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Rise and shine on Astronomy Day

Astronomy Day is a world-wide event observed twice a year, in spring and in fall. The next Astronomy Day this year is on October 8.

There is something deeply becalming and beautiful about gazing up at the stars at the end of a long day. In some ways, it feels reassuring to be reminded that we are but a small part of the huge cosmos. It helps us puts our worries, anxieties and fears in perspective.

If there is nothing for the children to enjoy in terms of nature, divert their attention to the ever-changing panorama of the skies and let them experience wonder, said Reverend James Woodforde, the 18th century parson, in The Diary of a Country Parson, when asked about children growing up in urban surroundings who don’t have the luxury of waddling through nature. Rev. Woodforde would be pleased indeed if he went on a walk with my toddler son.

Once the stars are visible, the little fellow makes it a point to look up, his eyes filling up with wonder and questions bubbling up. His ardent older sister fans him along by pointing to the constellations and asking him to identify some of them. The young astronomer accepts this great responsibility with grace. He then proceeds to point at Ursa Major and calls it Orion. Ursa Minor is christened Sirius, Jupiter is labelled Venus and the Moon remains the Moon. All this is done with immense confidence and joy, and the walk takes on a gentle humour of its own.

It is hard for us to identify constellations and there is even less need to do so now that we have access to excellent apps such as Sky M and Google Sky. The skies are, however, fascinating and it will be nice to be able to identify the constellations even if we don’t need them to navigate from Spot A to Spot B at the moment.

One night as we stepped out for a stroll after a particularly satisfying meal, we diverted our gaze skywards, as is our wont. “If I become a space traveller, will you come with me?” he asked me, a little line of worry creasing his face.

The background to this question was, of course, another conversation in which we had to let him know that when he grew old enough to become an astronaut, we would be past the age that is currently acceptable for astronauts. Maybe his sister could join him, but we may not be able to do so.

He looked forlorn when he heard that, and I made a mental note to remind him about how keen he was to have our company on a space vehicle, when he attempts to learn driving as a teenager.

I looked at his face and said, “You know, just decades earlier, nobody would have thought your grandparents could fly halfway across the world to meet you, so we don’t really know how things will change. Maybe if things progress along space travels, we could join you. Who knows?”

He seemed happy with the answer, and said, “Where would you like to go first? Which planet?”

I thought for a moment and said I would like to go to Neptune. Before he could assail me with questions as to ‘Why Neptune’ and so on, I neatly turned the tables on him and asked him, “How about you? Where would you like to go?”

“I want to go to Jupiter. Maybe the great big spot in the storm.”

The reason

The daughter asked him why, and he said he would like to see the moon have some company.

“Here on Earth, I can only see one moon, but on Jupiter you can see 67 moons, right?”

“Did they teach you that in school?” I asked, pleasantly impressed and surprised.

“On ‘Space Racers’ [a TV programme created with inputs from NASA], Eagle and Robin get stuck in the storm on Jupiter, remember?” said the couch-astronaut.

Whether through television, movies, smartphone apps that map the sky for us, or through science lessons, it is wonderful to glory in the expanse of the universe and accept our position within it.

As Carl Sagan said, “Astronomy is a humble and character-building experience.”

So, Happy Astronomy Day!

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