Back in January the BBC ran a brilliant little series called “Startgazing Live”. It was a astronomy program hosted by some likeable celebrities with credibility in the scientific world: Professor Brian Cox, Dara O’Briain, Liz Bonnin and Mark Thompson, amongst others. Designed to be approachable and understandable to a novice audience, it really struck a chord with the viewing public. Twitter went wild for it, viewing figures were good (3.6 million apparently), and the Internet was universally supportive of its intentions, if not necessarily its method of delivery (Jonathan Ross, look away).
But the thing that really worked for me was the child-like enthusiasm the programs managed to convey. Child-like but not childish. Awe and delight at our amazing universe but with chops to back it up. A genuine longing for the viewer to want to get involved in astronomy, look to the skies, and really start to appreciate the wonders that surround us.
Brian Cox hit the nail on the head with his apparently slightly impromptu closing words in the final episode. He was trying to find the right thing to say, but had only a couple of seconds in which to say it. He had to enthuse the middle-of-the-road viewer, entice them away from trashy TV, get them out into their gardens on a freezing January night and make them look to the skies. He managed to come up with a phrase off-the-cuff which was better than anything a team of writers could have managed. Delivered in his trademark, pleaful, delightful and actually slightly exasperated tone, he said, “Just look up and…think!”
I have a passion for science. Unlike the venerable Professor and his pals I’m not very good at it, but I do share their enthusiasm. It pains me to think that we – us silly, clever, insignificant, important little humans – are giving up on our reach for the stars.
Within one human lifetime of our first manned flight (like six feet above the ground or something) we had successfully landed a spaceship on the moon (a little higher than six feet). Just think about that for a moment. Mankind sent a vehicle full of silly, clever little humans to another planet. And brought them safely back home again. In 1969! That’s amazing.
Science fiction had become reality, and commentators were predicting permanent lunar colonisation within a decade, a stroll on Mars within 15 years. We sent to silly, clever little spaceships on a tour of the Solar System – one of which is in the process of leaving our planetary family and taking the plunge into “deep space”. This one’s worth a thought too: we made a spaceship which is now outside our galaxy, and is still sending messages back to us. Arthur C Clark wrote about this stuff. It’s not supposed to actually happen!
We made space shuttles, orbiting telescopes, sent thousands of satellites into space, built the International Space Station, sent probes to Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, The Sun. Amazing.
But then something happened. And that something is nothing.
Space budgets are being cut. We’re not going back to the moon any time soon. We’ve got amazing rovers on Mars, but walking on it seems as distant as it ever was. Io! We should be going there, but we’re not. Our Shuttle fleet is being retired with woolly plans to replace them. We’re still doing some super-cool stuff, but too slowly and too quietly. Why isn’t space exploration amongst the most important things us humans are doing?
Why wasn’t I taught anything about space at school? Why does the news prefer to talk about the rockets that blow up rather then the amazing things we’re discovering? Why do children want to grow up to “be famous” rather than discover something incredible in the cosmos?
Modern times are infested with a chronic lack of curiosity, and it pains me to observe. The ubiquitous 1950s robots in every house? We’ve got them, but all we do is complain about them crashing. “Other people” are doing the thinking. But why not us? Why not everyone?
Astronomy is more accessible than ever. For £100 you can buy a telescope that can see fine details of planets, their moons, galaxies, nebula. You can see the moon in such amazing resolution thal Gallileo would be insanely jealous, yet office water cooler talk is about who got voted off “Celebrity I’m An X-Factor Popstar In The Jungle Do Come Dine With Me On Ice”, not which beautiful deep space object was observed yesterday.
I know I paint an unfairly bleak picture, and a lot of what I just said is biased, ill-informed and sensationalist. But I truly believe that us silly, clever humans should be doing more silly, clever things. “Why don’t you turn off the TV and do something less boring instead?”, to coin a phrase.
Young people are great. Don’t believe the TV and newspapers. Children are brilliant, clever, funny, enthusiastic, adventurous, uninhibited. But us silly, clever adults are selling them a crock. We tell them thet they only passed their exams because they’re easier then they were in “my” day. They’re all Pringles-eating, Breezer-drinking layabouts who, when they’re not wearing intimidating clothing and hanging around street corners, are slowly burning out their brains by staring at glowing rectangles all day. And we don’t tell them anything about space.
Rubbish! They really are great. They will take us back to the moon and far, far beyond.
This is what my Dissertation is going to be about.
I want to do my small part in encouraging youngsters to get into the most mind-blowing science there is. I want them to ask how long it would take to walk to Jupiter. I want them to ask what will happen when the universe runs out of steam. I want them to ask what those little dots are in Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field. What was there before the big bang? Was there even a big bang? I want them to want to discover this stuff for themselves.
So I’m going to build some software to help youngsters to think about space, to experience it in some tangible manner and, hopefully, light a little spark of interest which will grow with them so they can realise my dreams for me.
Celestia is a open-source, community-built software package which maps our cosmos as a beautiful 3D model. It uses mathematics far beyond my understanding to present celestial objects in fine detail. They orbit, rotate, have atmospheres. They are massive and tiny. You can almost touch them. You can fly between galaxies. You can walk on the Sun. You get a feeling for the scale of things in a way that books and static screens can never replicate.
But Celestia is complicated to use. Necessarily so. It’s a complex thing, and its user interface is as streamlined as it can be without compromising functionality, but it’s not accessible for a 10-year old. It’s scary and not nearly “fun” enough. This is what I’m trying to improve.
Nintendo’s Wii is fun. Microsoft’s Kinect is fun. These party-game consoles have taken the industry by storm. Games are tangible things. You use your body to immerse yourself in the experience. Your friends can play along with you, everyone looking similarly ridiculous as you contorted your body into impossible shapes.
I hope to take this gaming experience and transpose it onto Celestia, a teaching and learning tool. I want to show Saturn to these children, but rather than just see a picture on a screen, I want them to reach out to it, pick it up with their hands, rotate it, zoom in and take a closer look, then walk around the Rings. I want them to stand on Iapetus and see for themselves its crazy two-tone skin. I want them to fly to Andromeda, turn round and look back at the “stars” behind them and then realise that one of them is our galaxy, the Milky Way.
So this is what it’s all about. I’m going to build a human-gesture user interface for this brilliant piece of software in the hope that its novel approach to navigation will capture the minds of youngsters. I will take this into schools, project it onto huge screens the hand over the controls to the children. I will assess various factors about their use of the system and see if it works in the way that I hope it will, and whether the young people actually enjoyed themselves.
What will I learn? I’m not sure yet. I’ll need a lot of technical skills to facilitate this work, but these really are a side effect of the research project rather than its purpose. The main goal is to see if young people can be enthused to learn by a pleasurable user experience.
Who knows? Maybe I will talk to a future Professor Brian Cox. Maybe one day they will plead to a nation: think! Or maybe the world will have dragged itself out of its space funk and there will be no need to plead any more. Maybe we’ll be Facebooking from Mars.