How Many Do *We* Have?

When I was a student at Bowling Green State University, I worked for the Astronomy Department. I took students up to the roof and showed them the night sky. I would set up small telescopes on the roof for them to look at things. Maybe Saturn’s rings. Maybe Mars. Maybe the Orion Nebula. Something interesting for them to see. Some people were the general public. Many were students from astronomy classes who would come knowing that doing so counted as extra credit or something like that. The students had a handout where they were supposed to answer questions and sketch something that they saw through the telescope. Pretty easy stuff.

One night, a girl came up to me and asked a question about what she saw in the telescope. That night I had focused on Jupiter and it was even possible to see three of his moons as small bright points of light.

“What exactly am I seeing,” she asked. I told her that it was Jupiter. “No,” she replied. “The little bright things.”

“Those are some of Jupiter’s moons,” I explained.

“No. Really. What are they?”

I was a little perplexed at that point as I assured her that they were indeed the moons of Jupiter.

“Then what do we have?”

I pointed out that we also have a moon. If the conversation had stopped there, or if it had taken a different direction than it did, I probably would not be telling this story. Instead, the girl focused on me in all seriousness and asked a question that haunts me even now … almost twenty years later.

“How many moons do we have,” she asked.

Throughout history and mythology, there have been feats of great will and strength. Hercules and his labours comes to mind. There have been awesome achievements of humanity: the Parthenon, the Pyramids, Machu Pichu, Stonehenge and the like. There have been epics of scope and grandeur like the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Lusiads. I hereby submit that the will it took me to restrain myself from any snide comments and to keep even a note of sarcasm from my voice ranks with the best of those.

“We only have one moon,” I stated. And as she began to ask, I cut her off. “It’s a new moon tonight. You won’t be able to see it.”

My restraint was justified. I have always felt that every question should be treated with equal seriousness. We should never make a person feel dumb. After all, it was better that she ask the question and move past her misapprehensions than remain in ignorance. Besides, everyone has a first science class. I did not want to be the guy who turned someone off of learning because I had acted like a jerk.

For lo these many years, I have remembered this event and filed it away as a sad case where someone just did not pay enough attention in kindergarten. After all, everyone knows the Moon. No one past elementary school would really wonder how many we have. We look in the sky. We see the Moon. We recognize it and that is that. It was a singularity. An isolated event. I was just the lucky guy to get the question.

But today on the BBC webpage, I saw the article Police Say UFO Was Just the Moon.


For the record, I know that the issue of how many moons we have is not quite that cut and dried. We have three natural satellites the last time I checked. Still, for all common conversations, the question of ‘how many moons the Earth has’ gives the answer of ‘one.’ And there is still no excuse in my eyes for any human adult who has had sight for their entire life to find our Moon unrecognizable, nor to wonder how many we have.

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10 responses to “How Many Do *We* Have?

  1. pet topic, sorry 🙂
    Seems like a reasonable question to me. In grade school you learn that “the moon” orbits “the earth”. But I imagine that the sentence “jupiter has three moons” sounds a bit like “the solar system has nine earths” when you first hear it. And they don’t draw jupiter’s moons in grade school science books either. You’re not exposed to the idea that another planet can have a moon, or that a planet can have more than one moon… and I’m not sure these ideas are intrinsically obvious.
    So she’d just learned that her typical, grade school definition of “moon” has to be changed: other planets can have them, planets can have more than one of them, and there are ones that don’t show up on maps. But it’s not immediately clear what the definition should be changed *to*. For all she knows earth has two moons and we only see them one at a time, or one is too small to be seen, or even one is invisible. Why not? You probably wouldn’t always see all three moons at once if you were on jupiter. And she’d probably never seen a sketch of a night sky with several moons… i doubt it’s instantly clear what that would look like. If jupiter had moons that didn’t get drawn on the map, why couldn’t earth? What other things might be moons? Is anything orbiting anything a moon? Etc.
    If you start to really, fully explain everything, it gets kind of interesting. And you’d be amazed at how often the person who asked you the incredibly stupid-seeming question to begin with will be perfectly happy and capable of following you through the fairly complicated explanations that might follow.
    I run into things like this fairly often teaching discrete math, since I teach topics like logic and set theory that formalize casual definitions people have had since they were small children. I’ve found that when you get someone who’s smart enough to ask questions, but seems incredibly confused… it’s worthwhile to find out exactly what their world view is and where they’re getting lost. Surprisingly often, I’ll find myself stumped after a few questions… either they’ve run across some weird point that can’t be honestly resolved without more than I remember of abstract algebra or computability theory**, or else I’ll realize that the proof I was trying patiently to explain to them actually *is* wrong unless you make a couple assumptions. Essentially, they’ve paid attention too carefully and noticed something which is fundamentally weird against their original understanding… but once they’ve found it, they don’t know how to express it clearly, or what questions to ask to straighten it out.
    Figuring out how to deal with confusion effectively is a difficult skill. It’s often what marks the difference between my C students and my A students (the B students tend to coast along happily with a moderate level of misunderstanding). And it’s largely a matter of confidence and experience. The C students are used to being dismissed, won’t chase things down until they get them, and have trouble working with things they don’t fully understand. The A students might be just as unhappy with ambiguity, but they’ve been told they were gifted and carefully taught how to ask questions. (grins) I love teaching the C students how to figure things out, and then watching the A student’s faces as they get overtaken.
    Anyway… confusion itself is a bit of a commodity. A lot of math/science research is a matter of chasing down confusing things that people hadn’t fully realized were there. So I’m always happy to sort things out with creatively confused people.
    **(ever try to *actually* explain why 1 wasn’t prime or 0 was neither positive nor negative? Where you don’t just try to get the student to ignore that these two numbers have properties that no other so-called ‘number’ has? Where you end up explaining rings, and the additive and multiplicative identities… ).

    • Re: pet topic, sorry 🙂
      Rings?

      • Re: pet topic, sorry 🙂
        A group is a set of numbers and an operation (typically +), such that no matter what you add together, you still get a number inside of the group (The Integers are a good example). It must contain an identity element (typically 0).
        A ring is a sort of ‘double group’
        It forms a group under one operation (typically +), and a group under a second operation (typically *), if you remove the additive identity (in most cases, 0), with a multiplicative identity of 1.
        The Integers are a ring with 0 being the additive identity and 1 being the multiplicative identity. One might say that this is part of the reason that 0 and 1 have so many strange properties.
        Well, there’s a bit more rigor involved, but that’s the general idea.
        Goddamn I should have forgotten this shit by now…

  2. There are times for explanations, and there are times for RTFM.
    And it’s always best when the former takes place after the later.

  3. I’m going to have to disagree. There are times when a person should be made to feel dumb. Specifically, when they say something dumb!! The problem with this girl wasn’t that she was never taught what the Moon is; of course she was. The problem with that girl is that she was never taught what critical thinking is.
    And she’s not alone. We coddle ignorance because we’re too afraid of crushing people’s fragile self-esteem, and I don’t think it’s beneficial. I know I can’t be the only person whose reaction to having said something stupid is to go find out how & why I was wrong, to correct my own ignorance. But I find that I’m increasingly in the minority.

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