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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Astronomy Is History

Thanks to David A. Aguilar For Changing My Life

At Midwinter I attended a couple of National Geographic events with David Aguilar, Director of Science Information at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and author/illustrator of books on space for young readers. As we sat at breakfast he said something that literally made me feel a sense of vertigo — the world changed before my eyes. All of know that as we look at the sky we are seeing the past — we’ve had the concept of light-years drilled into us, and have probably seen at least a few photos of some early phase of the universe whose light we can just capture. But David took that link of astronomy and history a huge step further.
         David pointed out that we will surely never actually reach almost anything we see in space. In other words, no human will orbit, or set foot, on a star or planet. That means everything we think we know about those distant places is that amount of data our current technology allows us to gather, as interpreted by human beings given our ability to interpret that data. The sky is precisely like the past — we have that amount of information we can glean from primary sources, material history, computer analyses as gathered and interpreted through our current models. Yet think about the language we use in history as compared to astronomy. 
          When we write astronomy books, perhaps especially for younger readers, we state that X is so. Star Y is Z light years away; it is a Red Dwarf. And when there is an area of dispute — is Pluto a planet; how was the moon formed — that seems to disrupt the narrative — an unfortunate glitch in the smooth flow of certainty, of knowledge, of truth. In history we constantly use modifiers — perhaps, maybe; and we are intensely aware of areas of dispute and schools of thought — how should we view Jefferson in light of his relationships to the people he owned? What David showed me is that if we use a more confident tone in astronomy it is because we know less — we have less data, therefore less room for discussion and debate.
            So imagine, what if we rewrote astronomy books in the same narrative voice as history books? What if he began with the familiar — we are seeing the past in the sky — and then expanded that to — how we gather information about that past, and make sense of it, is exactly the way we gather information about Jefferson and come to conclusions about him. Astronomy is history.
           What a thrilling discovery — and thanks David for helping me to see that.


  1. Cheryl Bardoe says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Your point is also valid for scientific books about fields other than astronomy. Some of my favorite scientific children’s books pull back the curtain so that readers can see scientists engaged in gathering and interpreting evidence–and pondering questions still to be explored.

  2. Linda Zajac says:

    I read half of that book last night while the stars were out (think 3AM). What amazed me is how much information they have gathered from the technology that we do have. Some of the comments in his book about living on a planet with 4 sunrises and 4 sunsets left me thinking and imagining. I’d like to know how he does his illustrations, the light in particular. Now, I’ll have to get my husband to get his telescope out. I was in my daughter’s room reading (she’s at college). When I turned off the lights, the stars on her ceiling glowed. How fitting. Nice to meet you, BTW.

  3. Linda — same here. I will see if I can get David to post here and talk about his process.

  4. Linda Zajac says:

    That would be interesting. I wonder if he started with Hubble photographs. I also pondered how that book would read if it were written as a story with a star swelling or shrinking or spinning. But I think there is so much they don’t know about the process that it might be difficult to do that.