To in­fin­ity – and be­yond!

Why don’t more chil­dren don’t want to be­come as­tro­nauts? Fred de Falbe has some thoughts

EDP Norfolk - - FROM THE HEADMASTER’S OFFICE - This col­umn is spon­sored by Beeston Hall School, West Run­ton, NR27 9NQ bee­ston­

“Iam go­ing to be an astronaut when I grow up!” This was a re­cent an­swer from one of our Year 4 chil­dren – let’s call her Katie – to that old ch­est­nut of adult ques­tions: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It has long been a mys­tery to me that more young chil­dren do not make this dec­la­ra­tion.

I have not heard it since my own son (now 23) had a brief flir­ta­tion with a Buzz Lightyear suit; he is most def­i­nitely not astronaut ma­te­rial! Those same Year 4 chil­dren were re­cently build­ing and us­ing string phones – the start of space ex­plo­ration at Beeston.

Since the his­toric images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the ex­plo­ration of space has taken on a more dra­matic vein, whether it be mis­quo­ta­tion in Apollo 13 (‘Hous­ton, we have a prob­lem’) or ter­ror (San­dra Bul­lock in Grav­ity). And per­haps there’s the thing; the ut­ter enor­mity of space and time is rather over­whelm­ing for the av­er­age child­hood and our in­ter­ac­tion with space has be­come rather too ‘num­bers heavy’.

Wit­ness, for ex­am­ple, in 2015 the LIGO (Laser In­ter­fer­om­e­ter Grav­i­ta­tional-wave Ob­ser­va­tory, in case you’d for­got­ten the acro­nym!) mea­sure­ment of col­lid­ing black holes some 1.3 bil­lion light-years away which ended the decades-long hunt for

these rip­ples in space–time, or the more re­cent pho­to­graphs of a su­per­mas­sive black hole 55 mil­lion light years away and 6.5 mil­lion time larger than the sun.

Whilst the lives of Coper­ni­cus, Galileo and the Her­schels are rightly noted in schools, theirs are sto­ries of in­di­vid­u­als, from our past, that we can ‘com­pute’. The scale of these more mod­ern achieve­ments is more dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend, given the level of col­lab­o­ra­tion (hun­dreds of as­tronomers in 20 coun­tries) which has less of a ‘story’ to it.

This is per­haps why we were tempted to fo­cus on one el­e­ment: Dr Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old com­puter sci­en­tist who wrote the al­go­rithms for the Event Hori­zon Tele­scope.

Or an­other Katie (Pater­son), a 39-year-old artist demon­strat­ing her en­gage­ment with ‘the great be­yond’ in a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent way. She bought and re­cast an ac­tual me­te­orite (2014) and pro­duced ex­tra­or­di­nary Hub­ble­based images, such as Colour Field (2016).

In the 21st cen­tury we are as likely to en­counter artists, sci­en­tists and the­olo­gians to­gether con­fronting ‘life, the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing’ in a wel­come break­ing down of barriers. The com­mon theme be­tween these Katies is com­mu­ni­ca­tion and con­tri­bu­tion – want­ing to share their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the uni­verse with ded­i­ca­tion, com­mit­ment and imag­i­na­tion, as well as a will­ing­ness to work with oth­ers, out­side their com­fort zones.

Not ev­ery child will want to be the next astronaut, but ap­pre­ci­a­tion – and ex­plo­ration of the uni­verse can be pur­sued on a hu­man level by all and there will be count­less astronaut op­por­tu­ni­ties ahead, even if “I want to be a com­puter sci­en­tist” does not quite have the same ring to it!

ABOVE: “Hous­ton, we’ve had a prob­lem here...” A Year 4 pupil on a string phone

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