Our little astrophysicist

By Mathias Maurer, October 2013

Dear Reader, 

We were sitting in the garden one evening and Sarah (5) called out: “Look, the sun is going down!” A glowing red ball slowly sank below the horizon, a magnificent sight. Sven (9) bent over to me and whispered conspiratorially into my ear: “You know something? The sun doesn’t set at all. The sun doesn’t turn around the earth. Only the moon does that. The earth really turns around the sun.” I asked him: “How do you know that? From here both look the same, don’t they?”

Sven’s immediate response: “I recently saw it in the paper. There was a picture from space on which you can see the earth looking very tiny. I think the astronauts discovered it.”

I remembered: the American Cassini space probe, which has been orbiting Saturn for almost ten years, recently sent a picture back to earth taken at a distance of 1.5 billion kilometres. So I said to him: “No that was discovered much earlier and without this discovery people could not fly into space at all today.” “Could they build rockets?” Sven asked doubtfully. “No, of course not, but they looked at the heavens with their telescope and found out that the planets do not move in a circle but in ellipses.” – “Ellipses? I don’t understand,” said Sven, furrowing his brow. “One of the discoverers was Galileo. He studied the oval curves on a swinging chandelier in Pisa cathedral.” – “But how is that connected with the moon?” Sven said with growing discontent. “Well, the pendulum motion allowed him to calculate the trajectory of the planets and as he did so he became aware that the earth must revolve around the sun.” “Is that difficult?” Sven had lost any interest in the subject and ran out to join his sister in the garden where they preferred to use a football to experiment with trajectories.

What in its time shattered the understanding of the world and almost led to Galileo ending up at the stake of the Inquisition, is – uncomprehended – common knowledge today. Which one of us has ever done the experiments and calculations to be able to claim that the geocentric image of the world is wrong? Is that not the case with most of the scientific findings which we accept “unexamined”?

In the Waldorf school all scientific research starts with experimentation. It provides ample experimental evidence for the senses: things stink, make a bang – and move like a pendulum – leaving the explanation until the time is ripe. The teacher together with his or her pupils follows the historical route of the discoveries step by step to the present day. This forms the foundation for all further work based on causality and abstractions – so that in class 7 Sven will really be able to understand the Copernican shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric image of the world.

Mathias Maurer


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