Memories came flooding back when my niece posted on Facebook the funniest story as told by her three-year-old daughter...
She had drawn a gingerbread man for her older sister. “A gingerbread man in space. And there’s a lot of stars and *all* of the planets. And something difficult that you can’t understand-see that swirly thing? You will never understand that. What’s it called again?”
“A galaxy?” asked my niece.
“Yeah. That’s a galaxy and you will never understand it. Ever.”
And there I was... some twenty-five years earlier or maybe more... with my son who always asked for a cup of tea at breakfast (but did not drink it because he was an addict to hot chocolate). Once brewed, foam would appear on the surface. And the fun would start. He’d dip a spoon and start stirring. And something would take shape. A “swirly thing.” And he’d say: “Look, Maman! A galaxy! I just created a galaxy.”
And he kept creating galaxies... Still does it from time to time but I imagine it’s only for old times sake. We still joke about it.
He was nine when we moved to Brittany. At night, the sky is breathtaking. Almost no light pollution. Our galaxy glitters and twinkles. Popeye bought an ancient astronomical telescope or whatever. More than one hundred-year-old... Imagine its accuracy. Nil.
We did a lot of stargazing over the years and we were getting frustrated. But every time we’d tell Swee’Pea we did want to buy a real telescope, he’d answer: “But we don’t really need one, do we? Just look at the sky. So many people never watch the stars. We do. All the time.”
We started wondering about his future... He was a top student but did not seem very excited about mathematics nor physics. He loved philosophy and history and so many other things.
And then to make a long story short, he really did throw himself into astrophysics...
It all began with an internship at the Meudon Observatory when he was fifteen.
His life was quite harrowing for quite a few years. But he ploughed his way through physics and then astrophysics until one day, he became Dr Swee’Pea with a PhD in astrophysics.
Now, I want you to get one thing straight. Swee’Pea is definitely not an astronomer. He is an astrophysicist for sure.
Actually he chose very early to forego observation. He immersed himself into the invisible to the naked eye, into the invisible to telescopes... into the barely perceptible to space telescopes. He went for galaxies that are hundreds of million light-years away from us... He went looking for the beginning of the beginning of the beginning. (This is the metaphysical part of his studies actually.)
He also added another dimension to his passion.
As soon as he started working on his PhD, he decided to share his dreams of the wide open space right above our heads and the galaxies beyond. And share he did.
He did a lot of voluntary work with young people and children because you see, stars and galaxies are very powerful tools to get lost children back into education and learning.
You start stargazing and dreaming about galaxies and you end up learning and wanting to do something with your life. As simple as that.
This is true everywhere. In France and all over the world. Even in the US, folks.
We tend to focus on food and water and living standards.
And this is good, fundamental, of course.
But we also have a tendency to forget that there are children and young people everywhere in the world who want to learn and study. They can’t and won’t do it. Never ever. For so many reasons.
Developing science and learning through astronomy (and astrophysics) is a perfect tool to help them achieve their dreams of a better future, their dreams of freedom from fundamentalism and obscurantism and their dreams of becoming builders instead of remaining victims of social and economic exclusion.
And what will those children do in turn? "Imagine..." Just like John Lennon's song.
This is what our astrophysicist is doing full time now... Finding ways to bring stars and galaxies to young people... so that their world will become a much better world.
Come to think of it, it all started with some foam twirling round in his cup of tea when he was a child. “A galaxy! This is a galaxy!”
*Good Luck, and Good Night*