There is a marvellous iPad ‘app’ called Star Walk which if you have not tried it, it is worth a look. The way in which the stars are presented in a spatially co-ordinated way is no less than a technological marvel. You hold the iPad at arm’s length in any direction and the iPad screen shows you the stars that would be visible if you were to point a telescope into space in that direction; it also gives you the names of the stars, paths of the planets and even the constellation descriptions. As someone with an interest in how our learning is enhanced by spatial orientation and gesticulation, this is a lesson in itself.

Strangely enough, as I found myself zooming in and out and reading the names I was reminded of Walt Whitman and a time in the 1970s when I was a keen ornithologist. Perhaps over-keen is the right description because I was soon immersed in the chasing after names rather than enjoying watching our feathered friends. Field trips turned into frenetic searches for some bird or other and when it was spotted I could be found paging through my copy of Roberts rather than just simply admiring Nature and all its diversity. Fortunately I was saved by Walt Whitman.

One afternoon I came across his poem When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer and ever since, whenever I see a bird (such as that beautiful brownish one presently hopping about on my lawn), I fight the urge to run for the shelf to find out what it is called (Cossypha caffra) and try just to enjoy it for what it is.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) – When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.