“The Fairy Tales of Science”

September 10, 2009 @ 8:34 pm | Filed under: , , , ,

What we read today (an excerpt; “the astronomer” is a boy named Dick, who is stargazing with his sister, Dorothea):

“Got it,” he said. “Just over the top of the hill. Come and see it.”

Dorothea joined him. He pointed out the bright Aldebaran and the other stars of Taurus, and offered her the telescope.

“I can see a lot better without,” said Dorothea.

“How many of the Pleiades can you see?”

“Six,” said Dorothea.

“There are lots more than that,” said Dick. “But it’s awfully hard to see them when the telescope won’t keep still. How far away does it say the Pleiades are?”

Dorothea went back to the fire and found the place in the book.

“The light from the group known as the Pleiades (referred to by Tennyson in ‘Locksley Hall’)…”

“Oh, hang Tennyson!”

“The light from the group known as the Pleiades reaches our planet in rather more than three hundred years after it leaves them.”

“Light goes at one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second,” said the voice of the astronomer in the darkness.

But Dorothea was also doing some calculations.

“Shakespeare died 1616.”


“Well, if the light takes more than three hundred years to get here, it may have started while Shakespeare was alive, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps. Sir Walter Raleigh may have seen it start…”

“But of course he didn’t,” said the astronomer indignantly. “the light of the stars he saw had started three hundred years before that…”

“Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. Bows and arrows.” Dorothea was off again.

But Dick was no longer listening. One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second. Sixty times as far as that in a minute. Sixty times sixty times as far as that in an hour. Twenty-four hours in a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. Not counting leap years. And then three hundred years of it. Those little stars that seemed to speckles a not too dreadfully distant blue ceiling were farther away than he could make himself think, try as he might. Those little stars must be enormous. The whole earth must be a tiny pebble in comparison. A spinning pebble, and he, on it, the astronomer, looking at flaming gigantic worlds so far away that they seemed no more than  sparkling grains of dust. He felt for a moment less than nothing, and then, suddenly, size did not seem to matter. Distant and huge the stars might be, but he, standing here with chattering teeth on the dark hill-side, could see them and name them and even foretell what next they were going to do. “The January Sky.” And there they were, Taurus, Aldebaran, the Pleiades, obedient as slaves…He felt an odd wish to shout at them in triumph, but remembered in time that this would not be scientific.

—from Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome,
one of the Swallows & Amazons books

Where it took us:

* We read the opening of “Locksley Hall,” a long and complex poem which I enjoyed thinking my way through later in the day. With the kids, I read and discussed the first several stanzas, all of us lingering especially over:

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

* Of course after that we had to see the Pleiades. Discovered Google Sky. Oh. My. Goodness. Truly, we live in an amazing age.

* Spent a long time playing with Google Sky, looking up many constellations including all those mentioned in the Winter Holiday chapter. Rose told me the story of Orion being chased by the serpent, and we read the legend of the Pleiades, those seven sisters, daughters of Atlas. Beanie fetched D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths because both she and Rose wanted to read me several relevant passages.

* Hunted up our copy of Rey’s Find the Constellations and read about the different magnitudes of stars, among other things.

* Rose found Sirius, the Dog Star, her favorite star, says she, because she loves Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel, Dogsbody, so.

“Here about the beach I wandered,” Tennyson’s poem continues, nourishing a youth sublime / With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time…”

I don’t know about “sublime,” and we’d have to substitute “internet” for “beach,” I suppose, but yeah, it was a pretty nourishing morning.

Want more poetry? This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is at Wild Rose Reader.

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15 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    Wow. We did astronomy today too, but not so much fun – our poet was Macauley, our story Jason and the Argonauts. We enjoyed ourselves but gosh the difference between parent-set and delight-led learning is great!

  2. Sarah N. says:

    I love the beautiful connections your girls make to what you’re reading. What a wonderful exploration you went on. We’re going to have to check out Google Sky. I have Astronomy Picture of the Day in my reader and we often check out the cool pictures. Here’s the link if you don’t know about it: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

  3. Sue says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m going to have to share a bit of Tennyson with my son who likes to write poetry. He enjoys rhyming and imagery, and is getting old enough to appreciate the fact that famous poets wrote wonderful poems in that style. I think rhyming has rather fallen out of fashion with modern poets (except for children’s poets), but I really enjoy the way poets used to make it all sound so effortless and lovely.

  4. Elizabeth@Frabjous Days says:

    Gosh! We listened to this on CD while I drove through a particularly tricky bit of west London — so the references went completely by the by… Ah well, there’s always next time!

  5. Ellie says:

    S&A — oh, my: I devoured those books when I was a child. None of my kids like them, though.

    Google Sky is one of the things Eli does with the kids when I need to be away for a bit. They have all learned a shocking amount, playing with it.

  6. Meredith says:

    HELLO on the Google Sky thing, how cool is that!!! Fun day 🙂

  7. Janie Wilkerson says:

    Wow. Your rabbit trails are dreamy. That is all. 🙂

  8. MelanieB says:

    I LOVE Swallows and Amazons! Haven’t read Winter Holiday yet, though. What a treat to look forward to.
    Next you should read the stargazing chapter in Prince Caspian.

  9. kort says:

    sounds like the tide is high!

  10. Jeanne says:

    How would we homeschool without D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths and Rey’s Find the Constellations?

  11. Plain Catholic says:

    Oh aye; we enjoy star gazing with our huge old binoculars. We also like to watch the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers in the wee hours of the morning. God’s own fireworks, that. You can follow the meteor showers blog too

    God bless you.

  12. Joann Estis says:

    Do not miss Google Ocean. After Winter Holiday, the kids put Morse Code on the wall in chalk. They still use it. They also love Semaphore… “Mom, guess what I’m saying.”
    “uh,uh Y-M-C-A??” LOL
    We so love Swallows and Amazons. The very threat of being a duffer is enough to shape up a recalcitrant crew member!