IT’S a damned rotten trick, I know, but I rang up my mum and asked her a simple question, does the Earth go round the Sun, or is it the other way around? She wasn’t sure, but felt the most obvious, correct answer was that the Sun orbits the Earth.

“No, I’m sure about it. Of course it does. But maybe you could ring up a local astrologer?”

Now, my mum is not stupid; she worked as a practice nurse most of the time she wasn’t raising the Hell-hounds that were the five Taylor children. She may get the name wrong but she knows what’s happening in Sierra Leone. And she can bake scones. Mum is not alone on this question. Over half of the adults in the United States of America are similarly vague on the Sun’s orbitary perambulations, so says a study by the National Science Foundation.

I’ve been thinking about all this while homeschooling young Iris recently. At seven, Iris knows the Sun rises in the East and travels across the… “No, the Earth is moving, the Sun stays still!” she shrieks delightedly at me.

To put the whole thing into context and give us all a feeling of insignificance (the kind which Charlie Brown has to cope with) we carried out a little exercise, as suggested by Richard Dawkins in the latest Skeptical Inquirer. We put a leash on the retired cattle dog, (she wasn’t involved in the process but needed to answer the call of nature) collected a pocketful of pins, some peppercorns, a marble and a small orange off the tree. We also carried a plastic ball with pictures of Pocahontas on it.

Coming to a nice large park, we placed the Pocahontas ball at one end, which represented the Sun. Ten adult paces from this we put a pin in the ground, through a sheet of A4 paper, (we feared our planets would get lost amongst the verdant swards.) This pin had the honour of standing in for Mercury. Another nine paces beyond this and a peppercorn represented Venus. March another seven paces and down went Earth, another peppercorn. (At this stage we had to assure the dear little old lady that no, we weren’t littering, we were doing something very important, and asked her to remove her dog which was on the verge of eating ours.) One inch away from the Earth, we put down a pinhead for the Moon. Fourteen more paces to Mars, ninety-five paces to Jupiter (the orange) and one hundred and twelve paces to Saturn, a marble.

As we had run out of park, we couldn’t mark out Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. To show the nearest star, we’d have to fly to Singapore, so we gave that a miss too. It was pretty impressive, and certainly helped put things in perspective, for Iris and us. Space, as Douglas Adams says, is big. We’ve been on this planet only seconds (on a geological time scale) and there’s so much more to find out, but we have got some things sussed — the Earth is not flat, nor does it sit on the back of a cosmic tortoise. We know a few things about the way the world works and yet so few people know the basics. There’s probably some basic basics I could do with brushing up on (like baking scones for one). So how best to teach our children these fundamentals? It’s heartening to see people like Emily Rosa, who at age nine, can do competent, publishable science, even if she did have a little bit of help from her mum [see Touch Therapy Critic Hits Nerve].

Being a homeschooler, the question is closer to home. I hope that we are teaching Iris the wonder of the world, and the wonders of science — that we don’t have all the answers but let’s keep on trying. And testing things — is gravity always on the job? Let’s throw the cat out the window and see.

My mum just rang me back to tell me she’d been sitting there, scratching her head, and thinking back to her school days, and was sure the Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way round. A rocket scientist. Explains where I get it from. (And by the way, I fibbed about the astrologer.)

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