Feature

Solar Astronomy -- Then and Now
09.14.06
A Mayan pyramid
Many things have changed over the centuries. However, humankind's interest in and dependence on our nearest star, the sun, have remained steadfast through time and across cultures.

Image to left: Many Mayan structures reflect the civilization's advanced understanding of astronomy. Credit: NASA

How that interest has persisted and evolved over the years can now be seen in a new traveling photo exhibit by the University of California Berkeley and the government of the state of Yucatan in Mexico. The exhibit includes images depicting the cultural heritage of the Maya. Before its collapse in the ninth century, the advanced civilization of the Mayan empire stretched from southern Mexico to Central America. Among the achievements of the Maya was a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, which is evident in the Mayan ruins. How Mayan architecture was influenced by astronomy is a major focus of the photography exhibit.

Related Resources
+ NASA Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum

+ NASA Sun-Earth Day

+ NASA Education Web Site
Coupled with the Mayan images in the exhibit are NASA pictures of the sun, providing a juxtaposition of the ancient solar astronomy of the Maya and detailed modern solar imagery taken by space-based NASA observatories.

"It's awesome to see the Mayan kids' eyes light up when they walk through the exhibit, as they become aware of how science, math and technology relate to the deep knowledge of their ancestors, linking them to their cultural heritage," said Isabel Hawkins of UC Berkeley.

Two identical versions of the exhibit are currently on tour -- one traveling through California and the other through the Yucatan peninsula. The first opened in November 2005 in the Mexican Consulate of San Francisco. (Today, 50,000 Maya live in the San Francisco Bay Area.) The second version was first displayed in Merida, Mexico, which is the capital of the Yucatan state, in the summer of 2006.

The partnership between UC Berkeley and the Yucatecan government first began last year through their cooperation on a project for Sun-Earth Day. The theme for the event that year was Ancient Observatories, and the two worked together on a webcast from the Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

A photograph of the sun taken by a space-based observatory
The Sun-Earth Day event marks the culmination of a series of programs and events that occur throughout the year and is usually celebrated on or near the Spring Equinox. In 2006, a total solar eclipse occurred nine days after the equinox, so the theme for this year was "Eclipse: In a Different Light." The celebration was held on the day of the eclipse, March 29.

Image to left: Modern solar images, similar to this picture taken by NASA's SOHO spacecraft, are featured alongside the Mayan pictures in the exhibit. Credit: NASA

Over the past six years, NASA's Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum has sponsored and coordinated education and public outreach events to highlight NASA's Sun-Earth Connection research and discoveries. The project's strategy involves using celestial events to engage K-12 schools and the general public in space science activities, demonstrations and interactions with space scientists.

With this project, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education. The project is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of engaging Americans in NASA's mission. NASA is committed to building strategic partnerships and linkages between science, technology, engineering and mathematics formal and informal educators. Through hands-on, interactive educational activities, NASA is engaging students, educators, families, the general public and all agency stakeholders to increase Americans' science and technology literacy.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services