A month to learn more about the heavens

April 16, 2011

Eye on Faith and Science

April marks Global Astronomy Month — 30 days that annually bring together astronomy enthusiasts to cultivate interest in sky watching among the general public.

Astronomy clubs, planetariums, observatories, amateur observers and others around the world are sponsoring a host of GAM educational and viewing opportunities. There are online events and even an astropoetry blog.

GAM, organized by a group called Astronomers Without Borders, hopes to ride the wave of enthusiasm about space that accompanied 2009’s Year of Astronomy, an observance the Vatican said could help people better appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

GAM is a great opportunity to introduce youth to the wonders of the universe. I realize that convincing kids to stand under the night sky to learn the constellations or peer through a telescope to spy the rings of Saturn may seem like a tough sell in an age when video games and multimedia entertainment options compete for young people’s attention.

I know because I have a 12-year-old son who, it seems, would spend all day playing computer games if you let him. But I have also heard him express awe at seeing sunspots through a telescope with a solar filter and shout with excitement as he watched the bright streaks of meteors flash across the sky. After such experiences, I typically field a litany of questions from him about the phenomena and why they happen.

Video games are fun, he once told me. But this cool stuff is real. And, he’s been hooked ever since.

I think other kids would get excited about astronomy, too, if they had a chance to experience it the same way. That’s what GAM is all about.

There is still time to take advantage of official GAM events, but you can do a lot on your own, too. Purchase an inexpensive star map and make it a family contest to see who can identify the most constellations. A simple guidebook will explain the mythological stories behind the star formations. (Astronomy magazine has a good website to help kids learn constellations.)

Looking at the moon though binoculars is a pretty awesome sight. The rings of Saturn currently are in position to be seen clearly with a small telescope. And, this month also brings the Lyrid meteor shower (The best viewing conditions will be under rural skies on the night of April 22/23.)

The Vatican had its own astronomy event this month when Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer, gave a talk on faith and science April 7 at the American Academy in Rome.

It was on a hill in that location 400 years ago that Galileo gathered with the top scholars of his era to look through his telescope, an instrument he helped to perfect just a few years earlier. They saw the moons of Jupiter — no doubt an awesome sight for these privileged few.

Astronomy has come a long way since Galileo. Thanks to a variety of cheap and plentiful resources, sky watching is now accessible to anyone who is interested.

So, take advantage of GAM to learn more about heavens. If you have kids, pull them away from the video games for a while to show them the cool graphics God has waiting for them in the night sky.

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About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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