Guinness World Record

Guinness World Record for the Largest Astronomy Lesson – it’s official!

On the 28th February 2015, I had my biggest audience yet – over 1,100 people joined in the Guinness World Record attempt at the largest astronomy lesson held at the Maida Vale Nature Reserve in the Shire of Kalamunda.

Those not familiar with Western Australia, the Shire is up in the Perth Hills region and provided the audience with super-clear skies for a night of unforgettable stargazing.

Over 1100 participants ranging from eight to eighty years all brought their telescopes or binoculars to the event to help break the previous world record held by Eagle Cultural and Educational Enterprises and Youth Cultural Creative and Philanthropy Consortium in Chinese Taipei in June 2014.

The official recorded number of participants at the Kalamunda event was 1108, beating the standing record of 834 by a very comfortable margin. Yay Perth!

Gates to the reserve opened at 6:30pm precisely. The Guinness World Record officials were very thorough, checking whether each participant had either a telescope or a set of binoculars to be able to view the celestial objects being discussed, that being a prerequisite for the event being deemed ‘an astronomy lesson.’

To keep the ‘students’ entertained until the lesson officially began, a DJ was on hand with an awesome sound system belting out tunes across the grassy park with ‘space’ themed music – David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and ‘Space Oddity’, along with the mandatory Star Wars theme and the hilarious ‘Star Trekking Across the Universe’ which saw quite a few participants singing along!

Our MC for the evening was Russell Woolf from ABC radio, and several guest speakers were brought on stage to talk about various interesting science research projects ICRAR was involved with.

Part of the Guinness guidelines was that an official aerial photo be taken of the ‘class’ before the lesson began, so a giant cherry-picker hoisted the brave photographer up 20 meters into the night sky to snap the picture you see here.

I’d been told the lesson had to last at least 30 minutes, so I had my subjects lined up, and hoped like hell I could stretch the session for that long! Turns out, I had absolutely no problem finding things to talk about and stretched the lesson to at least 45 minutes. I don’t think I bored anyone…

I focused on easy-to-find targets (so long as you had at least a pair of binoculars) starting with the stellar nursery in the Great Orion Nebula, and talked briefly about the life-cycle of a star. Next was the Wishing Well Open Cluster, and the Beta Hydri system. I had people look for Jupiter (always impressive) and of course, the Moon. Yep, ol’ Crater Face provided gasps of delight at being viewed so close. Seeing details of its surface through a telescope is pretty breathtaking, even to a veteran astronomer who’s seen it more times that he can count!

It was a beautiful summer night, not a cloud to be seen, so viewing was optimal (despite a little heat haze). The atmosphere of the crowd was pretty close to being what humanity should aspire to – joyous, respectful and full of wonder and awe at the majesty of our universe. They were a ‘class’ to be proud of!

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, especially when the siren sounded marking the successful completion of the record attempt – the reaction was akin to a rock concert – shouts and cheers, high-fives, hugs and claps. It was really quite emotional.

I think the Shire of Kalamunda along with ICRAR (International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research) organised a splendid event, made even more awesome by the brilliant services provided by the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group, staff and volunteers from AGWA, Astronomy WA and ICRAR, who did an amazing job corralling participants into a orderly outdoor ‘classroom’ and kept the whole event from falling into chaos.

It was an incredible buzz sharing my passion for the universe with so many enthusiastic people – even if they went there simply for the glory of participating in a World Record attempt or just to stargaze, I hope they went away feeling a little more connected to the awesomeness that is the night sky and maybe, just maybe, inspire the next generation of astronomers and space explorers!

Russell Woolf and Rick Tonello
Russell Woolf and Rick Tonello