Moiya McTier on Folklore, Science, and the Ancient Night Sky : Short Wave Moiya McTier says the night sky has been fueling humans' stories about the universe for a very long time, and informing how they explain the natural world. In fact, Moiya sees astronomy and folklore as two sides of the same coin.

"To me, science is any rigorous attempt at understanding and explaining the world around you," she explained to Short Wave's Aaron Scott. "You can see that they knew enough about the world around them to predict eclipses, to predict annual floods in Egypt, for example. I think that you can use folklore and mythology to understand the early scientific attempts of humanity."

Moiya McTier is the author of The Milky Way: An Autobiography of our Galaxy. She joins us to draw out the connections between astronomy and folklore, why the night sky is more dynamic than it might look, and what it feels like to live on an astronomical timescale.

The ancient night sky and the earliest astronomers

The ancient night sky and the earliest astronomers

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IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP via Getty Images
Stars and the milky way are seen in the sky above the Cedars forest known as the Cedars of God in the northern mountainous town of Bsharri at about 1900m above the sea level, some 117Km north of Lebanese capital Beirut, on July 10, 2021.
IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP via Getty Images

We don't know when ancient humans first began contemplating the night sky – likely thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of years in the past.

"That's one of my favorite things about astronomy, that ancient humans were able to do it without advanced tools," says Moiya McTier, an astrophysicist and folklorist, and author of the recent book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of our Galaxy. "You don't have to know advanced math. You don't have to have fancy equipment. You just have to live in a place that's dark enough. So I think astronomy is, like, the people's science in that way."

McTier says the night sky has been fueling humans' stories about the universe for a very long time, and informing how they explain the natural world. In fact, Moiya sees astronomy and folklore as two sides of the same coin.

"I actually have a very broad definition of science," Moiya told Short Wave co-host Aaron Scott. "To me, science is any rigorous attempt at understanding and explaining the world around you. ... If you look at the explanations that are encoded within myths, you can see that they knew enough about the world around them to predict eclipses, to predict annual floods in Egypt, for example. I think that you can use folklore and mythology to understand the early scientific attempts of humanity."

But the stars observed by our ancient ancestors did not look exactly the same as the ones we see today. That's because everything in our galaxy is in motion: the rotating Milky Way, the wobbling axis of Earth, the planet's annual lap around the Sun.

On today's episode, Moiya McTier draws out the connections between astronomy and folklore, why the night sky is more dynamic than it might look, and what it feels like to live on an astronomical timescale.

Want more galaxy gossip? Let us know! Email the show at ShortWave@NPR.org.

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This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Anil Oza. The audio engineer for this episode was Valentina Rodríguez Sánchez and Josh Newell.