by Paola Castaño
I am writing this post as the world of astronomy directs its gaze to the Rosetta Orbiter approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in order to execute the unprecedented and epic maneuver of landing robotic spacecraft Philae on it. I am also writing this post after a long day that involved a follow-up visit to the Fundación Claret shelter home in Bogotá.
The two events could not seem further apart from each other. The first, the Rosetta Mission led by the European Space Agency, is one of the most sophisticated current scientific undertakings to answer fundamental questions about the formation of the Solar System by means of extracting data from a comet by, yes, landing on it. The second event took place in what we can euphemistically call “a complicated neighborhood” where 140 children between the ages of 6 and 17 live in a small oasis whose tall walls barely separate them from one of the most dangerous drug sale and consumption spots in Bogotá. GalileoMobile manages to create a bridge between these two worlds by moving the wonders of the Universe, and the aspects that make the Rosetta Mission both understandable and exciting, close to the children of Hogares Claret.
Amazement, curiosity and awe. Those are words that describe the smiling faces and open eyes of the hundreds of children who participated in the activities and talks given by the GalileoMobile team in Bogotá. But in the case of Hogares Claret, and perhaps because of the unexpected features of the visit, these reactions were particularly cheerful. The planets, the stars, the comets and the marvels of the Earth joined for a day the shelter’s quotidian effort to recover the lives and hearts of these children who arrived there from experiences of addiction, delinquency, and abuse. After Eva, Fabio and Pilar kindly accepted my invitation to visit the home opening a space in their very busy schedule in Bogotá, they also opened a different window in the minds of these children who could not stop asking questions that definitely exceeded the expectations of the team because they were highly informed and imaginative. The children were so enthusiastic and committed with the activity that, by the time the visit ended, they had to write down their questions on a notebook because time was simply not enough to answer them all, and the GalileoMobile team had to move on to another school.
One cannot help to wonder if the encounter was a mere episode in their lives, or if it will have a lasting effect. There is not a simple answer to these questions. The fact is that today’s follow-up visit, ten days after the first one, was welcomed by an incredibly loud cheer and applause. Some children had left either to go back to their families or to move to a more permanent foster home. Such is the difficultly ephemeral nature of children’s presence in a temporary shelter. But those who had been there for the first visit were excited and kept asking about the foreign scientists who honored them with their visit and talked to them in languages that they had never heard before. They sent messages with Pilar, who returned today, to Eva and Fabio, who had already returned to France and the United States respectively. The children who recently joined the shelter were easily engaged with the Q&A session, and with the new topics that we introduced. This follow-up visit was supported by professor Santiago Vargas from the National Astronomic Observatory at the National University in Bogotá. Santiago, who was part of the Reload Bakatá network of volunteers that accompanied the GalileoMobile expedition, addressed the questions that had stayed in the notebook, which kept on expanding in order to cover aspects related to the history of space exploration. Additionally, with the support of the Museum of Science and Play from the same University, we left an exhibit with posters full of nicely displayed information about the Universe. The exhibit will stay for a week in the walls of the playground where the children usually take their breaks.
GalileoMobile’s approach to communicating astronomy is not one that gives out information or shows highly elaborate data. On the contrary, it is a project that starts a two-way dialogue that learns from the children’s own ideas, and that always asks “How did we find out about this?” “How can we learn with the means that are available near us?” In other words, there is an emphasis on the process by which knowledge is acquired, on the fact that we cannot simply take the things that surround us for granted, and that curiosity and awe are always the starting point of great scientific achievements. These ideas are particularly important in a place like Hogares Claret where developing this sense of curiosity and awe is crucial to remind each child that, in spite of the circumstances, their life is a broad field of possibilities.
As a sociologist currently conducting research on the International Space Station and on scientific divulgation, it has been revealing to meet scientists concerned with the public dissemination of their work. It was a privilege to join and to document the GalileoMobile expedition during the three weeks they spent in Bogotá, and to confirm that great scientists are not only so because of the depth of their ideas and discoveries, but because of their capacity to communicate to others from a place of warmth, respect and care. Far from leaving with a picture of hopelessness regarding the very difficult social problems faced by children in Colombia, the visit to Hogares Claret showed us how it is possible to find new paths of inspiration. GalileoMobile is a vitally important project in contexts where the urgencies of socioeconomic needs and violence might misguidedly make the wonder of the Universe an inaccessible object of luxury.
I finish this post knowing that Philae successfully landed on the comet creating a wave of jubilee because of the scientific promise and great ambition of the project. I also finish this post with the hope of returning next week to the home to show the children images of the landing and to tell them about this achievement. The episode itself is meaningful and they will already have elements to appreciate its relevance for our understanding of the Solar System. But perhaps more importantly, I will return to tell them that the seemingly impossible can be achieved if, no matter where we are, we look up to the stars and step beyond the immediate to ask big questions about the Universe. There are many people in this world who cannot afford to give up on that hope.