The Overview Effect

Seeing our planet as tiny and delicate in the grand scheme of the universe creates a cognitive shift in astronauts called the overview effect. The perspective from space fills the astronaut with a profound sense of unity and awe and desire to protect the Earth.

Our latest workshop brought a little of the overview effect (and the universe) to students from The CE Academy with a visit from Space Scientist Dr Gabrielle Provan from University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Like many of our most successful cross-curricular projects, this workshop used art as a vehicle to find out more about the world, with a series of activities designed to help expand student perception, from seeing light to seeing warmth. Developed by artist and photographer Virginie Litzler to accompany Dr Provan’s scientific instruction, the artistic workshop activities were delivered by James Steventon in true sci-fi style by appearing remotely in several locations at once: beamed onto the walls of a temporary planetarium on our grounds, on a plasma screen inside our outreach building, on a monitor to be discovered inside the woods, and on a roaming mobile phone to ensure constant contact with the students (and to demonstrate our ability to work with artists anywhere in the universe despite current Covid-19 restrictions).

The workshop began with Dr Provan (or Gabby as she introduced herself to the students) describing her role in the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to Saturn before demonstrating scientific concepts with easily understood examples. She demonstrated electromagnetic spectrum wavelengths with a Slinky spring, as students produced shorter wavelengths with faster vibrations. Dr Provan explained that this mirrored all existing light, from low frequency radio waves to incredibly high frequency waves called Gamma Rays made when stars collide, with only a small section of wavelengths near the middle of the spectrum being visible. Most of the energy in the universe is invisible to human eyes, demonstrated when students photographed their cups of tea using infrared thermal cameras.

We then moved to our beautiful new geodesic dome, which Dr Provan had filled with the aforementioned inflatable planetarium. Inside, students were treated to an immersive experience learning more about astronomy and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Students then explored the thermal landscape of Fermyn Woods, including the hay bales in the surrounding meadows wrapped in black plastic overnight which now resembled UFOs on the landscape, equally strange when photographed with infrared cameras. The heat absorbed by the black material meant the bales glowed hot against the relatively cool meadow. After a discussion with the virtual James, students rested on a tree to convey. Upon standing up, the apparently vacant tree retained the thermal imprint of their bottoms, showing our inadvertent imprint on our planet.

Intrigued by James’ virtual background of the Aurora Borealis over Lapland, another example of invisible energy made temporarily visible, students were treated to an experience not often found in Northamptonshire. Inside the Planetarium, Dr Provan has also installed a Planeterella – a small vacuum chamber which recreated the aurora lights around magnetic spheres in the heart of Fermyn Woods.

After further exploration of the countryside, students returned to the Planetarium for a final time to discover the thermal imprint of the figure inside the darkness was actually James who had materialised from his virtual self.

This project was made possible through the generous support of Green Energy, Arts Council England, The University of Leicester, East Northants Council, a Sector Support Grant from The Mighty Creatives and technical support from Martin Steed.