Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

Learned Helplessness

A GIS manager here in San Antonio has stirred up some discussion, after Adena commented on his interview here stating

“People interested in working in geographic information systems must understand that everything learned today will be useless in the future because technology constantly changes, the geographic information systems manager for the city of San Antonio said April 12.”

This assumes that what is being learned is strictly technology, without any sort of scientific foundation.

Astronomy is not about telescopes. Geography is not about GIS.

In any discipline I suppose there is a risk that a tool can cultivate a state of “learned helplessness” resulting in users who are unable to imagine solutions to problems for which their tool was not designed. Ever try to look at a black hole with a telescope?

The problem, though, is that the market does not reward mastery of theory in the short term (and for astronomers, not even in the long term). So maybe what kids need is to learn how to learn more quickly … remember learning the planets ? “Mark’s Very Extravagant Mother Just Sent Us Ninety …” is obsolete now that pluto is no longer a planet. Nevertheless my kids thought up several new mnemonics to remember by.

Learned helplessness becomes quite apparent when viewing the attitude many GIS users have towards major software vendors. I won’t mention any names here, let’s just say their initials are E.S.R.I. Many times I’ve heard users with very constructive ideas that fail to make any suggestions for how those ideas could be used to improve software quality. They take on a kind of fatalistic “oh they would never listen to me” attitude. I don’t think its ESRI’s fault. Instead, I think the problem is an educational system that’s trained users to push the right buttons like rats in a skinner box.


The Moons of Neptune

My 3rd grade daughter asked me to help prepare a report on Neptune.

I looked at wikipedia’s entry on Neptune, where it says Neptune has 13 moons.

I searched NASA for Neptune and it returned a list of links. I clicked on the first link listed and was directed me to a page saying Neptune has 11 moons. How was I going to explain this to my daughter? After a closer look I realized other pages at NASA agree with wikipedia.

This points out a deficiency in NASA: they can put a man on the moon but they can’t maintain a consistent database. Then I realized they are simply hosting World Book Encyclopedia‘s obsolete data. Hopefully new collaboration with Google will improve this situation. NASA uses a wiki for WorldWind , seems like they could wikify other areas too.

Speaking of NASA WorldWind, the Sloan Digital Sky survey is pretty cool, but I don’t see a way to search for planets/stars by name within WorldWind.