09:00 AM | An Astronomer by Stealth (Week 01)

Once upon a time, I was good at space.

I wasn’t an Einsteinian prodigy or anything. At three years old, I still had the approximate mathematics skill of, well, a three year old; you’d be disappointed if you expected to walk in on me solving the dark energy problem, rather than rolling around butt-naked playing with Thunderbird 3 and eating peanut butter-and-jam sandwiches.

But I was decently good. At the same age, I’d memorised the planets. My childhood literary diet was less picture books, and more looking at the illustrations in space encyclopaedias. A little while later I had a sort-of-layman’s understanding of the stellar life cycle, if you removed all the complicated bits. I got a telescope for my 11th birthday.

Battered though it may be, I still have a copy of The Big Book Knowledge in my old bedroom.

And when that train stopped, I held onto the quality for dear life, a kind of constant in my estimation of my own intelligence.

It was fine that I was no longer the cleverest boy in year six, because I’m good at space.

It was fine that I dropped Triple Science at GCSE, because I’m good at space.

It was fine that I didn’t take a single science subject at A-Level, because I’m good at space.

It was fine that I chose to study Creative Writing at University, because I am, after all, good at space.

Of course, eventually a primary school understanding of the cosmos will only get you so far in the academic race, and I quietly and slowly accepted that my friends who were taking subjects like Astrophysics and Geology probably knew more about the world we live in than I do. Being able to name a hefty total of nine planets was no longer an adequate method for impressing your mates, especially when only eight of them technically counted.

I still loved space, obviously – you don’t lose a fascination like that. But the idea of taking it seriously had become a faintly embarrassing memory. I’d watch popular science documentaries presented by charismatic Northerners and think “Hey, remember when I used to want to do that sort of thing?”. I’d look at the physics homework of my college friends and feel quietly thankful that I didn’t have to try and comprehend the numbers and squiggly lines. My telescope grew dusty in the attic.

The Integrated Science Center at SUNY Geneseo, where most Astronomy classes take place. Like my hometown, Geneseo is considered one of the best spots in its country for sunsets.

In 2019, I travelled, with the help of a few bursaries, to the State University of New York at Geneseo for an exchange semester. Liberated from the shackles of reflective writing essays and whatever “Ideation and Creative Problem-Solving” was supposed to be, I was free, essentially, to choose whatever I wanted to study.

In what might have been a culture shock-induced wave of nostalgia, I signed myself up for an Astronomy class – because, hey, if I’m as hopeless as I suspect, none of these transatlantic grades really count anyway, right?

I got 93.77% – a solid A-grade – and was put to the Dean’s list for outstanding academic achievement.

“Shit,” I thought.

My immediate conclusion was that I had taken the wrong degree. In retrospect, I’m not sure that’s the case. After all, were it not for the stories and ideas I’d been introduced to in an arts degree, I’m not sure I’d have been able to find the poetic awe I do with the natural world nearly as quickly as I did.

But I am sure that the science I had been taught (excepting this class and a short open biology module I had taken during my first degree) had been taught badly. Whether this is the fault of teacher, curriculum or some other factor it’s difficult to say, but I know now that my insecurity about taking science further was misguided and unfortunate. I wasn’t “not a maths person”, and these ideas weren’t incomprehensible – my teachers simply weren’t allowed to or didn’t know how to illustrate the beauty in them coming together.

It also didn’t help that science at my state secondary school was, and continues to be, taught through a false lens of employability, rather than any kind of attempt at enrichment. Even now my younger brother has yet to taste the delights of theories about our universe, of the forms alien life might take, of why our planet moves in the way it does. Instead, he has been given a fairly detailed rundown on roof insulation.

Yeah. Roof insulation.

It’s a patronising, classist attitude to science education, and it’s infuriating to realise you have experienced. Fortunately, in my case, there was a solution.

The Open University is perhaps one of the best things to come out of British academia. Established in 1969, it’s a cheaper and more accessible alternative to most higher education. The catch is that courses are almost exclusively self-taught, and mostly online. This makes them difficult, at points, but it also makes them eligible for a second loan from Student Finance England.

