20

In about a week I'll be introducing the Coriolis effect to a group of about 50 undergrads. This means I'm going to have to at least touch on fictitious forces and frames of reference.

These aren't physicists and I can't guarantee that they've taken (or paid attention during) elementary physics, so I can't just put the equations up on the board and get comprehension; I'm going to have to be a bit more visceral.

My strongest example refers, from time to time, to the inertial frame as the "God's eye view". This means that while working through it, I would be using the word "God" a few dozen times during lecture.

I don't personally find this term offensive but I don't want the presentation to turn my students away from the content.

So my question has two parts:

  1. Is using "God" in the way that I've detailed acceptable, or should I search for a different example?

  2. If it is acceptable, should I have a heads-up at the beginning of lecture?


Extra information:

  • I'm an adjunct at a large public university in the United States.

  • This is an introduction to applied meteorology course.

  • I've been teaching for six years but this is only my second time teaching this course.

  • 13
    I think a heads up at the beginning of the lecture would just draw unnecessary attention to it. It doesn't mean anything if you say God, you're just trying to get the idea of an inertial frame across. If you're really worried, name it something vague like 'universal overseer.' – JNS Nov 19 '14 at 20:35
  • 38
    Is there a reason a "bird's eye view" is not an acceptable alternative? Or a "geosynchronous satellite's view'? – Compass Nov 19 '14 at 21:16
  • 14
    Gods eye view has zip to do with religion. If you're in a secular country, use it as you will. – Scott Seidman Nov 19 '14 at 21:36
  • 39
    To "lecture without offending anyone", do not say anything. – chux Nov 20 '14 at 1:02
  • 8
    if someone really wants to be offended, then they will be offended, no matter how you try to say it. – vsz Nov 20 '14 at 5:08

13 Answers 13

42

It's acceptable, but why do you need to use it? It seems to me that you could just as easily use a secular phrase like "looking down from above"?

  • 17
    Yeah. I for one wouldn't find it offensive, but I'm also not sure that I'd understand what you meant by it. – Nate Eldredge Nov 19 '14 at 21:45
  • 18
    "Real writers rewrite to avoid the problem." If you think there could be a significant misunderstanding or objection, pick a different phrase. (Personally I feel you're overthinking this. On the other hand, not all gods look down from above, so it may not be the right phrase even from a simple content point of view.) – keshlam Nov 19 '14 at 22:19
  • 9
    I am a meteorologist and have never heard the phrase "God's eye view" when referring to the coriolis force. I agree with "looking down from above". I vividly remember being shown a video like this one that explains the coriolis effect well. – emmalgale Nov 20 '14 at 11:37
  • Plus, not that it would bother me, but I would prefer a scientific subject not to mention god; I understand that it would be just a way to illustrate a concept, but it feels.. I don't know, out of place. Again, it would not bother me at all, but if I had to choose I would not mention it :) – Ant Nov 22 '14 at 22:48
22

You seem to be a reasonable person. The fact that you're asking this question means that at least one reasonable person has doubts about what you're proposing to do is appropriate. Since using this particular metaphor isn't crucial to your course, why do it?

To be honest, I don't think it would be an issue but I'd also recommend against it simply because it isn't clear. Many religions view god as being present everywhere so it doesn't really make sense to use "god's eye view" to refer to looking from a particular direction. Instead, you can use the prosaic "Seen from above, ..." or say things like "If you were in orbit, looking down at the earth..." If you want something a bit more fun and colourful, "So, a martian looking at the earth through a telescope would see..."

  • 7
    "If you were in orbit, looking down at the earth"... then that's only an inertial frame in general relativity. Introducing which probably creates more problems than it solves in "intro to meteorology" ;-) – Steve Jessop Nov 20 '14 at 8:47
7

Why don't you call it a "satellite view" or "orbital view"? Satellites are used for this kind of imagery anyway, and people will understand that this is about view from high above. "Orbital" indicates a view from orbit and is easier to say.

