The Evening Class;Astronomy;Mind and body

12th March 1999 at 00:00
It is a dark and stormy night - which is rotten news for the 11 new astronomy students whose subject of study is continually being obscured by racing clouds. On the other hand, huddling in a Nissen hut with the wind moaning through the trees outside does induce an appropriate mood for contemplating the infinite.

Richard Knox, our teacher, is keen on infinity. This is the first class of a 10-week course and he begins by bombarding us with humbling facts: "Our sun is one of 100 billion in our galaxy; there are 100 billion galaxies..."

The facts of astronomy are so awesome, its subject matter so vast, the names so romantic (Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, the Pleiades), it seems sad that the science often gets less attention than its fatuously irrational cousin, astrology.

Most of Mr Knox's pupils are motivated by pure intellectual curiosity. "I can identify the Plough and Orion, but wonder what all the others are," is a frequent comment. One student has been startled by the clarity of the Cornish heavens after moving from a northern city and feels impelled to investigate them.

By the end of our first evening, we have learned how to locate several new stars (notably Sirius and Polaris) by tracing lines outwards from the constellations we do know - Orion and the Plough. We have been given a crash course in the history of cosmology from Ptolemy to Copernicus and have watched a beautiful slide show which reveals how the sun appears to rise in different places as winter gives way to spring.

And we also wise up to certain myths and scams: never send money to people who promise to name a star after your lover - they have no more right to name them than you do. And the view from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise is completely bogus. It shows stars rushing past like telegraph poles on a motorway; but really it would take six months to get from a sun to the next star.

Josephine Gardiner

This class took place at Penwith College, St Clare Street, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 2SA. Tel: 01736 335000.

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