Heaven's above, what's going on?

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
The Deputy First Minister is passionate about science and hopes soon to see a Scottish astronaut. Will Dark Sky do it?

Brown bears on Mount Wilson clamber through open windows to steal the astronomers' food. Telescopes on Hawaii are located so high up an extinct volcano that altitude sickness is a perennial problem. Astronomy is a tough calling these days.

What makes it so are the city lights that swamp stray photons from space and constantly push observers further out and higher up in their quest for clear skies and dark nights. At the launch of a national education initiative in the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Dan Hillier illustrates the problem with a sequence of photographs of night-time Europe taken from space.

At first sight this is an undifferentiated blaze of light, until the audience looks more closely at the north-western edge, where darkness prevails. "As you can see, north and south of the central belt, Scotland still has dark skies," says ROE's visitor centre manager. "It's a wonderful resource. We've set this project up to take advantage of it."

Dark Sky Scotland is a programme of events over the next year for teachers, pupils and the public, which will be organised throughout the country until spring 2008. There will be stargazing, planetarium shows and live observing. Astronomers will give talks illustrated with photographs.

Meteorites will be handled and comets constructed from water, sand, dry ice and a dash of sauce.

Teachers and outdoor educators will learn how to observe the night sky and convey the wonder of its contents to receptive young minds.

The Scottish Executive is supporting and part-funding the project, and the enthusiasm of Nicol Stephen at the launch is evident, as the Deputy First Minister and science minister confesses: "My earliest ambition was to be a spaceman. It was only later that I decided to be a politician. Science has always been my passion.

"In terms of astronomy, we have one of the best locations in the world. But we've not done enough to exploit it. Scotland needs to develop as a science nation. We have to get more children out of the classroom, to look at the heavens, to look at the world around them, and to learn."

"We are supporting this project as part of our European-funded Science Matters initiative," says Sandra Lowson, senior executive at Careers Scotland, which is training teachers up and down the country in workshops.

"We will organise the teams to come in and spend a day with the teachers to show them how to do dark sky observing - first with the naked eye and then with the Faulkes telescope."

The teams comprise experts in making science accessible from the Glasgow Science Centre and the Institute of Physics.

"We've started in Dumfries and Galloway," says Leslie Begg of Careers Scotland. "Dan Hillier gave teachers a day of training. They got simple star maps and ideas for classroom activities. One example was shoeboxes with pinholes in the shape of constellations. The primary teachers loved that. The session was very practical."

While Dark Sky Scotland is an imaginative project that has already achieved a great deal, the challenge will be to sustain momentum when the funding ends, says John Brown, Scotland's astronomer royal. "It's good that the Executive has committed pound;75,000. But that's peanuts. It alarms me how hard it is to get tiny amounts of money for important science projects like this."

The answer perhaps is to create a few Scottish space travellers to help raise the profile of science.

"I don't see why we shouldn't have astronauts from Scotland," says Mr Stephen. "Maybe some of the kids taking part will go on to great things."

Perhaps there is time for his own unfulfilled ambitions to be realised? John Glenn, after all, went into space when he was 77.

"I'd love the chance," he replies.

* www.darkskyscotland.org.uk

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