x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Teen life: A star-studded family affair

Despite her best efforts, one teenager enjoys a school astronomy event.

A school astronomy event is not Lavanya Malhotra's first choice for an evening out.
A school astronomy event is not Lavanya Malhotra's first choice for an evening out.

As part of Science Week, my school decided to hold an astronomy evening. My superior listening skills ensured that I was too busy focusing on more important things in life to pay any heed to the announcement made, if there was any. I like to attribute the poor turnout to the fact that no one had told us about it. As luck would have it, of course, Mum read about it in the school e-bulletin and made up her mind that my education would be disastrously lacking in sufficient scientific exposure if we didn't go. The "parents are encouraged to accompany students" was met with particular excitement. My storming and raging about a good free evening wasted was carefully ignored. And to think there's all the talk about freedom of speech and movement.

When I was prompted to hurry up and get ready on the night, I made a conscious effort to keep a stream of discouraging remarks going in the car, like "It's too cloudy to go looking at the sky" and "I can't see any stars now. We probably won't be able to see any from the school." The only response I managed to receive was: "Telescopes were invented for a reason. Don't make a fuss." Once in school, we walked to the field. It was quite difficult to see without floodlights on, so we walked around looking for any signs of astronomy evening for a good 15 minutes. Finally, a caretaker approached us and asked if he could help. No doubt we looked suspicious. When enlightened of the situation, he made a few phone calls and then turned to us. "Astronomy evening is cancelled for today. It's too cloudy to see stars."

It was all I could do to not grin from ear to ear and say: "Told you so." Game one to me. A couple of days later, secure in our knowledge that the event was to be held that evening, we strolled to the field a second time. We were greeted by the heartening sight of other kids - also accompanied by parents and therefore looking suitably abashed - and telescopes focused on different stars. I joined the largest crowd of children and teachers, excitedly huddled around a telescope pointed at Mars, and took a peek. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" A physics teacher looked extremely pleased with himself. "You can make out the distinct red colour, the resolution is so good."

"It's nice," I told him, then hurried away to another telescope. The atmosphere was buzzing with kindliness and celebration of our existence in this vast universe, but as much as I was enjoying it, it wouldn't do to make it too obvious. This telescope presented the opportunity to observe the Pleiades star cluster. "Middle-aged, B-type stars," someone informed me. "Also known as the Seven Sisters." I tried to think of something to say to this, and finally came up with an interested "Oh?"

I weighed the consequences of asking what he meant by "middle-aged, B-type stars", then decided not to risk seeming too ignorant. Perhaps he meant they were past their prime and so didn't glow too brightly. Or they had been created in the Middle Ages. To think that I will pass the rest of my life left in suspense about what is special about a middle-aged, B-type star. My dad took control of an unused telescope, and pottered about with it for half an hour. When I asked what he had managed to achieve after all that fiddling, he stepped back from the telescope. "I've focused it," he notified me proudly.

I expressed how impressed I was. "So. What's it focused on?" "A star," came the prompt reply. When I wondered, out loud, what star it was, he pointed vaguely at the night sky and happily announced, "That one." My dad the observant astronomer. More constellations and nebulae awaited us, and I even queued up to try out a star finder machine that belonged to one of the teachers. Point it at any star and it would tell you which star it was - and provide gigabytes of information about it. I thought about using it to identify the star my dad had focused a telescope on so cleverly, but my turn to use the contraption never came.

A teacher finally announced that we would soon be seeing Saturn quite clearly. It should become visible in a few minutes, resplendent in all its ringed glory. We eagerly began our wait for what was presumably the highlight of the evening. That was when, as always happens when I decide to do anything, the sprinklers came on. My clothes dripping, I quietly but triumphantly led my wailing parents to the car park. After drying herself in front of the AC, Mum's probably made up her mind that this is the last time she'll make me do anything.