To Live on Planet Earth
This week I have been in Tanzania working on a documentary film about Astronomy as a motivator for finding passion in the sciences. I had the great fortune of meeting Chuck Ruehle, founder of Telescopes to Tanzania and member of Astronomers Without Borders, and Tanzanian educator Mponda Maloso who works through EU Universe Awareness.

Together, we ventured to a secondary school outside of Arusha, Tanzania and engaged Term-3 and -4 classes in the basics of using a telescope, the value of astronomy in education, and what kinds of jobs may be open to these students if they pursue the sciences.

Following an interview with a 13 year old girl who had this spring looked through a telescope for the first time in her life, she asked, “Sir. May I ask you a few questions?”

“Yes, of course,” I responded, seating myself in my chair beside the camera again. I settled in for the conversation while Mponda sat on the corner of the nearby desk.

As the only one of three students who chose to conduct her interview in English, she was courageous enough to also engage me in this Q&A session, which I fully appreciated.

She took a deep breath, looked at her feet and hands, and then back to me as she asked, “Is it true, … that we live outside the Earth and not in it?”

I smiled, thinking she meant in a cave or underground. I did not truly understand and looked to Mponda for clarification. He nodded back to the girl again who was quite serious.

“What do you mean? Do you mean underground?” I looked out the window to emphasize the sunlight behind the growing clouds.

She added, “No. Do we live inside the ball,” making the shape of a ball with her hands, “or outside the ball, on top?”

I paused for a moment, considering the time which had come and gone since the awareness of the basic arrangement of the solar system was re-established (the ancient Egyptians had it figured out as well, but that knowledge was lost to history).

I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. She meant that the sky, the moon, the planets and the stars—that they traversed the inside of a ball in which we lived. This girl sends text messages on her cell phone and has likely used Facebook, but does not understand the very fundamentals of how the Earth exists within our solar system, something established hundreds of years ago (and thousands of years before that, once or twice).

I was dumbfounded. Mponda did not appear to be surprised for he sees this every day through his work in Tanzania. I confirmed that we do in fact live “on the ball” and that the Earth is in orbit around the sun, along with the other bodies in our Solar System. She went on to ask questions about weather prediction, which were well stated. I was impressed by how much she desire to learn.

The telescope had opened her mind, it got her thinking beyond the rote memorization and classroom chanting of facts and figures which is what most of sub-Saharan Africa calls education.

Mponda later confirmed the majority of the children here are not aware of the very basics, most of them believing we live inside a sphere and only having heard rumors we have walked on the Moon. The Space Shuttle, International Space Station, even the concept of a telescope completely devoid from their education.

These are not unintelligent children. Rather, they have very, very limited interface with the greater world. This is true for most of Africa, the legacy of the post WWI British school system which trained everyone to be clerks, very little more. The teaching style, even the curriculum has hardly changed.

I interviewed her teacher an hour later. Without my provocation he sated, “Because of Chuck and Mponda I learned that we live on the outside of the Earth, and that we move around the sun in our Solar System.”

He is twenty eight years of age and a license math and science teacher in the Tanzanian school system. I nodded, affirmed his recent, personal discovery, and asked how this affected him.

He pressed himself back into the chair, folded his arms across his chest, and then leaned forward again taking a deep breath, “You know? I … I see now that we are on the planet Earth which moves around the Sun. The other planets move around our Sun too.” He paused to make eye contact, as though he was seeking affirmation. I nodded, smiling.

“The stars in the sky, they are very, very far away, most of them far bigger than our own Sun. And the galaxies, well,” he laughed the laugh of one who is about to say something profound, “they have so many stars we can’t even count them all.”

I waited.

“It makes me realize how very small we are. We are just so small and the universe, it is so big and beautiful.”

Repeatedly, my interviews have brought the same words to my microphone and digital recorder, “I see now how small we truly are, and how everything is connected.”

Humility. Connection. Humble awareness of our place in the much larger universe. Connecting the dots. Truly thinking for the first time, not just repeating what the teacher shouts at the class. You don’t need a computer to do this. As Chuck makes clear in his classroom interventions—it is about getting out of the desk and learning with hands engaged. Building, Testing. Breaking. Rebuilding and testing again. It’s the scientific method that generates passion for real learning, the kind that keeps us learning for a lifetime.

This topic is continued in Part 2