Yes, you read that correctly. In a quiet little corner of the Student Finance England website, tucked away like a genie’s lamp or a magical wardrobe, is a secret. You can get a second loan, for another degree. Easily. It doesn’t cover living expenses, but in terms of tuition the cash is there for the taking. The only compromise is that it has to be a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) degree, and part-time.

But, hey, I’m a member of Generation iPhone or whatever we’re called now. I can handle a keyboard. Excel only scares me a little bit. I’m sure I can budget my food and work a few supermarket jobs to balance it out.

So here we are, with a BSc in Natural Sciences (Astronomy and Planetary Science) from the Open University in the pipeline. This blog feature is my mission to fall back in love with the universe in all its exquisite beauty. I’d like, if you’d be so generous, for you to come with me as I knuckle down with the specifics. It’s going to take time. It’s not always going to be easy.

But if it is true that we are a way for the universe to know itself, then it feels right. An act of positivity. Science as self-care. And if all goes to plan, maybe you’ll learn something along the way.

If 2020 has taught us anything, after all, it’s that plans rarely get disrupted.

Right?

Some light refreshment – Freshers at OU

My first degree finished without fanfare – without a graduation of any kind, in fact. With social distancing in full swing for the Summer, Bath Spa University opted to send me my certificate by post. No mortarboards or Jeremy Irons speech for me. But, hey, I’ve been told those robes are pretty uncomfortable in the heat anyway.

Listen to that voice. Not fair, man.

After a beach party cocktail of remote working placements, Universal Credit, and fragile mental health, October crawled its way forward, and my next degree patiently waited for me to introduce myself.

The difficulty in attending the Open University for the first time is adjusting to the format. You’re part of a higher education institution, you’re ready to learn. And your instinct, naturally, is to get to know your classmates.

But your classmates aren’t there, and, beyond the admirable desire to learn a new field, they aren’t that much like you. This isn’t a group of friendly 20-somethings all cooped up in a building resembling a school. An Open University class is composed of every kind of student you can imagine, from eighteen-year-old introverts to 80-year-old celebrities. And everyone is eager to socialise.

And thus, with a rumble of thunder and the cheesy wails of a Gothic pipe organ from a ‘30s horror flick, we stumble upon: The Forums. The standard Open University method of interstudent socialisation, The Forums are where everyone enrolled on a course can chat, query and fraternize – and that they do.

There’s Nick, single father, starting a new thread for every pun that he can think of and telling Alan off because he doesn’t know what the Lake District is. There’s Alan, who doesn’t know what the Lake District is (Geography, he reminds us, is not his forte). There’s Amelia, grabbing every passing student and absorbing them into her Discord server like a whale shark cultivating plankton.

It’s very touching, actually, if you’ll excuse me being a little patronising. There’s something “WW2 Paint-on Hosiery” about it, a microcosm of blitz spirit and a making-do attitude.

There’s the feeling that we all wish we could burst out of our studies and messy bedrooms; that we’d wake up in a scholarly redbrick institution, surrounded by chatting students and exhausted professors, rather than have to get ready for part-time work or Universal Credit appointments; that we’d almost spill our comically large pile of textbooks on our journey from library to classroom instead of waiting for a .PDF to download as we vacuum; that we’d linger outside the classroom to try and intercept our friends, instead of squinting at people’s profile pictures and trying to deduce whether they were born after colour TV; that, essentially, we’d finish an assignment satisfied, rather than checking our postboxes for any owl-delivered letters of acceptance.

Isn’t this image inspiring? It’s one I revisit often, in my head, as I stare into the sterile blue void of my computer screen, Googling master’s degrees like a desert explorer pursuing a mirage.

There’s also the global pandemic to consider. Far be it from me to draw attention to the horrid, slobbering, predatory virus grinning just outside the window. But with “online degree” and degree” becoming synonymous for the foreseeable future, it’s quite comforting to know that almost all students are in a similar position. I can’t quite say it makes the one million plus deaths worldwide worth it. But it helps.

Week One

Introduction

The first thing I do upon starting my Astronomy degree is discover that I’m not doing an Astronomy degree.

