Cosmos Quest for Students: Comets and Pattern Recognition

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cosmosCOSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 3, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” depicts the friendship between Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton and its consequences for science. Episode 3 also explores humans’ ability for pattern recognition. The proposed activities and discussion topics seek to deepen students understanding of comets, the myths that once surrounded their appearance, false pattern recognition, and scientific prophecy.

Grade Levels

Episode Summary
There was a time, not so long ago, when natural events could only be explained as
gestures of displeasure by the gods or a God. The appearance of a comet in the sky
inspired dread. Our understanding of comets and so much else was the byproduct of a deep friendship between the brilliant polymath Edmond Halley and that paragon of genius, Isaac Newton. Robert Hooke, another scientific luminary of the time, falsely accused Newton of stealing his ideas, and the resulting public humiliation drove Newton to withdraw from the scientific arena when he was in his early twenties. More than a decade later, through Halley’s patience and selfless generosity, Newton conquered his fearful isolation and found the courage to publish his masterwork, the Principia Mathematica. This single work launched the scientific revolution, and gave science the power to accurately foretell events in the distant future. The Ship of the Imagination will venture halfway out to the nearest star, to find the brooding, frigid realm of the Oort Cloud, where a trillion comets wait. Our Ship takes us on a hair-raising ride, chasing a single comet through its million-year plunge toward the Sun.

The chapter ends with a prophecy of the events of several billion years from now, the
spectacular collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies.
Comets afford us an excellent opportunity to explore the double-edged sword of the
human gift for pattern recognition, both false and true, and to relive that tipping point in
history when our understanding of nature shifted from the one to the other.
Discussion Topics
• Imagine you are a citizen of Earth 1,000 years ago. You and your friends are the first
to witness the coming of a comet. How would you understand it? Where would you
think it came from? Make up a story to explain it.
• What created the comets of our solar system?
• How many ways can comets die or depart from our solar system?
• On the topic of scientific prophecy: how is it possible to know decades before an
astronomical event where the planets and stars will be?
• The photo below represents Barnard 33, a dark nebula approximately 1,500 light
years from Earth – but it is commonly referred to by another name because of the
shape of its cloud of dark dust and gases as seen from the Earth. What do you think
that name might be?

Proposed Activities
• Use examples referenced below and in the Online Resources to illustrate the concept
of false pattern recognition for students. Present a sample of images to students that
might include the image of a face in a grilled cheese sandwich, Halley’s comet
trajectories and the DNA barcodes of different creatures (pictured below), and clouds
that look like something else. Challenge students to find patterns or pictures in the
images. Which of these images have patterns because our eyes complete the picture
and which have patterns that are really there? How can we tell the difference?
• At the beginning of this episode, we say, “We came of age in a kind of cosmic quarantine — without any notion of our true circumstances in the universe, like an abandoned baby without a note to explain anything about who we are, or how our world came to be, or any idea how to end the isolation.”How would you compose a communication to accompany the baby in the basket – how would you explain who we are, how we came to be, and how we could end our isolation?

Online Resources
• (Story on grilled cheese sandwich with “face” sold on ebay)
(Clouds that look like other things photo gallery)
• (Supplemental
article on false pattern recognition)

Relevant Scenes from COSMOS
• Act One: The Baby in the Basket
• Act Two: How Comets Were Perceived Throughout History & False Pattern
• Act Three: Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton
• Act Four: The Principia Mathematica
• Act Five: The Lasting Impact of Newton’s Work
• Act Six: Halley’s Comet
For a deeper dive, more subjects touched on in Episode 3: 
• Physics and astronomy of the Oort Cloud
• Origin and fate of comets
• Scientific reasoning that enabled Jan Oort to predict the Oort Cloud’s existence
• Distances from Earth to the center of the galaxy
• Gravitational interaction of comets with other bodies in the solar system
• Evolution of pattern recognition
• False pattern recognition and the interpretation of comets
• Comparative mythology (Aztec, Babylonian, Hindu, Masai, Zulu, Eghap, Djaga, Luba and British)
• The birth of Chinese astronomy

• The lives, times and scientific achievements of Edmund, Halley, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton and the revolutionary consequences of their personal lives and interactions

• The mapping of the stars of the southern hemisphere
• The Royal Society and the significance of its credo
• The role of the 17th century English coffeehouse in the social political and scientific
• The Principia Mathematica and how it changed everything
• Marriage of physics and mathematics
• Gravitation on the local and galactic scale
• Science and prophecy

Written by Ann Druyan
Produced by Cosmos Studios

All rights reserved, Cosmos Studios. For distribution to FOX affiliates to accompany the original broadcast distribution of COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey.

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