Supermarket Astronomy

Last night I went to the supermarket to buy some food. However, the lady at the checkout was unusually talkative and it turned out that she was going to start a course in law, in the near future. To be polite, she asked me what I do, and I rather sheepishly said that I studied astronomy.

I like the reaction I get from people when I say that; they usually perk up and say something along the lines of "Oooh, really? Do you know Patrick Moore?". (For those not from the UK, Patrick Moore has presented a television programme about astronomy on the BBC for almost fifty years. He is probably the only astronomer that most people in this country could name.) I was then asked about the 'thing' that happened in 1999 ("Was it a full moon or something?"). "Oh you mean the total eclipse of the Sun" I said, and she got excited and insisted that I repeat it so that she could write it down. It turns out that her son (I think) was born during the solar eclipse of 1999. I did explain that eclipses weren't as rare as she thought, with one usually occuring every eighteen months or so, but it is rare to see them from the UK. I then went on to demonstrate how an eclipse works using two packets of crisps.

Unfortunately, the conversation then inevitably turned to astrology. I find it depressing that people can tell you their 'star-sign' (and most of her family's star-signs too) but don't know how a total eclipse occurs, or know that you can see planets without looking through a telescope. People who think that the planets and stars govern their lives (according to Watching the English, 31% of the UK population believe in astrology), often know very little about the Universe around them.

Part of the trouble these days is that fact that it is harder and harder to see stars from within our cities, so people have stopped looking upwards at the beauty and spectacle of the Universe. The people who turn to astrology to add magic to their lives, should try looking though a telescope. I have found that people are always amazed the first time they see Saturn or Jupiter through a reasonably sized telescope. I think I'm going to have to do some pavement astronomy in the supermarket car park.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 26th Apr 2005 (10:26 UTC) | Permalink
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