Rohan Roberts, 24 November 2011
“All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are staring at the stars,” Oscar Wilde has one of his characters, Lord Darlington, say in his play Lady Windemere’s Fan. The figurative message behind those sentiments is clear enough even today, 120 years after that brilliant play was written: We’re all caught up in the rat race–tapping keyboards in a drab office cubicle, fighting traffic, chasing the gravy train, staring blankly at television screens; we’re trapped in bubbles of indifference; entranced by the banal and the tacky; we glorify the mundane and celebrate the trite. That’s us in the gutter of the human condition.
However, there are those who, even as they are trapped in the ditch that destiny has sought to place them in, are staring up at the stars. They’re the dreamers, the existentialists, the philosophers and thinkers, the scientists and seekers of truth, the artists and poets—they’re the ones who know that what really matters is the pursuit of knowledge and the honest expression of creativity.
The Winchester School has its share of students who are dreamers and thinkers and seekers– but none more so than the members of the Winchester Astronomy Club. This group of young budding astronomers spend their Tuesday afternoons talking about black holes and time warps, hyperspace and hidden dimensions, worm holes and time travel. They wonder about quantum entanglement, the fabric of space and the nature of time. They speculate about dark energy and dark matter. They regale each other with stories of ancient myths and modern hypotheses. They’re as curious about the origin of the universe as they are about its possible death. Terms like neutrinos, bosons, and muons trip lightly from their tongue. Thoughts of supernovae, alien intelligence, and light years flow readily from their mind. Discussions on black holes, red giants, and white dwarfs are a matter of routine. These are a group of existential thinkers, if ever there was one.
You can imagine our delight and conceive of our excitement when we realised that the Leonid Meteror Shower would peak on November 17 – a Thursday! That meant we could head out into the desert for some overnight stargazing!
After all the consent forms had been signed and health and safety checks run, we were on the lookout for teachers to accompany us. It was a case of on again off again: Yes-es galore at first, and then a flood of nays. We were stuck for want of adult supervision. Luckily, the gallant Ms Glenda stepped up to the plate, as did Ms Masoumeh, flexing their arms and swinging their bats with eager anticipation. Edeline’s dad, Edward, and Patrick’s dad, Anthony, rode into the arena like valiant knights of yore complete with their 4×4 stallions and dune jousting experience.
Come the afternoon of 17 November and we were all assembled in the school’s foyer. After piling into the assortment of Jeeps, Pajeros and Patrols we were ready to hit the road. Neiha and Priyanka were the keepers of the Celestron CPC 1100 telescope—a beast of a machine that looks more like a Weapon of Mass Destruction than anything else. It was their job to cosset and pamper the telescope and make sure it didn’t take too many jolts and jounces.
By the time we reached the Awir desert the sun had just set. We stopped by a petrol station, bought some firewood, deflated our tyres, visited the last proper loo (or paid homage at the temple of Cloacina, as the poet Byron would have said) and headed off into the dark and sandy bowels of the desert.
One wrong turn, two stuck vehicles, and three quarters of an hour later, we found ourselves in a cosy dip in the desert. The night sky was sufficiently radiant with stars and so we decided that spot would be our camp. We unloaded and pitched tent.
As we had dinner around the bonfire, the students told each other stories about astronomers from the past and about the mythical tales behind the names of the constellations. A remarkable moment was when Moza told us about the story of Orion the hunter, only to find that just as she had finished her tale, the Orion constellation was rising majestically just behind her head in the eastern night sky—complete with the Blue Supergiant, Rigel, on the right and the Red Giant, Betelgeuse, on the left. It was as thrilling a moment of serendipity and happy coincidence as one could hope for.
After a fun astronomy quiz in which students competed like gladiators in the Colosseum for tiny bars of chocolate for every correct answer, we decided to go on our solar system stroll. A large bamboo torch was planted into the ground and it stood for the sun. Six steps forward and another bamboo torch symbolised Mercury. Five more steps and we arrived at Venus. Another four and we were at Earth. By the time we reached Pluto we had walked nearly 600 steps. The activity gave us all an idea of the vastness of the solar system, the loneliness of the outer planets, and the mind-numbing distances at which the sun exerts its gravitational influence over objects.
We trudged our way back to camp, stopping to look at the brightest star in the night sky: the dog star, Sirius. It enthralled us with its scintillating display of blue, green and red hues shimmering ethereally in the night sky. We wondered about the vastness of space and ruminated on the fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of our planet.
Once we got back to camp we lay back and looked up at the stars. The oohs and ahhs of delight as the students caught passing sight and fleeting glimpses of shooting stars was one of the highlights of the evening. Charlie, our resident rock star kept the crowd entertained with a steady stream of melodies strummed from the strings of his guitar.
The last event of the evening was perhaps also the most eagerly anticipated. It was the unveiling and assembling of the telescope. Once it had located itself using GPS and had aligned itself with stellar coordinates, we were ready to gaze at Jupiter and five of its moons. We then slewed the mighty telescope to point at our own moon. The ghostly sight of the lunar surface littered with craters and studded with meteor impacts was a truly memorable one.
But all good things come to an end, and we made our way into our tents in the wee hours of the morning, mesmerised by the magic of the stars and the vastness of space. We bonded together that evening as a group of people united by our wonder of reality and the mystery of existence. As we drifted off to sleep, we each knew in our hearts that the confluence of events and ripples of circumstances that had brought us together for that one special night would never come together again. Those moments were lost forever in the river of time, and no matter how deeply we yearn for those moments of togetherness, they will never come back again.