I am not surprised a random contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” might not know what the closest star to the Earth is. I could easily be disheartened to see that 20% of the audience didn’t know either. I could even quote statistics * saying that fewer than half the American public knows it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun.
But I want to hedge my bet here. Years ago, when I was in high school, I was on the local quiz bowl team. I got the same question in a practice round. I was a smartass (shock! Horror!) and blurted out “Alpha Centauri!” My friend laughed and said no. Smacking myself on the forehead (probably literally, I was a bit of a drama queen back then) I corrected myself and said, “I mean Proxima Centauri!” –Alpha Cen is actually a triple star system, and the third star is a dinky red dwarf that’s actually a trillion or so miles closer to the Sun than the main pair.
My friend laughed again and said, “Nope.” I could have kicked myself. I realized the question asked what was the closest star to the Earth, not the closest star to the Sun. The answer is, of course, the Sun.
So I can almost forgive that befuddled Millionaire contestant, since I screwed this exact question up once upon a time… but I can’t quite seem to muster it. The question is written down in front of her, and she had time to study it. I wonder. Does she just not know? Is she simply someone who doesn’t care about the world around her? Or is she just an average person, inquisitive and curious, but a victim of our ever-increasingly failing science education system?
So I’ll withhold judgment on her. But whichever way this falls, there is one thing that is clear to me: everyone should know the answer to this question. And too many still don’t. I don’t have an immediate answer to this problem of science illiteracy (it’s not just astronomy, of course, that’s suffering). I don’t think anyone does. But I bet the internets are helping a bit. Having incredible images easily available is a huge boon to public understanding. And I’ll keep my little corner of the Universe active posting those images – and explaining them – as long as I am able.
* In the “Science and Engineering Indicators 1996” survey run by the National Science Board, 47% of the people surveyed answered correctly when asked, “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: 1 day, 1 month, or 1 year”.