When Planets Align – The Good

15 07 2008

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?

Garrett:  No.

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.

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6 responses

15 07 2008
Nick Jones

That is an amazing story. I’m so happy for you Johnson. You’re a great Dad, and he’s a great son. Thanks for the touching post.

17 07 2008
Trey French

Man that is awesome how intellectual your son is. He will really excel in whatever it is he will be doing.

19 07 2008
Mary Hiller

I agree with both Mr. Jones and Mr. French. You have reason to be immensely proud, Terry. I too would stand out under the stars well into the evening and have to be retrieved by my mom. I wish I had had someone out there with me, like your son has with you. It’s wonderful to hear/read that that love of and fascination with the night sky it is continuing on into the next generation. To inspire, open people’s eyes and make them think is a few of the many reasons I’ve chosen to be a part of the planetarium world.

Fantastic story, Terry.

2 12 2008
Terry Johnson

Thanks, you guys. Thank you a lot. I’ve re-read this post a dozen times and I’m so glad I wrote down my thoughts on that night. This is without a doubt my favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’m so glad that someone else found it touching, too.

15 01 2009
Nanette Nichols

Ah! Not only was this a teachable moment, it was the making of a memory that will be cherished for as long as memory persists.

18 01 2009
Terry Johnson

Thanks, Nanette. That sort of stuff happens a lot with my kids. They love to try to stump dad. What makes it great is when they really listen to the answers and try their best to remember them. You can always tell how well someone is listening by their follow-up questions. And I always try to listen to their questions and give them answers that make sense. Too many times when I was growing up I got ‘blow off’ answers from adults. I promised myself long ago I would never do that.

Like most kids, they have a tremendous desire to learn. I only hope I can keep that ember hot as they grow older.

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