January 29, 2014

"Can You Walk on the Rings of Saturn?"

There are no limits on the creativity of questions that a curious child can come up with:

“Why is Earth the only planet with life?”
“What would happen if the sun disappeared?”
“If you were to fly a spacecraft to Neptune and go through the gas, would the fire from the rockets ignite the planet?”
“How do we know that Pluto is icy if we've never been there?”
“What happens when you die in space?”

These are just a few of the many questions and comments I encountered last month during presentations about “Seeing the Solar System” that I gave to six 5th grade classes at Sailorway Middle School in Vermilion, Ohio.

Some of the questions allowed me to go into more detail on the subject at hand:

“Why is Pluto not a planet?”

Some were quirky, but oddly perceptive:

“Herschel's telescope looks like a guillotine, but without the blade.”

Model of the telescope William Herschel's used to discover Uranus. From the Herschel Museum in Bath, UK.

“Galileo's fuzzy view of Saturn looks like a pig's nose.”

Some of them allowed me to discuss related topics:

“Why does the Earth go in a circle around the sun?”
How do you measure the speed of light?”
What would happen if you fell into a black hole?”

But my favorite comments and questions allowed me--a representative of the Black River Astronomical Society, and the supposed “expert” in the room--to see the things I was talking about in a whole new light. When I showed Cassini's picture of Saturn viewed from its nighttime side, one student said:

“It's like if we had Saturn as a moon on Earth, and it was making a solar eclipse.”

image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

And after showing pictures of Mars' surface taken by Curiosity Rover that were reminiscent of the Arizona desert, a shy little girl came up and suggested to me that:

“Maybe a piece of Mars came off and formed part of planet Earth?”

image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Though her hypothesis was incorrect, the insight behind it led to a discussion about how similar elements and processes formed features on both Mars and Earth.

My talk's focus was that astronomy is a science based on observation, and that there are different things we can learn about our “local neighborhood” based on what we see through our eyes, and various technologies like telescopes, spacecraft, rovers, and even scientific illustration. My goal was to encourage students to visualize the places and ideas they were learning about in class, and to equip them with various means to actually observe some of these objects for themselves. I brought along two telescopes as visual aids—a borrowed BRAS Dobsonian (“That looks like a cannon!”), and a small refractor—and allowed the kids to take turns looking at the mirrors and through the finder scopes (“Whoa, the dots on the ceiling are really close!”). 

The sessions were great fun. There is nothing quite like standing in front of a young audience when they see something wonderful for the first time—hearing that excited intake of breath when the “lightbulb” goes off, or watching a forest of hands erupt when a tricky question yields a surprising answer. And when faced with their awesomely daunting array of questions ranging from “Is a supernova like the Big Bang,” to “Can you walk on the rings of Saturn,” I am encouraged by the engagement and interest such queries display. In a time when media warns of students falling behind in math, science, reading, and creative arts, and when the glitz of commercialism threatens to stifle participation with the natural world, organizations like the Black River Astronomical Society offer a valuable means for children of all ages to get involved with a creative and stimulating science as part of a welcoming local community. I am grateful to play some small part in that mission. Even beyond the enjoyment I get from learning the sky—from acquainting myself with its patterns and cycles, or resolving beautiful objects of unimaginable scale—I've discovered that the driving motivation behind my interest in astronomy is sharing and experiencing it with others.

I'd like to send a big “Thank You!” to Mrs. Julie Zelina at Sailorway Middle School for allowing me, on behalf of BRAS, to participate in her classroom...and an even bigger “Thank You!” to all of her students and their fascinating questions!


  1. What a wonderful blog post! Seems you and the students had great fun learning together.

  2. Very cool. I like your encouragement and attitude toward the students' questions. I forget that childhood is a time of learning and discovery - that they don't know a lot of things, but because of that, they can imagine many more. I hope I can be as encouraging to my own students.