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Marvel at the natural wonders above our heads

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 29, 2012

  • The Eden Project will host its third Stargazing Live event, with Brian Sheen, pictured right, leading the way. He hopes children will be inspired by astronomy and science after taking part in a wide variety of activities next month

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Brian Sheen is like one of those Victorian scientist/explorers who defy categorisation. He inspires generations new and old about the wonders of the cosmos, from his home-built stargazing and educational facility at St Stephen near St Austell.

He can wax prolific about the correlation between Cornwall's Neolithic monuments and constellations, his experiences on the front line of Nigeria's civil war with the International Red Cross, or how trekking through the jungles of Honduras and Guinea informed his design of survival equipment. Oh, and he may have found a quarry full of Moon rock.

So it's no wonder when the BBC was seeking South West partners to help stage its Stargazing Live programme two years ago that Brian was an obvious candidate.

Now in its third series, the show has proved hugely popular. It is hosted by comedian and science champion Dara O'Briain and Professor Brian Cox, and past episodes have explored everything from myths of the Moon to life on Mars. BBC Learning has extended its reach with audience-friendly events packed with astronomical interest. An Eden audience of 250 people in 2011 swelled to 2,500 in 2012. Tickets for the 2013 event were booked out by mid-December. Brian Sheen is unsurprised.

"I've always known that the latent interest in astronomy was there," he said. "But it's television personalities like Brian Cox who have fanned the flames. Of course Patrick Moore inspired people for generations before, including me. I still have a postcard from him giving me advice on liquid objective lenses, written when I was in the sixth form.

"A lot of it is about teaching people to do science in a fun way, and that's where programmes like this are great. Kids might go on to have a career in chemistry or physics or biology, but they will find their way back to astronomy in time."

Winter, with its early nights, is a good time for stargazing, and Cornwall does not suffer from light pollution. "Stargazing in January centres on our magnificent winter constellations such as Orion, Taurus, and Canis Major in what's known as the Orion Group," said Brian. "These include some of our brightest stars, and also nebulae such as the Crab Nebula, which actually blew up in 1054. Orion's belt, of course, corresponds to the Hurlers standing stones on Bodmin Moor. But that's another story."

Looking at stars is only one part of Eden's lineup – backup plans are in place in the event of a cloudy night. Brian's Roseland Observatory has teamed up with Eden and Plymouth University's Institute of Digital Art and Technology, to line up a variety of family-friendly activities. Visitors will be invited to experience mysteries of deep space inside an inflatable planetarium, and handle meteorites unchanged since the formation of the solar system 4,500 million years ago. Telescope demonstrations will help amateurs know how to get the best from their instruments and take photographs, and the Goonhilly Earth Satellite Station will show how it is probing the furthest reaches of space.

A lucky few may even drive a model Mars Rover in Shetland from the comfort of Mission Control at Eden.

"That should be good fun," said Brian. "I gather they're going to kit out a village hall in Shetland as a Martian landscape, and people can guide the robot on it."

"I think it will definitely inspire tomorrow's astronomers," said Brian, who is currently preparing his next expedition bringing astronomy to people in western Africa. "I'll have quite a contrast teaching people in Sierra Leone, where I have also been asked for advice on tourism. A lot of people there think the Moon and the Sun are the same size, so it's a blank canvas really."

Martin Williams from the Eden Project said his team was excited to host the show for the third time: "Eden is all about connecting people with nature. We usually focus on natural wonders here on Earth, but we're looking forward to turning our attention to those above our heads."

And so to Brian's theory about the Moon. A widely held view is that it was formed by a planetary collision that scattered dust and debris into the Earth's orbit, which coalesced into our sister satellite. Brian thinks this theory is full of holes. "Gravitationally, it wouldn't work – the particles wouldn't come together that way," he said. "I think that a collision did happen, but instead of making dust, it sheared off a good-sized chunk of a planetary body like the top of a boiled egg, which became known as the Moon. This would explain why its crust is much thicker on the dark side than the near side."

And, drawing on his experience as a chemist and researcher for the English China Clay Company (now Imerys), Brian has found a quantity of Moon-like rock which may back up his theory.

Stargazing Live will be broadcast in the evening on Tuesday, January 8, Wednesday, January 9, and Thursday, January 10, on BBC2.

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