  • 2
    Satellites spin around the earth and are not in an inertial frame of reference. – ithisa Nov 20 '14 at 17:41
  • 1
    @user54609 Geostationary satellites are always above the same point on the equator. for this purpose, they're close enough to an inertial frame of reference. – Nzall Nov 20 '14 at 21:22
  • I think "orbital view" makes a lot of sense in the context given. It's highly likely that the distinction between "a fixed point 100,000 miles above the earth" and "an orbital view" is irrelevant (in other words, geosynchronicity is probably irrelevant for purposes of the discussion). Even a "fixed point 100,000 miles above the earth" could be confusing, because it begs a question about the seasonal movement of the earth about the sun. "A God's eye view" isn't any more clear either, so I'd go with "orbital view", and explain further if necessary. – Calphool Nov 20 '14 at 21:23
7

You are teaching a university course on meteorology to people who have presumably sat through at least one semester of courses.

Your job isn't to dumb this down its to teach the course, if your course requires basic physics, use the term "inertial frame of reference". If you feel its necessary give a brief description of what that is and then move on.

Your job isn't to spoon feed them palatable ideas, its to teach them, but more importantly give them a starting point to teach themselves.

7

In context, references to 'God' are best avoided because religion may be a big part of many people's lives. Yet, to others He (or She, or It) is an archaic irrelevance and for a few - those who will be making assumptions about who you are and why you are focusing away from the science. (I assume since it underpins the class and will have to be spoken about at some point, even if you will be helping them take a run at it.)

Short version, bringing God into your lecture will be distracting (assuming the members of your class aren't coreligionists/members of the same sect/congregation/Bible study group/friends/neighbors/family members). If you feel compelled to use the specific form of shorthand terms mentioned - and I can understand why you might, if it's accustomed and familiar - I'd advise saying so up front where you personally are coming from and quickly move on.

Alternatively you could substitute the anodyne but less contentious phraseology, such as 'from the viewpoint of a space probe/flying saucer/little green man etc' but ideally I'd advise a combination of both based on audience reaction. Perhaps I've been lucky but I've found most classes - particularly those dealing with challenging material - respond well to mild comic irony and gentle self-deprecation.

5

Well, I am European and an atheist, so I may not have the most relevant opinion. However, I find this perfectly fine. I understand that you are just using this as a connection of words people tend to say, just like "birds perspective." Why should I be offended by that? Why should anyone? I understand that you are not teaching that the god actually is the reason why the Coriolis effect takes place, so I believe it should not interfere with anyone's impression what the god is - whether he exists, what he possibly looks like and so on. I say that if you believe it will make the topic easier to understand, go for it.

  • 1
    "Bird's-eye view" would be the idiomatic phrase but it doesn't work, here since most birds are under the weather most of the time and we need a phrase that implies looking down on the weather from above. (Migrating geese can fly at some pretty astonishing altitudes but people tend not to think of that.) – David Richerby Nov 20 '14 at 9:17
  • 1
    To say that a phrase is idiomatic means that it is a standard phrase that people use to describe a situation and that they use that specific phrase, rather than another similar form of words that would have the same meaning. As far as I'm aware, "god's-eye view" is not idiomatic: it's not an expression I've ever heard as a native speaker. And "bird's perspective" is certainly not idiomatic: people always use the phrase "bird's-eye view" instead. "Bird's perspective" obviously has the same meaning but it's not the phrase that people use for that concept. – David Richerby Nov 20 '14 at 9:59
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby I can show you a top-down picture of the solar system and call it a "birds-eye view". Such an idiomatic phrase is not meant to be taken literally. It's still just as applicable to situations where it's not so easy to find a bird. – Moriarty Nov 20 '14 at 10:32
  • 9
    This may have been the first conversation ever to go from a religious topic to something different rather than the other way around. – Petr Nov 20 '14 at 10:49
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby Aha, I see what you mean now. Fair enough, though I suspect that would mostly confuse ESL speakers. I've always translated "birds-eye" to "top-down", rather than imagining it from the literal altitude of an unladen swallow unless the context says otherwise. – Moriarty Nov 20 '14 at 11:01
4

I might say "well I would mean to say bird's eye view, but there's no birds up there so it's more like a God's eye view..."

As an atheist I get that there is an image of a big-man-in-the-sky and you're not taking any claim on the literal existence of such an entity, so it's fine.

As a Christian you're portraying the God I worship in a way more or less consistent with my religion and you're certainly not offending Him, so it's fine.

As a Buddhist I understand that people understand God as having a total view of the universe, and I can certainly picture God as somehow being "out there", so it's fine.

This strikes me as really, really okay. There's always a risk and it always involves a judgment call but any "reasonable person" test says you're not harassing or excluding anyone. It's probably best not to throw in "of course who we know doesn't exist..." or anything though.

