A LESSON IN THE AFTERNOON
'So you see, boys and
is why some have called it a river, while others see a giant trace left
by a stream of milk. But does anyone know what really makes up this
hazy-white region in the sky?'
The teacher pointed up
the smoky white zone of the Milky Way that ran across a huge black
starmap suspended from the top of the blackboard. He was asking
everybody in the class.
Campanella raised his
hand, and at
that, four or five others also volunteered. Giovanni was about to raise
his hand, but suddenly changed his mind.
Giovanni was almost sure
was all just made up of stars. He had read that in a magazine. But
lately Giovanni was sleepy in class nearly every day, had no time to
read books and no books to read, and felt, for some r
eason, that he couldn't properly follow anything anymore.
The teacher noticed this
'Giovanni, you know what
it is, don't you?'
Giovanni stood up
once on his feet, he wasn't able to give a clear answer. Zanelli,
sitting in the seat in front of him, turned around and giggled at him.
Giovanni was flustered,
blushing from one ear to the other.
The teacher spoke once
'If you were to take a
close look at the Milky Way through a big telescope, what would you
find it made of?'
Giovanni was now
absolutely sure that you'd find stars, but just like the moment before,
he couldn't get his answer out.
The teacher, perplexed,
finally turned his gaze to Campanella.
'Well, what about you,
Campanella, who had raised
his hand so readily a moment ago, just stood in his place fidgeting,
unable to answer the question.
The teacher, now more
surprised than ever, stared for some time at him, then said, pointing
at the starmap...
'All right, then, fine.
When you look at this hazy-white Milky Way through a good big
telescope, the blur is resolved into a great number of tiny stars.
Isn't that right, Giovanni?'
Giovanni, now red as a
beet, nodded, and before he knew it his eyes were filled with tears and
I knew it all along,
and so does Campanella, because it was all in a magazine that we once
read together at Campanella's father's house, and he's a scholar!
When Giovanni thought about
Campanella had deliberately not answered out of sympathy for him, he
felt indescribably sad both for himself and for Campanella.
magazine and went straight into his father's library, brought a thick
book from the shelf, opened it to MILKY WAY, and we spent forever
together looking at the lovely photograph of white spec
ks that covered the pitch-black page.
The reason why
answer the teacher right away, even though there was no reason at all
for him to forget, is because he feels sorry for me because I have to
work hard before and after school and then I feel too down-in-the-dumps
to play with everybody or even to talk with him very much.
The teacher began again.
'So, if we think of the Milky
as the Celestial River, then each and every one of these tiny little
stars may be seen to be a grain of sand or pebble on the bed of that
river. If we imagine it to be a giant stream of milk, then it's even
more like a river, and the stars become minute fatty globules floating
inside the white liquid.
'Now, ask yourself, what does
liquid actually do, and you will see that it transmits light at a given
speed through the void of space, and our Sun and Earth are both
floating inside it too. So, you see, we are all living in the liquid of
the Celestial River, and when we gaze out from where we are, just as
water appears bluest at its deepest spots, so will the places with the
most stars look to us the whitest and haziest. That is where the sky's
river bed is the densest and most far-reaching. Now look at this model.'
The teacher pointed to a
large lens that was convex on both sides. Inside the lens were
countless grains of sand, all gleaming.
'This very much resembles the
of the Milky Way. You can think of all these glittering grains of sand
as stars, all radiating their own light just as our Sun does. Our Sun
lies some distance from the centre to the edge and the Earth is very
close by it. But imagine yourself inside this lens at night, looking
out. Through this thinner part of the lens you will see only a few
grains...stars, I mean...shining.
'But if you look in this
and in this one, where the glass is thickest, you will see any number
of shining grains...stars, I mean...and the farther you look directly
into it the more blurry milky-white everything w
ill appear. That is how we see the Milky Way today. As for the actual
size of the lens and the various stars inside it, class time is over
now so we'll discuss it all again in our next science lesson.
'And as tonight is the Milky
Festival, I hope that you will all go outside later and take a good
close look at the sky. That's all. Please put away your books and
For a while the whole
filled with the sounds of books being stacked and desktops being
creaked open and slammed down. In a moment all stood up as straight as
arrows, bowed to the teacher and left.