Feature Article - June 2017
by Do-While Jones

When Legends Become Science

Without critical thinking, students can be made to believe anything.

Look up into to-omp-pi-av, the sky, and there stand poot-see, the stars, when they are not hiding behind the clouds. Look up and find a family of seven with no one great one—no father—among them. They are pe-ats, the mother, to-at-sen, the son, and manigee patsun, five daughters. Once they were Indians and lived on the earth.

And the narrow-nap, the Pahute storyteller, would tell how the star group we know as Pleiades came to be, and why the coyote looks up when he howls. He would tell how the father, Tu-re-ris, was very angry because his family disobeyed him; how his wife and children went up into the sky to escape his rage, and how he tried to shoot them down—and, failing that, made them stay up there forever.

He would tell how To-at-sen, the son, answered back, “If you make us into stars so we can never come down, we will make you into tear-a-sin-ab, the wild coyote, and you can never come up. You will run around in the bush all night, and when the morning daylight begins to come and we fade out of sight, you will be very lonesome. You will be very sad. You will look up and cry and yelp and howl.”

It was even so. Despite his anger, Tu-re-ris loved his family and mourns for them. When you are awakened at the first streak of dawn by the soul-piercing cry of the coyote, you will remember that it is the soul of Tu-re-ris crying for his lost loved ones. 1

Should this be taught in science class? It is based on scientific truth. The Pleiades certainly exist, and coyotes certainly howl, so the question really is, “Should it be taught as astronomy or biology?” You may think this is a funny question. (We certainly hope so. We are trying to be funny.) But we are using it to make a serious point. What makes this Pahute legend different from the following NASA legend?

Cepheus B, a molecular cloud located in our Milky Galaxy about 2,400 light years from the Earth, provides an excellent model to determine how stars are formed. This composite image of Cepheus B combines data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

A molecular cloud is a region containing cool interstellar gas and dust left over from the formation of the galaxy and mostly contains molecular hydrogen. The Spitzer data, in red, green and blue shows the molecular cloud (in the bottom part of the image) plus young stars in and around Cepheus B, and the Chandra data in violet shows the young stars in the field.

The Chandra observations allowed the astronomers to pick out young stars within and near Cepheus B, identified by their strong X-ray emission. The Spitzer data showed whether the young stars have a so-called "protoplanetary" disk around them. Such disks only exist in very young systems where planets are still forming, so their presence is an indication of the age of a star system.

The new study suggests that star formation in Cepheus B is mainly triggered by radiation from one bright, massive star (HD 217086) outside the molecular cloud. According to the particular model of triggered star formation that was tested - called the radiation- driven implosion (RDI) model - radiation from this massive star drives a compression wave into the cloud triggering star formation in the interior, while evaporating the cloud's outer layers. 2

Yes, there is hydrogen gas and dust out there; but how do you know it was left over from the formation of a galaxy? How do you know how far away the dust and gas is? In other words, how do you know the dust is as far away as Cepheus B is? What if that cloud of gas is really only a tenth of the way from Earth to Cepheus B? What method can you use for depth perception?

There are stars in the field of view around Cepheus B, but how do you know they are “young stars”? Can the claim that they have “strong X-ray emission” and have a “protoplanetary disk around them” really be considered proof of age?

Is the test of the RDI model really valid and conclusive? Have people today totally abandoned critical thinking? Why do people accept these unsubstantiated claims without thinking about them?

What really is the difference between believing that the Pleiades were formed by domestic abuse by a coyote, and believing that Cepheus B was formed by radiation from HD 217086? Why is one a legend and the other “science”?

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Footnotes:

1 William R. Palmer, 1978, Why The North Star Stands Still and Other Indian Legends, back cover, https://www.amazon.com/North-Stands-Still-Indian-Legends/dp/0915630125/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496079122&sr=8-1&keywords=Why+The+North+Star+Stands+Still+and+Other+Indian+Legends
2 https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1444.html