3

I think the phrase "God's eye view" works fine, because it implies a level of omniscience that you wouldn't get as a human observer, regardless of location. A non-religious person can still understand the concept of God, which is all you really need to make your point

A human can't see air currents, only the shapes of clouds. If you look at a hurricane for example, you can infer the motion of the air currents but you would not be able to see a jet stream on a clear day.

As a human, you are limited to looking at one hemisphere at a time. God, presumably, can see the entire earth and gain a more complete big picture view

Finally, a God's eye view would be better for time-lapse imagery. As humans, we are constrained to experiencing time (and gravity) in the usual sense. You would not be able to sit over one spot of the earth observing a hurricane developing over the course of several days and then distill it down to a span of a few minutes

TLDR; if you are describing something a human would reasonably be able to observe, describe it from that human's viewpoint. If you are describing something that would be difficult/impossible to observe directly with the naked eye use a metaphor. God, in this case, is used as a metaphor not religious doctrine

2

The perfect place to admire the dynamics of Earth's atmospheric currents and their interaction with the Earth's rotation is, of course, Moonbase Alpha from "Space 1999" TV series, or any similar Moon base that you can devise.

OTOH who thinks Apollo's missions are a fake could be offended. But a Believer in Flat Earth would be offended by the notion per se of Coriolis forces.

  • 3
    This is total nonsense: ever since almost the very start of that show, Moonbase Alpha has next to no visibility of the Earth whatsoever — they're too far away!! – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 20 '14 at 15:36
  • 1
    Also, Moon (before the Moonbase desaster) rotates around the Earth, so it is not the best example of an inertial frame – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 20 '14 at 18:32
  • 2
    But a Believer in Flat Earth would be offended by the notion per se of Coriolis forces. Pertinent observation. – Cape Code Nov 20 '14 at 23:35
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit In retrospect, I'm too old for "Space 1999"... The Moon base I'm thinking of must be (it is) the one in "UFO", the 1969 TV series also by the Andersons. – gboffi Nov 22 '14 at 22:03
  • @gboffi: I don't understand. Did you lose your sight and hearing at a certain age? Why are you "too old" for Space 1999? FWIW I watched it for the first time during late-90s reruns. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 22 '14 at 22:08
2

Maybe use "from the outside"?

For example something like this "Imagine a ball, floating in space (no gravity), but rotating as it does. An ant on the surface picks up a grain of sand and throws it. No gravity, so to an outside observer/from the outside the grain of sand will fly straight. But the ant rotates together with the ball, so from the ant's point of view the grain of sand appears to be spinning and turning as if a bunch of strange forces was accelerating it all over the place." and then work on Earth and the forces in reference frames.

2

I think you want to gather attention by making an outstanding sentence. Hence, I do not think jakebeal's answer serves your purpose (of course it is the best way I can think of, but if your purpose is not only telling the subject but giving an extraordinary example, it will not be enough).

Using God is I think not a good idea. However, there are several choices for you, I think:

  • You can tell a mythological story and use one of the gods' name (e.g. Zeus).

  • You can ask "have you ever imagined how an astranaut sees the world?" and then build your sentences on this question, like "he/she sees the world turning otherwise" etc.

  • You can show a video of a spinning wheel of a car and ask the question "towards which direction does this car go?" and then answer "we cannot know until we see the bigger picture".

In summary, I would not use it but give another extraordinary example to emphasise on the subject.

1

Anytime God is used in a scientific context, you should replace it the the ambiguous Universe. The use of God to explain or describe any force that can't be observed is directly insulting to anyone who isn't from a monotheistic religion. By referring to god as the universe you remove the superstitious and replace it with a polite "we can't describe it." Seeing as these forces are are only unknown due to lack of advancement, not because there is a bearded man in the sky moving the stars about.

0

The problem with using "god's eye view" is that by choosing to use 'God' in preference to, say 'Allah's eye view' or 'Yahweh's eye view', you have already introduce a religious element into the discussion and taken a stance on it.

Unless you actively want to introduce God for some reason, there is absolutely no need to do it. I studied basic meteorology, and 'god's eye view' was never mentioned, though 'stationary point in space was'. Both The Met Office and Wikipedia manage to explain it without mentioning God.

protected by eykanal Nov 21 '14 at 15:00

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