True shape of stars

What do stars look like? You would probably answer, “☆.” If you said so, go look at the sky at night: the true shape of stars is more like “○” with some rays of shine surrounding them. Everyone thinks “☆” is the shape of stars, yet no stars in the sky have such shape.

Uncovering the truth of rural Ugandan households, the livelihoods much unfamiliar to me, has been just like finding the true shape of stars. My research looks into the educational environment at home, indoor air quality, and lighting source among rural Ugandan children. In our survey, we began by asking “how long do you study at night every day?” Most of the primary school students answered “2 hours” or “3 hours,” or even, “5 hours” –these are the ☆s in the students’ minds – ○ with a lot of decorations, hopeful rays of shines.

In reality, most children help domestic work at home, such as cooking, fetching water, digging at farms, or caring for younger ones. Although they do homework, it was hard to believe that they study for 3 or 5 hours every day at home.

What question does it take for me to answer “○” as shape of stars? A knack is to go to a sky fullest of stars, like the one seen here in rural Uganda, and ask me to draw a shape of one star that I would see. Then, I would gaze at the star and faithfully draw a shape closer to “○.”

Next question we thought was “what time did you start and stop studying last night?” This probably reached at closer answers: the common answers were “20:00” to “22:00” or so. Then is this reliable? Perhaps not yet – most households in rural areas actually do not have clock nor watch at home!

In order to ensure that I get a complete “○,” I probably need a scope because my eyes aren’t so good. With bare eyes, all the stars look as if there are some sparks of lights around them. We cannot give watches to all the children, but we decided to ask what they do before dinner, after dinner, and before going to bed. This is hopefully a more reliable and appropriate measurement –we then separately ask the time of dinner and sleep, which they know better of.

The golden standard, according to Professor Foster – my advisor whom I respect for his work in environmental and development economics, to give children some diaries and ask them to fill in their evening schedules for a week. Getting at facts rather than perceptions, “○” rather than “☆” requires a commitment and mutual trust. This fieldwork taught me the hardship of getting accurate and honest information, a backbone of reliable research that can see the children, the stars on the Earth, as they truly are.