Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I've written before about my youngest son's lack of interest in the natural world. For six years he's been captivated by trains, more recently his attention turned to Star Wars. Yesterday we were walking in Dyrham Park and a herd of deer sauntered past. Look at those, I shouted, pointing toward a stag with heavy antlers. He slashed his stick-cum-light sabre in the general direction. All dead, he announced, victory for Count Dylan!
Last week, his interest in the inter-galactic fantasy had given me an idea. It was a clear night, there was a full moon and Jupiter was displaying well too. How about a star party? I suggested. That would be fantastic, he replied, adding that he'd bring his blaster!
I used to have star parties with his brothers. They'd wrap up in coats and mufflers, stomping their feet as I set up the scope. And they'd stay outside for hours, becoming quite adept at finding planets, the Pleiades, the Andromeda galaxy or the Orion nebula. Now they're older and have girlfriends and other interests they might not think it so cool. But they remember the basics and that's an excellent grounding for a teenager - the stars being the ultimate way to put things in perspective.
I don't understand the physics of astronomy, and can't properly comprehend the scale of it all. But in my own, very amateur way, I can find my way round the sky; I recognise the constellations and I know what should interest a seven year old boy. Technically, a full moon is not a good time to view, but when you're dealing with kids it's impressions that count. And by using a night sky application I knew that Jupiter's moons would be in line too.
It's astonishing what you can see with a reasonable telescope. Mine is an old Russian refractor that weighs a tonne - I remember the guy who sold it to me saying 'It's good, if a bit agricultural.' He was right, but the light capture is enough to see the red spot on Jupiter, which in my book is pretty damn cool.
Dylan didn't agree. He was impressed that the moon was 240,000 miles away - but then asked, is that as far as Wales? When we got it in the viewfinder and I pointed out the craters, he asked if it was as big as the Millennium Falcon. And on finding Jupiter and showing him its four twinkling satellites, he said, Do you think they're going to attack?
Our party lasted all of five minutes. After glancing again at Jupiter, he drank his milk, scoffed some cookies and wandered inside. I felt a bit deflated. But then you never know what knowledge they're storing away. For tonight when I put him to bed he asked, you know in Star Wars, when they go to the death star... Yes, I replied, feigning interest. Because I was thinking if the moon is far away and Jupiter is ten times further and galaxies are a million times more - then how do they do it? I don't know, I said. But you're getting there slowly, I thought.