A Secret of the Universe - age 10

 

I was just ten years old in the third year of junior school when sports day was rained off. While a downpour drenched the playground, all the pupils, about three hundred of us, crowded into the main hall in the hope that the rain was just a passing shower. After several minutes it became obvious that it had set in for the duration.

To my surprise I was summoned from the throng by my class teacher, Miss Patterson. She was a middle-aged spinster and an inspiring teacher, who enriched our education with visits to interesting places, and I thought she was wonderful. Taking me to one side, she asked me a surprising question.

“Would you be prepared to give a talk to the school about your hobby?”

“Which one?” I asked. At the time I had two great passions in life, namely archaeology and astronomy.

“I was thinking about astronomy,” she replied.

“What would I talk about?”

She got me to write out a plan, which comprised a list of all the subjects I might cover. These included the solar system, the sun, stars, nebulae and galaxies, how the universe began, the moon, meteors and meteorites, comets and anything else I could think of. I was going to adlib my way through these subjects in the hope that I would not bore the other pupils to death.

I have only a few memories of that day, but they have stayed with me throughout my life. I think, or at least hope, the children managed to stay conscious for the length of my talk. I duly mounted the stage to impart my specialist knowledge. This was probably just a few basic facts under each subject heading, and it went reasonably well until I described the discovery that I found the most interesting. I explained it like this.

“Do you know that when you look up at the sky at night and see the stars, what you see is not really there?”

That little gem caught their attention. It even stopped the three girls in the front row who kept up a silently-mouthed chant of ‘Show off, show off, show off’, for me to lip-read from the stage. Their expressions changed in unison to blank bewilderment.

Miss Patterson prompted from the side of the stage that I should expand on that statement. I said it was quite simple. Some stars were so far away that their light had not yet reached us, while some others were so far away that, even though they might have imploded, exploded or generally died, their light was still travelling towards us (at the speed of 86,000 miles per second), so we could still see them.

Miss Patterson encouraged me to explain how we knew the unseeable stars existed when they were as yet invisible to us. I explained that there were all sorts of signs detectable through giant telescopes that indicated where such phenomena occurred. That seemed to be a leap too far for the patience of my audience, and I could see that I was losing them, so I gave up on that one.

My other abiding memory of that day was the reaction of some of the boys to my apparently startling revelation that what they saw in the night sky was not really there. They approached me after the talk, and I prepared myself for a carefully considered question. Their spokesman stepped forward and made a pronouncement.

“You’re mad.”

Thus ended my day in the limelight.

© Leo McNeir 2017