Wednesday, March 9, 2011

astronomy lessons

Last Tuesday night, I made my way across to the Johannesburg Planetarium for the first "Introduction to Astronomy" course. I thought it would be about the same size as my Latin class at Rhodes: an older person who always wanted to learn this but never got around to it, some really smart students, maybe the odd science student dabbling in astronomy and me getting all misty-eyed about the awesomeness that is the Planetarium.

The courtyard was swarming with people: couples, students, solitary people trying not to look awkward in the throng, pensioners, married people holding hands as if the kids just left home and me, staring wide-eyed at the long queue in front of the registration table.

The course has been completely worth it. I have learnt about constellations, planets, eclipses (bookmark the 15 June, 2011. There is a total lunar eclipse and it is happening between 8pm and midnight), an idea of how big the universe is and how to find out when satellites will be crossing the sky. We also get to see fun little snippets NASA videos. There was one of a man trying to explain what zero gravity does to playing basketball (he could do five spins in the air before getting the ball into the basket. Which is actually quite tough in space as the ball just floats upwards out of the basket). There is another video about the different areas they could land their next Mars explorer: a robot called Curiosity. My favourite fact was that the wake-up call for astronauts on the space station is the Star Trek theme song. Life imitating art?

Sometimes, Astronomy even makes me think about other things that the stars and planets could teach us about life in general. What completely blew my mind last night was a little lesson on perspective and how two people can have a totally right, totally different answer, depending on the different places they are standing. If a person stands in the Southern Hemisphere, "looking up" (so to speak), the earth is spinning in a clockwise direction. If another person stands in the Northern Hemisphere, "looking down", the earth is spinning in an anti-clockwise direction. In other words, which way the entire earth is spinning depends on which part of the earth you are standing on. Learning this is - for me - one of the best examples to explain how the world is full of vastly differing yet almost all valid opinions: they are right from the perspective one has according to where one comes from. How can two people have different answers about which way the earth (the huge (compared to us) planet we live on) is spinning and both have the right answer? It is mind-boggling.

One has to say "almost" though. Every society or cultural group always has one or more (metaphorical) equivalents of the flat earth society. Some things can't be right no matter where you stand because the place where you think you are standing doesn't exist.

"Introduction to Astronomy": Learn about everything. No, really. Everything...

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