Monday, 8 November 2010

When I was your age, Pluto was a planet

A girl came up and told us that her teacher had said there were nine planets in the Solar System but she had tried to tell her that she was wrong, since Pluto wasn’t a planet, it was a dwarf planet!

I looked up from browsing the photos that Rachel Ward, a Master’s student working on modelling the early stages of star formation, had taken at the Ontario Science Centre’s ‘One World, One Sky’ event in the middle of October. “How old was she?


Huh. I was pleased to learn that someone was keeping up with the astronomical publications, even if it was not always me.

The event this had occurred at, and the pictures from which I was now perusing, had been an outreach initiative by Toronto’s astronomical community. It built on the success of the ‘International Year of Astronomy’, a year-long celebration in 2009 to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s use of the first telescope. Throughout that year, institutes around the world had made a particular effort to hold public seminars, observing nights and (in the case of Japan) to create an astronomically-informative toilet roll. (For the curious, yes, I do have one. I refuse to comment on whether I have used it, although I will say that the first sheet is dedicated to the topic of my research).

The international nature of astronomy was the continuing focus for the ‘One World, One Sky’ event, which included talks about the role of astronomy throughout history as well as in society today. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, were very familiar with the night sky and used their knowledge to predict the annual flooding of the Nile, an essential part of their agricultural cycle. They recognised that the flood occurred when the dog star, Sirius, rose just before the sun, an event that took place each summer in late June. 5,000 years later, we see the heliacal rising of Sirius in early August due to our change in position as we move through the galaxy.

Modern day agricultural issues were later blamed on astronomy when the subject of crop circles arose during a panel discussion for ‘Ask an Astronomer’. Rachel, with fellow graduate students Aaron and Mikhail, took on the barrage of question from the public that ranged through profound (“What is space?”), taxing (“What is dark matter?”) and into the fictional (“What about UFOs?”). For the rurally curious, incidentally, the origin of crop circles is more likely to sit with the alcohol-fuelled back row of students than with an out-of-space phenomenon.

Rachel’s small solar system expert approached her while she was manning one of the booths demonstrating various astronomy based concepts. Included in this section of the day was the opportunity to build a comet out of frozen ice, carbon dioxide, dirt and (more surprisingly) windex, which was apparently used as a source of ammonia. There was also a race to build a space station, a meteorite collection and displays on the astronauts from around the world.

After hearing about all this, I realised I had to get back to work. There was at least one five year old eagerly waiting for my results.

[Photo caption from left to right: (1) Aaron answers a question during the 'Ask an Astronomer' panel discussion (2) Rachel demonstrates how to build a comet (3) Mikhail shows features on the surface of Venus to astronomers-in-training.]

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