We live under 3 runway lengths from Newark Liberty International Airport. (To be fair, runway 4L/22R is about two miles long.) One of our games is called "catch the plane"--students attempt to get the plane in the telescope's field of view, not as easy as it sounds when you're just a few miles from the airport.
I get a handful of kids every clear Tuesday night, chasing Jupiter and the few stars we can see naked eye. Even with the light pollution, though, a peek through an 8" scope changes their view of their universe.
We finally caught the Andromeda Galaxy a few days ago, using an 8" telescope on a manual mount. We have a computerized mount somewhere, but I keep pretending I don't know how to use it. The budding astronomers are getting to know the sky the old-fashioned way, which is to say, they are getting to know the sky.
I've been covering cell energetics the past few weeks. How does life get its energy, its "stuff"? I have a time-line in the classroom, a meter for ever billion years.
(OK, the time-line stops at 4.5 billion years ago, just short of Earth's birthday, but I've swept along the imaginary portion of the time-line so many times I'd bet you'd get a dozen kids to testify times that we have a time-line that goes back 14 billion years or so. I really need to get another roll of paper.)
I start at the beginning. I call it our creation story, and it is a story. It has a name--Big Bang model. I'm careful not to call it a theory.
How do we know, Dr. D?
Well, we know this much. The visible galaxies around us keep going farther and farther away. Where will they be next week?Farther.... (It's amazing to hear kids roll their eyes with their voices)
Where were they last week?Well, doh, closer
A thousand years ago?
A billion years ago?
And they get it, at least they get the impetus for the model. It's our creation story.
I speak carefully, but the words are the right ones--it is a creation story. It's a model. It's a good one, but by acknowledging that we cannot know as a fact (apparently the gold standard in sophomore debate) the origins of our universe keeps their own creation myths safe.
For most of my students, Genesis is the myth they believe in, but most of them could tell you as much about Genesis as they could the Big Bang model. I've taught both, but never in the same place. They're both useful stories. They're both human stories.
Neither explains why an apple tastes so good.
The Andromeda galaxy is the only object beyond our galaxy we can see naked eye.
First time I saw it without glass was a week before Hallowe'en, many years ago, right after we took our two youngsters on a haunted hay ride in the Jersey skylands. It hung out there even beyond the stars, a puff of fine mist hovering beyond my known universe.
You will not see Andromeda without a scope in Bloomfield.
When we did find it, we saw an oval smudge. I worried that the kids may feel let down, and started to pontificate about how long it took the light to go from that smudge to our eyes.
I should have stayed quiet--they thought it was cool. They kept going back to look at it.
Besides, turns out I couldn't remember exactly how far the galaxy is--I thought it was a bit over 3 million light years away, but the experts changed their minds and calculated it to be "only" 2.5 million light years away.
And that's the point.
My grandfather was in his late 20's before Edwin Hubble convinced other astronomers that these blobs of stars lay outside our own galaxy. That wasn't so long ago.
And it's hubris to think any of us can know the difference between 2.5 and 3.2 million light years.
Cosmology rests on light. Cosmologists study light in its various forms, but unlike biologists, have no need for their noses, for their skin. Cosmologists work with the intangible.
Our modern creation story has been written by a very few men with very big brains who trust their eyes more than their tongues. It is thus written.
The Big Bang model, like Genesis, is ultimately incomprehensible. It's important that my kids know this, at least about the cosmological models. I leave Genesis to their parents.
Once science becomes known "as a fact", once it becomes frozen in mythology, it becomes useless.
Even worse, it becomes boring.