A Newly Qualified Teacher's Views on Education

“But Sir, how big is the universe?”

As a Science specialist, I love it when children ask questions like this. Their inquisitive nature is truly inspiring. As adults, why do we tend not to ask questions like this? Why do we not ask BIG questions?

Understanding the scale of the universe is something that we find it really hard to get our heads around, let alone describe it in a way in which children will be satisfied with the answer. I can remember asking my teacher how far the Sun is away from Earth and getting a response such as “really far” or some other inaccurate estimate. My Dad was far more helpful:

After explaining how unsatisfied I was my Dad realised that I needed an answer. He took me to the canal near where we lived. There we took the ‘space walk’ which can give some insight as to how big our solar system is. If you’re lucky enough to live in Somerset then you should definitely give it a go.

This description was taken from http://www.somerset.gov.uk:
The Somerset Space Walk is an attraction that forms part of the Bridgwater to Taunton Canal route. It was designed by inventor Pip Youngman as a way of challenging our perceptions of space and experiencing the vastness of our own Solar System.

In August 1997 British Astronomer Heather Couper opend the Space Walk. It depicts our Solar System as a true scale model and runs the entire 15mile (22 km) length of the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal.

Centred on the Sun at Higher Maunsel Lock, the model shows the planets in their orbits on both sides of the sun. Take your choice, heading to Taunton or Bridgwater the distance to Pluto is 11 kilometres (6.8 miles). For the less hardy the inner planets make a comfortable stroll and there is a tea garden at the lock.

The scale is said to be 530 million:1 and is quite a trek. If you are able to take a class of children to walk from the Sun to the Earth then they will soon realise just how far ‘really far’ is.

Of course, for many this would be a difficult. At the time when I was confused and interested in my place in the universe, we couldn’t ask Google or Wikipedia, so the only way for me to get a feel for this scale was for me to be dragged along the canal. Our world is far more open to us now, for some the idea of taking a stroll along the wonderful Bridgwater to Taunton canal is blissful and an ideal way of spending a Sunday afternoon. For the rest of us, there is another solution:

The solution can be found at www.scaleofuniverse.com. This allows you to drag the slider bar to zoom in and out of ‘the scale of the universe’. I was playing with this for a good few minutes and it reminded me of my adventure on the canal, but less exhausting!

So now when (inevitably) a child says something along the lines of “Sir/Miss, how big is the universe” you can reply, in the style of Jeremy Clarkson, “Aha, watch this!”



Comments on: "“But Sir, how big is the universe?”" (3)

  1. […] Click here to read the original article on the author’s site where you can also comment. […]

  2. Didn’t know about Space Walk, it’d be an amazing school trip if you lived close enough. We weren’t taught about the scale of the universe at school in any detail, would have been useful and interesting. Did see an activity once where children had to use division to reduce the real measurements of the galaxy down until they could mark it all proportionally on a metre stick. Not sure how that’d work with the whole universe though.

  3. I think if the whole universe were mapped on the metre stick our solar system would fit into less than a millimetre!
    The Space Walk is something I’d love to do with a class, or possibly a canal boat ride might be more exciting!
    I remember being taught the solar system in our school but these were just paper mache balloons strung up across the classroom. There was no scale to it which is what I really wanted to know.
    In the scale of things, we’re pretty insignificant!

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