One of the reasons I love speaking to people about astronomy is the range of questions I get asked, from the basic to the obscure. I speak to a lot of people: many school students and amateur astronomers − they’re par for the course − but also many members of the general public, through all kinds of different media. And friends, friends of friends, random strangers on the train and bus… lots.
Over the last year or so, I have occasionally done an evening radio spot on ABC Local Radio here in Sydney. The basic format is a 20-25 minute slot, where the first 10 minutes are spent discussing the week’s astronomy news, while the remainder is left to talkback radio. People ring in with their questions, which range from Nibiru and lights in the sky (they just don’t go away; see previous post) to dark matter, dark energy and life in the universe.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my favourite outreach experiences, so here are two of the questions I’ve been asked during this show that have stayed with me:
- What is a light year?
- What is Dark Flow?
They got asked a week apart, and are pretty much the extreme ends of the range of questions an astronomer is likely to be asked by a member of the general public.
Now, perhaps you might expect someone to ask about something like Dark Flow during an astronomy talkback show. It’s an out-there topic that invokes parallel universes and weird things to do with the fabric of space-time. It’s controversial and I don’t really understand it. To cover my ignorance, I made a joke about how astronomers love the adjective “dark” since it makes us seem like we understand something we haven’t got the foggiest idea about.
A light year, on the other hand, is a standard unit of measure in astronomy, the distance that light travels in a year (travelling at a touch under 300,000 kilometres per second). You could probably look it up in the dictionary. A friend asked me a few days later whether I get frustrated or annoyed by questions like this. The answer is a definite NO! A question like this shows to me that people are engaged and want to know more. These are the kinds of questions to be encouraged!
One of the great things about young kids is their curiosity and inquisitiveness. Sadly by adulthood, most people have this drummed out of them, either because they lose interest, or they’re too afraid to ask a question in case they look stupid. Well, if there’s anyone out there reading this who has a question about the Universe they’ve always wanted an answer for, please go ahead and ask when you get the opportunity!
The oft-quoted Albert Einstein said of questions and curiosity:
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
So all questions are great − even ones about Nibiru − because knowledge is power and misinformation is debilitating.