“A Telescope Opens the Mind to a Larger World”
A TEDx talk for TEDx Frontrange, Loveland, Colorado
22 May 2014

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 In April of last year I was in rural Tanzania, working on a documentary film about Astronomy, how it opens the mind to a larger world.


Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 I was fortunate to meet Chuck from the US and Mponda from Tanzania at a secondary school outside of Arusha. Through the organization Telescopes to Tanzania, they introduce hands-on science education to the classroom.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Following a series of interviews with both teachers and students, I was packing my gear when a young learner Catherine said, “Sir, may I ask you a few questions?”

I had just risen from my chair to break down my camera and tripod, and seated myself again, “Yes, of course.”

Catherine asked “Is it true, … that we live outside the Earth and not in it?”

I smiled, I almost laughed. I pointed out the window at the sun and clouds of the pending storm as assurance we were not underground. But Catherine was quite serious. Mponda, who was seated to my left, nodded, saying, “This is a serious question. You need to answer it.”

I said, “I apologize. Can you please repeat your question.”

She made the shape of a ball with her hands and asked, “Do we live on top of the ball or inside it?”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Now I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry, but I realized that she was talking about celestial spheres—an ancient concept in which the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars are all reside on multiple sphere of some unknown substance, that the entire universe is contained in a very small ball.

I confirmed that we do in fact live “on the ball” and that the Earth is in orbit around the sun, and that our sun orbits the center of our galaxy. And she was relieved. and then went on to ask questions about how we predict the weather and if she could grow up to an airplane pilot.

Catherine had looked through a telescope just one month earlier, and it had got her thinking, asking questions. Now, she was craving more. I assumed she had missed a few lectures, or was not paying attention in class.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 I later interviewed a geography teacher who having looked through a telescope for the first time a year earlier, saw the moons of Jupiter in the eyepiece. He recognized that they were in orbit, like the Earth around the Sun. It was then that he realized we live outside of the Earth, not inside it.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 He sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, “I see now that the other planets move around our Sun too, and our Sun orbits around the center of our galaxy. The galaxies,” he laughed the laugh of one who is about to say something profound, “there are so many galaxies we can’t even count them all,” he continued, “It makes me realize how very small we are.”

The phrase, “I see how small we really are,” was repeated over and over again by those I interviewed during the making of this film.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Elvirdo, a secondary learner in South Africa shared, “At first I thought that the Moon was inventing its own light. Then I learned the Moon is an object which reflects light and I wondered, where does this light come from?”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Willie, a retired psychologist and astronomer in upstate New York expressed, “The kids were blown away by what they could see through the telescope. If that can kindle some interest in science, then we have really done something.”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Laure, a French PhD Astronomer at UCT shared, “Unlike a microscope which helps us look to the parts of which we are made, a telescope helps us see something much bigger, the greater universe of which we are a part.”

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Why does any of this matter?

We wake up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, drive to school or the office. Eight hours later we head to the gym or return home again, eat dinner, catch-up on Facebook and watch a few videos on YouTube. Day after day, week after week, year after year, we do this over and over again.

Knowing how the Universe was formed 13.5 billions years ago does not change the fact that our phone bills are due and taxes must be paid by April 15.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Let’s consider that right here, at the edge of this stage the earth just stopped. If I take one more step, I will drop off and never come back. What if beyond the western slope of the Rocky Mountains or off the coast of California there was a drop from which you would never return.

That world is filled with fear.

What if our entire world was in fact contained within a crystalline ball beyond which we could never travel? How would the stories we tell our children differ? What would be our hope for the future?

Fortunately, the work of Galileo, Haley and Newton proved the Earth is not contained within a celestial sphere, and that indeed, we are very small.

Astronomy is unique in that it engages all of the other sciences.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 When we look through a telescope we engage engineering and physics for what we see and how we see it. Telescopes make use of some of the most advanced technology on the planet.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014

When we look to our closest neighbor Mars we see polar caps and massive dust storms; what we believe to be ancient river beds and deep, carved canyons. Geology helps us understand what may have happened there based upon what we know happened here, on Earth.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 We look to the light of distant stars shining through nebulae and recognize the chemical signature of the elements we have here on Earth.

Did you know that ten years ago we sent a spacecraft through the tail of a comet and discovered an amino acid. To date, we have discovered more than 1800 planets in orbit around distant stars. We are able to analyze their atmospheres for chemical composition and average temperature.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 Now, we are talking about biology and the potential that life is not unique to our home planet. In fact, it may not even have originated here at all!

There are an estimated 11 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, and more than 100 billion galaxies in this universe. It is impossible to have this discussion without discussing philosophy.

I want to share with you a short segment of the film which inspired this story.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 To be clear, a lack of understanding for our place in the cosmos is not unique to sub-Saharan Africa or those in under privileged school systems, but around the world with the highly educated too.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 In your lifetime, we will become an interplanetary species, living, working, even reproducing on the planet Mars. This journey started 400 years ago with a very simple instrument.

Kai Staats: TEDx Frontrange, Colorado, 2014 I encourage you to make time to look through a telescope, and then embrace those conversations that unfold.

Thank you.