concerns, they have been at the forefront of developing and practicing spatial thinking through the use of root metaphors (e.g., maps), analytic techniques (e.g., trend surface analysis), and representational systems (e.g., spectral diagrams). They show similar sensitivities to the effects of spatial scale and the need for multiscalar analyses, to interrelationships between space and time, to the importance of spatial context, and to the needs for visualization and spatialization (see Chapters 2 and 8).

Four case studies are presented here. The first, from astronomy, is a long-term, historical account of the development of one approach to spatial thinking, astrophysical spatialization, within a discipline. The second, from geoscience, contrasts spatial thinking from two perspectives, that of an expert practicing the craft and that of a novice learning the craft. The third and fourth case studies focus on two scientists whose work exemplifies the power of spatial thinking. The third describes the work of Marie Tharp, a marine geologist, who created a pioneering series of seafloor maps. The last case study analyzes the work of Walter Christaller, a geographer who developed central place theory. The focus in each case study is the way in which spatial thinking is integral to the work of scientists and therefore to scientific discovery and progress.

3.5 SPATIAL THINKING IN ASTRONOMY

3.5.1 From the Celestial Sphere to the Structure of the Universe

The process of moving from the human wonder at the glory of the night sky to a scientific understanding of the structure and evolution of the universe is a remarkable story, made possible to a significant degree by insights and inferences generated by spatial thinkers.

The fundamental problem in astronomy is that it has a limited set of basic measurements from which to work. The measurements are simple. At any position in the sky, and at a particular time and location, we can measure the amount of energy flowing toward the observer as a function of wavelength. As the ancients looked at the sky through the limited window of the visible spectrum, they saw the refracted and reflected light of the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets.

The challenge was to make sense of the colors, patterns, movements, and changes. The basic intellectual structure was spatial, built on primitives and concepts that could be derived from those primitives (this analysis of astronomical primitives is based on Golledge’s 1995 and 2002 articles on geographic primitives). In the sky, they saw objects at particular locations. Those objects were of varying brightness, now referred to as differing relative magnitudes. They gave the brighter of these objects names, labeling, and noticed how the appearance of the sky changed systematically with time. In passing, it is interesting to note that several of our basic time measurements—days, months, and years—are tied to observations of the sky, and that one of the basic functions of astronomers from ancient times until the late twentieth century was time keeping. The ancients used other spatial concepts to describe the objects they saw on the celestial sphere. Very early on they recognized that several objects moved against the background of the stars, the planets, the Moon, and the Sun. Therefore, they employed concepts such as relative direction and orientation. They used another fundamental spatial concept, frame of reference, viewing the “fixed” stars as a background against which other objects moved in terms of relative motion. They also saw patterns of stars or constellations in the sky.

3.5.2 The Structure and Evolution of the Universe

While it is interesting to discuss the relative sophistication of the ancient observations, particularly those associated with time keeping, there are many ways to illustrate the fundamental role of spatial thinking in astronomy. Here the focus is on the astronomical process of the spatialization of



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement