Sometimes even the best laid plans, plans laid months in advance, from a far distant country, don’t work out – in this case because of the wonders of nature. Months ago, I googled ‘telescopes in the Netherlands’ and came across a few possibilities. I emailed asking if we could look through their telescopes sometime during our visit. A Dutch Astronomy graduate student in Leiden, called Chris, answered saying he would be delighted. The first couple of weeks we didn’t manage it either because he was busy writing a paper or because of poor weather. Then just when I’d got back from a long drive, from our second visit to ‘Archeon’ (which was just as exciting as the first. We covered some of the time periods we’d missed the first time and saw a ‘real’ jousting tournament! The clank of armour on horseback was an incredible sound!), Chris called and said, ‘Tonight’s the night!’ I really didn’t feel like another long drive, the return journey of which would be at 1am, but I didn’t want us to miss the opportunity of seeing stars through a real telescope, and Chris said possibly a nebula, after our telescope-less Astronomy lessons at home. During our lessons, I’d frequently said, ‘Wow! Wouldn’t it be amazing to see this in real life! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could see that in the Netherlands!’ So, we couldn’t miss out.
We found our way to the pretty University town of Leiden. We could see it was pretty even though it was dark, but only just at 11pm (it gets dark pretty late this far North). We were worried the kids would be tired because they hadn’t even napped on the car journey, but they were too excited. We found Chris in an observatory with a huge antique telescope. We looked through it with baited breath and saw…a tiny bright light, not much different from what anyone would usually see looking up at the sky. ‘Sorry’, said Chris, ‘It’s cloudy and this isn’t a very good telescope’. We tried to hide our disappointment. It had taken nearly 2 hours to get here, by bicycle and car, and the effort of many months and thousands of miles. But we were excited to find that the special chair, that is wheeled under the telescope a bit like a dentist’s chair, that the kids were sitting on, is known as ‘The Einstein chair’ because Albert used to sit on it on his various visits to Leiden to meet with other great minds. We also enjoyed hearing and watching the dome of the observatory open and close (a distinctive, slow grinding sound I’ve heard in movies) and then went to see if we would see more clearly with another telescope albeit another antique.
Chris may have mentioned that the telescopes would be antiques. I can’t remember. There had certainly never been any kind of caveat in our discussions that these telescopes may not be very good for viewing, so we were pretty gutted to find we couldn’t see through the second one either – other than viewing a nearby church spire, which really didn’t do it for us! This was because of the clouds apparently; although I got the impression modern telescopes can cope with cloud cover better than these beautiful old specimens. This one was like a giant, shiny wooden and brass sailor’s telescope. Chris and his friends were trying so hard to find us something to look at. Saturn technically was in view but behind an inconveniently placed tree. The rest of the sky was covered in clouds. They searched and searched but to no avail. We then went up to the roof to at least enjoy a pretty view of twinkling lights over Leiden. After the walk back through the University Astronomy department museum, long small-child toilet stop, we found ourselves outside saying ‘goodbye’, only to look up into that glorious sky and see it filled with stars, blinking at us mischievously. “Where were you when we were up in the Observatory?” we cried in exasperation. They simply twinkled back.
“Do you want to go back up and try again?” said Chris. It was 1am. The kids are young. Chris and his friends had been incredibly hospitable and had really tried their best for us. We admitted defeat. As Chris said, “This is the Netherlands. We always have to deal with these skies.” I refused to walk back to the car dejectedly though. We had given Edward a taste of real Astronomers, cool young people passionate about their subject, studying it at a high level. The taste of real Astronomy, as opposed to Astronomers, had been really disappointing but hopefully he saw that we had at least all maintained our enthusiasm, fascination and hopefulness! Chris talked about how he’d started his fascination with the universe from a book his father had given him aged about 12. It showed to me how you never know what comes from what you introduce your kids to. I felt the main message had been delivered; seeing the skies was something worth driving late at night for, something worth going to great lengths for, something fun to study further. Here’s hoping Edward’s enthusiasm is maintained through slightly dry unit studies and less dry DVDs until the day comes when we can see the wonders of the universe up close for ourselves through a modern telescope on a night with a clear sky.
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IF YOU’RE NEW TO HOMESCHOOLINGMIDDLEEAST, welcome! I highly recommend that you start reading from ‘Day 1’. The fastest way to access this is to look for ‘Archives’ on the right hand side of the home page, click on ‘February 2012’ and scroll down to the bottom of the page that opens. If you want a quick first visit, you could type a term e.g. ‘socialization’ or ‘university’, into the ‘Search’ box or of course you could just read my latest posts without doing anything!
Why I recommend starting at Day 1 is because this is an adventure into homeschooling that is not yet 3 months old and the journey has been a rollercoaster – philosophically and emotionally, catalogued daily for the first couple of months. For you to get the full intellectual and dramatic impact, it’s best to start at the beginning. You might be contemplating home educating and wonder what those early nail-biting days feel like or you might enjoy reading somebody else’s take on an experience you share with me, or you might be more generally interested in my thoughts and feelings on education and parenting. Whatever the reason you’re reading, I’m really humbled that you’re taking your valuable time to do so and I really hope I can be some kind of hope or inspiration for you. Thank you!