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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Balch

Develop Scientific Thinking Using Fine Art

We can help kids develop scientific thinking in a myriad of ways. Here we'll look at this beautiful painting and see how we can ask questions that will help us think scientifically.

This piece is called Green River Cliffs, Wyoming and it's painted by Thomas Moran in 1881. While knowing this information is interesting and could fuel a productive conversation, we will instead dive right into the picture itself. 

I think the first thing that strikes me and perhaps the first thing to strike you is probably not what we're going to focus on—that is to say those beautiful cliffs off to our right. My question for you today is this, "What do you think this is?"

Given its size and location, I think we can agree that it's either the sun or the moon. Let's consider for a minute that this could be the sun. We see the beautiful colors in the sky which could indicate a sunrise or sunset, and considering the location of this orb, that makes a certain amount of sense. But think... if that is the sun and we're looking towards it, what would be lit? More specifically, what would be in shadow and what would be in sunlight if the sun were in that location?

If we study the painting, we can see that this doesn't  really match up. The faces of the cliffs we're looking at are in bright sunlight. It seems like we (as the observer) are in shadow in the foreground. This could mean that there's something behind us, perhaps another cliff or something, that's shadowing the sun. But from this perspective, it seems like the sun is over our shoulder. Perhaps over our left shoulder or behind us lighting up the cliffs. I think with that in mind we can agree that this probably isn't the sun (since it's not over our left shoulder).

If not the sun, could it be the Moon? Consider its location: can the moon be up during the day? Yes, it can. In fact, the Moon spends half of its time in our daytime sky and half of its time in our nighttime sky. The Moon is up for about 12 hours each day, though whether these are nighttime or daytime hours or some percentage of each depends on its phase. 

It certainly looks like a full moon. Could it be a full moon? Think about when a full moon rises and when a full moon sets. A lot of people notice a full moon when it's rising since it rises right at sunset. So just as the sun is setting, the full moon is rising. In fact, the full moon is the only phase that is only visible in our nighttime sky—the full moon is never up during the day. So we have to rule out that this could be a full moon because full moons aren't up during the day.

So if it can't be a full moon, could it be a gibbous moon? (A gibbous moon is when the Moon looks almost full, with just a little bit in shadow.) Is it in the right place in the sky to be a gibbous moon? Since it's just above the horizon, we can conclude that it has either just risen or it's just about to set. If we knew which direction we were looking we could answer that question. 

Since the Moon, as well as the Sun and all the planets, rise in the east and set in the west because of the geometry of how the planets are arranged and how we see them from the vantage point of a rotating Earth. So how can we figure out what direction we're looking? Refer back to the start of our journey. We have a location. This is the Green River Cliffs in Wyoming. Knowing this we could go there or if ask somebody who is familiar with this area to help us determine which way we're looking since those structures are pretty distinctive.

So let's say we determine that we're looking east. If that's the case, then we know that this is a waxing gibbous moon. That means the Moon will be full in a day or two because a waxing gibbous moon rises just before sunset. So if the sun is behind us (as we think it is)  that means the sun's in the West which also means we're looking east.

Or let's say we determine that we're looking west.  So if the sun is behind us, and behind us is east, that means that the sun has just risen and we're looking west at a moon that's just about to set. Now we can conclude that this is a waning gibbous which sets just after sunrise—a waning gibbous moon occurs a few days after a full moon and it sets just after the sun comes up. So, if we know the area, we can determine the direction we're looking. And if we know the direction we're looking and where the Sun and the Moon are in the sky, then we can deduce the moon phase as well as the time of day.

Of course, this all relies on the fact that this is a faithful representation of what the artist actually saw on a particular day and not simply a fabrication or some kind of compilation of different days that the artist has put together. While we aren't going to delve into this train of thought, this is certainly another valid conclusion of what's going on.

In our classroom, we have art like this on the walls and sometimes we have a discussion about it, like the one we've had here, but primarily it serves as a sort of beautiful reminder of how things are connected and how studying one area of interest can often inform another.

If you're interested in adding these types of studies to your classroom, check out the resources here.

And, if studying moon phases intrigues you, you can click the link here.

Thanks for joining me on this discussion as we delve into what it means to think scientifically. 

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