This isn’t an inspiring metaphor, as when Sean Carroll describes scientists as “Poetic Naturalists”. I mean that, according to the Open University, I am literally not studying an Astronomy degree.

Instead, I’ve been plonked onto something called an “Open Degree”, in which I do all of the same things, but don’t get to boast that I have a degree in Astronomy and Planetary Science.

Sean Carroll (below cat) is a theoretical physicist who promotes the effective “poetic naturalism” system for talking about the world.

 

As someone who was looking forward to boasting that they have a degree in Astronomy and Planetary Science, this is not a pleasant surprise.

It was my impatience that did it. I’d applied for “credit transfer”, a way of reducing the threshold for graduation, in the vain hope that I might be able to circumvent the “Questions in Science” module requirement.

“Questions in Science” is an introductory module that aims to teach people the basics and philosophy of science. It asks eleven key questions – “How do you know what is alive?”, “Why does it snow in Winter?” – and demonstrates the scientific method through experimentation. For many people, this module will be rather useful, especially those picking up science for the first time. But for me, there’s a problem:

I hate practical experiments.

Check out this stock photo of a student undertaking a practical experiment. Notice how dead his eyes look, the coldness in his gaze? Because I assure you, it is nothing to what I feel.

I resent them. I cannot stand them. The thought of pushing a magnet through an electrical coil makes me want to peel off all of my skin and jump into a volcano, and not even to plot its effect on my body as a standardised line graph. I could go years – literally decades – without seeing another laboratory beaker. I have a personal vendetta against Robert Bunsen.

It’s the bedrock of scientific discovery and rationality, I get it. Without practical experimentation, we would have a fraction of the understanding of the cosmos we have now.

But practical experimentation also sucks. I’m a theory man. I like learning. I’m quite happy to let the rest of the community do all the fiddly bits like adjusting spectrometers and running computational algorithms, as long as their information is there for me to sound all impressive as I share it with somebody else who wants to learn. It’s enough for me to know what I’m looking at – I don’t need to have taken the picture.

This is like a sign, in a way, an ultimatum from the University. Even if I wanted to do an Open Degree – closing the door on the possibility of working for major space agencies or educational institutions – I would have to stick with the named degree as a matter of pride, because they’d inexplicably assumed I’d want to do the opposite.

No, for the next season I will have to knuckle down with the relentless, brain-wilting, soul-dampening tedium of recording results. Of putting forth hypotheticals. Of buying iron nails and wire insultation and small wooden cocktail sticks to prove that they interact in the way everybody expects them to, cursed with the knowledge that I could be learning about galaxies or nebulae or relativity or literally anything remotely interesting that doesn’t involve me setting up inspirationally flaccid experiments and noting down their results.

People who’ve done this thing the other way round – studied an employable subject, then realised that they want to learn an artform – won’t get their second degree funded by the government. Lucky bastards.

The Open University campus tour

Unless you’ve gone somewhere posh and a bit scary like one of the Oxbridge universities, the first week of your degree rarely contains any actual work. At the Open University, the first 16-18 hours of study is spent learning what the Open University is.

An Open University degree is completed in much the same way as a “normal” (read: easier) degree, save only that it’s a much less passive operation; you not only have to revise knowledge, but teach it to yourself through video recordings, pages of information and the occasional test to make sure you’re on top of things.

Naturally, as a university, the Open University provides many resources to help students out. There’s the library – several dozen digital floors of journals, ebooks and encyclopaedias available at our fingertips. It’s not quite the cosiness of hunkering down surrounded by hardbacks being shushed by stern-looking librarians, but it’s useful.

There are career consultations – useful, but probably not necessary given that I am twenty minutes into a six year degree.

And there are the note-taking tips. The bottomless note-taking tips. Notebooks, pens, paper, pencils, calculators, rulers, protractors, compasses, highlighters, colour coding, bolding, defining, rewriting, and reiterating, in all manner of word documents, spreadsheets, databases and glossaries, presentations and slideshows, diagrams, spider diagrams, venn diagrams, novelty diagrams, mind maps, tables, bar charts, line charts, pie charts, illustrations, educational cartoons, and all that doesn’t include suggestions of voice recordings, videos, video blogs, diaries, reflections, impromptu testing, further research and meditative yoga.

