So my oldest son is now ten. When he was six he asked me “why is the sky blue?” He’s been asking really good questions ever since. Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m not going to give him some lame answer. I’m going to tell him the truth as best my science understanding, and his education level, will allow. (The following year he asked an even better question: “Daddy, can I watch Star Wars?” I answered with “Son, I’ve been waiting for you to ask that your whole life. Let me show you the collection.” I almost cried.)
Last night we were outside naming the stars as they came out and he asked why Jupiter is so bright and Mars so dim. What an awesome question! There’s a lot going on with disparate distances and sizes and surface color and angular separation from the sun…
He’s learned about the scale of the solar system, and he understands that Jupiter is a lot farther away from us than Mars, but it’s quite a different thing when you’re standing outside and you can actually see both of these objects above you and discuss their relation to the sun with someone. I taught a lot of good science in a short amount of time because I didn’t have to rely on models and tables… we were looking right at the objects we were discussing.
My son loves to hear me tell stories, and he has an incredibly curious mind, but that doesn’t always mean he’s listening to what I’m saying. To give you a visual of what this is like, click on the About Me tab at the top of this page! I had to teach him with hand gestures and scaling exercises three times before he could repeat it back to me, but he never broke his attention away. He really wanted to understand it all.
There was a moment when I pointed to the sun (which had set) and I pointed to Jupiter (directly opposite in the East) and asked him, “So where’s the Earth right now?” Then we turned our attention to Mars and Saturn, which were near the sun in the sky.
Me: If the Earth is closer to the sun than Mars, could Mars be between us and the sun?
Me: Then where does Mars have to be?
Garrett: On the other side of the sun…
And suddenly he had an understanding that many college grads never obtain. He can see at age ten our place in the solar system in more than a rote fashion. It isn’t just a drawing in a textbook or dots of light on a planetarium dome. He knows that the knowledge isn’t abstract or understandable only to an elite few – it’s perfectly logical and can be figured out by the common Joe with a little scientific thinking and direct observation. And most importantly, he sees the alignment of a few celestial objects for what they truly are, beautiful to look at but even more beautiful to understand.
Since Saturn was right above just to the right of Mars in the west, the fact they were obviously close to the same brightness was not lost on him. He started with a brilliant observation (no prompting from me!): “Mars and Saturn look like they’re right next to each other, but they’re not really close at all.” Awesome. Then he asked, “All that stuff you said about Jupiter should be the same for Saturn. So why is it so dim?” Really Awesome.
Before the evening was through he asked other questions about Polaris and Vega and Eta Carinae. Geneva called us inside because it was past his bedtime. I used to stand out under the stars until my mom had to come get me, too.
I’m so proud.