the baby in the mirror

You are here

The Vela Pulsar, a neutron star corpse left fr...Image via Wikipedia

‘Dad?’

‘Mm?’
‘How do stars explode?’
It is early on a Monday morning. The alarm clock has beeped once. I’m not even going to think about getting up until it has done it again.
‘I don’t know.’ But I should know. ‘We’ll look it up later.’
There’s a pause. Isaac, five, is supposed to be having a sleepy cuddle with both of us. But his curiosity knows no Monday-morning lethargy.
‘What happens to all the gravity out in space?’
‘Um… I don’t know.’
‘Why do they have cameras out in space to take pictures of the planets? Is it to see if the planets are OK?’
The Hubble Space Telescope: a kind of safety camera for our orbiting rocks. I can’t think of any way to improve on that interpretation, so I say yes.
‘Dad?’
‘Mm?’
‘Will you get up with me now?’

Readers will know that Isaac is quite the philosopher. Having reached the limits of my knowledge about death, God and whether a cheetah can run faster than a car, he is turning his thoughts to the cosmos. And I’m learning how little I know. In the International Year of Astronomy, that would seem to be timely problem to fix. I wouldn’t mind starting with Christopher Potter’s voyage around the cosmos, ‘You are Here’ (see the carousel, bottom right, for a link). You can read a Guardian interview with Potter here.

As with many who have mused on the stars, Potter’s fascination began in childhood. As I describe in my own book, understanding where you fit in to the universe is just part of children’s general project of making sense of where they are in time and space. But the research I describe in Chapter 13 (‘The Young Doctor Who’) also suggests that knowledge about cosmology might progress relatively independently of other kinds of knowledge, such as biology or physics. Turning to the heavens may not necessarily be a sign that a child is fully conversant with the rules of life on earth. Knowledgeable he may be about the moons of Jupiter and the death of stars, but Isaac still gets hopelessly confused about whether he can go round to play with his friend Elina in Australia. As Potter might agree, you can be a poet of the heavens while still treading clumsily on the earth.

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