Ted's teaching tips

16th June 2000 at 01:00
How to use The big picture

This figure in a cosmological landscape reminds us that we are part of a vast, unknown universe. This remarkable time-lapse image offers plenty of scope for discussion on scientific, philosophical, aesthetic and religious issues.

The universe

How did the universe originate ("big bang", accounts in different religions)? How old is it (probably at least 10 billion years, Earth about 4.5 billion years)? What makes up the universe (galaxies, stars, planets, moons, billions of light years across)? Which is our galaxy (Milky Way, our sun one of billions of stars in it; "galaxy" from the Greek word for "milk"; Egyptians thought it was a milky river Nile in the kingdom of the dead, ruled by Osiris)?


Ask pupils to study some of the well-known constellations and heavenly bodies when there is a clear night sky (for instance, the Plough; Orion, with its familiar three stars in line forming Orion's belt). Can they find the pole Star (the two end stars of the Plough and the middle of the "W", the five stars forming Cassiopeia, point to it)? Why are the stars in curved lines in the picture (as the Earth rotates the stars appear to be moving around us; the Ptolomeic theory argued that we were the centre of the universe)? What is "astrology" (the study of the influence of the stars on our lives) and do you believe in it?


What is life (not easily defined, since eating, breathing, reproducing etc can also be done by som machines, or computer viruses)? When did it originate (simple organisms probably more than 3 billion years ago)? Do you think there might be life on other planets?


(a) Imagining you are the astronomer in the picture, write a technical account of a particular star or galaxy you are studying; (b) describe as evocatively as you can the feelings we have when looking at the cosmos (awesome, beautiful, vast).


Looking at stars and galaxies billions of miles away makes us feel humble. Are we just a tiny speck of dust in a vast cosmos, or does the human race have some significance?

For There are millions of stars and numerous planets we cannot even see that may be just like us. The distances are enormous. We delude ourselves if we think we are any more significant than a grain of sand in the Sahara. Thousands of life forms may be more intelligent than us. Chance events and circumstances millions of years ago created life on Earth and when it disappears no one will care, or even notice.

Against We may not understand the purpose of life, but its orderliness and complexity cannot have been created by chance. It does not matter if there are other forms of intelligent life elsewhere; we must make the best of the time we have. To believe otherwise is the philosophy of despair. We have made immense progress in understanding the universe and most people believe there is a purpose to life, even those who are not religious.

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