While visiting York Minster in July, the docent leading our small group pointed out a configuration of angels above the entrance, six to the left of the door and six to the right. The angels were holding two round objects each, with their arms in different configurations. I whispered to Larry that it looked like they were doing semaphore.
When our docent asked if any of us had any idea what the angels depicted, I gave him the same answer, semaphore. His jaw dropped and he asked if I could read semaphore. I could not, but as a long-time solver of cryptograms, it took just a moment or two to identify the five repeating symbols among the 12 angels. I would like to think that, given 10 minutes, a pencil, and some paper, I could have deciphered their message.
Relating the Angels to Basic Science Concepts
Since the National Science Education Standards were published back in the mid-1990s, we have incorporated into our workshops four science concepts common across many disciplines: sequence, patterns, motions, and relationships. An example from the section on Earth and Space Science for K-4 students follows:
By observing the day and night sky regularly, children in grades K-4 will learn to identify sequences of changes and to look for patterns in these changes. As they observe changes, such as the movement of an object’s shadow during the course of a day, and the positions of the sun and the moon, they will find the patterns in these movements.
The 12 angels were obviously in a sequence or their message would not make sense. Discerning repeated symbols required identifying patterns. Motion, in this case, is implied, since the carved angels cannot actually move; but their arms had to get into various positions somehow, right? The concept of relationship is a bit tricky, although their message is certainly in relationship to their environment!
Astronomy education easily lends itself to these four concepts. For example, the expectation for an observing log or Moon Journal assignment is that students will observe the night sky over a period of time and will record their observations of the positions of stars, constellations, the Moon, etc. Observed apparent motion from hour to hour and from week to week reinforces the concepts of rotation and revolution. Constellations are perfect examples of patterns as they appear to move hourly and seasonally across the sky, as are the phases of the Moon from week to week. The spatial relationship of the Earth/ Sun/Moon system provides the basis for understanding solar and lunar eclipses.
Updating the Standards
Fast forward a few decades to the Next Generation Science Standards. The new standards identify seven “Crosscutting Concepts” in science education:
cause and effect
scale, proportion,and quantity
systems and system models
energy and matter
structure and function
stability and change
Which of these crosscutting concepts do you incorporate in your presentations to students, educators, or the general public? Scale models are certainly appropriate to astronomy activities. There are many iterations based on sizes of and distances to the planets, size and distance within the Earth/Sun/Moon system, and size and distance of stars.
It’s All Relative
The concept of “size” can refer to diameter or volume. Items from tiny beads to beach balls can represent the “size” of planets or stars. Solar System models can also be distance-based, for example, using macrame cords to mark out the distances between planets on a playground, athletic field, or university mall.
When we begin our Solar System modeling activities, we start with a model of the diameters of the planets using a 1:1,000,000,000 scale where 1 cm represents 10,000 km. In this model, a participant about five feet tall represents the Sun. Beads and balls from 2 mm (Pluto) to 15 cm (Jupiter) represent bodies in the Solar System. (Note: since this activity was created from a planetary astronomy POV, Pluto has been included based on its physical properties.)
In order to create a distance model on the same scale, the person representing Mercury would have to move 200 feet from the Sun, while Pluto would be over four miles away. Therefore, the distance model needs to be rescaled. The scale for the distance model is 100 times smaller than the diameters model. A thin piece of macrame cord represents Mercury at a mere 58 cm. The participants representing Neptune and Pluto are given dowels with thick macrame cord wound around, requiring them to walk 45 and 59 m, respectively, from the Sun.
Look for the detailed directions and measurements for these Solar System models in the January blog.
What Do the Angels Tell Us?
Just FYI, the round objects the angels are using for their message are their halos. The angels were donated by artist Terry Hammill in 2004.The angels to the left of the entrance spell out “Christ” and the six to the right spell out “Is Here.” Sequences, patterns, motions, and relationships are all around us!