Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Star party

Moons of Jupiter
I've written before about my youngest son's lack of interest in the natural world. For six years he's been captivated by trains, more recently his attention turned to Star Wars. Yesterday we were walking in Dyrham Park and a herd of deer sauntered past. Look at those, I shouted, pointing toward a stag with heavy antlers. He slashed his stick-cum-light sabre in the general direction. All dead, he announced, victory for Count Dylan!

Last week, his interest in the inter-galactic fantasy had given me an idea. It was a clear night, there was a full moon and Jupiter was displaying well too.  How about a star party? I suggested. That would be fantastic, he replied, adding that he'd bring his blaster!

I used to have star parties with his brothers. They'd wrap up in coats and mufflers, stomping their feet as I set up the scope. And they'd stay outside for hours, becoming quite adept at finding planets, the Pleiades, the Andromeda galaxy or the Orion nebula.  Now they're older and have girlfriends and other interests they might not think it so cool.  But they remember the basics and that's an excellent grounding for a teenager - the stars being the ultimate way to put things in perspective.

I don't understand the physics of astronomy, and can't properly comprehend the scale of it all. But in my own, very amateur way, I can find my way around the sky; I recognise the constellations and I know what should interest a seven year old boy. Technically, a full moon is not a good time to view, but when you're dealing with kids it's impressions that count. And by using a night sky application I knew that Jupiter's moons would be in line too.

It's astonishing what you can see with a reasonable telescope. Mine is an old Russian refractor that weighs a tonne - I remember the guy who sold it to me saying 'It's good if a bit agricultural.' He was right, but the light capture is enough to see the red spot on Jupiter, which in my book is pretty damn cool.

Dylan didn't agree. He was impressed that the moon was 240,000 miles away - but then asked, is that as far as Wales? When we got it in the viewfinder and I pointed out the craters, he asked if it was as big as the Millennium Falcon. And on finding Jupiter and showing him its four twinkling satellites, he said, Do you think they're going to attack?

Our party lasted all of five minutes. After glancing again at Jupiter, he drank his milk, scoffed some cookies and wandered inside. I felt a bit deflated. But then you never know what knowledge they're storing away. For tonight when I put him to bed he asked, you know in Star Wars; when they go to the death star...   Yes, I replied, feigning interest.  Because I was thinking if the moon is far away and Jupiter is ten times further and galaxies are a million times more - then how do they do it? I don't know, I said. But you're getting there slowly, I thought.


  1. To be honest... if milk and cookies were in the offing... there'd be no contest with me too.

  2. He gets it by using your input and his interests...

  3. Hello Mark:
    Well, we certainly think that your idea of a Star Party is a brilliant one and we should not mind guessing that your small son will ask for a rerun one day. The distances are always something which we struggle with, a light year is a mind boggling concept and we can only imagine how this relates to the distance between you and Wales!!!

    Milk and cookies won this time, it will surely be the Milky Way next!!!

  4. It may have been just 5 minutes, but you can never tell which 5 minutes will be life changing.

    I did a workshop in Morecambe when I worked at Earthwatch. It was one of those themed activity weeks for children and I was there to get them all interested in coral reefs. Most of the children were deposited by parents glad to have them off their hands for the day.

    One child was really disruptive the entire day. He was paying such scant attention I almost sent him home. I was pretty much in despair over it and thought he'd got nothing out of the day at all.

    The next day was the last one of the themed week and Morecambe council put on a big celebration and exhibition to bring it to a close. I'd been invited to provide an exhibit about Earthwatch, its coral reef research and most importantly to show everyone the results of the workshop - a massive model coral reef.

    A mother came up to me beaming from ear to ear, told me how much her son had enjoyed the day and pretty much relayed back to me every single fact about coral reefs I'd told the children, had in my materials for them, on the video I'd been playing at the time etc etc

    Guess which son had told her all of this? The disruptive one of course.

  5. As grandmother to three Star-Wars-mad boys, one the same age as your youngest, I can tell you they will absorb a LOT of information if it's presented in this context. Seven's not very old. There's time for him to catch the nature bug yet.

  6. Great post, and the photo of Jupiter and it's moons really brought back the memories of being in our old back garden with my Dad looking at the very same image.

  7. PS found out today that next year is the last transit of Venus this century...

    Try for 6 minutes next time?

  8. It is surprising what filters through, your sons are lucky to have a dad who offers such enthusiasm and knowledge about the planet, it can only be infectious.

  9. Five minutes is a lot in a kid's world...Keep showing and telling...His interest may grow with time.

  10. Mark you've done it again - revived another long forgotten interest that is - no excuse for we have dark skies hereabouts. Somewhere in the shed is a Tal, last used many moons ago, but never giving views like the one you've captured. Time to try again, though memories of frozen nights and numb fingers come flooding back.