The Gonzo Scientist

Galileo in Senegal

Science  16 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5976, pp. 296
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5976.296-b

When I first glanced out from behind the hut's curtain, the telescope was still standing there, looking weird and lonely in the late afternoon sunshine. Some things just stick out in a remote African village. A telescope on a tripod is one of them.

A little girl cautiously approached it. She was about 8 years old, with her hair in cornrows and wearing an orange dress that flapped in the hot breeze. The girl peeked into the telescope's eyepiece and then yanked back, covering her mouth in surprise. She peeked again. It must have been the strangest sight. Inside the black tube was the mosque at the far edge of the village. But it was much closer than it should have been, close enough to see the rough texture of its mud bricks. And rather than pointing up to the sky, the mosque's roof plunged straight down into a bright blue sea—it was upside down!

More villagers gathered, crowding around the telescope. Because the adults and older boys were out herding the animals, these were children, and mostly girls. They laughed and pushed to see this magic for themselves. I grabbed my video camera and began recording. This was exactly the sort of encounter I was here to capture. (You can see the video for yourself down below.)

The telescope was one of 80 that had been donated by the government of Japan to Katrien Kolenberg, who was sitting next to me in the hut. As well as being the artist for this column, you may remember Kolenberg as the Belgian astrophysicist who likes to chase eclipses in Mongolia. Since then, she has become one of the dozen scientists who spend a couple of months each year as astronomy ambassadors to the developing world for the International Astronomical Union (IAU)—of "Pluto is not a planet" fame. The telescopes are part of the IAU's Galileoscope program, one of the "cornerstone projects" of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Their aim is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's universe-shaking observations—the mountains on the moon, the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter—by enabling people to make those observations themselves.

Although there have been a few bumps in the road for the Galileoscope program, it has achieved its goal of putting telescopes into the hands of millions of people, especially in the developing world. (Read the story of how the Galileoscope program almost didn't happen in this week's issue of Science.) The assumption is that telescopes can make a positive difference in people's lives. I followed Kolenberg to the remote villages of Senegal to test that claim.

This was an extreme test case. The lack of electricity makes for some of the darkest skies in the world. And some villages in this region are so isolated that, at least in terms of astronomical knowledge, it's like winding the clock back to the days of Galileo.

But in a place where the practicalities of life are paramount—keeping livestock healthy, growing crops, preparing for droughts—what could be more useless than a telescope? People might just sell them as trinkets. Or at the other extreme, what if we were met with hostility? After all, when Galileo used his telescope to challenge the prevailing worldview, he was threatened with torture and put under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Should we expect a different reception?

Getting There

The telescopes turned out to be the easy part. Kazuhiro Sekiguchi, an astrophysicist at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, mailed the "You are Galileo!" telescope kits and tripods to Ahmadou Wagué, a laser physicist at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal's capital city on the Atlantic coast. Half were 35X telescopes, half 15X, and both shipped as "easy to assemble" kits. Everything was waiting for us in four large boxes when we arrived.

The hard part was getting to the villages. (The IAU funded the trip, but the logistics were up to us.) Because we knew we'd have a lot of explaining to do, we brought as much educational material as we could carry. That included a laptop loaded with astronomy software and presentations, an elaborate system for powering the laptop and cameras with a car battery, and astronomical posters and books. Beyond this we packed clothing suitable for the Sahel, several hidden envelopes of Senegalese cash—don't expect an ATM out there—and a water filter-pump to prevent dysentery.

Our destination was Senegal's northern drylands known as the Fouta. Only a single road, the national N2 highway, penetrates the Fouta, and only villages along that road have electricity. There is public transportation, of a sort. Entrepreneurs drive minibuses up and down the N2, literally packed with people and often animals as well. Kolenberg decided to rent a car from a friend. She knows the Fouta well. A village called Mboumba is her home base; she first visited 15 years ago through a cultural exchange program and has returned many times since.

Calling the N2 a highway is an exaggeration. Its enormous potholes took a toll on the car's already creaking chassis. Also, the rear wheels caught on fire. (Note to self: Disengage the emergency brake before driving.) But we made it to Mboumba.

My elaborate biosafety plans failed. I fell violently ill within hours of arrival. After several days—emerging as a pale and slightly lighter version of myself—the experiment began.

The Sky as the Internet

When you arrive at a village in the Fouta for the first time, you can't just break out the telescopes. Long before the purpose of your visit is even discussed, you must undergo the greeting ceremony.

It begins with a long exchange of questions—How is your family? How is your home? Your health? Your level of fatigue? Your animals?—to which the answer is either "fine" or "peaceful." The visitor must then shake hands with nearly everyone and, usually, agree to share a communal meal. My clumsy attempts caused giggles. Luckily, Kolenberg knows the ceremony by heart and speaks enough Pulaar to impress even the most skeptical villagers.

She always started with a conversation about the weather and the seasons. And that led, inevitably, to the stars. For Westerners like me, the stars are just a backdrop to our overlit nightlife activities. But for the farmers and herders of the Fouta, the heavens are like the Internet, constantly consulted for crucial information. If you lose your way in the vast, featureless expanse of the Sahel at night, you can orient yourself at a glance. The stars also serve as a calendar. For example, they carefully watch the cluster of stars called Daccuki—known to us as the Pleiades—which disappear below the horizon in May. Once they reappear, the dry season will begin in 6 weeks. Preparing for possible droughts is a matter of life and death.

They even get news from the night sky. A falling star is the worst kind of news. "It announces the death of a very important person," explained one young man in Mboumba. With your eyes, you follow the trajectory of the falling star to its intersection with the horizon, he explained. "That points to the home of the person who will die."

