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Patterns of stars in the jungle wilderness

There’s much to beguile in the story of the teenager in Canada who thinks he may have identified a lost Mayan city by correlating locations of known ancient sites with the patterns of star constellations. A specific star for which there was no jungle marking as a correlate inspired him to approach the Canadian Space Agency for more detailed satellite images of a particularly remote part of the Mayan wilderness. And there it was: a collection of geometric structures discernible beneath the jungle canopy. Now he is keen that an archaeological expedition might prove his theory that what he has spotted is a lost Mayan city for which he has already conceived a name.

So far, so laudable, so inspiring: and so noticeable that the dozens of media reports of this story (the link above is one exception) present the details uncritically. Did the Mayans have the technology to notice in their night sky what we can see a thousand years later? Would they have thought of laying out their cities to match constellation patterns? Would the jungle topography have enabled it? Are there other explanations for the geometric patterns the boy discerned? And yet could it all still be true?

Humanity’s “thinking” on cosmology has a history of weaving whole belief systems out of wonders and wishful thinking, so we can accept that the benefits of the scientific method come at the price of some snarky pushbacks when “real” astronomers were asked to comment on the activities of the Canadian boy wonder.

But the real thrill in the story is not in presuming beyond simple pattern recognition into the realm of interpretations that may stretch credulity. At the same time as the Mayan story broke, thousands of youngsters were thrilling to the wonders of science at the Imperial Festival, intrigued by the disciplines and inspirations that have shaped the world of learning over the last few centuries. Any students reading of the Mayan story had a perfect learning opportunity to set out and then test an exciting proposition, taking any wilder claims equally with the choirs of praise and the snarky commentary – all with a Big Dipper of salt. And then get back to their telescopes.

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