In the first of a new series on the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Douglas Blane describes Starlab
Teaching children about the night sky can be difficult, because even in Scotland darkness and school rarely coincide. So children acquire all sorts of misconceptions - the Earth is flat, it is the centre of the universe, it is carried through space by four elephants, and so on. These ideas are remarkably tenacious, and something more than a simple account of basic astronomical facts from the science teacher is needed to shift them.
In a planetarium, where the stars are simulated by points of light projected on the inside of a dome, children can view the night sky as it would appear from anywhere on Earth, and time can be speeded up to show the effects of the Earth's motion. It is an exhilarating experience. Unfortunately, Scotland is not over-endowed with permanent planetariums. But there is an alternative.
Starlab is a small but fully-functioning, portable planetarium that belongs to the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and it is touring schools from January 25 until March 12.
"First we remove our shoes, so I hope you've all got clean socks on," says the young science communicator. "Starlab looks a bit like a bouncy castle, but it's not that strong. Please don't kick it, cut holes in it, or set fire to it, because I need it for the next class.
"Over 2,000 years ago the ancient Greeks looked up at the sky and gathered the stars together in groups called constellations, which they named after their gods and heroes. This one is Orion the hunter." She tells the story of Orion, Zeus and the seven sisters, skilfully blending astronomy with mythology.
"This star is Betelgeuse, an Arabic word meaning 'armpit of the hunter'. It is cooler but much bigger than our Sun. Eventually it will explode... " Half an hour later the show is drawing to a close. "Have any of you been to the North Pole? Let's go there now. You know you've arrived because the North Star is directly above us, and a big polar bear is standing behind you." She adjusts the motor and the stars begin to move, whirling ever faster, until all except the one overhead traces circular streaks in the blackness.
"We had better get back to Scotland," she says. "As you can see, the sun is rising and the stars are fading in the sky."
* Starlab is accompanied by the Space Show, a dramatic exploration of the effects on life of the cold and vacuum of space. To book, schools should call the Science Festival box office, tel: 0131 473 2070