The instinct of many scientists would be to correct such astronomical "misunderstandings." There were many opportunities. For example, people described the stars as animals owned by a shape-shifting shepherd. Sometimes there are few stars in the sky because he is a hungry hyena, culling the flock. At other times, he becomes a hare and allows the sky to replenish. (No one mentioned atmospheric dust or the moon's luminance as a cause of variation in celestial visibility.)

The most revered holy man in the region, the now-deceased grand marabout of Doumgo Ouro Alfa, is famous for finding a "lost star" some decades ago. His grandson told us that it vanished, and thanks to the grand marabout's knowledge—"from a higher plane than our own"—it returned to the heavens. He couldn't tell us when this occurred or the location of the star, which he referred to in French as a "galaxy." (If it was after the 1960s, it may have been an orbiting satellite, surely a strange addition to the night skies.)

But Kolenberg never dismissed or "corrected" these stories. Instead, she listened intently and took notes. When people asked her about her work, the conversation turned naturally to science. I suspect that this respectful approach is why people were so open to the radically different worldview she was offering.

"The Moon Is a Big Ball of Rock?"

After she learned that Kolenberg studies the heavens, an older woman in the village of Wendu Thillé asked her about the moon. "The moon is a big ball of rock," said Kolenberg, pulling out a large, high-resolution photograph of the lunar surface. "And it has mountains," she said, pointing to the moon's Apennine range.

The woman looked baffled. And her next question revealed how different her model of the universe was from ours. "Is the moon above or below the sky?"

Kolenberg paused and then took her farther down the rabbit hole. "It's in the sky," she said. To put it in perspective, Kolenberg pointed to one of the moon's familiar features, the dark plane of dust that scientists call Mare Nectaris. "This distance," she said, spanning the feature with her fingers, "is the same as from Dakar to Wendu Thillé." (It is about 300 kilometers across.)

The woman was surprised by the size of the moon. But when Kolenberg went on to claim that people had actually visited the moon—walked around on it and returned home—the woman cocked her head as if she had misheard. As evidence of the feat, Kolenberg unrolled a poster-sized version of the famous "Earthrise" photograph taken during the 1968 Apollo mission. In the foreground is the gray landscape of the moon. And above, suspended in a black sky like a cloudy droplet of water, the whole of Earth.

The woman was silent as she studied the image. Kolenberg pointed to Earth in the photo and asked the woman if she knew what that was. "The moon?" said the woman uncertainly.

With the help of a translator, Kolenberg explained that the blue ball was the entire world, photographed by the men visiting the moon. "These are the clouds," she pointed out. (Photography is not a foreign technology in the Fouta. Even in remote villages, people own old photographs of famous holy men. They understand the basic concept.)

It could have gone either way at this point. If I were that woman, I thought to myself, I would walk right out of this hut. This description of the universe must have seemed like a joke. But the woman fired off another question. "What are the clouds?" she asked. "And how far away are they?"

Kolenberg explained that clouds are made of water and are about 20 kilometers away at their highest. "That's about the same distance as from here to Mbolo Biram," a village to the east. She pulled out a big pad of paper and drew Earth, the clouds, the moon, and just the edge of the sun. From Earth to the moon, 384,000 kilometers. From Earth to the sun, 150 million. "The stars are much, much farther away," said Kolenberg. "And each star is like our sun."

After a reflective pause, the woman burst out laughing. We had found her tipping point.

See for Yourself

Video: "Galileo au Senegal"

[For a high-definition version of this video, go to http://gonzolabs.org/galileo.]

"Salo jeewde naangué ngué!" Kolenberg reminded the youngsters for the 20th time. A sticker on the outside of the telescopes stated the same thing in English: "Never look at the sun!" But that wouldn't do any good. Few people in the Fouta's tiny villages speak French, let alone English. "Salo jeewde naangué ngué!" she repeated. The youngsters nodded and assured her that they understood. Then they grabbed their tripods and followed her outside, yipping with excitement like puppies. Soon the only light would be from the stars and moon.

By now, one thing about the IAU's Galileoscope program was clear. Distributing telescopes to the developing world is a great idea. But those telescopes have to come with an educator. And it's not just to prevent blindness.

By the time she was done with her visit, having taught dozens of astronomy workshops ranging from single families to entire villages, Kolenberg was a pro at assembling the telescopes. But the first attempt was challenging, even for an astrophysicist. We also discovered the hard way that not everything is included in the box—such as glue. (Luckily, a teacher in Mboumba had some.)

More importantly, a telescope alone is unlikely to change someone's world. It takes finesse to point and focus small telescopes like these. And if you don't know what you're looking for, it's hard to notice—let alone appreciate—the delicate blue spray of the Pleiades or the rings of Saturn (which look like ears on a cantaloupe).

But with Kolenberg standing next to their telescopes, the people of the Fouta had a cosmic ball. Of course, the moon was the showstopper. One practical problem that we hadn't anticipated was its angle. During many of our observations, the half-full moon was directly overhead. Uncomfortable contortions were required to view it. But the lunar craters and mountains were perfectly clear at 35× magnification, as if viewed out the window of an airplane.

Did it change anyone's life? That's hard to gauge. To the children, Kolenberg herself was more fascinating than any supernova. One boy did declare his intention to become an astronaut. As for the adults, it's not clear whether we had any effect on their worldview. But then, that wasn't the intention. "My goal was to promote interest in science among young people," says Kolenberg, "especially girls." She'll have a chance to do more of that in November when she returns to the Fouta for a second visit. She'll be nurturing the region's first astronomy club.

The telescopes are in the hands of teachers now. After her visit, one of the teachers called Kolenberg from Mboumba on a cell phone. "I am using the telescope right now to look at the moon!" he said. He just wanted her to know.

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