Successful Spring 2014 Evening With the Stars

2014-04-05 22.09.15GEB 233 was packed when I began my talk on black holes.  I expected half the audience to leave in disgust after a few minutes into it, but they stuck around.  Could it have been that once I started, the walls and doors of the room themselves became like the event horizon of a black hole, trapping everyone in the interior of the room?  Were people attempting to come in from outside able to do so?  Or, were they met by firewalls, created by breaking the entanglement between particles just outside the doors, having an energetic and violent effect on the vacuum energy outside the doors?  There also is a remote chance that the audience found the confusion about black holes and the ideas being kicked around to resolve the confusion fascinating.  I am going to assume the latter.  Our understanding of black holes is causing some re-think of old and trusted principles of physics.  Thank you to all who attended.  I wish we could have provided time at the telescopes afterward, but the clouds spoiled that part.

Black Holes Slide Show

My Visit to the Hiersteiner Center

Wow!  Talk about trying to recruit potential students early!  A week or two before Thanksgiving, I was asked by Lindsey Cramer, a teacher at the Hiersteiner Child Development Center, if I would be willing to talk to her kids about…space.    I finish reading Lindsey’s email and I sit quietly wondering what kinds of things I could share with kids so young that would both keep their interest and not be way over their heads.  Remembering what kids are like at such a young age, I thought, “This is nutty!”  If it were even possible, it seemed way out of my professional comfort zone.   Maybe partly because it was out of my comfort zone, I quickly realized that this was a challenge that I couldn’t let pass me by.  Nutty or not, I told her I would do it.

I spent some time trying to think of simple things that they might commonly see and wonder about.  The teacher sent me a list of questions they had about space and I looked it over.  They had questions about the Sun and Moon going to sleep (from storybooks no-doubt) and questions about space travel.  Since I was told that they would have another guest telling them about space travel a few days before I would go, I decided to tell them about how the Earth rotates why that results in the apparent daily motion of the Sun and Moon (and why the Sun and Moon “wake up” and “go to sleep” each day).  After that, they could just ask me random questions about space and I would answer the best I could.

On November 26th, I loaded up some props and drove over to the Center and we all went to the basement where it could be made fairly dark.  There were a couple teachers and some helpers, so classroom management wasn’t an issue.  One little girl had to do a potty break right as we got started (probably a delight to take on long trips).  I found the potty break and all the fidgeting in the now-darkened room so incredibly wonderful.  Those giddy sentimental feelings I had were one’s that I had earned after years of parenting kids through this age.  The best part was that I would then be allowed to leave and drive back to adulthood after an hour!

I brought props, including a mechanical model showing the Earth going around the Sun while the Moon went around the Earth.  The kids loved that.  In fact, it may have been my undoing when trying to then get them to focus on something else!  I had a light across the room and I had each kid hold a softball out in front of them as he or she spun around.  I wanted them to see how the light appeared and disappeared, like the Sun and Moon do, as they spun (I also tried to slip in a quick explanation of moon phases at that point).  One or two might have gotten something out of the demonstration of how the Sun rises and sets, but I think the moon phase lesson was a total bust.  After that, I was able to answer a few of their questions, but after only a few questions, they had sat still long enough.

I wouldn’t call my visit a success as far as any of my attempted lessons.  My attempts to dazzle them with the sizes of things and the vastness of space weren’t very successful as they had little or no concept of distance or time.  So, as with some Soviet space missions that were utter failures, I did as the Soviets did and I redefined my mission after my failure.  As I drove away, I had hoped that I may have planted a seed that might help them down the road.  Perhaps when they look at the sky and see some interesting things they will remember that, even though they may not really understand the explanations, that “sensible” explanations for the things they see do exist.  As they get older and more capable, they may decide to delve into what those explanations are.  Perhaps they will even explore deeply enough to learn that there are many things that we cannot yet explain.  Though it’s a stretch, maybe one of those kids will even decide to go after some of those explanations as a professional scientist!   Regardless of the outcome, the kids and I had fun.