The real answer to this question depends of course on where you are when you’re looking – and it can be quite depressing. But this is an “out of the mouths of babes”-type story.
Up to now I’ve focused on dealings with people I’ve had over the phone, whether on live radio, or in my office. This one comes from a primary school visit (that’s elementary school to North Americans) for the Transit of Venus in June this year.
I’m part of a great program called Scientists In Schools, which partners scientists with a teacher at either a primary or high school in Australia. For the transit I went out to speak to one of my partner schools, Toongabbie East Public School. It’s a small school in Sydney’s western suburbs – with only about 45 kids between kindergarten and year 6 – so the principal (who I’m partnered with) invited the other schools in the local area to come along. I gave a presentation about the history of the transit and it’s relevance to Australia, and then talked a little about other planets that transit stars. Mercury transits the Sun occasionally, and we now know about 2300 or more that transit other stars.
So I asked how many stars the kids could see in the night sky from their houses. The first answer was “a million!” – I wish that were the case! The next answer was “a thousand!”, and then “a hundred!”, which sadly in a city like Sydney is not that far from the correct number: it might be around 200-300 in Toongabbie.
I then asked how many stars they’d be able to see if they went out to the middle of Australia and let their eyes adjust to the dark for a few minutes. The first answer: “a million!”, and then “a hundred!”. The little girl who gave this answer was super keen, and was probably about 6 years old. I told her with a smile: “It’s slightly higher than that.” Her response: “a hundred and one!”. This is why I love speaking to kids. 🙂