Edinburgh International Science Festival: Big science roadshow;Scotland curriculum

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Douglas Blane finds out about stars and goes on a space jaunt

The universe began with an event that scientists call the Big Bang, but the name is singularly inappropriate. There was no bang, and no one to hear it even if there had been. And it wasn't big. The early universe was small, silent and immensely hot. But it grew rapidly and cooled, allowing matter to condense into galaxies, stars, planets and, eventually, people. That's when the noise started.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star," recites science communicator Lish Hogge. The children groan. They have been primed to expect fun and science, not nursery rhymes. "I've forgotten what comes next. Can you remind me?" They can and do. "Yes, of course. Well, we're going to find out what stars are. Does anybody know?" Suggestions include "light", "heat", "energy" and, from one young lad with his thoughts still on Christmas, "tinfoil". Half an hour later, with the aid of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the class has learned that stars are made of hydrogen and shine for billions of years before dwindling to a dwarf star, collapsing to a black hole or suffering a catastrophic explosion during which most of the elements are created. Ten per cent of each of our bodies comes from the Big Bang, Lish Hogge explains, while the remainder was formed in the heart of an exploding star. So we are all made of stardust.

The Big Science Roadshow, which provides a dramatic taste of modern astronomy and physics, was developed with the aid of a grant from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. "It seemed a good way to present the excitement of fundamental science to children," says Dr Robin Clegg. "We were particularly impressed with the fact that it was a consortium of science communicators - EISF from Edinburgh, GUSTO from Glasgow and Stratosphere from Aberdeen - who between them will perform all over the country."

The show is now on the road in south-east Scotland and the north of England, touching down at schools for two days, then blasting off again to the next venue. It is aimed at Primary 6 to Secondary 2, and consists of five separate but related activities: A Star is Born - everything you need to know to make your own star; the Mars Buggy workshop - build a remote-controlled rover and drive it around a simulated Martian landscape; Alien Atmospheres - a taste of living in space and on other worlds; and an interactive exhibition of scientific equipment.

But the highlight of the show is a jaunt in the spaceship Eureka in the company of two charismatic characters called Alistair Ritchie and Louise Gee, otherwise known as Captain Zogon and Ensign Thuff. Clad in bright orange spacesuits and purple boots, and with bald, pointed heads, they have come to Earth to transport the children through space to their home planet, Bong.

The children are taken instead on a voyage round the planets and moons of our own solar system, from the searing surface of Venus to the bitter cold of Pluto, past Saturn's rings and the ice-encrusted oceans of Europa.

The final approach to Earth, when they misjudge the speed and crash, causes some alarm, but the major hazard is not Zogon's erratic navigation, the vacuum of space, nor the deadly methane on Jupiter - it is the almost lethal levels of sound generated in a small spaceship by 23 young children and two daft aliens.

To book the Big Science Roadshow, schools in south-east Scotland should call the EISF box office, tel: 0131 473 2070. During May and June the show will tour south-west Scotland, tel: 0141 330 6396. Secondary schools are encouraged to host the show and invite feeder primaries:

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