x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A glance skywards offers a look at our future

From viewing Venus to learning about Bertrand Piccard's transcontinental flight in a solar-powered plane, teenagers have had plenty of opportunities to get excited about science.

Recently, the planet Venus could be seen traversing the space between Earth and the sun, appearing as a black dot upon the solar surface. This marked a thrilling time for teenage astronomers-to-be. A viewing station was set up at my school, which was frequented - voluntarily - primarily by eager 13-year-olds. This was because they were old enough to know all about eclipses but too young to know to disguise their enthusiasm with the "Like, whatever" facade behind which most older teenagers choose to take refuge.

However, their cause for excitement was not misplaced. It will be another century before the same celestial spectacle occurs again, and the extraordinary exhibit led young people worldwide to don sun-viewing glasses, making us look like technologically advanced mutant flies.

This was to be, we were promised, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What with global warming and all the fast food places everywhere, none of us is likely to live to more than a hundred to see it again.

"Whoa!" Shanzeh cried, as she gaped heavenwards, viewing-glasses on her nose. "There's Venus. It's absolutely massive! And, like, yellowy- orange!"

I squinted. "Yeah, that would be the sun," I nodded wisely. "I think Venus is the little black dot on it." What was visible of Venus may not have been much bigger than a pinhead, but I'm glad I witnessed it.

Teenagers would probably be loath to admit that any of us seized the opportunity to observe a planetary phenomenon. However, these past weeks have given young scientists plenty to chew upon.

A Swiss gentleman, Bertrand Piccard, became the first person to make a transcontinental flight in a completely solar-powered plane. His craft, Solar Impulse, flew from Madrid to Rabat relying on 12,000 solar cells - a definite advancement on something we use every day, the solar calculator.

It offered a heartening glimpse of our future. This could spell the beginning of an era in which humans will work more extensively than ever towards using our knowledge of science to protect the environment. The adults might have left a mess of greenhouse gases and an ostentatious lack of fossil fuels for teenagers to inherit. It's encouraging to note that Piccard is just one of the many working to do something about it by propounding sustainable means of transport.

Perhaps in honour of an enlightening time for people with a scientific bent of mind, we also recently had an inflatable planetarium in our classroom. They're fascinating things. You crawl in through a little tunnel with space age floor illumination and suddenly you're in a huge dome with the night sky twinkling around you. You can have hours of fun pointing out constellations corresponding to your star signs and yelling "Boo!" to anyone who's just come in and hasn't got their eyes to adjust to the dark yet. Who says it's useless trying to engage teenagers in science?