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'Don't Know Much About the Universe' - 2001-12-09

VOA's Rosanne Skirble has a question about the cosmos!

The moon woke me up the other night. I thought it was the street lamp until I got out of bed for a better look. Nope . . . It was the moon. . . bright and shiny, brighter and shinier than I have ever seen in my life. But I didn't know why.

That's when I decided that I could learn something from a new book by Kenneth Davis called, "Don't Know Much about the Universe: Everything You Need to Known about the Cosmos, but Never Learned." Mr. Davis also has written "Don't Know Much" books about history, geography, the American Civil War and the Bible. I caught Mr. Davis one morning, not in person, but in a CBS television interview.

He told viewers he wrote the book for people who should know about the universe, but don't. "It has been such a fascination for people for so long," he said. "But most of us are really lost in space when it comes to understanding the most basic ideas about space and the universe. And, it goes back to the beginnings of human civilization, human curiosity about the world in which we live."

But, he says, common myths about the cosmos are widespread in today's popular culture. "People can recite every episode from Star Trek and (know what) Captain Kirk did (in each episode.) They (also) know what a (Star Trek) 'phaser' is, but they don't know what the Leonid meteor showers are until they get up at four o'clock in the morning to watch them. And, people all around the country did get up. I think that speaks to this tremendous human curiosity that we have about the cosmos, but that we've all been terribly miseducated." . . . or simply uninformed, he says.

The sun isn't a ball of hot gas, but largely composed of plasma, a fourth form of matter. Comets are not large rocks flying around space just waiting to crash into Earth. They are big dirty snowballs composed of ice and dust. And, Kenneth Davis says you probably didn't know about the debate on whether Pluto is a planet! "Pluto may not be a planet according to some (astronomers.) It is a 'Kuiper-Belt' object to be precise which is circling debris 8-billion miles away from the earth. It probably is the sea ground for all the planets themselves."

"Don't Know Much About the Universe" takes readers on a trip through the earth's solar system and beyond, starting with the Sun and working outwards through the planets and the Earth's moon. We follow the evolution of scientific thought from the dawn of civilization to modern space exploration.

Black holes . . . big bang . . . light years . . . auroras, comets and asteroids. In the CBS television interview Kenneth Davis said the book is aimed at what an educated person needs to know about the universe. "So, if we pick up the newspaper and we read there might be is life on Mars we can understand what that are talking about. If they talk about the Leonid meteor showers we understand (what that's all about). And, this relates to policy as well, the space program, the missile defense program. But you have to have a knowledge base, you have to have a fundamental understanding (of science). And part of the problem is that the textbooks, the professors and the historians talk to each other and leave the rest of us out of the conversation."

Kenneth Davis hopes "Don't Know Much About the Universe" will serve as a road map for ordinary readers, guiding them through the mysteries of the universe and the wonder of the skies. As for the moon glow that woke me up the other night, the book says the light isn't from the moon itself instead the moon acts like a giant mirror in space and reflects the light from the sun. And come to think about it, we've been having a lot of clear and sunny days lately!