I’m complaining, but it’s a good thing, really. The degree couldn’t work any other way. It’s beautiful that any student can be taken by the hand, step-by-step, until they have a full comprehension of the way the subject and the institution functions.

But that doesn’t stop it, subjectively, from feeling like walking through cement. I know pretty much all of this, but I can’t skip any of it in case I miss out on something really important. My brain is stuck in a cycle of growing tired, then experiencing a rush of adrenaline as I encounter a word I don’t recognise.

…or so I think. A few pages in, however, I’m starting to get worried. When you’ve graduated from one university, it’s easy to forget the sheer variety of educational flavours available between institutions. Each has different terms, phrases, expectations and systems.

The Open University, for instance, doesn’t have lectures or seminars, but instead, tutorials and “discover” pages, unmarked sections in which we can systematically be put off every scientific career, one-by-one, by hearing from someone with a PhD in the subject.

By the time they are talking about assessments, I am getting thoroughly panickey. What is a “tee-em-a?” How does it differ from a “eye-cee-em-a”? Why do these sound like unconvincing computer hacking jargon from an episode of Spooks?

“They’re using a iCMA protocol to hijack our TMA augmented server-web.”

A TMA, it transpires, is simply a “tutor-marked assessment”. It’s remarkably simply, actually. You:

  • Open up a word document
  • Mark it with your name, student number, the module code and the TMA number
  • Write out your answers to the TMA questions
  • Save it as a .docx file and upload it

…and this differs from an iCMA only in that it is marked by your tutor and not a computer (interactive computer-marked assessments).

At the time, however, I might as well have been asked to solve the Black Hole Information Paradox.

This is absolutely more frightening than any mathematics or chemical equations they could have presented to me in that moment. I’m not sure why it alarms me in the way it does, but I’m certain I’m experiencing more adrenaline than the technician who was accidentally exposed to a vacuum at the Johnson space centre in 1965.

Still, starving kids in Africa, and all that. I read it through a few times to try and understand it, take a sip of too-hot tea, and march on.

In a change of medium, Laura Alexander, a “maths champion”, introduces the maths skills section of the module through a recording of her voice and unnervingly static image of her face. As she speaks, my mind begins to trot away; I begin pondering what qualifies somebody as a maths champion, imagining a Hercules-type figure in a colosseum, holding the bleeding head of a long division sum to the cheers of Microsoft Excel users.

I ought to listen to her though, not only because she may well have beheaded the logarithmic equivalent of an Ancient Greek Titan, but because there are some disturbing gaps in my mathematics knowledge. These are I suppose inevitable when you haven’t studied the subject for five years, but they still unnerve me.

Laura Alexander doesn’t look much like Perseus, on account of not being a statue by renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini. But it’s fun to imagine.

For instance, I didn’t know that you’re supposed to leave a gap between number and unit – “7 kg” rather than “7kg” – and while I could have lived my entire life without knowing this and remained quite content, I would have lost dozens of marks on Open University assessments. It’s always the little things.

By the final few screens, I’ve had enough. I’m asked to fill out a “Personal Development Plan”, in which I identify employable skills for improvement throughout the degree. To test the functionality of my software, I’m instructed to insert an image of my choosing into the document.

My flatmate recently uncovered an image we took of a cardboard cutout of Brian Cox tucked into bed, reading his own book on relativity. I bung it on there and call it a day.

Like sleepy, two-dimensional Brian, I need to rest. I try not to think about how I’ll feel when I’m actually learning something.

EB


To be continued…? Please consider supporting me using Ko-fi or Buy Me a Coffee!


Billions and billions…

Fancy learning more about the universe, without the help of the Open University?

Consider using this link to purchase your tomes. That way, I can fund the coffee habit necessary to sustain six years of study.

I mentioned Carl Sagan’s writing. Try:

I also mentioned Sean Carroll and Brian Cox:

Some of the tools I use for my studies:

  • Contact cover
  • Something Deeply Hidden book cover

 


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