Wha’ is the stars, Joxer?

Boyle: An’, as it blowed an’ blowed, I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question — what is the stars, what is the stars?

Joxer: Ah, that’s the question, that’s the question — what is the stars?
Boyle: An’ then, I’d have another look, an’ I’d ass meself — what is the moon?
Joxer: Ah, that’s the question — what is the moon, what is the moon?

“Juno and the Paycock”, Seán O’Casey (1924)

 From pretty much the time a baby can focus on the lights overhead he will notice the stars in the sky and wonder about them. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has lasted through the years partly because it resonates with an innate curiosity in all of us to find out exactly what is up there. So you would think something about astronomy or better still cosmology would be on either the Junior Cert Science syllabus or the Leaving Cert Physics syllabus (or here’s a mad idea – why not both?). Not only is it not on either, but in the draft of the new Physics syllabus it doesn’t even get a mention.

Last year at a physics-teachers’ convention we were told that the draft could not be altered significantly and that therefore there would be no mention of stars, galaxies, the Big Bang, or indeed any reference to any of the incredibly exotic objects out there. There would, of course, be a consultation process but this seems to allow for no more than tinkering around the edges. Which begs the question why could we not have been consulted to begin with? Are we not to be trusted?

Presumably it’s still considered much more important to be able to measure the density of a stone than it is to explain the origin of the universe (interestingly you will find the Big Bang mentioned in the Religion syllabus).

 I suppose even if these topics did get mentioned we would somehow manage to distil the wonder out of them like we do pretty much everything else on the syllabus.

Did you know that there are objects in the sky which are about the size of the Earth but which have the mass of the Sun, and which can spin almost 1,000 times a second? Remember our Earth takes 24 hours to do one revolution and yet these guys can spin one thousand times a second! Mad I tell you. Oh, and they were discovered by an Irish woman (they are called pulsars; check out this cool video on YouTube)

 So what should students learn about the heavens? As always, put away the textbooks and look to our colleagues across the so-called ‘two cultures’ divide.

You want to know about galaxies? – sit up straight and listen to Monty Python.

Or how did it all begin? – Try The Barenaked Ladies.

Maybe if we want to attract students back into science we could do worse than start here.

Barenaked Ladies: It all started with the big bang

Monty Python: The Galaxy Song

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