Father warmed by daughter's discovery of wonders of universe

Lessons from the cosmos

Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2002

My 9-year-old daughter had a recent revelation. Nothing earthshaking, just a dawning appreciation for how truly insignificant we are in the "grand scheme of things."

Her third-grade class at West Homer Elementary School was studying space and the solar system. Having always been fascinated by the subject, I was keenly interested to see if it turned her on, too.

I was her age when the Cold War ignited the Space Race. I remember squinting into the night sky in early October 1957 hoping to catch a glimpse of Sputnik, Earth's first artificial moon, launched by our geopolitical arch-rival, the Soviet Union.

I also remember the angst when our national pride stubbed its big toe a couple of months later. Facing allegations that our rocket program had somehow been caught with its pants down, American officials accelerated a space-vehicle program started several years earlier with the intention of orbiting a scientific package to study solar activity sometime during the International Geophysical Year (July 1957-December 1958).

In December 1957, however, the vehicle was far from ready. With the nation glued to its black-and-white television sets, folks watched in awe as the Vanguard rocket carrying America's "baby moon" erupted in a fireball just four feet off the Cape Canaveral launching pad.

Two months later the U.S. prevailed, successfully orbiting Explorer I atop a Redstone rocket.

The race was on.

Other Soviet successes followed, including putting the first man in space. But by the end of the 1960s, it was Neil Armstrong's footsteps that compressed the powdery surface of the moon. So far, only Americans have done that.

Those were heady days. The very word "space" held a kind of magic. In my late twenties, I studied astronomy in college, eyeing a career in astrophysics. Regrettably, my skill at advanced calculus proved woefully deficient. To be an astrophysicist, one must be a philosopher at mathematics. In "the grand scheme of things," I wasn't even a particularly good a mechanic.

Still, it left me with a deep appreciation for matters astronomical, so I got a vicarious thrill watching Kate's eyes light up as she pored through library books on space looking for facts about the solar system around which to base a report for a class assignment.

On the floor in the living room lay a cardboard box, black construction paper and other paraphernalia soon to become a diorama of the solar system.

As to her appreciating how small we are in the "grand scheme of things," that began for Kate a day or so earlier when she, her mother, two other schoolchildren and one of their mothers, went out to the Homer Spit armed with instructions downloaded off the Internet.

Placing a pebble at the base of the Spit to signify the sun, they paced off the instructed number of steps and placed another pebble on the ground to represent Mercury. They'd walked better than half a mile before putting Pluto in its proper position.

"It was a really long way, Dad!" she told me later.

On that scale, Kate learned, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, roughly 4.3 light-years distant, would linger somewhere around Orlando, Fla.

At first, she only showed passing interest, probably owing to her having slept during the flights we've made there and has little real appreciation for the thousands of miles separating Homer and Disney World -- though, I suspect, the vast gap between their respective entertainment values hasn't escaped her attention.

By the following day, however, the sheer expanse of the void had begun sinking in. Space is, well, mostly space, she said, and pretty much darned empty space at that.

We didn't go into the fact it's likely filled to the limits of the space-time continuum with particles, virtual and otherwise, whizzing about like mad and not really "empty" at all. She'll need a bit more than rudimentary arithmetic between her ears before tackling those concepts.

There's time enough, though. Best now for her simply to experience the tangible.

Kate explored the planets and learned of Mercury's lead-melting temperatures, Venus' cloud-obscured surface, the redness of Mars ("Why's it red?" she asked. "Essentially, rust," I said), and the rocky diaspora of the mysterious asteroid belt.

She was astounded at the enormity of Jupiter and its red-spot, a storm so vast it could swallow Earth, wanting to know, "would people ever go there?"

"You'll see it in your lifetime," I predicted.

Saturn's extraordinary rings fascinated her. So did the fact that, while not as grand, three other planets also possess rings.

She wondered at Uranus' tipped-over rotation and snickered conspiratorially when she learned its blue color was the result of light absorption by methane in its upper atmosphere. No, not that science part, but that methane also happens to be a component of flatulence.

She delighted in calling Uranus' gas "stinky stuff," though strictly speaking, the embarrassing smell comes from various sulfur and nitrogen compounds produced by bacterial action.

Neptune had still more stinky stuff and it, too, was blue. And finally, there was Pluto, captivating if only for its remoteness.

From there, Sol is merely a bright point in a sea of stars. She wondered if it might be a lost moon.

Kate came to see Earth as a rather remarkable place full of life, in part because, as she included in her report, water neither entirely freezes nor boils away.

Will her brief enchantment with cosmos evaporate? Probably, at least for a time. After all, her world is wealthy with wonders to marvel at and filled with astonishing truths to which she has yet to be introduced.

But if astronomy's seed has been planted, who knows what might grow, what intrigues she'll uncover in her universe over the next 50 to 100 years that she might reasonably be expected to live.

At work revising her report, she turned to me and said, "Dad, when I started this I thought it was going to be boring. It's not. This is F-U-N!" A beaming smile shaped her lips and crinkled the sides of eyes.

My heart orbited.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Homer News.

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