this field of knowledge provides the opportunity to study the both the volatile and collaborative progress of Science in the last few centuries. But first, a little Mathematics.

According to cosmologists, the universe has been in existence for about 15 billion years. If we imagine that huge amount of time compressed into one year running from January to December, then the earliest human beings do not appear on the scene until around 10.30 p.m., on 31st December. Fire was only domesticated at 11.46 p.m., and the whole recorded history occupies only the last ten seconds of the cosmic year. Since we have been trying to make sense of the world in a systematic way for only a fraction of time, there is no guarantee we have got it right. Furthermore in the cosmic scale we are rather small; there are ten times more stars in the night sky than grains of sand in all the world’s deserts and beaches. Yet we flatter ourselves to have figured out the universe, given our familiarity with the universe is only a minute fraction. Perhaps there are deeper truths about life, universe and everything that we haven’t discovered yet or beyond our human understanding.

I remember the first time when I discovered that when I look up at the night sky, filled with millions of stars I am literally staring at the past. The concept of light years has dawned on me. I still get “wows” from students today as I explain the concept to them. As on student aptly replied “You’re telling me what I see is not actually currently real”. Yep! You got it. Some of these stars might have gone supernova, and we’ll find out in couple of million years.

That’s the nature of knowledge sometimes, it has many facets to it, perspectives, believable truth is somewhere in the continuum between right and wrong. I tell my students; my job is not to tell what is right or wrong but hopefully to turn you into sensible skeptics. Why so, because at times it takes something that is so fundamentally assumed to be right, to be questioned and put under the microscope in order to discover new knowledge. Take for example the conflict between the geocentricism and heliocentricism. Way back then this would have made sense to anyone; that the earth in the centre and everything else goes around it, just stand outside and watch the sky to see that the sun, moon and the stars rise in the east and set in the west, circling around us. Yet when Galileo challenged this idea with his observations, the religious authorities of the time also saw his observations as undermining the divinely established place of man in the cosmos. It took years and further works by Kepler and Isaac Newton to completely crush the geocentricism model. How about the work of Isaac Newton regarding the motion of planets and gravity? It took a creative man with unconvential views in his days to declare the relativistic theories to the world that further modified classical physics. Who would have imagined that space and time are intrinsically interwined? Ready for even crazier ideas; Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; declaring that whereas classical mechanics presupposes that exact simultaneous values can be assigned to all physical quantities, quantum mechanics denies this possibility, the prime example being the position and momentum of a particle, however, the effect is tiny and so is only noticeable on a subatomic scale. So, is there anything we can know for certain? And now for the latest obsession; String Theory. Scientists in these fields are pretty convinced they are heading generally in the right direction with 11 dimensions and all. But then there’s small band of opponents with the Quantum Loop Theory. Now, I am not an expert in any of these fields, I am just like any ordinary earth’s habitant who is deeply interested in understanding the universe around me.

Meantime we have 83% of material in the Universe that are not observable, rightly named dark matter, meaning it does not reflect or emit detectable light. The existence of dark matter has been inferred through the gravitational pull it exerts on luminous galaxies and stars. Though scientists have no idea what it consists of, one popular theory is that dark matter is made up of WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). A recent report highlighted the progress being made by Fermilab and CERN in regards to discovering the elusive God Particle, Higgs boson. I quote “existence of the Higgs boson was postulated in 1964 by British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs as an explanation for why some elementary particles have mass and others do not. Despite extensive efforts at locating it, it is the only particle from the standard model that has not yet been identified.

If researchers can find it, they will develop a new understanding of the primal forces of nature. If it cannot be found, however, new theories may replace the standard model, which underlies most current research in particle physics”.
To sum up, there is still much more that we are not sure about. Who’s to say that we are nothing but illusions conjured up by a Matrix; rings a bell.
I hope by now we see that the knowledge we possess now is by no means anywhere near completion or complete. If anything drastic were to happen due to climate change or a massive meteorite decides to change trajectory and head straight towards us, we don’t even have the technology or the means to escape or look for another planet to colonize.

One current hot topic all over the world is climate change. Global climate change is an area of scientific research that is filled with conflict. Scientists take different sides and present evidence to support their claims. Companies and political leaders with their own agendas choose which scientist to listen to-and sometimes even pay for their research.

As we can see, astronomy has has an incredible history behind it and enough challenges ahead to really open up the issues of “knowledge” to discussion.
In ThoK we teach the students the 4 different ways of knowing; language, perception, reason and emotion. Each of these has its strengths and weaknesses. Taking all this into account we begin to realize that “knowledge” is in a constant state of growth and change. What is true today may not be tomorrow. We may wake up tomorrow realizing everything we believed to be true does not hold to be right anymore. In every field there are countless opportunities for research, and even more productive debate. Even the most basic elements of our world, for example gravity, still present puzzles. It is important to remember these aspects of knowledge as we learn them in classrooms, read journals and newspapers or through any other media or by simply reading a book or listening to an expert lecture:

Firstly, scientist are often challenged to make a broad generalizations about the past or present phenomena based on tiny bits of evidence.

Secondly, the interpretation of evidence is often subjective, leading up to disagreement and sometimes entirely different theories.

Lastly, influence from the public or the media can distort or injure the scientific process of acquiring knowledge.

In this respect there is no greater field of knowledge like astronomy that can begin to lead students into valuable and important discussions. As Daniel Boorstin said, “The greatest obstacle to progress is not the absence of knowledge but the illusion of knowledge”. Thank you.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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