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.
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, turning to the window, to 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. Please, ask your question again.”
She made the shape of a ball with her hands and asked, “Do we live on top of the ball or inside it?”
Then I realized, and I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry–she believed we live inside a celestial sphere–an ancient concept in which the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars are all traversed in one ore more spheres made of an unknown substance, the entire universe 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. She nodded, showing obvious relief and then went on to ask questions about how we predict the weather and if she could learn to be 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.
Now, I assumed she had missed a few lectures, or was not paying attention in class.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.