Mitsumi Fujishita, a professor at Tokai University in Kumamoto City, conducted a study to assess students’ basic knowledge of astronomy, asking nine questions about things like in which direction the sun set, what causes the waxing and waning of the moon, and which celestial bodies orbit the earth. The responses to Professor Fujishita’s study seem to have left him in a state of deep despair.
Out of a sample of 667 students (mostly freshman) from three junior colleges and two universities, only 75% correctly answered that the sun sets in the west. Another 22% answered that it sets in the east, while the final 3% answered that the sun sets in either the north or the south.
One another question asking in which direction the sun sets for those living in the southern hemisphere, only 44% answered correctly.
Just over half of respondents (56%) answered that the seemingly changing shape of the moon as we see it from earth is caused by the relative positions of the sun, moon, and earth. The remaining 44% incorrectly answered that it was the earth’s shadow on the moon.
When asked which celestial bodies orbit earth, 33% included Mars, and 18% included the Sun itself. Ptolemy would be happy to see that his model has survived to this day.
While all of this is admittedly alarming, it is even stranger to see these results compared with a study of elementary students in fourth through sixth grade from 2001 to 2004. Roughly 40% of the elementary school students thought that the sun went around the earth, and only 60-70% of the students knew that the sun sets in the west.
According to Professor Fujishita, this indicates that many students had not progressed beyond their elementary school understanding of the universe. Saying that he was “shocked by the low percentage of correct answers,” the professor explained that many young people were lacking in basic knowledge and had little concept of the world around them. He added that when asking students to estimate 30 centimeters of length or asking how many grams a small rock probably weighs, he usually gets wildly inaccurate answers.
Many Japanese Internet commenters blamed the manga/anime "Tensai Bakabon," which features a song about the sun rising in the west and setting in the east.
-- It’s all Tensai Bakabon‘s fault!
-- If not for that song, I wouldn’t be able to remember, since I know it’s the opposite of the song.
-- But a more basic problem is that most people can’t tell east from west. For a lot of us, the left is west and the right is east.
-- The thing about the sun going around the Earth is scary. How can anyone think that and graduate from high school?
-- I bet it’s because he asked a bunch of kids in a stupid rural university!
-- But the correct answer is “The sun doesn’t set. The earth rotates.” Right?
Sources: JCast News, Itai News
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