NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist's conception of the Milky Way, Earth's home galaxy.
By LiveScience managing editor
updated 10/23/2012 12:07:46 PM ET 2012-10-23T16:07:46

Identifying your home or street from a Google Earth image may be tough enough, but what about your cosmic address? Turns out, fewer than 50 percent of adults ages 37 to 40 know that humans live in the spiral Milky Way galaxy.

That's according to a new report of more than 4,000 American adults who make up the core of Generation X.

"Knowing your cosmic address is not a necessary job skill, but it is an important part of human knowledge about our universe and — to some extent — about ourselves," study author Jon D. Miller said in a statement.

Miller is the director of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Beginning in 1986, with funding from the National Science Foundation, scientists have collected data about the lives and knowledge of Generation X.

In the latest installment of the study, Miller showed participants a Hubble Space Telescope image of a spiral galaxy and asked them to identify the picture. The participants were asked to identify the image first in an open-ended question and then in a multiple-choice setup. [Infographic: Our Milky Way Galaxy]

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Just 43 percent of participants gave an answer saying the image represented a galaxy like our own. And men had a leg up, with 53 percent of males and 32 percent of females nailing their cosmic location to some degree. Those with less than a high-school education fared the worst, with just 21 percent knowing our cosmic address, compared with 63 percent of those with doctorates or professional degrees who said the same.

"One of the factors that contributes to this educational difference is exposure to college-level science courses," Miller said. "The United States is unique in its requirement that all college students complete one year of college science courses as part of a general education requirement."

Though four out of five participants indicated they had seen this type of space-telescope image before, often online, 60 percent said this was the first time they took a careful look at such an image.

Those who correctly identified the sparkly swirl as a spiral galaxy like the one we live in were more likely than the "cosmically lost" participants to agree with the statements:

  • "When I see images like this, I am reminded of the vastness of the universe" (70 percent versus 53 percent).
  • "Images like this show how small and fragile planet Earth is in the context of the universe" (58 percent versus 44 percent).
  • "Seeing images like this make me want to learn more about the nature of the universe" (27 percent versus 19 percent).
  • "It is very likely that there is intelligent life at many places in the universe" (39 percent versus 26 percent).
  • However, those in the know about the Milky Way were slightly less likely than the other participants to agree that "the size and complexity of the universe proves the greatness of God's creation" (45 percent versus 51 percent, respectively).

"Unlike our distant ancestors who thought the Earth was the center of the universe, we know that we live on a small planet in a heliosphere surrounding a moderate-sized star that is part of a spiral galaxy," Miller said. "There may be important advantages in the short-term — the next million years or so — to knowing where we are and something about our cosmic neighborhood."

With the rise of the Internet, Miller noted, such images and cosmic information are more accessible than ever. Even so, he said, "some of the science information on the Internet is incorrect or misleading." When asked, participants indicated the most trusted Internet resources for universe-related information included a NASA website, a program or exhibit at a planetarium or museum, a PBS Nova science show, a Discovery Channel science show and a lecture by an astronomy professor. The least trusted sources: a lecture by a leader of a church or religious group.

The headline on an earlier version of this report mischaracterized the proportion of respondents who correctly identified the spiral galaxy picture. Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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