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Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe

Paperback 2003 Columbia University Press

"An interesting new look at how humans perceive nature. . . .A good primer on critical thinking and how science really works."

"His relaxed style of discourse makes his book quite readable, and though his pedagogical approach is somewhat unconventional, he deserves a hearing. Recommended for academic and public libraries."
—Library Journal

"Anyone concerned with astronomy will find this book useful."
—Astronomy Now

"Debunking silly, frightening and grandiose beliefs, the University of Maine professor of physics and astronomy is reassuring and engaging."
—Publishers Weekly

"An easy-to-read guide to what science now knows about the universe."
—San Diego Union Tribune

"Intriguing analysis of common errors and misconceptions of the real nature of the universe."

"A unique and entertaining way to learn how we have progressed from the ancient belief in an Earth-centered universe to our modern understanding of the cosmos. Along the way, Comins provides lessons about science and misconceptions that should be valuable to every teacher, student, and parent."
—Jeffery Bennett, author of The Cosmic Perspective and On the Cosmic Horizon

"Comins's delightful romp through both scientific and pseudoscientific errors through the ages will not only teach you more science than a year's worth of college courses, but you'll learn something even deeper about how the mind works and, more important, fails to work."
—Michael Shermer, Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine, and columnist for Scientific American

"Although ostensibly about astronomy, Comins's Heavenly Errors effectively uses common (mis)conceptions about the subject to present an elegant tutorial on scientific thought—as much about embarrassing holes in arguments as about black holes in space."
—John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

One of the great paradoxes of modern times is that the more scientists understand the natural world, the more we discover that our everyday beliefs about it are wrong. Astronomy, in particular, is one of the most misunderstood scientific disciplines.

With the participation of thousands of undergraduate students, Neil F. Comins has identified and classified, by origin and topic, over 1,700 commonly held misconceptions. Heavenly Errors provides access to all of them and explores many, including:

• Black holes suck in everything around them.

• The Sun shines by burning gas.

• Comets have tails trailing behind them.

• The Moon alone causes tides.

• Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, is the hottest planet.

In the course of correcting these errors, he explains that some occur through the prevalence of pseudosciences such as astrology and UFO-logy and some enter the public conscience through the "bad astronomy" of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other science-fiction movies.. Perhaps most important, Professor Comins presents the reader with the methods for identifying and replacing incorrect ideas—tools with which to probe erroneous notions so that we can begin to question for ourselves . . . and to think more like scientists.


1. Fun in the Sun: Some Misconceptions Close to Home
3. Creating Your Own Private Cosmos: Internal and Mixed Origins of Incorrect Beliefs
2. Blame It on Someone Else: External Origins of Incorrect Beliefs
4. Survival in a Misperceived World: How Well Did Our Ancestors Do Without Understanding Nature?
6. The Sage on the Stage or the Guide by Your Side: A Peek Behind the Effort to Help You Unlearn Misconceptions
5. Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Misconceptions are Hard to Replace
7. Let the Buyer Beware: How to Avoid Future Misconceptions
8. Conflicts and Dangers: The Problems That Misconceptions Create
Epilogue: False Personal Cosmologies
Selected Bibliography