Starry starry night

‘Wonder… this is where philosophy begins’ (Socrates in the Theaetetus, line 155, d)

‘it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize’ (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982b)

“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Aim

If you have ever looked up at the night sky to wonder at the beauty and mysteries of the universe then, with Aristotle, you might understand the desire to learn of that universe and our place within it. Awe and wonder in Liberal Arts education was the beginning of the search for first principles and for what counts as universally true and good. With this in mind, our second workshop was an introduction to the wonders of space and was designed to spark questions and thinking about the universe, creation, God, infinity, humanity and, of course, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Setting and materials

  • University of Winchester
  • Cut out quotations and pictures for posters, A3 card, felt tips and pencils

Beginning with wonder…

We began by looking at 3 ‘places’ from which to look at space and the night sky:

  • From the European Southern Observatory in Chile
  • From our positon at the university on google earth zooming out as far as we could to look at the earth
  • From Venice, via the power of 10, as far as human knowledge could take us

Next, we opened up the question of alien life through images and from video clips from ET. The purpose of this was not merely to ask the question whether there is other life out there in the universe but to think about what our reaction to extra-terrestrial life might be. Would we see them as a threat? Would we want to welcome other forms of life? How might we understand ourselves when faced with such knowledge? How will we try to communicate? Will we offer the hand of friendship and understanding? Will there be thing we hold in common? Will we, like Elliot and E.T., understand each other’s joy and sadness?  Will we be prepared to learn about each other?

Last lines of the film as E.T. is about to leave:

E.T.: Come…

Elliot: [solemnly] Stay…

E.T.: [puts his finger to his glowing heart] Ouch.

Elliot: [mimics the same action, tearfully] Ouch.

E.T.: [E.T. and Elliot embrace each other, then E.T. puts his glowing finger to Elliot’s forehead] I’ll… be… right… here.

Elliot: [tearfully] … bye.

link: https://youtu.be/75M1XXEZciU

 

 

Thinking philosophically

In small groups our students began a conversation around these questions and ideas. Some quotations from philosophers and astronomers were also spread out on the tables as a springboard to further thinking. Below is a selection of these quotations.

‘The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space’ Carl Sagan

‘Love, that moves the sun and the other stars’ Dante Alighieri

‘The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics’ Galileo Galilei

“Such is the secret of the motions of the heavens and of their diversity, each motion strictly corresponding to the desire of a Soul” Ibn Sīnā

‘Knowing thyself, that is the greatest wisdom’ Galileo Galilei

 ‘I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of the stars makes me dream’ Vincent Van Gogh

‘All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe’ Copernicus

‘I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small’ Neil Armstrong

‘For every one, as I think, must see that astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another’ Glaucon in Plato’s Republic

‘Astronomy, as nothing else can do, teaches men humility’ Arthur C. Clarke

‘From our home on the Earth, we look out into the distances and strive to imagine the sort of world into which we are born’ Edwin Hubble

Making Posters

Using pictures, quotations, questions and drawings the children made posters to reflect on the themes and questions of the day.

Voyager

Last of all, a postcard was given to each child of Voyager 2, one of two spacecraft which in 1977 started their mission into the solar system and beyond in search of new knowledge of the universe. They are  part of humanity’s journey into the unknown.

But the mission was transformed from its being merely scientific to its becoming also a cultural and artistic endeavour. Sagan and his team created two golden records to attach to the side of each spacecraft. These copper disks, designed to last one billion years, look and work like vinyl records. But engraved in the grooves of the records, as a message from planet Earth to alien civilizations, is a selection of the speech, music, sounds, mathematics and images from planet earth.  

“We were trying to tell a little bit about what planet Earth was like, the beings that lived on it and, in particular, the species that made this record,” says artist Jon Lomberg, the design director for the golden record project. “The ground rules were that this wasn’t a message from Nasa or the United States but a message from planet Earth, reflecting the entire Earth and not the nation or agency that sent it.”

But what was even more remarkable about its voyage was that on the 14 February 1990, as Voyager 2 reached the outer limits of the solar system, its cameras turned back towards the Earth to capture a view of the entire Solar System and of us, our own planet, which appeared as a single-pixel pale blue dot. It was this image that captured the sense of our tiny place in the universe and it led to the now famous piece by Sagan called ‘the pale blue dot’ which you can read below.

This story was told to the children and they were asked to write on the back either the message they would send out on voyager into outer space or the message they would want to send back to the pale blue dot.

 

Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle,  not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.


‘During our trip to the University of Winchester, I liked the workshop where we used our body and our mind. It made me feel really calm.’ Sumaya, aged 9.

‘What I liked about the university was we discovered a lot about aliens and watched movie clips about aliens. I got to talk about grey aliens which was really cool.’ Seyoon, aged 10.

‘What I enjoyed the most was making the space poster and learning about space. It was really fun. We could do whatever space-related stuff we wanted on the poster.’ Tayyibah, aged 10.

‘At the University of Winchester, we all went into a room and looked at space high up in the sky. It was really fun! I worked with lots of different adults and we did all sorts of different activities.’ Iffah, aged 10.