Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Stargazing Live: Australia

Rare sunshine at Jodrell Bank

On the day that Theresa Mayhem unleashes the hell of triggering Article 50 on the UK, it's good to be served a reminder of how insignificant our country and planet is in the grand scheme of things. And there is nothing like a spot of staring at the heavens to do just that. We are but a microscopic dot amongst billions of stars.

Stargazing Live has temporarily moved to Australia, probably because it's always cloudy and raining at Jodrell Bank, which kind of defeats the object of the programme. Although today it looks like the stargazers have moved directly into the path of Cyclone Debbie instead, which makes your average Manchester rain seem rather tame in comparison.

Plus from Oz you get an angle on the Milky Way that you just can't see from Europe. A scale model of the galaxy shows us where our solar system lies, on a surprising diagonal (which apparently explains why Australia gets a different view to us). Our solar system is the tiniest line on the Milky Way, which is itself just a weeny fraction of the galaxy. And then there's a whole lot more universe after that. As I say, it makes Brexit seem irrelevant. Almost.

It's presented as usual by Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain, who are sitting beside an empty billy can swinging above a campfire. You can reach them on Twitter. The sun is rising over there just as it's setting here. Saturn's rings are on good form, and the last star left in the sky is actually Jupiter. All of which should encourage the audience in its search for the elusive Planet 9 in our solar system. Apparently we aren't done with Pluto - there's another one out there somewhere.

A slightly eccentric stargazer tells us how the Aborigines use the stars to plan their farming. Another shows us how his bald head has come to resemble an observatory, and explains how telescopes don't take photos any more, but instead use fibreoptics to gather data about something I couldn't even begin to understand. Personally, I'm still big on the photographs, because I want to see what's up there and - well, they are rather pretty. Then there's the man who used the radiotelescope to communicate with the doomed Apollo 13 expedition. And then there's a group of people trailing through the blazing desert to try and find a tiny meteorite that has fallen from a comet. They are risking sunburn and dehydration - not to mention spiders, snakes and all sorts of other scary creatures. They can't talk much for fear of swallowing a fly.

But for Dara, trying to release his inner Attenborough (and badly), it's all about the kangaroos. Here they go, the giant "bouncing mice" hopping round and round the observatory. But then he goes and calls Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott "Clint Liftoff". That's what you get for talking too fast. Brilliant.

I highly recommend a visit to Stargazing's usual home at Jodrell Bank, by the way. We went last summer during a trip to Wilmslow. The sheer scale of that telescope is mind-blowing. And it rotates on train tracks. A lot of the Discovery Centre probably went over our reception-age daughter's head (I'd say age 8 plus and you're on to a winner), but she enjoyed a tour of the "history of creation" garden, moving the planets around the sun in a ceiling mobile of the solar system, talking to me through the "whispering dishes", dressing up as an astronaut and making a flag to stick on the moon. I also like to think that some of the interactive science exhibits about black holes in the Space Pavilion may have sunk somewhere into the back of her mind for future reference.

Apparently Brian Cox was on Postman Pat this morning. I wish my daughter wasn't growing up so fast and therewith growing out of CBeebies. I might have to sneakily watch it on iPlayer. Because I sure as hell don't want to see Nigel Farage's gloating face on the news today.

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