By Eva Ntormousi

In 2014 two of us were invited, as members of an outreach program, to spend a couple of weeks in Bogota, Colombia and talk with children in different schools about astronomy. Needless to say I was more than excited to say yes to this, not only because of the destination, but also because I really enjoy sharing my love for science with people.


Now the outreach program in question, like many astronomy outreach programs, is very simple in its intentions and in its implementation: we travel to places and try to initiate a conversation with young people about about the Astronomy and the Universe.  In the process we eventually find out which of their questions can be answered by science.   What fascinated me when I first got involved in outreach, is that actually, most of them are! It seems that people of all backgrounds and cultures do have important questions to ask and interesting stories to tell about their relationship to the sky.


However, in this trip we had a rare opportunity.  While we usually visit public schools for a couple of days and do some simple experiments or chat with the children, this time we were invited by a friend, who was a social worker in the area, to visit a home for children who were either victims of abuse or their parents had been incarcerated, or kidnapped.  We accepted, but without knowing what environment to expect.  


When we arrived there on a bright, warm morning (quite unusual during our stay in Bogota, I have to say), I realized I was getting into a world in which don’t belong.  Not only by the suspicious stares of the people in the neighborhood, but also by the strict environment inside the home itself.  It didn’t feel like a school, the way the children were treated felt so distanced, almost military.  They were brought in in a well-structured queue, they chanted a song all together and then presented themselves, each in his own detached voice. (I reflected a lot on this fact later on until I realized why it sometimes must be so; but that is probably an article, or better a thesis, in itself.)


This initial shock faded once we started chatting with them about astronomy.  We went on a virtual journey around the solar system, we talked about galaxies, and the Big Bang.  The children were happy to interrupt, ask questions, participate.  It felt like any other day at any other school.  But then the initial sensation of strangeness came back to hit me in the open discussion part of our visit.  I couldn’t help but notice that most questions were related to other worlds: could parallel universes exist?  Is there another Universe where we are doing different things, living a different life?  How could life be on other planets, or other galaxies?  And finally, the one-million dollar question that came from a young man who had been sitting quietly at the back all that time: “How come your lives are so cool and ours suck?” 


Indeed.  How come?  Here I am, a highly educated person, with a salary that covers all her needs, who grew up in a loving home and has the chance to fulfil her dream, talking to children whose innocence was stolen from them, who have known violence and who, if they could even afford to dream of becoming scientists, or artists, they would have to overcome superhuman obstacles.  And yet, and yet, those children sat there with us, listened to every word until the end, imagined those distant worlds and wanted to learn more.


I have to say that, even with all the love I received during those few hours of our stay, that question felt like a dagger in my heart long after we left.  Of course, science cannot answer that young man’s question. If I could, I would probably not spend another moment writing this post because I would have to go out and do something about it. But the most fundamental question at that moment, and even right now is, what is our outreach goal when we talk to a person, or a community, whose everyday life is so difficult that they cannot dare to dream?


The answer I gave to myself, and which I think I had in me all along is that, more than science, astronomy is an escape route.  Finding out that your life, your consciousness, is the result of billions of years of cosmic events, that each of your atoms had to travel  vast distances to end up making your body, but still feeling how little this all matters for the order of the world lifts a lot of weight off your shoulders, I believe. You can smile for a moment as you distance yourself from your pain, great or small as it may be and see your existence as a grand Universe’s wink of an eye.


It’s not a satisfactory answer, I know.  It is neither a cure for the pain or a solution to the problem.  But I do believe that knowing there is beauty out there in spite of all the suffering, that there will always be beauty out there no matter what and that it is accessible to all of us, any time, is a comfort.  If as many of us as possible can know that while we are still alive, maybe there is even hope we can start solving our Earthly problems.





eva ntormousiEva Ntormousi is an astrophysicist working at CEA, in France. She received her PhD from the Ludwig-Maximillins University of Munich in 2012. She has been involved in astronomy outreach since 2009.