Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Armchair Astronomy - Man on the Moon

Day 9 (Wednesday 9th December 2015)

9% - the amount water expands when it freezes

Today's out-of-this world post comes from Niall Gavin, a much respected learning and development specialist who came into the arena via technology, after a period as a professional actor. Niall writes a great blog, "A Little About A Lot". Niall has had a tough 2015 - including a significant life-saving operation, followed shortly thereafter by being made redundant, so I am very grateful that he has found the time to include a post in this Advent Series. He is active and popular on social media - you can follow him on Twitter via @niallgavinuk. I would like to stress that the following post is NOT a nod to the John Lewis Christmas advertisement (this is much more inspiring). Niall, partially due to his own experiences, is an advocate of the need for lives to have a meaning and purpose.


Being something of an armchair astronomer (you need to know that I know a little about a lot…), I was recently asked to write a short, 300 word piece, on the subject of ‘The Moon’, for a local community newsletter. That was the extent of the brief; so I wrote and submitted the following:

TITLE: "There is no dark side of the Moon really..."

Towards the end of Pink Floyd's seminal 1973 album, Dark Side of The Moon, a character can be heard saying "There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact, it's all dark." Sounds deeply mystical and meaningful, doesn't it? But it's wrong.

We assume that, because we always see the same 'face' of the Moon turned towards us, the other side must be dark. 

However, we see the different phases of the Moon each month - New, 1st Quarter, Half, 3rd Quarter, New - when the sun illuminates it from different angles as it orbits the Earth every 29 days. 

And remember, when we have an eclipse, the Moon comes between us and the Sun and blocks it from view for a few magical moments. At that point 'our' side is the dark side and the Sun is shining fully onto the other side.

Partial lunar eclipse
We also assume that the Moon doesn’t rotate like the Earth does (our 24hr day). But it actually rotates one full turn during those 29 days!

Don't believe me? Draw a Man in the Moon face onto a ping-pong ball (your ‘Moon’), turn it to face another larger, spherical object (your ‘Earth’), and then, WITHOUT TWISTING your hand, move it in a circle round your Earth. You'll see the 'face' eventually turns away from the 'Earth' until, half way round, it has turned its back and faces away from the Earth altogether! To keep the same 'face' towards the earth, you HAVE to twist your ‘Moon’ round so that by the time you return to the starting point, you have rotated it by one full turn. Our Earth Month is one Lunar Day!

The truth is there is no dark side of the Moon really. Full Stop. (End of article)

So why am I sharing this article with you? What has this got to do with comets and coal, and my professional life and interests - or indeed, yours? Well, the clue is the last paragraph, where I suggest a practical exercise to explain the concept. It’s not a theoretical exercise. I wanted to make an out-of-this-world scientific fact into something tangible. Having read up the science bit (fttp://www.universetoday.com/19725/lunar-day/), I did it myself to be sure I fully understood the principle, and then I talked my son through doing the same thing with a grape and an orange, to check that it was an understandable - and do-able - practical exercise. He learned something he didn’t know about our Moon, without us getting bogged down in complex discussions about orbital dynamics and tidal locking.

You see, I’m not a book learner; I need to do and see things for myself for them to make sense. That’s how I developed as an IT trainer many years ago, by learning to use software for myself. For example, any time I had to write a new word processing course, I used the actual software itself to write the course materials – Word, WordPerfect, AmiPro etc. - so I could walk the talk when it came to sharing with my students. It's how I'm learning to blog!

My limited knowledge and understanding of astronomy came initially from buying a pair of binoculars over 20 years ago and pointing them at the moon (I was really trying to see Halley's Comet - never did). I subscribed to an astronomy magazine, which really whetted my appetite to see more. So I bought a telescope and hunted down some of the planets - Mars, Venus, Jupiter - and I will never forget the thrill I experienced the first time I saw the Rings of Saturn for myself through that telescope. Theory became reality by translating it into action, discovery and by looking closer.

Rings of Saturn (as seen by Hubble, NOT via Niall's telescope)
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
That’s how I learn, and I’ve used that approach with many others over the years in IT Learning & Development. Make it real, make it challenging, make it fun and they'll be with you all the way. Don’t, and they won’t.

What are your techniques for keeping your training alive for your learners?

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